Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Paradox of Modern Christianity

Today, I began reading G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, the book that converted C.S. Lewis to Christianity, some of you may be interested to know. The final paragraph of the book’s short introduction is as follows:
The point of this book, in other words, is that the next best thing to being really inside Christendom is to be really outside it. And a particular point of it is that the popular critics of Christianity are not really outside it. They are on a debatable ground, in every sense of the term. They are doubtful in their very doubts. Their criticism has taken on a curious tone; as of a random and illiterate heckling. Thus they make current and anti-clerical cant as a sort of smalltalk. They will complain of parsons dressing like parsons; as if we should be any more free if all the police who shadowed ?
One of the most remarkable things about this passage is found not in what Chesterton says but in what he assumes: that there is some clear boundary to Christianity that marks certain people as “in” or “out.”

I would argue that for such a boundary to exist in an objective sense, this boundary must be established not just in relation to the whole of what Christianity is but also to each one of its parts.  After all, not only can people be in or out of Christianity, but so can doctrines.  The idea that Jesus was a prophet would be considered (at least by anyone “in” Christianity) to be out of Christianity, while the doctrine of the Trinity would be in.

When I make these statements, and when Chesterton made his, I (and he) are not making ourselves the self-appointed arbiters of what constitutes the boundary of all things Christian.  But we are saying that the boundaries of all things Christian have been objectively and authoritatively arbitrated.  And it is precisely this claim that reveals the paradox of modern Christianity.

What is the paradox of modern Christianity?  That some people who claim to be Christian actually stand on the debatable and doubtful ground between Christianity and non-Christianity.  By rejecting certain Christian doctrines and embracing other non-Christian ones—all while criticizing those people and doctrines that are truly “in” Christianity—certain Christians, innocently or not, end up taking a stand against some Christian particulars.  Some Christians—when it comes to the particulars—are anti-Christians.

The question is, who?

Does not everyone agree in principle that the above statements are true? Would not the Anabaptist state that infant baptism is outside of what constitutes true Christianity? Would not the Calvinist state that truly free will is outside of what constitutes true Christianity?  Would not the Catholic state that the doctrine of eternal security is outside the bounds of true Christianity?

We seem to be faced with only a few options:
1. Stand by our doctrines as objective truth, which would mean that those who believe differently hold objectively false doctrines.  (The statement is not meant to offend. Our minds should be offended by the second option…)

2. Think of our doctrines as subjective truth, which is not to stand by them at all. Our doctrines, rather, stand by us. Others’ doctrines stand by them.

3. Limit the number of doctrines that are essential to true Christianity.

Turns out, there are only two real options listed above.

The third option is not a true option, since the question isn’t whether or not to apply a limit, but what that limit ought to be.

If that limit has already been objectively set by an authoritative source, then no Christian has the right to set their own limit. To covertly suggest that Christianity depends on a limited number of essential doctrines is really just another form of the second option. Each Christian subjectively decides what doctrines need to stand by them.

The paradox of Christianity could be easily eradicated if every Christian simply drew a line in the sand and then defended why they stand on one side and not the other, and why you should, too. But to pretend no line exists is to make Christianity fundamentally indistinguishable from non-Christianity.

No comments: