Relationship of modern believers and conservative religion
September 10, 2012 8:11 AM   Subscribe

Can “modern” people actively believe in God? How do they integrate their believes with their “conservative” religion? How do they practice their believes?

[I focus on Christianity here as this is what I know most about (in particular, catholicism and protestantism in Germany). Feel free to apply the ideas to other religions.]

There must be many people in this world who don't believe in the conservative, formal and literal foundations of Christian religion anymore (or only in the abstract) but still call themselves Christians and actively believe in God. An incomplete description of my prototypical believer is given below. I am mostly interested in people who actively practice their believes (as opposed to passively believing in an abstract God).

My question is: How do these people practice their believes? Do they go to church where they get taught things they fundamentally disagree with? I know people who do; why? I know people who don't; what do they do instead?
How do they integrate their believes with the “official” ones? When do they stop being Christian by definition? When do they stop regarding themselves as Christian?

I know religion is personal and complex. There is no single Christianity and no definite answer. Still, I want to understand the general relationship of “modern”, active believers and their “conservative” religion.

(I'm just using “modern” and “conservative” for lack of better words.)

---

I am interested in people who (not everything has to apply)

- believe in scientific theories about the creation of the universe and life (Big Bang, Evolution). Who believe God didn't play any role in this whatsoever.

- accept homosexuality and support same-sex marriage, contraception, (restricted) abortion, stem-cell research etc.

- don't believe in celibacy.

- believe the bible is just a book written by ordinary people in different times—with no special relationship to God. Who don't understand the bible as justification/reason/fundament as to what religion or God should or should not be these days. Who don't take any of the stories literally (no commandments for Moses, no ark for Noah, no resurrection and miracles for Jesus).

- believe in Jesus as an exceptionally great, but ordinary guy, not more (no special relationship to God etc.).

- don't believe in afterlife, heaven and hell, the Last Judgement etc.

- don't need God, the bible or religion to do good and to make moral and rational decisions or to understand they made bad ones.

- reject the concept of holiness and sacredness: A church is just a building, the bible just a book, Jerusalem just a city etc. Who accept the pope as the formal leader of the catholic church but not as Vicar of Christ or the like.

- don't believe in rituals such as baptism, communion, confession, creed to be proper believers or have a special relationship to God.

- etc.
posted by arhammer to Religion & Philosophy (54 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
 
I hate to say this, but you've rather described Jews. Well, for the most part, we do enjoy our rituals.

Religion isn't for God, it's for each individual. I'm probably the poster child for buffet religion. I believe whatever seems to work for me at the time.

My idea of the afterlife is that it's kind of like a marathon RPG. When we're done with this turn, we go back for a while, reconnect with our fellow gamers, eat some Doritos and then roll again for the next life.

If you're struggling for some kind of religious identity, give yourself permission to believe what works for you. (This assumes that you aren't amoral. After all, serial killers do what works for them.)
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:17 AM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Deism.
posted by entropicamericana at 8:18 AM on September 10, 2012


Well, I know more about liberal Mormons than anything else. I suggest you visit By Common Consent and Feminist Mormon Housewives if you want a sampling.

Please note that a lot of your list of things are really just specific doctrines that a fairly narrow segment of Christianity makes an issue. Clerical celibacy is quite narrowly practiced - even the Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran churches (pretty much the closest not-Catholics to Catholicism) don't require it to nearly the same degree, or at all. Similarly, a very large proportion of members of various "conservative" religious groups (including Mormons) are OK with much, if not 100%, of your "science" list.

(That is to say, your "conservative religion" is, while not exactly a straw man, really, really, really narrowly defined.)
posted by SMPA at 8:21 AM on September 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


Not all religious institutions, and indeed not all Christian churches, espouse conservative beliefs and literal interpretation of their scripture.

I do think "actively" believing in God requires some degree of ritual - what is "active" belief without, well, actions? For many people, myself included, private, personal prayer is the only action we find necessary.

I can believe that spaces or acts are spiritual not because they are magical but because humans have endowed them with reverence or power.
posted by capricorn at 8:22 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Except for the "rituals" bit, you're describing the Anglican Communion. Let me recommend the work of Bishop John Shelby Spong as an exemplar of the kind of Christianity you're talking about.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:35 AM on September 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


Is it possible to believe your laundry list and still describe one's self as a "Christian"? Yeah, sure. Tons of people do that. But calling that religion "conservative" doesn't fit any definition of the word with which I'm familiar. What you've described there just barely fits with the most radical parts of the liberal theological traditions evident in Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, and Congregational denominations. The Unitarians hardly count, as they can believe basically anything they want, but they'd certainly fit too.

The problem is that a good chunk of rest of the church, i.e., the conservative parts of it, tends to classify these sorts of people as heretics, and many would refuse communion (pretty much the ultimate way of saying "We don't believe you're a Christian") to people who believed the things you're describing.

So to answer your question, yes, it is possible to believe all those things and still call one's self a "Christian." People certainly do it, and there are entire denominations which cater to that sort of thing. But you should understand that such would involve a definition of the term "Christian" which doesn't fit with what the word has meant for most of the past two thousand years. Most of the denominations which are "modern" by your terms understand this and are okay with it, arguing that things have changed, but not arguing that they're believing what the church has always believed.

