In a recent comment on this blog, the inestimable Peregrinus wrote:
I think there is a fairly large body of Christians whose faith is not primarily theological. …Their faith is not necessarily expressed in, or founded on, a firm belief in a set of credal statements. Nor are they particularly concerned to reject credal statements on the basis that they do not agree with them. …These are people who could fairly comfortably be members of a denomination which denies or de-emphasised the historicity of the resurrection.
As shocking as this thought first appeared to me, it finds some support in a recent entry on the First Things blog by Barton Swaim on “Varieties of Religious Certitude”. Swain is reacting to a piece in the Times Literary Supplement by Steven Weinberg who wrote:
Americans are fairly tolerant of us unbelievers. My many good friends in Texas who are professed Christians do not even try to convert me. …I have often heard the remark (once from an American priest) that it is not so important what one believes; the important thing is how we treat each other. Of course, I applaud this sentiment, but imagine trying to explain “not important what one believes” to Luther or Calvin or St. Paul. Remarks like this show a massive retreat of Christianity from the ground it once occupied, a retreat that can be attributed to no new revelation, but only to a loss of certitude.
Of course, I found myself in full agreement with Weinberg–such a lack of dogmatic spine on the part of these “professed Christians” and that “American priest” shocks (but does not surprise) me. I too would have put this down to “no new revelation” but “a loss of certitude”.
However, Swaim’s point is that there has not really been a “retreat” at all, because folk like Luther and Calvin have always been the exception rather than the rule in the Christian community. You think there are very few people around today who take the dogmatic side of Christianity seriously? “So it has always been,” Swaim declares. He cites folk like Jonathan Swift who
believed Christianity to be superior to heathenism as a moral system, but there is nothing in his sermons to suggest that he believed, for example, in the Resurrection or the miracles of Jesus.
and concludes by saying:
I find it difficult to believe that the number of people who now believe in, say, the bodily resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ is substantially fewer than was the case two hundred or five hundred or a thousand years ago.
Well, that’s as may be. I still stand with Luther and Calvin–and Athanasius and Aquinas and Leo XIII and Benedict XVI and all the rest–who think that there was some importance in all this theology. Christianity may have survived in the old days as a “superior moral system”, even if its dogmas were not highly prized, but when morality counts for even less than dogma, that doesn’t leave much of a foot for a “non-theological” Christianity to remain standing on.