Friday 15 March 2013

Christianity ought to be the warmest and most personal of all religions


But too often it has degenerated, under top-down intellectual leadership, into the demand for submission to an abstract scheme.

The most devout folk Christianity has always pushed against this, and personalized the abstractions: we could see ikons, special relationships with Saints, and the veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary in this light.


The only thriving Christian denominations of today are those which emphasize the personal - for instance (but not exclusively) evangelical Protestants who (in practice) have a specifically Jesus and Gospels-focused, highly personal faith; and who reinforce this immediacy with pictures, drama, novels, songs, multiple and varied re-tellings and reconceptualizations of the Gospels, and narratives of their own personal relationships with Christ.


Intellectuals are drawn to the neatness and complex coherence of cool abstraction; and Christian leaders tend to be intellectuals (more or less); but Christianity is intended for everybody (including children and the simple) - and what everybody most needs (including intellectuals, whether they know it or not) is a warm and personal relationship with God - that is the only basis of Love, Trust and Hope in God.


Any complex abstraction potentially stands in the path of a loving, hence personal, relationship with God - of a kind open-to and understandable-by everyone - such abstractions should be analyzed with a skeptical eye.

The maxim for intellectual Christians ought to be:

                 Is your abstraction really necessary? 



Ugh said...

I've been attending a Church where the senior pastor is an intellectual, some one you have mentioned in a previous post - Gregory Boyd. He preaches exactly what you posit in this post, that we are to have a highly personal relationship with Christ and that we see the love of God through the lens of the cross. His message has been evolving over the years to ultimately land on the message you just gave. It is actually exciting to find that sentiment in both places. Thank you Mr. Charlton!

Adam G. said...

There are sound Christian doctrinal reasons for your argument too. The core Christian message is the incarnation of Christ, the insertion of God into our world of personal relationships and of stuff, which is by definition non-abstract. The very fact that God created material existence at all, that He refers to himself as a Father, that Christ refers to himself as a Son, that God has acted through a lineage (the Jews), the universal message of Christianity to persons not all of whom are capable of abstract thought, all show that the considerations you advance are of the first importance. In other words, theological consideration itself shows that theological consideration is not of the first importance.

A few years back I was studying different theories of the mechanics of the Atonement and having a rare old edifying time doing it, when I received a message from the ether that I needed to spend less time at cogitating and more time at the foot of the cross.

Its not quite the same, but C.S. Lewis' experience that he never felt less a follower of Christ than when he had just finished defending the truth of Christianity is parallel to your point.

Pierre said...

"If anyone could prove to me that Christ is outside the truth, and if the truth really did exclude Christ, I should prefer to stay with Christ and not with truth."

F. Dostoevsky

"Out of despair mankind attempts the most absurd things[, says Buber]. It is as if we wanted to attempt the murder of the biblical snake.
- And that is precisely what should be done, says Shestov. Day and night, year after year, I've been struggling against the snake. What is Hitler next to the snake of knowledge?
- But the snake is only an accident, says Buber. It was different before, even though I do not know in what way.
- Before, says Shestov, there was no you, Mr Buber, and no me either. We are only *after* the snake. Which is why one must kill it.
- I must admit that I do not really understand and I have no idea whether it would do any good to go back or even to kill the snake.
- But that is precisely my meaning. The snake is speaking through you, it prevents you from trying."

From "Conversations with Lev Shestov" by Benjamin Fondane

Agellius said...

“The maxim for intellectual Christians ought to be: Is your abstraction really necessary?”

After your advocacy for the abolition of absolutes, do you now propose to implement an absolute requirement of simplicity (which by the way is an abstract concept)? :)

I would suggest that simplicity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I once worked temporarily at a landfill. At a time when I didn’t have much to do I was given a manual to study, containing explanations and diagrams of a machine that captured underground, flammable gases for the purpose of preventing inadvertent and unexpected explosions.

