July 20, 2006

Defining Christianity

In a recent post, I raised questions about the meaning of Christianity and the apparent hypocrisy of many self-proclaimed Christians. Austin Cline, from About.com Agnosticism/Atheism, questioned some of the definitional issues I raised and made some good thought-provoking points. I started a response as a comment, but it started to get way to long to be appropriate there. In this post, I consider one of Austin's points in more detail.

Austin stated, "First, it's an error to think that there has to be some basic, essentialist definition of what it means to be a Christian. Essentialist definitions are popular, especially when it comes to religion, but they often do as much (or more) to mislead as they do to inform. It is thus an error, I believe, to say that being a 'Christian' should be defined by following Jesus' teachings about compassion to the poor."

For any concept to have meaning, we must be able to define it. Otherwise, the concept ceases to have any linguistic value as an aid to communication. The question at hand is how the concept "Christian" is to be defined. As Austin correctly points out here, it is not possible to define Christian by a single essential feature. This was never my claim. It would be absurd to argue that a complex concept (e.g., Christian, love, truth, etc.) could be defined by a single essential feature. There is an essence to "Christian," but it is a multifaceted essence which includes a set of features.

For starters, a Christian is a theist (i.e., one who believes in a supernatural god). Beyond this, a Christian believes that this god has certain properties. In addition, a Christian believes that Jesus was a real person who actually lived at a particular time in history, who died in a particular manner, who returned, who was divine, etc. In other words, to rightly be called "Christian" someone must accept the core doctrines of Christianity. While there may be disagreement among Christians on how many additional parts of the doctrine should be considered core (e.g., some will argue for biblical inerrancy, and others will not), all will agree that certain essential aspects must be included.

The core issue raised in my original post concerned the boundaries of the definition and whether it is reasonable to exclude the bulk of Jesus' message from inclusion. In other words, if X does not accept most of what Jesus allegedly said in the Christian bible, can X be considered a Christian? This is a question of belief. If X does not believe in the message of Jesus, can X still be a Christian? A more difficult question is that of action. If X does not attempt to live as Jesus supposedly taught, can X be considered a Christian? In other words, is belief sufficient or just necessary?

Returning to the statements in my original post, I asserted that the words attributed to Jesus in the bible offer a fairly consistent message about how the poor among us should be treated and about the value to which we place on material possessions. I further asserted that to be a Christian, it seems reasonable to expect that one must accept (i.e., believe) this message and attempt to live in a manner consistent with this message. I am not claiming that this is the essence of Christianity, only that it is a part of that essence.

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