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What is Christianity


Ask any Muslim 'What is Islam' and there will be a remarkable agreement on the answer. The centrality of the final prophet of God, the divine dictation of the Qu'ran and the obligations on a Muslim will be a matter of common agreement. There may be some disagreement on the Hadith (the sayings of the Prophet) and on the role of his immediate successors between Sunni and Shi'i but across all the many sects in Islam (and there are many) the essentials will be held in common.

In the case of Judaism the situation is more complex — Reformed and Orthodox Jews will differ on the status and role of the Torah and Talmud and what it means to be a faithful Jew and, indeed, there may be questions as to whether being a Jew is a matter of religion or lineal descent. This partly is reflected in the contemporary debate as to whether anti-semitic comments today are religious or racial in nature.

However when it comes to Christianity, the answer to the question 'What is Christianity?' will provoke such a wide spread of responses that, to be an observer, any unity beneath the diversity may be debatable. Of course Christians will agree that 'Jesus is Lord' and that the role of Jesus is central but, beyond this, divisions will be more common than agreement.

Some Protestants will question whether Catholics are Christians at all. Some Catholics will still hold that there is no salvation outside the one (Catholic) Church. Anglicans from Sydney send missionaries to convert other Anglicans to the truth (as they see it) and have little time for Anglo-Catholics. Orthodox Christians will focus on the teaching of the early Church fathers reading names that would be foreign to most in the West while, in the West, St Augustine's dominant legacy is profound.

Lutherans, Calvinists, Baptists, Methodists, Mennonites, Quakers, members of the Uniting Church and other groups all differ in ways which they consider to be central to Christianity. Black Pentecostal Churches owe much to the personality of individual charismatic Church leaders, and their attitude to matters that a member of Opus Dei might consider essential would be, at the very best, sceptical.

There is no agreement as to the attitude to the Bible and the authority of any central Church body. Some would argue that, following the search (and 'new search') for the historical Jesus almost nothing can be known about Jesus' life and ministry while, to others, every word of the Bible is literally true.

The attitudes to moral issues such as abortion, contraception, IVF, stem cell research, warfare, euthanasia, genetic engineering or other issues allows for no single 'Christian' response. So what is Christianity?

This question matters today at many levels. We live in a post-Christian society. Many young people in the Western world are bored with Christianity — they feel they have moved beyond it. It is a legacy of the past, still kept alive in sometimes anachronistic buildings which may be attractive to tourists but of little relevance beyond a private hobby that has little apparent relevance in the wider community.

This boredom does not come from those with a profound knowledge of Christianity who have decided to reject it — it stems, generally, from ignorance and from a culture that resists engaging with complexity and does not understand that which it sees itself as having outgrown.

There is a second and related issue which is that it is not clear to non-Christians what Christianity is. The category of non-Christians can relate to both generation Y but also to the non-Christians who may wish to understand Christianity.

Four years ago a charity called The Coexist Foundation brought together Muslims, Jews and Christians to seek to foster understanding between the three great Abrahamic religions. They sponsored various initiatives including supporting Heythrop College, the Jesuit run specialist philosophy and theology College of the University of London, to launch the first degree in Europe focusing on the three religions — the BA in Abrahamic Religions. This is now to be followed by a similar MA.

As a separate initiative Coexist sponsored Chris Hewer to write a book entitled Understanding Islam. This is now being turned into an advanced and innovative online course on Islam which will be available to be taken by those interested in Islam and seeking a balanced and clear introduction.

Coexist have now asked me to write Understanding Christianity but this seems an increasing challenge as any such account must explain Christianity in a way that can be understood by and identified with by those belonging to a wide range of Churches and to very different position from within these churches.

This article is intended partly to set out the challenge of making the essentials of Christianity clear in the modern world but, also, to ask for help. If readers would be willing to write a one page summary of what they consider Christianity to be they could send it to natureofchristianity@yahoo.co.uk and this could assist in the process of trying to clarify the issues, remembering that any account that is satisfactory to just one group of Christians is not going to meet the challenge.

