Please don’t let my title mislead you: I most definitely do believe in Christ, and am in fact a Catholic. But “Christianity,” as the word is most commonly used today . . . is there any such thing? And if there is, does it make coherent sense? The skeptic can level certain fairly obvious accusations against it: what can it then say in its own defense?
I want to argue that unless “Christianity” and “Catholicism” are to be regarded as normatively synonymous terms —which is how I like to use them— the former is an impossibly vague word, referring (at the best) to an indefensible position.
Christianity is a word that has its uses, even so. It has enough clear reference to serve as a term of broad classification, especially in sociological and cultural matters. If we learn that one book is about “Christian art” while another is about “Islamic art,” we know well enough how the two are going to differ. But what if we seek to use it as a term of specifically religious classification?
So long as we are prepared to give it an exceedingly broad sense, we shall manage nicely. The word “Christianity” will then cover all those countless varieties and intensities of religious belief and commitment and practice that lay some kind of central emphasis upon Jesus of Nazareth, as against (say) Muhammad or the Buddha. Just such an emphasis is presumably implied in every claim to “be a Christian” or to “believe in Christianity.” But is nothing further implied, nothing more specific? If not, it will make little sense to speak of “Christian doctrine” or the “Christian Church,” as many people do. They must mean something when they talk like that. But what do they mean? What are they talking about?
If we attempt to answer such questions as those, we must be on our guard against certain insufficient answers to them, certain minority uses of the term. There is an Irish usage, for example, which makes “Christian” synonymous with “Protestant.” Things are taken further in certain American circles. There, if you want to qualify as a “Christian,” it isn’t enough to be a Fundamentalist Protestant: you must also adopt a grossly unscriptural attitude towards wine and every other kind of alcoholic drink, not to mention tobacco. The implied contradiction —what more biblical drink than wine? —never seems to bother the people in question.
These are minority uses, and one can easily allow for them in discussion. But further confusion, more far-reaching and therefore more dangerous, stems from the tendency of “Christian” to become an ethically evaluative term instead of a religiously descriptive term.
This goes very far indeed, especially among the unsophisticated, and it makes “Christianity” almost synonymous with “altruism.” Imagine that you over-hear two strangers stalking about some third party, and one of them says, “Oh, he’s a real Christian if ever there was one.” Listen further, and you will invariably find that his altruism —rather than his faith —is what elicits the admiration.
In extreme cases that are far from exceptional, “Christian belief” thus narrows down into a general conviction that life would be a great deal more agreeable if we were all nicer to one another. The social consequences of that conviction can be admirable indeed. But it’s hardly the Good News, or news of any kind; and it does raise the question of whether a Jew, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist, or atheist is capable of being “a real Christian.” He can certainly be altruistic, and he frequently is. But we still need to recognize the incongruity of attaching that particular label to him.
To be a useful term, “Christianity” needs to indicate something more specific than that. We already have “altruism” and various similar words. Should our “something more specific” be seen in creedal terms? Belief in the Incarnation or Resurrection or both might then be regarded as the central and constitutive element in “Christianity”: we might include the whole of the Apostles’ Creed. It will be remembered that in Orthodoxy, Chesterton cited that as a sufficient summary of Christian belief; and for many purposes, that makes excellent sense.
But it differs sharply from a great deal of popular usage. For many of us, a man’s “Christianity” would not be impaired or enhanced by any conceivable belief or disbelief on his part. The matter is hardly seen creedally at all: the emphasis is upon feelings.
Beyond that, there is a widespread tendency to envisage “Christianity” as a generalization from various socially and historically visible phenomena. On this reckoning, there is a sacred over-arching Something called “Christianity,” to which these various churches, these sects or denominations, stand. But how? As parts to a whole? As particulars to a universal? Nobody quite knows, and in these ecumenical days, it may seem rather tactless to ask.
But the picture can seem sufficiently coherent, and is then decidedly Platonic. “Christianity” —possibly equated with a selectively-remembered Jesus —is the perfect Form or eidolon, invisibly enthroned on high, imperfectly copied by each of these visible churches or sects or denominations in all their variety. Their imperfection can receive any amount of emphasis: “I consider myself a Christian, of course, in the deepest sense of the word; but I don’t have much time for organized (or institutional) religion.” At the best, one’s choice of a church is secondary and unimportant: what matters is to be a “Christian,” usually with that central emphasis upon altruism —an emphasis which can easily mandate social and political and economic activism above all else.
A Catholic, remembering the Reformation period, will note the irony of that new emphasis upon works at the expense of faith. But if so, he won’t be with the trend. With minor variations, this Platonic view of the matter is extremely fashionable and even dominant, even in certain nominally Catholic circles: you will often find taken for granted when “Christianity” comes up for discussion.
It found classic expression, powerful reinforcement too, in a highly influential book — Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. Now I revere the memory of my old Oxford tutor and long-time friend: I do not want to belittle him, or to deny the very great value of that book. But I see its value as moral and devotional rather than intellectual, and one does need to be on one’s guard when reading it. You’ll find it useful when examining your conscience. But as there set forth, “mere Christianity” is a kind of optical illusion. Lewis found it possible to speak of it as having a confidently dogmatic voice: Christianity tells us to believe this, Christianity forbids us to do that. But close analysis will show that he was really talking about the Catholic Faith with the embarrassing bits left out —embarrassing, that is, to an Ulster Protestant.
