At the SoF (Sea of Faith) conference in 2000, Lloyd Geering gave a presentation titled “Christianity Minus Theism”. In it he asks what is Christianity:
- Does [the term ‘Christianity] refer to ‘the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints’? (Jude 3)
- Do we mean, for example, the belief system expressed in the creeds and confessions of the church? (including the doctrine of the Trinity?)
- Does Christianity consist of living a sacramental life within the authoritative institutional structure called Mother Church?
- Is the essence of Christianity to be found in accepting Jesus Christ as ones’ personal Lord and Saviour?
- Does Christianity mean accepting uncritically a set of ancient scriptures as the written record of what is ultimately true?
- Or does Christianity consist simply of a set of moral values by which to live?
He follows up by stating: “Various groups at one time or another have promoted one or more of these definitions, as the essence or sine qua non of Christianity”. As an example, the religious tradition with which I am associated, would, in general, consider that none of the definitions (with perhaps a modified version of the last one) are necessary. On the other hand, the church to which my son belongs believe that the fourth and fifth definitions (accepting Christ as Saviour and the Bible is true) are absolutely essential – one cannot be a Christian otherwise.
Geering elaborates by stating “Modern historical research has made it very clear, however, that there has never been a time when all who confessed to be Christians (or followers of Jesus) shared exactly all the same beliefs. The New Testament phrase ‘the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints’ was itself part of the developing Christian myth, that faith consists of embracing a set of beliefs which are permanent and unchangeable. Christian beliefs have changed and diversified through the centuries. Today, more than ever before, Christianity has no definable and eternal essence on which all Christians at all times, or even at any one time, agree. It is misleading, therefore, to use the term Christianity in a way which implies that it names some objective and unchangeable essence or thing, such as the theistic belief in God.”
I agree entirely, which might explain my irritation when I see bloggers claim Christians believe X, or Christians oppose Y or Christians do Z. Such statements are grossly inaccurate. If one wants to make a statement about a group of Christians, identify the group instead making a generalised and inaccurate claim.
Lloyd Geering suggests we look at Christianity not as a unified whole, which clearly it isn’t, but with this metaphor: “I suggest we think of Christianity as a stream of living culture flowing through the plains of time. Sometimes, like a river, it divides into substreams and sometimes it is joined by other streams. As it flows onward it gathers new material from the banks it passes through. Sometimes the fluid material in it crystalizes into more rigid objects. Sometimes it drops these objects and other forms of sediment it is carrying along. There is a tendency for people to regard the visible objects in this cultural stream, such as the priesthood, episcopal government, creeds and even the Bible, as being of the essence of the stream. In fact they have less permanence that the stream which carries them along.”
He then finds it timely to be critical of those who oppose changes in Christian thought: “Through church history people have attempted to reform the church. Their critics have warned that they are throwing out the baby with the bathwater. That is a misleading metaphor. Christianity has no permanent and absolute essence. There is no ‘baby’; there is only the bath water, or what is preferably called the on-going cultural stream, broadly known as Judeo-Christian.”
I do like his use of the baby and bathwater metaphor. There is no baby! This where I feel both Christian Fundamentalists and New Atheists make the same mistake. They both see a non-existent baby and then draw polar opposite conclusions.
The full transcript of Lloyd Geering’s presentation can be found here.