Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Mere Christianity - losing faith in the power of the idea...

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I have, since I became a Christian, usually said that I was a Mere Christian in a modified sense of that used by C.S Lewis - which is that I am a Christian first, and the denomination and specific church comes second and third; or, that there are several/many Christian denominations which I consider validly Christian, the choice between which is more a matter of lifestyle rather than salvation.

I still believe this - yet as time goes by the conviction is tempered by a concern that many/ most ostensibly Christian denominations and specific churches do net-harm to the average Christian member (I am thinking particularly of the 'liberal' Christian denominations).

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On top of this, I have experienced an increasing sense of the importance of marriage and family as the major secondary aspect of Christian life.

Consequently, I felt a mounting sense of horror in contemplating the demographic composition of most self-styled Christian denominations and churches, and particularly the statistic of sub-replacement sized family size among so many supposedly Christian groups.

I have come to regard above-replacement fertility as a necessary (but not sufficient) aspect of any Christian denomination or grouping - this 'demand' is non-negotiable except where fertility was being actively prevented.

(Not above-replacement fertility of each and every specific church member - of course not! But of the group as a whole. So that the unmarried, married couples without children or with small families, and celibates are on the average compensated-for by the fertility of the rest.)

So that any denomination or national church which displays sub-replacement fertility, I would regard as defective and - on the whole - not Christian; and it does not matter a jot what their theoretical creed or confession may be. Theoretical creeds are just documents - and anybody can say they believe anything they choose; but if people are not living by the creed, then the creed is irrelevant.

And vice versa - when people are living as Christians (so far as I can tell) then they are Christians, by a broad-brush definition; and the micro-detail of creed and confession is as irrelevant as it is when (as more usual) the creed is 'orthodox' but being ignored.

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Anyway, at the end of all this I perceive that the concept of Mere Christianity is - in practice - just a good idea.

I think it is sometimes very helpful to new converts such as myself, that is intellectuals outwith any active church domain; it can get us across the line to be Christians without becoming 'hung-up' on the specifics of 'which church?'

But then the problems arise.

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With mainstream institutional Christianity in such a profoundly corrupt state; the wrong choice of denomination or church may be a disaster to the convert - being more likely to deconvert them than building them in faith.

(Aside, I find the sheer venom of inter-Christian infighting among serious Christians to be profoundly dismaying. Of course they are not fighting and killing one another; but in our weakness I hoped for goodwill and cooperation among real Christians - but it does not take much provocation for the sniping and backbiting and mutual damnation to begin. And the relish with which this sport is prosecuted is the worst aspect of the business.)

The new convert may find that among Christian churches that are real and alive (therefore not ruled-out by the evidence of being de facto anti-marriage and anti-family), there may not be any to which one can readily make a wholehearted commitment.

Or, at least, making oneself commit to a specific actual church - when working alone and without help from enjoying the process of church-going - can be a long haul.

And in the meantime we are on our own.

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I can be as Merely-Christian as I want, and so presumably can other people - but as a mass movement it lacks both traction and a basis for cohesion.

So it seems that Mere Christianity has individual value and mainly as a temporary expedient - while trying to sort-out a specific church or a denomination - although the 'temporary' phase may turn out to be long-lasting, perhaps even 'permanent'.

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20 comments:

  1. Orthodox Christianity is extremely attractive in many ways. But the *relish* its shepherds often take in brawling with other Christians can only make you shake your head. I don't think its intrinsic, but maybe I'm wrong.

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  2. Interesting to hear you say that Adam.

    I must admit knowing of an Orthodox Christian who frequents another forum I post at who strongly resembles your remark!

    But from what I can see (other than that individual) Orthodox Christianity is probably my favorite denomination.

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  3. I have long felt this way about the idea. I loved Lewis's book, and it played a pivotal role in my own conversion. But someone pointed out to me that the "denominations" are too far apart on what each considers to be essential, to be effectively bridged by a supposedly neutral idea of Christianity.

    For example to a Catholic, the Mass is absolutely indispensable to the life of the Christian Church, since it's the way Christ's sacrifice is applied to individuals throughout their lives. Whereas Baptists insist that Christ's sacrifice on the Cross is applied to each individual once for all, merely by believing (although believing what, has never been entirely clear to me -- are you saved by Christ by believing you are saved by Christ?)

    The application of Christ's sacrifice to individuals is too central to the practice of the Christian faith to be glossed over by supposedly focusing on what we have in common.

    Catholics and Mormons agree that an essential trait of the genuine Christian church is a valid, but not universal, priesthood; whereas the majority of Protestants either don’t believe in the priesthood, or believe that everyone is a priest. Again, this is an unbridgeable difference.