“Mere Christianity,” as Lewis wanted us to see it, is extremely vulnerable to certain skeptical objections. This point may be illustrated by a fictitious dialogue, as between a “Christian” (in that broad sense of the word) and a skeptic or agnostic. If my skeptic seems unnecessarily abrupt and fierce, that’s for the sake of brevity: courtesies and qualifications take up a lot of space.
Skeptic: You Christians! If after nearly two thousand years, you still can’t agree among yourselves about what it is that you’re supposed to be saying and doing, how can we take any of you seriously?
“Christian“: Oh, but we do agree among ourselves —about the essentials, that is.
Skeptic: Nonsense! You don’t even agree about what the essentials are, or about how they are to be distinguished from secondary and unimportant matters; and in practice, your disagreements go to the very heart of things.
“Christian“: How do you mean?
Skeptic: Well, you’re supposed to be monotheistic above all else, along with the Jews and Muslims: the first of the Ten Commandments says that worship in the full sense —Iatria —must be given to the one true God and must on no account be given to anybody or anything else. Correct?
“Christian“: Of course —though the doctrine of the Trinity …
Skeptic: I wasn’t thinking about that. Tell me: is it right or wrong to give that all-out worship to what some of you call “the Blessed Sacrament” and others “the consecrated bread and wine”?
(I envisage a slightly embarrassed silence at this point.)
Skeptic: Come on, you’ve had plenty of time to think it over. And that isn’t a remote or academic kind of question: it lies at the heart of all monotheistic religion, and it affects the weekly or daily practice of millions. Or take the related question of “priesthood” or “ministry.” The Eucharistic action —”saying Mass,” “presiding over the Lord’s Supper,” whatever you like to call it: is it something which the ordinary layman can’t do? Or is it something that he mustn’t do? Or is it reserved to the clergy by mere habit and convention? I ask different Christians, and I get radically different answers.
“Christian“: Well, within the Catholic tradition, it has always been regarded …
Skeptic: Of course, but as you well know, many of you Christians reject that tradition altogether: are they any less Christian on that account? And what about this new idea of having women as priests and bishops? Some of you call that a wise and necessary step forward, some of you call it a silly transvestite charade: what am Ito believe? Or look at marriage. A woman can cease to be a man’s secretary; but so long as they both live, she cannot cease to be his sister. Well, can she cease to be his wife? Is Christian marriage capable of being dissolved? We need to know.
“Christian“: Well, in certain hard cases, I think we need to be very gentle and tolerant towards …
Skeptic: That isn’t the point. What I’m saying is that you Christians can’t agree about the very practical question of what marriage is—or, for that matter, about the rights and wrongs of contraception, or even sodomy.
“Christian“: All right, our differences are unfortunate, but I think they’re on the way out. The cause of ecumenism is making great progress, and there are signs of a real convergence .. .
Skeptic: On the contrary, you’re drifting further apart than you were. Until recently, you were pretty well agreed about those questions of sexual morality, but not today. It’s like that with basic doctrine. Did Jesus have a human father? Did his body rot in the tomb, like other corpses? Is Hell an ugly fantasy, an empty threat? Until recently, most of you answered each of those three questions with a confident No. But we now find divergent answers to all of them, often coming from highly-placed Christians. It’s like that across the board, and it isn’t just particular questions: you Christians can’t even agree among yourselves about how your disagreements might ideally be resolved! We all know that scholars and scientists can wrangle furiously about disputed matters; but they are at least in agreement about what would constitute clear scientific demonstration or cogent historical evidence, if and when it became available. But you Christians have nothing comparable; in fact, the methodology of resolving disagreements is itself one of the things about which you disagree most profoundly.
It would be heartless to prolong this third-degree bullying for an indefinite period, even though it has no natural point of termination. The point should be clear enough by now: any reasonably bright Catholic could easily stand up to that kind of treatment, but no “mere Christian” can ever hope to do so. It may seem beautifully ecumenical and broad-minded to speak up for his “mere Christianity,” rather than for what some will consider a sectarian partisanship of one’s own. But one will then be speaking up for a mirage, one to which even Lewis’s massive brain could give only an appearance of solidity. I have sometimes been asked to defend it, and I have always refused. I don’t consider it defensible, I don’t believe in it.
So in order to replace that Platonic model —an ideal and generalized “Christianity,” variously and imperfectly embodied in each of these various “churches” —I propose something more incarnational. Let us think in terms of the one Christ and his Body, the one-and¬only Church, this being a mode of the Incarnation and speaking accordingly; and around it let us recognize—in charitable realism —a penumbra of semi-detached groups and individuals, speaking only for themselves. Their association with Christ and his Church is to be cherished and enhanced: their semi-detachment therefore is to be deplored and remedied.
A pre-conciliar model? It’s worse than that, it’s nearly two thousand years old. But at least it’s a solidity, no kind of mirage.