Disentangling "Mere Christianity" (2/2)
February 14, 2014 D.J. Clark

Disentangling "Mere Christianity" (2/2)

Posted in Forum Post

[Continuing from last night’s post…][And sorry for the “***” business; I can’t seem to create paragraph spacing.]

***

The first group believes these stories to be true, through and through. The three brothers, they argue, were interested in producing history; that was the fundamental purpose of their co-authored book. They wanted to tell their tale, and to have their tale accurately understood. And the really important thing for the present descendants is to keep this history alive and well, pure of any distortions…and, as a bonus, it’d be nice to enjoy these stories in the process. That is how one honors these three brothers.

***
The second group is not sure which portions of these stories are true and which are a sort of “purposeful myth”, but they’re not too concerned either way. They don’t see the purpose of the book (and the purpose of their authors) as the presentation of historical fact. The three brothers were really concerned with communicating a particular ethos to their family, one centered around camaraderie, bravery, ingenuity, and good humor. Their importance was as leaders and teachers, the founders of a sort of “wisdom tradition”. And the important thing for the present descendants of these men is to uphold these ethos and to practice them in their own familial lives. That is how one honors these men.

***
The third group believes these stories to be tall tales. But important tall tales! The purpose of the writing and preservation of these stories was amusement. The three old friends saw the value of humor, and what they really hoped was to be able to provide laughter and fun for future generations. What is really important in the present is to honor their intention by regularly enjoying their stories, and cultivating a similar attitude towards life.

***
Suppose an observer were to look at this situation and ask, What is the heart of this family tradition? Since the family tradition is a three-strand rope, our observer cannot simply look at the beliefs and practices of one particular strand. Nor can he simply look at the cumulative beliefs and practices of all three strands. Neither would tell him the heart of the tradition. So he decides that he will look at the area of overlap: that region where all three strands are in agreement. What beliefs and practices do these three camps agree on? And – since the question is about the heart of the tradition – our observer must really be asking something more specific: What beliefs and practices do these three camps agree on that they each would find fundamental to the tradition?

***
Given our scenario, our observer will find himself in a very difficult position. When he compiles a list of the common beliefs and practices of these three “camps”, he gets a list like this:

***

* The reading and telling of the story of the three brothers.
* Felt affection for the three brothers.
* The belief that the three brothers were real people, who live about two centuries ago, and who were funny guys.
* Belief that humor mattered a good deal to the brothers and ought to matter a good deal to us.
* The belief that these three brothers should be honored.

***

And when he narrows this list down by asking all three camps which of these agreed beliefs/practices they find fundamental to the tradition, he only is left with this:

* The reading and telling of the story of the three brothers.
* Felt affection for the three brothers.
* The belief that these three brothers should be honored.

***
So our observer has fulfilled his task of finding certain beliefs/practices that the consensus recognizes and recognizes as fundamental to the tradition. But when we look at this list, it’s, well, pretty lame. It definitely doesn’t seem to get to the “heart” of the tradition; it misses much too much. None of the three camps would recognize this list as coming even close to approximating what they take to be most central to the tradition, even if it mentions one or two of the things they take to be central to the tradition.

***
What is going on here? Quite simply: there is more disagreement than agreement between these three camps as to the beliefs/practices which are most fundamental to the tradition. And because of this, we have the unfortunate consequence that there exists no such thing as the “heart” of the family tradition. There are, rather, “hearts”.

***
It is possible that the various, historical Christian churches stand in an analogous situation. If they do, the very search for “Mere Christianity” in the (b) sense of “Mere Christianity” is a hopeless search. There would be no such thing as (b)-type Mere Christianity. And, by quite obvious implication, if there is no such things as (b)-type Mere Christianity, then it can’t be the case that (a)-type Mere Christianity and (b)-type Mere Christianity contain much the same content. And – to make matters worse – it couldn’t be the case that we could use (b)-type Mere Christianity to help us discover and elucidate (a)-type Mere Christianity (although we could still use the various “Christianities” to help us here).

***
I have only said that this scenario is possible. Not that it is actual. But its mere possibility is troubling. At least, it is troubling – or ought to be troubling – for the Christian. And so I think it belongs to the task of the Christian apologist, especially if he is going to make use of the concept of Mere Christianity, to discern whether this possibility is or is not the actual state of affairs. So, what do you guys think?  Do we have one Church, united by a common consensus of fundamentally shared beliefs and practices; or do we have a number of Churches, united by their common historical roots and the Lord they each profess and follow?

***
I am (as usual) well over a sane word limit for a blog post, so I haven’t the time to argue for my own position on the matter. To be honest, I’m not even sure I have an argument for my position. But I do have a position, or at least a suspicion (an informed suspicion I like to think): There is, I think, a significant amount of overlap amongst the various historical churches/denominations regarding (i) the outline of the story of what God is doing, and (closely related) (ii) the doctrines that are most important for Christians to profess and believe. I think there is a “heart” in this domain, in the domain of “orthodoxy” we might say. But I don’t see the same amount of common ground in the domain of “orthopraxis” — in regards to the practices that are most fundamental to the Christian Way. Some see soul-saving as most fundamental, some see personal spirituality/devotion as most fundamental, some see culture-shaping as most fundamental, and some see the struggle for justice as most fundamental. In my own personal experiences with these various “denominations”, I have found plenty of lip service given by one denomination to the practices of the others, but very little that would suggest that, e.g. the soul-saving crowd sees the struggle for justice as equally or nearly equally fundamental to orthopraxis. Thus, I do not think there is a (b)-type Mere Christianity in the domain of orthopraxis.

***
So a lot hinges on how you weigh the significance of belief v. practice in your definition of Christianity. If you see belief as most fundamental to the very concept of Christianity, then, on my view, you should say that there is such a thing as (b)-type Mere Christianity. If, on the other hand, you see practice as most fundamental to the very concept of Christianity, then, on my view, you should say there is no such thing as (b)-type Mere Christianity. And if you see an even split between the fundamentality of belief and practice in the concept of Christianity, then, well, I’m not sure what to tell you. The matter is too muddy for my little brain in that case.

Comments (0)

Leave a reply