Does Christianity Have Credibility in the 21st Century?
by Erv Taylor | 31 March 2019 |
A number of Adventist Today commentaries have directly and indirectly addressed the topic of the credibility of various parts of the theology and polity of the contemporary Seventh-day Adventist Protestant denomination. Here, we again take up the issue of credibility, but we address the question of the credibility of contemporary Christianity. A comment published by one of the most influential late 20th-century Protestant theologians, John Hick, about three decades ago, seems to this writer to encompass many of the elements which needed to be considered when discussing credibility of the institutional Christian Church. Until his retirement, Dr. Hick served as the Danforth Professor of Philosophy of Religion at the Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, California.
Quotation from John Hick (1922-2012) in his The Center of Christianity (1987: 66-69): “The church (meaning by it all the Christian bodies, considered together) is in a quite precise sense a necessary evil − and to that extent is a good. It is an evil because the corruption of the best is the worst, and the church is the human corruption of the kingdom of God which came on earth in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. It is because the church ought to be startlingly better that in being mediocre it is bad.
But, good or bad, the church was inevitable; for Jesus’ message is one that inevitably draws people together. It cannot be fully responded to in isolation, for part of the response consists in a changed attitude towards other people. Jesus did not appear, as a philosopher might, for the purely intellectual response of individuals who were to remain separate and unrelated. He was creating a community, a living corporate entity, a body of people of which the original nucleus was the group of apostles. This Christian body has lived on from century to century, its composition gradually changing all the time like that of our own bodies and yet with a visible continuity though time. (ET Comment: Hick here does not consider the point that early Christians did not worry about any kind of long-term “organization” beyond the house church because, mainly thanks to Paul, they were told Jesus was going to return “soon.”)
“However, this church which Jesus founded has today become a stumbling block to almost anyone who is drawn to him. (ET Comment: One would assume that no one believes that the historical Jesus of Nazareth contemplated in any sense the organized denominational groupings constituting the historic “Christian Church” in any current form.) For the life of the church falls far below the level of the life of God’s reign on earth as we see this bursting forth in the early Christian community. . . . It is true that there were quarrels and rifts and deep differences of opinion; but the force which eventually overcame these differences and preserved the essential unity of the Christian community was the spirit of the risen Lord working among his disciples.
However, within three or four centuries, the church had become almost indistinguishably blended with the declining Roman Empire and the spirit that prevailed within it was that of imperial and, later, pontifical Rome. Human power-structures originally developed to preserve order in Europe during the slow collapse of the Empire now acquired their own momentum and have largely dominated the church ever since.
The Reformation of the sixteenth century was a violent revolt against this domination. But within a century the Reformation had become a parallel rival establishment, changing many of the forms of the ecclesiastical power-structure but equally dominated by authoritarianism, attachment to property, and unimaginative lovelessness towards the outsider.
“What has happened since then is that the cultural, social and economic character of Western society has taken a new turn, leaving the church behind. This new turn is a vast and complex phenomenon which was considered from a Christian point of view in Harvey Cox’s (b. 1929) fascinating book, The Secular City (1965). Its elements are the scientific and technological revolution of our time, including automation and cybernation; the secularization of society, the communications explosion, and the increasingly rapid social changes involved in the growth of immense conurbations of millions of people. All of this is rapidly producing a secular society with a secular attitude to life within which the ideas of the supernatural and of God; providence, revelation, miracles; mystery and worship, eternal life and the kingdom of heaven, are seen as but the dreams and fairy tales of bygone ages.(Emphasis supplied)
“Now from one point of view, this must seem sad and depressing. For it means that churches as they have existed in pre-secular society are doomed to die with the environment which formed and sustained them. The churches as they now are cannot survive for very long. Nor should we wish to prolong their life beyond the point at which new and more viable forms of Christian life have become apparent. Indeed what is to be feared is rather that the present churches, unadapted to the new age, will contrive to survive − but by going culturally underground and becoming totally irrelevant to the on-going life of mankind. In these days when the obsolescence of the church’s modes of thought and life is so painfully evident, but while there is still no clear vision of the right ways in a changing world, it is increasingly difficult for Christians acutely aware of the need for new forms to continue within the old . . . . [T]he resulting danger is that as the more radical spirits leave it the church will thereby become more and more conservative and defensive so that instead of transforming itself, it will persist as a spiritual ghetto, fundamentalist in thought and pietistically criticizing a world which it cannot understand.” (Emphasis supplied).
ET Comments: In considering the issue of the contemporary credibility of Christianity, there seem to be at least two components that would be helpful to consider: (1) What criteria are to be used in considering “credibility”? and (2) Can only the Christianity of organized segments of modern Christianity be evaluated, since today Christianity, as such, can only be considered on the basis of its current divisions and sectarian religious ideologies? Is there any such thing as a generic Christianity, as posited by C. S. Lewis in his Mere Christianity (which itself carries a lot of theological baggage)? In light of this, it would seem that in any evaluation one must consider if it is necessary to distinguish the ideas of Christianity from the institutions of Christianity.
It also seems that it would be helpful to distinguish between the criteria which are used in making cognitive/objective evidence-based evaluations in contrast to affect/feeling-based evaluations in religion. It is the distinction between scholarship and piety. A leaning to scholarship or piety would seem to be largely a traditional, cultural or family-based or personality-based process.
There are many ways of segmenting contemporary Christianity which crosscut in a complex manner the institutional segments: Historic-based divisions (e.g., Orthodox/Roman Catholic/Protestant), ideologically or doctrinally-oriented Christianities vs. social service Christianities (Fundamentalist/liberal); liturgical vs. non-liturgical; folk vs. national. This list does certainly not exhaust the number of possible categories.
Ervin Taylor is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology and Past Director of the Radiocarbon Laboratory at the University of California, Riverside. He is also currently a Visiting Professor at the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA and Visiting Scientist at the Keck Carbon Cycle Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory at the University of California, Irvine. He is one of the founders of Adventist Today.