Please Excuse Our Mess! We're Creating A New and Improved Community Experience.
Disentangling "Mere Christianity" (not the book)
February 13, 2014 D.J. Clark

Disentangling "Mere Christianity" (not the book)

Posted in Forum Post

What do we mean by “Mere Christianity”?

***
A present discussion on the RCA blogoworld is the question What is Mere Christianity? That is, what is the content of “Mere Christianity”? This is a question that, if we are not careful, can result in a great deal of confusion and “talking past each other”. The reason being that the term “Mere Christianity” is ambiguous: the term sometimes denotes one thing and, at other times, another. Moreover, this ambiguity is a sneaky sort of ambiguity. These two different meanings of “Mere Christianity” are similar enough that the context in which the term gets used usually doesn’t make clear which of the two meanings is intended. And, to make matters even worse and the ambiguity even sneakier: most of us simply are not aware of the distinction between the two different meanings of “Mere Christianity” and, as a result, do a lot of equivocating between the two in the course of discussion. These are the doors at which to lay the blame for the confusion and the “talking past” of one another.

***
So let’s just settle these conversational road bumps by disambiguating the term “Mere Christianity”. Two different, but closely related meanings: (a) “Mere Christianity” sometimes denotes something like the “heart of Christianity”, the “essentials of the faith”, the “fundamentals”, “orthodoxy”, etc. – where this is a collection of those propositions which are, in fact (i.e. regardless of what anyone believes about the matter), most fundamental to that story about what God is, in fact, doing with this earth and with our species, and what our stance in all this ought to be. (b) But sometimes “Mere Christianity” denotes a different collection of propositions. Sometimes it denotes a collection of beliefs (and practices) that exist inside that area where the beliefs (and practices) of the various, historical churches overlap — namely, those propositions that a consensus of the Church has *believed to be* most fundamental to that story about what God is doing with this earth and with our species, and what our stance in all this ought to be.

***
It can be a difficult distinction to grasp. But it’s important that we do grasp it. In a nutshell: (a) is the reality of what God is doing and what we should be doing; (b) is a communally accepted belief about what God is doing and what we should be doing. That’s the big difference.

***
It’s not surprising that these two things often get conflated together. After all, those who are Christian hope that (a) and (b) aren’t too different from one another in terms of content — we hope that these two collections of propositions turn out to be collections of the same propositions. Those with a strong view of divine inspiration may very well say that (a) and (b) are, in fact, more-or-less the same thing (although (b) will be much less complete, much less precise, and much less beautiful than (a)). Perhaps that is one reason (a) and (b) are so often conflated together. It might also be because we are aware of our own epistemic shortcomings and aware that Scripture is open to a variety of interpretations — a variety of Christian interpretations in fact. We are aware that it is foolhardy to think that we could get to (a) without at least attending to (if not going through) (b). Whatever the reason for this common conflation, I recommend that we make a concerted effort to recognize this distinction when we discuss the matter of Mere Christianity. It would save us all some words and time, and might even save us from disaster.

***
Disaster, you say? How’s that? A failure to recognize this distinction could lead us very far astray (and we all agree that truth is a good thing around here) if – IF – it turns out that the various, historical, churches/denominations overlap each other in a certain, unfortunate way. Let me attempt to explain what “certain, unfortunate way” I have in mind by way of a story.

***
Three brothers were rather wild in their youth. They were known for their outlandish adventures together, sneaking away on passing trains, stealing vegetables form Mr. McGregor’s garden, and getting into all sorts of fights with boys twice their age. As they grew older, they – as you might say – “straightened out”, but always shared a story and a laugh about all the cabbages they stole, black eyes they acquired, and switches they were greeting with upon returning home from their train traveling. Amongst their children and grandchildren, these stories were immensely popular, and their skills for telling these tales became the things of legends themselves. Family get-togethers inevitable worked their way towards the tale-telling, where the three brothers told their tales with great dramatic flair, late into the night. So popular were these tales that in their old age, the three brothers agreed to each write down a version of their childhood adventures and compile these together. The stories, they hoped, could remain part of their various family traditions for generations.

***
Now enter this story a few hundred years down the line. The descendants of these three brothers have spread far and wide, and amazingly enough, their childhood tales have remained a lively topic of conversation and familial identity. The book containing the three written versions of these tales is regularly, and devotionally, read by these descendants. But despite the religious fervor these descendants share for the three brothers who authored these tales, and for the book itself, there turns out to be a tremendous amount of in-house disagreement: disagreement regarding the nature of these tales, the intentions of the three brothers, and the continued relevance of their stories and their example. The family more-or-less has become divided into three camps on these matters:

***

[To be continued…tomorrow. (I promise)]

Comments (0)

Leave a reply