Archbishop Rowan Williams recently commented on the basic truths of Christianity. In a recent interview on Vatican Radio concerning the new Anglican Ordinariate, the head of the Anglican Communion had this to say about the differences that divide Christians:
Christians are drawn closer together than in any other circumstances when they face persecution—in Iraq, Pakistan, Indonesia, Orissa, or Rajasthan, Christians under pressure don’t have the luxury of waiting to stand together until they’ve sorted everything out. I [recently] met firsthand with a number of people on the receiving end of violence—a woman who’d seen her husband tortured to death in front of her for refusing to abandon his Christian faith—that’s simply a moment when you realize what the basic truths are.
But this idea of “basic truths” must be handled with great caution. It is reminiscent of C. S. Lewis’ emphasis on “mere Christianity”, something which has become continually “more mere” ever since. In the Christian faith, what constitutes a truth that is basic? Are there any truths that are not basic? Are there some parts of the Christian faith which are optional or which ought not really to cause any separation or distinction among Christians?
Screwing Your Courage to the Sticking Point
Persecution has a wonderful way of drawing people with differences together only if they are being persecuted by the same group. The principle is well-known: Enemies of enemies are friends. Under persecution, people facing the same extreme hazard may well appreciate each other more despite their differences, or may even set aside their differences to concentrate more effectively on the crisis at hand.
It is also true that persecution is a marvelously clarifying experience. As persecution ratchets up, you have to decide whether you are fundamentally committed to your faith or not. If you are, you may find in the midst of the fire that your petty reservations about this or that Christian teaching are just that—petty, selfish, and essentially unimportant.
I don’t say that this would be the case if you were a fully-committed member of a particular denomination which differed on some doctrinal point from some other denomination. But if you were drifting along with a newish movement within your ecclesial communion, a movement driven primarily by the fresh confusions of the popular culture, then persecution might well bring you up short simply by clarifying your priorities. If you were a Catholic insisting on the rightness of contraception or the ordination of women, or if you were an Anglican insisting on the episcopal consecration of active homosexuals or same-sex matrimony, then a dose of persecution could have a much-needed medicinal effect.
But all this is a matter of refocusing on how much Christian truth means to you. It has nothing to do with distinguishing between “basic” and “non-basic” truths. As soon as that terminology is used, we are dealing with a cultural and not a Christian distinction. A “basic” truth is one which most current Christian groups accept; a “non-basic” truth is one about which many Christians and Christian groups differ. “Basic” is always another term for “commonly accepted”, which is another term for “mere Christianity”, which inescapably changes with the times, and inevitably diminishes as confusion increases and commitment declines.
The Tapestry of Truth
Truth is the conformity of the mind to reality. Expressed in words, truth is a whole series of propositions describing reality. But just as reality is all of a piece, and a misunderstanding of any aspect of it distorts our understanding of all of reality, so too are the truths of the Christian faith a tightly and richly woven tapestry which suffers in both strength and beauty if you pull out any thread or stitch any thread wrong.
Let’s look at a few examples. Some Christians do not believe the Blessed Virgin Mary was assumed into heaven. Is this basic or trivial? Well, the wages of sin is the corruption of death. So if Mary had to suffer the corruption of death, we must assume that she was not free from sin, that she was not immaculately conceived. But if Mary were not immaculately conceived, then Christ’s sinlessness would be called into question, since ordinarily He would have been born in original sin. And if Christ were born in original sin, how could His human nature have been joined to His divine nature in the hypostatic union? Well, maybe Christ was not a God-man, but simply a great prophet elevated by God to a special height. One question leads inexorably to another. One error affects how we understand everything.
Or again, some Christians believe that homosexual activity is perfectly normal and moral. But what does this say about the very core of the Christian account of the creation and purpose of man? The creation story, reaffirmed elsewhere in Scripture and by Christ Himself, emphasizes from the first that God created man in his own image, “male and female he created them” (Gn 1:27, 5:2). Thus a man “cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gn 1:24). This is part of a fundamental, two-sex design which most perfectly reflects God, and this design is further expressed in God’s most fundamental mandate and purpose for the human person: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gn 1:28). Thus affirming homosexuality is a very good way to undermine the Christian doctrine of the human person. Is this basic—or not?
Such examples can be multiplied many times over. Everything in Revelation and the natural law is connected to everything else. Truth is of a piece, whether it is revealed, philosophical, or scientific. Get any proposition wrong, and it has instant repercussions on all the others.
Everything is Basic
I am not proposing that Christians should engage in religious warfare over creedal differences. Christians shouldn’t resort to force over the question of whether women may be ordained, but they shouldn’t resort to force either over whether Christ rose from the dead. My only point is that one of these issues is not really more “basic” than the other. On the question of the ordination of women hinges the validity of the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, and on this validity depends our very ability to participate in the saving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Besides, who is to say that the truth about the Resurrection—once the defining mark of “mere” Christianity—is any longer considered basic? There are now large numbers of Christians who view the Resurrection as symbolic, and as essentially irrelevant to their faith (if faith it can be called).
The larger point here is extremely important. You can debate how every Christian truth fits together in this or that scheme of opinion, but it is impossible to identify some proposed truths as basic in the sense that others are essentially irrelevant to the scheme. Indeed, if that’s the way your scheme works, then your scheme by definition does not represent reality. Therefore, persecution may help us to differentiate between what is really important (such as life, family, truth, faith, hope, and love) and what isn’t (such as private opinions, attachment to vice, personal financial goals, and the eager following of cultural trends). But not even persecution can make any Christian truth something other than basic.
Every truth impinges on every other truth. That this is not always obvious is purely a perceptual problem, in that we cannot mentally encompass all truths at once. But what seems less important from one vantage point immediately reveals itself as absolutely vital from another vantage point. Ultimately truth is one; only the propositions expressing it are many. These propositions are all equally valuable. All of them find perfect, inseparable coherence in God.
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Posted by: Justin8110 -
Dec. 31, 2010 6:39 PM ET USA
As Catholics we cannot believe in a "Mere Christianity." One cannot deny any dogma of the Catholic Faith and not be a heretic, either formally or materially. It all fits together and your example of the Assumption of the BVM was a good one. We can't pick and choose. To be Catholic means we accept certain things and not on our authority but on the Church's; but when we investigate them they make sense. Thank God for dogmas.
Posted by: rfwilliams2938 -
Nov. 24, 2010 8:02 AM ET USA
I respectfully disagree. Everything is not basic. Everything the Church teaches may be true, but everything is not basic. We have the creed - that IS basic for Chritianity. To say that those who do not whole-heartedly believe all the truths of the Catholic faith are not really Christian is to exclude all protestants and probably the vast majority of Catholics. Acts describes Christian coversions in very simple terms. Faith is a journey. If you don't have Christ - you're not a Christian.
Posted by: impossible -
Nov. 20, 2010 11:18 AM ET USA
It seems our Pastor goes to extreme lengths to whitewash and justify Islam. Would that our Church would be as exacting about Islam as about Marian apparitions and cannonization. Tangent: Muslim women are exempted from TSA groping on religious grounds. How about Nuns and all Christians being exempted on basis of Christian teachings on modesty? Let's profile! Mirus' wisdom, "Truth is the conformity of the mind to reality." So is personal and national sanity. War on terror, not terrorists????