They started out with a simple diagram, illustrating the basic function of the machine. Then one by one they added parts to the diagram, saying something like, “While the basic design can do the job, it becomes more efficient if we add this function”. By the end, the diagram had become so complex, with tubes and wires and components stuck here and there in such an apparently tangled mess, that someone who hadn’t followed it from the start would find deciphering its various parts and functions hopeless.

But the thing is, with all the added parts and functions added, the machine was better at fulfilling its intended function. And besides, when you followed the design of the thing step by step, what appeared hopelessly complicated was actually fairly simple in each of its component parts.

Reality is both simple and complex. You can choose to look at the simple aspects and get on with your daily life. Or you can choose to delve into its deeper aspects and complexities. You don’t have to do both, but neither do you have to limit yourself to one or the other.

I would suggest that both are necessary: We need to provide what people need on the surface level in terms of warmth and personableness, or in other words charity; but we also need to be able to explain things to people who want to delve more deeply. Emphasizing abstraction to the neglect of warmth is bad, but emotional fulfillment is not our only need. God gave us minds and the longing for truth, and to some the longing to grasp the depth and complexity beneath the surface of things – and this too is a legitimate human fulfillment.

The Great and Powerful Oz said...

There's a Theravadan Buddhist temple here in town where I feel far more welcome than I ever have in Christian churches. I'm not Buddhist and don't see ever converting, so why are they so much more welcoming than the Christian churches?

I think part of it is that they don't feel obligated to discriminate against straight white males.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Agellius - I don't think your analogy about the machine captures the reality of Faith. As I read it, the Bible tells us again and again that the simplicity of children and 'the poor' is most highly valued by God - and that such will come 'first'. The big problem is apparently intellectual subtlety (and wealth!) - that seems to be extremely hazardous, and associated with a lower and more tenuous level of Christian life.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Mr SM - I found that God at War by Greg Boyd set out this problem extremely well - and provided a partial solution for apologetics and evangelicals - which is to restore the proper emphasis on Satan and demonic activity.

However, there is a sense in which this is just kicking the can down the road in explaining evil, because sooner or later people will ask why an omnipotent God doesn't simply defeat the evil spirits NOW (since we are assured he will be doing so later-on).

And any answer about how letting them torment us is the best thing overall and in the end, when combined with teh extremity of some human suffering, makes it hard to see such a God as our loving Father (because such a God behaves worse than an earthly loving Father).

Only if God CANNOT defeat the forces of evil here and now (or, at least, without terrible consequences for Man - such as needing to destroy all the world and everybody on it - along with the forces of evil - which was why Morgoth could not for a long time be destroyed by The One in The Silmarillion. The gods had to wait until Morgoth had weakened himself by dissipating evil into The World, and until an alliance of elves, men and gods had emerged, before he could be defeated without the *utter* destruction of life on Middle Earth)

...only if God CANNOT immediately and without worse effects defeat the forces of evil here and now, can we accept/ comprehend God as our wholly loving Father. It is a question of how we explain that 'cannot'.

Agellius said...

"I don't think your analogy about the machine captures the reality of Faith. As I read it, the Bible tells us again and again that the simplicity of children and 'the poor' is most highly valued by God - and that such will come 'first'."

The point is that even a child or a poor person may be viewed as either simple or complex. You name these as if they were paradigms of simplicity, but a child is an extremely complex entity, far more so than the most complicated machine.

Now you can look at “simple faith” and see only the simplicity of it, or you can delve more deeply and try to analyze and explain what is going on in the simple act of faith.

To use another example, you can say that the act of sitting down is a simple act. But if you analyzed and explained everything that is involved in it – the structure and function of each of the parts of the body involved in sitting, for example, muscles, bones, tendons, the amount of force required to be exerted in various directions in order not to plop down too hard or too suddenly, and to maintain you in an upright rather than a prone posture, and so forth -- you could write a book.

You seem to be simply choosing not to delve any further than the statement that “faith is simple”; and in fact asserting that it’s somehow wrong or un-Christian to do otherwise. I would agree that it’s simple, as I would agree that sitting is simple. But I still contend that there is more under the surface of either act than meets the eye.