Lesson 7: Christianity

ChristianityOne of the most unsettling conversations in my lifetime took place around 20 years ago with a professor at our local Lutheran seminary. He reported his job was much more difficult, because his first-year students never had a college freshman Bible course. In the old days, those preparing for the ministry usually attended a church-related college where they were required to take one. That meant they had to confront naive ideas about their faith four years before beginning their seminary training. The professor said nowadays his seminary classes must undo those youthful misconceptions before he can begin any intensive training for a thoughtful mature ministry.

I often think of this conversation when friends claim that sermons make them wonder if their pastors ever attended seminary. It also came to mind when reading about Taylor’s experience teaching the four-lesson unit on Christianity. Her students were confused when they tried to understand their own faith in the same way that they had studied other world religions.

The students, like most of us, immediately thought of doctrines they had been taught in their particular churches. The other world religions do not have similar approved sets of orthodox beliefs by which they identify themselves. And of course, when you approach the faith that way, you quickly learn Christianity does not either. As Taylor reminds us, we do not agree on what happens in the Lord’s Supper or when people should be baptized. We oppose one another when it comes to evolution or stem cell research. We argue about whether true Christianity supports abortion or same-sex marriage. Perhaps worse, we cannot even agree on the dignity of women.

The reality of this diversity has only recently come completely home to me. I took for granted there was some invisible Body of Christ out there that could be found in all the separate churches around me. Then Lupe responded to one of these online essays asking what in the world I meant when I talked about the “Church.” Surely, she wrote, you understand you are not talking about anything you are able to identify.

About the same time, the symposium that meets weekly in my house also forced me to reexamine my presumption. I was surprised that the retired pastors, professors (college and seminary), and thoughtful laity pretty much agreed that the traditional creeds are not very helpful anymore. I imagine if most Christians were asked in a World Religions class to describe the faith, they would think first of the Apostles and Nicene creeds. Yet my very educated and experienced friends agree with Taylor that they really do not work anymore.

This is not to say that doctrines are unimportant, only to observe that they must be regarded in their proper role. For example, creeds serve us when they are understood in their historical context. Taylor suggests that this loss of our history is one of our primary problems. She maintains forgetting our 2000-year-old past has locked us into all sorts of bad practices that extend from refusing to share the Lord’s Table with Jesus’ brothers and sisters to treating everyone else as lesser humans who must be converted if they are to enjoy God’s blessings.

In the next lessons, I’d like to consider how Christianity would be covered in a World Religion course.

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1 Enlightened Reply

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  1. Kerry says:

    I’m finally catching up with this series, and it’s giving me a lot to think and pray about. It also makes me want to read Taylor’s book.

    In today’s discussion, I’m especially struck by the observation that the creeds lose meaning for us because we’ve lost a sense of the history, or what I would call the Great Tradition. It’s my experience as both an academic (retired) and a pastor (active) that the majority of Christians I encounter aren’t too interested in exploring either the Bible or the Tradition. I suppose that the reasons for this are complex, and I also suppose that they feed the state-of-siege mentality of many conservative evangelicals which leaves no room for holy envy.

    Still, I do think that the Body of Christ perdures. Churches (lower case ‘c’) come and go. The Church (upper case ‘C’), the Body of Christ, remains, even though its boundaries seem hazier than they perhaps once did.

    Here endeth the sermon! 🙂

    Thanks for this series, Fritz. As always, it enlightens me.

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