Friday 18 March 2016

My Mere Christian evangelism - what kind of success?

When I recently wrote a post musing on the possibility of quitting blogging, I received an extremely encouraging response from readers - some in comments, some in e-mails, asking me please to continue. To which I agreed - very happily and gratefully!

Some communications gave accounts of how the blog had been helpful in the reader's Christian life, and these were valuable to me because the underlying purpose of this blog, the thing which keeps me going with it, is Christian evangelism and apologetics - indeed I aim to promote Mere Christianity.

Mere Christianity is the title of a book by CS Lewis which contains collected radio talks from the 1939-45 war which Lewis tried to make acceptable and applicable to Anglicans, Roman Catholics and nonconformists such as Methodists. By and large, he succeeded spectacularly - and Lewis has also been very popular with Eastern Orthodox and Mormons.

Although I do engage in a lot more specific and specialized theology than Lewis, my intention has also been to 'speak' with the whole range of serious self-identified Christians - indeed a wider range than Lewis included; because I do not regard adherence to the creeds as a valid definition of a Christian (not least because they contain abstract, paradoxical and incomprehensible elements).

I would include among the Mere Christian family many of the newer denominations such as Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons (I regard myself as a theoretical Mormon - although I currently worship at a conservative Protestant Anglican church), the Salvation Army - and indeed unaffiliated Christians who are Christian only 'in their own heads' and perhaps in heretical ways - e.g. some Anthroposophists, some Gnostics and other people interested in 'spirituality'.

Advocacy of Mere Christianity is not arbitrary nor trivial for any serious Christian, because to make sense of being a Mere Christian, rather than working from inside a specific denomination, requires a faith that being 'any kind of Christian' is potentially a worthwhile thing to be; indeed the belief that it is more important to be 'A Christian' than to be any particular type of Christian.

In other words, Mere Christianity - by its relative neglect of actual membership of specific church denominations - embodies the conviction that it is possible to be a Christian who is not a churchgoer nor a church-member; and that this unaffiliated state is indeed much better than not being a Christian at all. This probably implies certain doctrinal things - regarding the nature of salvation; and the relationship between God and each Man.

Anyway, from the comments and letters I received, I was very pleased to see that my own Mere Christian convictions are reflected by a considerable variety of 'destinations' among that small group of people who tell me they were significantly helped in their faith by this blog - including Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Mormon. Indeed, the range of destinations delighted me! I feel that this is exactly what modern evangelism needs to do (in addition to traditional types of denomination-based evangelism, not replacing it) - to help people become generic Mere Christians first, and then join a specific church as a second and secondary decision.

An interesting feature about the great popularity and influence of Lewis among serious Christians of many types is that it suggests that that there is a strong core of basic Christianity behind doctrinal differences - and it suggests, indeed, that the deep conviction of someone such as Pope John Paul II (a big Lewis fan) was that this is almost independent of specific doctrine and theology.

The 'revealed preference' of the range of Lewis admirers is that Christianity precedes and is distinct from the metaphysics, theology and specific doctrines and practices of Christianity. The way I think of this is that the followers of Christ, as depicted in the Gospels and Acts, were Christians - and became Christian on the basis of a very small amount of knowledge and experience; and children and simple minded people can be (among the best) Christians.

So that real, core Christianity in its essence is on the one hand very simple - simple enough for a child to believe; yet also encompasses a wide range of subjective 'explanations' for beliefs - explanations as varied as the imaginations of a child.

This I am sure is true; although many people who agree and behave as if it is true - and acknowledge it implicitly - are loath to acknowledge it explicitly - and indeed may deny it explicitly.

I am not sure whether this is a problem or not - but I suspect it is. Many strong Christians are - according to their attitudes and behaviours - Mere Christians; but the explicit statements they make are often exclusivist, and they claim to regard those outwith their church as perilously deficient... perhaps not Christians, perhaps even excluded-from salvation.

I say 'claim to' because I think this exclusivism is often insincere - sometimes it is dishonest. For various reasons, some good and others bad, many denominations and churches cannot admit publicly and formally how Mere Christian they really are (the CJCLDS is a noble exception!). Not surprisingly, serious Christian churches fear liberalization and the apostasy and rapid decline which follows - and this leads them into exclusivist claims which are typically shrill and unconvincing - one suspects even (or especially) to those who are most vehement in them.