    "I have come to regard above-replacement fertility as a necessary (but not sufficient) aspect of any Christian denomination or grouping - this 'demand' is non-negotiable except where fertility was being actively prevented."

    This begs the question again, whether you mean that a genuinely Christian Church needs to oppose contraception, divorce and abortion in its teachings; or whether you mean that a genuinely Christian Church needs to be able to get its adherents to actively obey and practice its teachings.

    I assume we would agree that a church that doesn’t even teach that contraception, divorce and abortion are wrong, and for that reason has below-replacement level fertility, is not a genuinely Christian church.

    But it may be the case that one can find everything necessary in a church's teachings to ensure above-replacement fertility, if those teachings are practiced; but that a large proportion of the adherents of that church, for whatever reason, don't practice them. And as stated before, in assessing the extent to which a church is effective in getting its adherents to put its teachings into practice, you can't escape the question of who should be counted as an "adherent" of that Church in the first place. Is it anyone who identifies himself as an adherent, on no matter how slim a basis? Or must there be a minimum level of actual participation in the religion? If so, what level?

    It seems to me that you consider it essential to a genuinely Christian church that it be effective in getting its adherents (however defined) to put its teachings into practice. But how should it do so? Do you contend that if its doctrine is true and its authority genuine, then its adherents will automatically practice its teachings? Or is it a matter of effective preaching? After all a church can't go out and *make* people practice it. Or can it?

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  4. "(Aside, I find the sheer venom of inter-Christian infighting among serious Christians to be profoundly dismaying. Of course they are not fighting and killing one another; but in our weakness I hoped for goodwill and cooperation among real Christians - but it does not take much provocation for the sniping and backbiting and mutual damnation to begin. And the relish with which this sport is prosecuted is the worst aspect of the business.)"

    I agree completely. But this is one of the reasons I'm skeptical of the idea of judging the truth or even "Christian-ness" of a religion by the behavior of its adherents.

    I confess I was one of that type at one point in my career as a Christian. What can I say? I grew out of it. I certainly wasn't encouraged to act that way by the teachings of my Church. I knew full well that I was supposed to turn the other cheek and love my brother as myself. But they could be so irritating and venomous themselves, and insulting to what I held sacred. (I don't give Mormons a pass on this (sorry to say), since they were often my co-venomous sparring partners.)

    So, not only do I no longer spew venom, but I try to give the benefit of the doubt to those who do. It's certainly a sorry spectacle, but I think it proves no more than that Christians, even after becoming Christian, remain sinners. If I thought otherwise, then I would have to conclude that Christians who are addicted to online porn (for example) are also not genuinely Christian. They're certainly not *acting* Christian at the time when they're indulging their habit. But I can't judge them to be excluded from the fold.

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  5. A church that does not occupy its Christian soldiers with either warring against the world's lies or preparing for war against the world's lies should not be surprised when they fight each other instead.

    We speak much against the Progressive outlook, but I find there's plenty of work for one of a Progressive bent in this world.

    They're merely spinning their wheels and burning out their youthful desires on chasing phantoms, honing suboptimal tactics, making war on reality(a perfect enemy, as it never rests and always fights back, and endless energy can be expended in the battle against it!) and chasing novelties.

    If you rely only on converting those already made wise or burned out by life, you will never defeat the Dark Cathedral. At the very least, know that you go out to tame and corral horses, not to remove stumps!

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  6. As an Orthodox Christian(leaning towards the old calendarists), i feel obliged to try to reel you in, as it were. In my opinion you already sound like one of us with all your philosophising :) If you decide you want to give Orthodoxy a chance, beware the ecumenists, they are no better than the CofE in the long run.

    @Adam: That attitude comes from being the original church in our not so humble opinion.

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  7. @MC/ AT - I had assumed that Adam meant 'mainstream' (non-Mormon) rather than Eastern Orthodox - but EO do not pass the fertility test, although signs are encouraging in Russia.

    @A "I assume we would agree that a church that doesn’t even teach that contraception, divorce and abortion are wrong, and for that reason has below-replacement level fertility, is not a genuinely Christian church."

    Not quite. Divorce and Abortion yes - although I do not believe the specific extreme application of teaching needs to be interpreted with legalistic zeal. Contraception, I do not bracket with the others - mostly on the basis that nearly all Mormons use contraception, and are above-replacement fertile - and therefore refute the necessity of the link.

    On the whole, contraception leads to chosen sterility, but - as we see - not always - and I do not believe contraception is immoral in itself - so it is a different category.

    In general, I think your perspective is that 'the church' is the Magisterium; and the adherents job is to do what they are instructed - but I would say that 'the church' are the devout adherents (which may exclude the leadership, or most of them).