Peter VardyDr Peter Vardy is vice-principal of Heythrop College of the University of London. He will be running student conferences throughout Australia and NZ in June and teacher in-services on Teaching Islam Today and Teaching RE through the Movies in July/August. See www.wombateducation.com

Topic tags: what is christianity, what is islam, protestant, catholic, jew, baptist, quaker, uniting church, anglican



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Existing comments

This article and the initiatives of the Co-exist Foundation are so relevant to the dilemmas facing "religious" people. Two years ago I spent a year at the UN in New York and while there I attended a meeting of a group called the Alliance of Civilizaions. It focuses on understanding cultural differences with specific reference to religious positions. Its members are drawn from different parts of the world, and they come from a variey of religious contexts. Two members are Desmond Tutu, and Karen Armstrong. This group might be of interest to the Coexist Foundation

Rosemary Grundy | 14 February 2010  

I'm an atheist because Christianity makes too many incredible claims (Jesus as divine human? virgin birth? etc.), is too inflexible and archaic, and was inconsistent on many ethical issues. Christians, why not focus on faith, hope & charity: leave scientific matters (e.g. creation, evolution, stem cells, etc.) to science and concentrate on what Jesus concentrated on - our human relationships.

Christopher | 16 February 2010  

A good article. the problem in explaining our beliefs is to remove false understandings that have come out of popular religion down the ages and attempts to be too simplistic. All churches must accept the errors of the past. The future lies at two levels. The building up of christian communities with plenty of room for informal dialogue: and at the academic level of research into scripture and other ancient writings together with the thinking of theologians.

The basic meesage of the Gospel is the transformation of individuals and societies which is an ageless endeavour. Atheists attack concepts of"An old man in the Sky with a beard" which is far from any understanding of The Faith.

john Ozanne | 19 February 2010  

Extremely good article. Well done. I once shared a lunch time table with, among others, a Sydney Anglican bishop. At one point he surveyed the other diners in the restaurant and remarked to a companion: "Aren't we lucky to have been saved?"

Alan Gill | 22 February 2010  

The concept of 'Christianity' reminds me of the old idea of 'Christendom' - as though we can describe the following of Jesus, define it and put it in a box intellectually and politically. After all, Jesus never said I am going to start a new religion, what he did say was 'follow me.' Our collective ego's desire to describe, categorise and label is a desire to satisfy our intellect - that small part of our makeup as human beings which is made important especially in our Western scientific world.

There is much more to us than that. I see Christ's teaching and example as more in the mould of Eastern mysticism and the combination of contemplation with action. What we first must see is Jesus's relationship to God into which he wanted to lead us. The jump from that to the structuring of organised religion has been to diminish and confuse the issue. We can't grasp the following of Christ by our intellect, but only by living it, and bearing its paradoxes in a 'Cloud of Unknowing.' Conversion to Christ does not take place intellectually or through knowledge.

The basis of disagreement among the 'branches' of Christianity is the meaning of Christ's death. The substituionary atonement idea, born of human legal concepts, is an example of how misleading the intellectualising of Christ's life can be.

John O'Donnell | 23 February 2010  

Christianity is for the simple man, the carpenter, the fisherman, the prostitute,those whose faith allows them healing of spirit,mind and body.Christianity is for those who believing that the word of God is the Word of God,understand and accept that by the Grace of God they can be justified by faith and be part of the Body of Christ.

Religion is for the intellectual, the pharisee, the non-believer.For those whose ego and pride seeks to
find salvation through works and legalism and thereby
cause division and destruction within the Body of Christ.Hence the abundance of denominations, sects, religious orders, etc etc all proclaiming in essence that they are the way, the truth and the life.

The simple man's faith and trust allow him to believe that Jesus is The Way, The Truth and The Life.

Ross Buckingham | 26 February 2010  

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