But actual liberal Christians usually dislike CS Lewis, sometimes indeed they hate him! So the 'Mereness' of Christianity certainly should not be regarded as evidence of its feebleness or liberalness.

My general conviction is that the real Christian church is a mystical phenomenon spread across many denominations and among unaffiliated individuals - but that the actual bricks and mortar and crowds of people and organizations of 'institutional' churches are essential to the survival and growth of Christianity through history and into the future.

Not all churches, to be sure! - I think that most liberal Christian churches do far more harm than good (even though they do do some good), and lead more away from faith and into apostasy than they help to be better Christians. But I suspect that many serious Christians nowadays are in the position of trying to find a specific accessible denomination, or even a specific church congregation, among the mass of hindering and secularizing churches - to find one local and strong group of Christians which help them personally to be better Christians.

That, at any rate, is the Mere Christian attitude.


scory said...

I took a long time in coming to the decision to join the CJCLDS (that was 20 years ago come this April 6th). I wanted, among other things, to determine that there were actual Christians in a Christian church. Discovering that there were people actually doing their best to live as Jesus taught we should live had more than a little to do with my final decision.

BTW, I am glad you have chosen to continue to blog.

Anonymous said...

Dr Charlton: “…the explicit statements they make are often exclusivist, and they claim to regard those outwith their church as perilously deficient... perhaps not Christians, perhaps even excluded-from salvation.”


“…exclusivist claims which are typically shrill and unconvincing - one suspects even (or especially) to those who are most vehement in them.”

My Mere Christianity encompasses Left Christianity and Right Christianity. For me, any person who says they are Christian must believe Christ is the Son of God, and that He came to us for a good purpose (either to save us from sin or, for the Gnostics and similar, to teach theosis). So the person, who believes faith plus good works means attempting to change earthly society through socialism is included in my definition of a Mere Christian. The person who believes faith alone is necessary, and who largely ignores society, and lives a contemplative life is a Mere Christian. The rich businessman who has faith, but who lives a life of gluttony and excess is a Mere Christian. The active homosexual who has faith and is kind is a Mere Christian. The family man who loves his children, and who works hard for them, who has faith is a Mere Christian.

It is possible that these five examples will be “exclusivist”, and regard the others as “deficient…perhaps not Christian, perhaps even excluded from salvation.” When they behave and think like this, they are effectively denying that the faith of the other is real. They are not qualified to make that judgement – only Christ can do that. All five examples sin, and need Christ. I think that Christ listens to all of them, and loves them all. I also think that He would prefer it, if all five would come together in the love of God.


Bruce Charlton said...

@Seeker - I don't agree with you about all of this - and I suspect you don't either!

For example - what about dishonesty? That is, people who dishonestly claim to be Christian. Some of these are careerists, some con-men, some manipulators - some are anti-Christian - i.e. they pretend to be Christian but are fifth columnists working to subvert, invert or destroy the religion.

There are plenty of these around and they are extremely dangerous - far more dangerous than atheists. And they are not Christians - they are pretending to be Christians (or, sometimes fooling themselves - as is common among many confidence tricksters).

This is just one reason why we absolutely *must* judge whether other people are Christians and act according to our judgements - even though (of course) these judgments may be wrong.

My point is not that anyone is to be regarded as a Christian who states they are one - but that the denomination (or lack of denomination) is not the critical factor.

An unrepentant sinner may, of course, be a Christian - but he or she may still be a potentially dangerous person; and should probably be excluded from any position of responsibility within Christian churches.

That may also apply to *some* repentant sinners who yet cannot stop sinning - truly-repentant sinners may be very good Christians indeed, among the best (they may be deeply humble); but may nonetheless be unsuitable for some positions of responsibility (they would indeed usually rule themselves out; but if they did not do so, then they would need to be excluded).

Anonymous said...

Here's one more signing up. I've been moved deeply by reading this blog and I owe my deepest gratitude to you Bruce for keeping on writing. I actually was what you'd call a christian in name only and sometimes detested what you wrote but kept on reading anyway (and thank God for that). May God bless you!