    My perception is that it is a characteristic fault of RC intellectuals to focus on the documents of the church, and to take excessive pride in their rigour and purity.

    But the RCC has been subject to a communist-like process by which terms have been redefined and practices inverted such that while the rules and regulations are largely intact, they are deployed to opposite effect.

    So I am very little impressed by the fact that the theory of the RCC (say, the catechism, or Papal documents) opposes or encourages this or that. It is merely a different type of corruption, but the corruption is just as extreme as with mainstream Protestant denominations.

    But all of this is captured by the fact that on average in the West RC members are voluntarily sub-fertile.

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  8. This is a huge problem. Like you, I have wrestled with this issue, beginning as a "mere" Christian before moving into then out of Roman Catholicism.

    I now worship at a reformed church. Recently I was asked by a venerable member, only partly in jest, why I was not wearing orange for St. Patrick's Day. I replied that as Americans we ought to leave such quarrels back in the Old World. But really, why on earth would I want to needlessly antagonize Roman Catholics by some bit of completely extra-biblical flippancy?

    Then again, a few weeks back a visiting pastor gave a presentation the upshot of which was that our popular media has much to offer and that we as Christians need to, as he put it, "engage with it" and avoid condemning it too vigorously. As if we actually needed more encouragement to watch TV.

    Despite the fact that our church is steeped in Scripture, is sincerely devoted as a body to Jesus Christ and has a healthy number of babies as well, many members seem more concerned about the excesses of 16th Century Romanism or to the contemporary puffery of a Joel Osteen than they are about the relentless assault on Christ waged every day in our culture. The enemy seems to be less the world, the flesh and the devil, than other followers of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (however heterodox we think they are).

    This is a scandal.

    In Matthew 18:20 the Lord, Jesus Christ tells us, "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them."

    In Romans 12:2, Paul says, "And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God."

    We ought to concentrate our efforts on prayer, holiness and diligence in spreading the Gospel first before presuming to remove the doctrinal motes from the eyes of other believers.

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  9. @Matteo - Amen to that.

    'Heresy' is clearly a permanent and self-creating state of affairs.

    Some of the doctrinal disputes of the past were clearly insane in their pettiness - the Armenian (Methodist) v Calvinist dispute - or within Methodism, the dispute between Wesley and Whitefield...

    On the one hand I don't think that forbidding theological discussion and argument is either effective or would be adhered to; but on the other hand it doesn't matter; it is essentially un-understandable - the whole thing hinges on some alleged *tendency* that the other side has and which will (it is alleged) *lead to* something or another bad...

    Yet I don't see any value in trying to blend denominations (it will dilute them out of existence) nor do I see any possibility of one denomination evetually taking over and absorbing the others (far from it...)

    So I don't see what of value is actually accomplished by all this disputation - merely perhaps moving a few converts to transfer one way or the other.

    Heresy is a red herring; the reality is that the Christian lives of individual Christians are very different both within and between denominations; and that has to be accepted.

    Yet, having 'vented' about this - it makes no difference! We are still left with the need to make discerning evaluations on a basis wich is iteself the product of a discerning evaluation.

    Either we have each (as individuals) been gifted with some innate and intrinsic capacity *potentially* to make discerning evaluations and recognize enough of the Truth for earthly-purposes - or we are sunk!

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  10. As long as people are people we are going to argue over meaning. We can never just say, "Let's all just agree to disagree." Doctrine matters. For instance, does Marian devotion render Roman Catholicism a form of pagan idolatry as the reformers said? I would say yes – to a degree. Do Roman Catholics worship our Lord Jesus Christ and do the most earnest of them display a level of holiness and devotion that few Christians of any description can match? It seems clear, yes. I disagree with a number of their doctrines (as well as those of various other churches). That's why I am not Catholic (or some other kind of Christian). I am prepared to firmly but politely discuss the issue. But that's about it. They revere our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. They are not the enemy. Again, the enemies are the world, the flesh and the devil. Christians have quite enough to keep themselves busy.

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  11. @Agellius, "I assume we would agree that a church that doesn’t even teach that contraception, divorce and abortion are wrong, and for that reason has below-replacement level fertility, is not a genuinely Christian church."

    Which significant church teaches that contraception is wrong (I am genuinely asking)? Not the Catholic Church, which only teaches that 'artificial' contraception is wrong.

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  12. @Matteo, "I disagree with a number of their doctrines (as well as those of various other churches). That's why I am not Catholic (or some other kind of Christian)."

    I don't know about this conception of a church. I view churches similarly to political parties in this respect - there is never one I agree with everything about. The question is whether being a member of a political party is in some way useful (more useful than not being in any), and if so, how? Similarly with churches, whose roles are primarily social (about working with other people to achieve certain ends, such as learning about a tradition, practices, and so on).

