Another Spectrum

Personal ramblings and rants of a somewhat twisted mind

What is Christianity?


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.


Author: Barry

A post war baby boomer from Aotearoa New Zealand who has lived with migraines for as long as I can remember and discovered I am autistic at the age of sixty. I blog because in real life I'm somewhat backwards about coming forward with my opinions.

15 thoughts on “What is Christianity?

  1. There should be many Geerings.
    That was such a nice read

    • Oh, there are many. But somehow they don’t seem to draw the same attention as those at the other end of the religious spectrum.

      • I thank you for introducing me to him. I usually do public service duty by sharing the links with my believer friends.

        • I’ve followed Lloyd Geering since he first become a public figure in 1966 or 1967. I was around 17 or 18 at the time. He has had a big influence on what I believe – not so much as forming it, but confirming that I’m not “in error” by believing so. He had quite an influence on the religious thinking of my generation, but unfortunately later generations are being influenced by the more recent arrival of Pentecostal movement.

  2. Makes me think that there is even a larger river system that also includes other religious beliefs and customs that aren’t Christianity at all, like Hinduism or Buddhism or Islam. And that some of these branch out into their own rivers that become permanent in separation but still ebb and flow within their own.

    As for Athiesm, since it is not a religion, I perceive it as even another river with similar flowing between thoughts of agnosticism, spirituality, but mostly non belief in anything mystical about all of these other rivers, except the science that creates them in the first place, which is a timeless flow of life itself, from our planet’s evolutionary beginnings.

    • Mary, I like your thoughts about atheism and even how you include the other religions in the big ebb of religion.

    • He was speaking specifically of the Judeo-Christian stream, but I don’t think Geering river metaphor excludes the possibility of there being other independent streams. He also mentions that the stream is also joined by other streams, which I take to mean other influences change the character of the stream. I would interpret the way aspects of Māori spirituality are slowly crossing over in the Pakeha (people of European ancestry) world view as one of the streams that is joining the Judeo-Christian stream here in Aotearoa New Zealand.

      I’m not sure if I could identify atheism as a stream simply because atheism is not a belief system. It is a lack of belief. On the other hand, I can easily recognise humanism as a stream, and perhaps, ultimately, all streams flow into that.

      • I especially agree with all streams flowing eventually, hopefully, to humanism and it could be argued that atheism falls in this larger category. I’d be completely happy with humanism being the mother of all rivers.

      • I might add, we have such a problem in the US with fundamentalism and evangelicalism and the harm it does. I see it as a specific river that has been filled with toxic waste than can seep into other streams and do great damage, if not checked by educational protections, which is currently being opposed to.

        • I don’t see Māori spirituality being a problem. If anything it’s a blessing. It’s a more naturalistic world view (detractors would call in animistic) and counters some of the outcomes that result from the Judeo-Christian concept that mankind has the divine right of dominance over nature.

        • Sorry, perhaps you were referring to my comment to Makagutu about the Pentecostal movement?

  3. No…just my thoughts on the more extreme religious views..the damaging ones..
    I’m not familiar with Pentecostal views,as here they are a very closed group.

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