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  13. @ajb - This group does

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Jews_in_North_East_England

    or, at least, special permission is required to employ contraception temporarily.

    The consequence is ultra-rapid population growth

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haredi_Judaism#Demographics

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  14. Bruce:

    "On the whole, contraception leads to chosen sterility, but - as we see - not always - and I do not believe contraception is immoral in itself - so it is a different category."

    But even Mormon fertility is down quite a bit from 40 years ago or so. So they are suppressing fertility, even if not to the point where it's below what you consider the bare minimum for a Christian church. If suppressing fertility is wrong, it's wrong. Saying that it's OK as long as the average fertility rate for a group is above replacement, strikes me as less a matter of principle than of arbitrary line-drawing: above the line, acceptable for a Christian body; below the line, not acceptable. Really, all you're saying is that Mormons are not quite as un-Christian, in this respect, as the members of other Christian bodies.

    "But the RCC has been subject to a communist-like process by which terms have been redefined and practices inverted such that while the rules and regulations are largely intact, they are deployed to opposite effect."

    Yes, I have said the same thing myself on this very blog. It's the deployment that's the problem. There is certainly a poison in the Church which started to predominate after Vatican II. Almost every trad/conservative Catholic would agree with that. If we emphasize the documents of the Church, it's because they can be relied upon, and are an antidote to the poison.

    It's not that objectively, we consider the documents to be the most important thing, but that in this particular historical situation they are needed. When it's understood as a foundational principle that new documents can develop but cannot contradict prior ones, then you have a rock to cling to when the strong currents of the day sweep over the Church. Hearts and minds may be pining to follow the spirit of the age wholesale, but the documents limit how far they can go. This is the function they have always been intended to serve, and they are in fact serving it. I would suggest that churches which feel free to contradict prior teachings might have a harder time of it in the long run.

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  15. ajb:

    Not to quibble about the definition of "contraception", you are correct that the Catholic Church doesn't teach that it's always wrong to limit procreation. Certain ways of doing it are always wrong. Doing it in the right way, but for the wrong reasons, is also wrong.

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  16. The strongest possible argument for mere Christianity is the enemies we have in common. Marginalizing Christianity marginalizes us all.



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  17. @Agellius, "Not to quibble about the definition of "contraception", you are correct that the Catholic Church doesn't teach that it's always wrong to limit procreation. Certain ways of doing it are always wrong. Doing it in the right way, but for the wrong reasons, is also wrong."

    I know that Catholics often say NFP isn't contraception (and so make a kind of technical distinction), but in the generally received sense of the term, it seems it is:

    From Dictionary.com:

    "the deliberate prevention of conception or impregnation by any of various drugs, techniques, or devices"

    It's a technique for preventing conception from occurring.

    Or from the Collins English Dictionary (cited on Dictionary.com):

    "the intentional prevention of conception by artificial or natural means. Artificial methods in common use include preventing the sperm from reaching the ovum (using condoms, diaphragms, etc), inhibiting ovulation (using oral contraceptive pills), preventing implantation (using intrauterine devices), killing the sperm (using spermicides), and preventing the sperm from entering the seminal fluid (by vasectomy). Natural methods include the rhythm method and coitus interruptus "

    Again, natural methods include the rhythm method, i.e., NFP.

    "Certain ways of doing it are always wrong. Doing it in the right way, but for the wrong reasons, is also wrong."

    Yes, but the guidelines for what are good reasons within the Catholic Church are extremely vague.

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  18. ajb:

    "Again, natural methods include the rhythm method, i.e., NFP."

    Yeah, but since NFP just means not having sex when you don't want to have a baby, I find it hard to put it in the same category as methods that try to let you have all the sex you want while thwarting its results.

    If Bruce doesn't mind me pitching a post of mine, you might look at this for a detailed analysis of the differences: http://agellius.wordpress.com/2009/12/09/is-taking-the-pill-the-same-as-nfp/ If you care to discuss it further, we can do so in the comments to that post.

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  19. *So they are suppressing fertility, even if not to the point where it's below what you consider the bare minimum for a Christian church. If suppressing fertility is wrong, it's wrong.*

    No, because "suppressing fertility" isn't the big, obvious problem. The big obvious problem is the failure to sustain a community at even the basic biological level of having enough kids to keep the community equally populated into the next generation.

    Make a comparison to personal finances. There is a big ol' bright, non-arbitrary line between spending more than you take in and not spending more than you take in. Someone who is living within their means might not be saving as much as they could, and you could reasonably indict them for this--but they are in a whole different category from folks who are borrowing to make their expenses.


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