Even just using the most broad definition of "Christian" as possibly exists, i.e., someone who believes the things in the Nicene Creed, wouldn't fit with what you're looking for. I mean, seriously, the first line of the Creed is "I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible." That's about as basic as it gets, and if you can't believe that, any use of the word "Christian" which doesn't include that is pretty much devoid of any historically-relevant content. Which is, of course, what conservative Christians have been saying about liberal Christians for the better part of two centuries.
posted by valkyryn at 8:40 AM on September 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


- believe in scientific theories about the creation of the universe and life (Big Bang, Evolution). Who believe God didn't play any role in this whatsoever.

All I can say to this is...Religion describes the what, Science describes the how.
My wife, for instance, is a very devout Christian, and is perfectly fine with evolution, big bang, etc. There's no contradiction in this, and she's a perfectly "modern" person.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:44 AM on September 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


SMPA, the science bits are points of contention in America at least.

61% of the population of America either actively doesn't believe in evolution (25%) or can't find it in them to affirm it as a belief (No opinion, 36%). 2009 Gallup poll.

40% of the population of America believe God created the universe within the past 10,000 years. From the same pole, only 16% believed in a secular explanation for the origin of human beings. 2010 Gallup poll.
posted by jsturgill at 8:45 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I am an active member of the Presbyterian Church, USA. Most of what you said applies to me, and certainly to many other members I know as well. Our senior pastor actively preaches against substitutionary atonement, for instance. Some of these statements are in contradiction to the official doctrine of the denomination, but in general ours is a denomination where that does not mean you get kicked out or anything.

In the US, I think that the Episcopal Church is similar. The United Church of Christ is perhaps even more welcoming of diversity of belief, and of course the Unitarian Universalists as well.

It's not clear if you are mostly interested in institutional or personal answers. Personally, I am a biologist. I teach evolution. I also try to live my life in a way that I view as moral. Part of that for me is that women's rights are human rights, so of course I support unrestricted access to contraception and abortion. I remain a member of a Christian church who participates in traditional liturgy, even though those things do not have the traditional meaning for me, because it makes me happy, reinforces my desire to do what I perceive to be the right thing, and provides me a place to meet, interact, and work with people who feel similarly.

And on preview, I know that folks like valkyryn say I'm not a Christian, and I'm okay with that. I would hold up the constant work of my congregation as evidence that what it means to be a Christian is more than just the Nicene Creed.
posted by hydropsyche at 8:46 AM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Not all versions of Christianity are as conservative as you might think. I know plenty of Christians who are not politically conservative, believe in choice, and believe in dinosaurs and evolution. In fact our priest would be considered heavily leftist and takes part in protests for immigrant's rights, union rights, women's rights, and increased social welfare programs. His focus is on helping the poor and downtrodden without creating additional unfair laws that only benefit the rich.

Honestly, in our church the issues of abortion, creation, and evolution never come up. Those interpretations of the Bible are left to personal choice as they should be. I have never been a big religious nut or student of theology so my personal opinions may differ from the majority of other people in my church but I have never felt any discomfort listening to sermons in the church to which I belong.
posted by JJ86 at 9:01 AM on September 10, 2012


To put it another way:

I want to understand the general relationship of “modern”, active believers and their “conservative” religion.

Under your definition of "modern," there are no people--or practically no people--who believe the things in your list and are part of an even vaguely conservative branch of Christianity. They're all in Liberal Christian traditions, i.e., certain sectors of the Anglican/Episcopalian (ECUSA), Presbyterian (PCUSA), Lutheran (ELCA), and Congregationalist (UCC) traditions. Mind you, there are conservative versions of all of those traditions too (respectively: ACNA, PCA, LCMS, and Southern Baptist), and they do not take kindly to most of the things you're describing. Certainly not as a whole. There's some play in the cosmology element even in conservative traditions,* but everything else is pretty much anathema. Denying the divinity of Christ? That's an excommunicatin'.

It's a but more difficult to be a theologically liberal Catholic, as the hierarchy is pretty conservative and tends to frown on that sort of thing. Several leading liberal Catholics have been condemned by the hierarchy and have left the Catholic Church as a result. Because of this, liberal Catholics tend to be more moderate than their Protestant counterparts. Spong would not have survived in the Catholic Church the way he has in the Anglican church.

As far as I can tell there aren't any theologically liberal Orthodox theologians, but that may have a lot o do with the fact that the Orthodox don't talk to Catholics all that much and have almost nothing to do with Protestantism, where liberal theology originated. The Orthodox basically have their own stuff going on, their own theological conversation, and I'm not as well-versed in that tradition.

I think you need to spend some time figuring out the way these things work themselves out in practice. For instance, it is entirely possible to be incredibly liberal politically on many if not most issues (abortion stands out as problematic) while remaining incredibly conservative theologically. There's a strong thread in the historic Christian tradition which is politically agnostic even as it is entirely orthodox in its doctrine. And your first two items (cosmology and certain parts of sexual ethics) do have more play in them than you seem to think.

*Many conservative traditions will let you believe almost anything you like about the creation of the world as long as you believe that God made the world from nothing, made everything in the world, made the world good, and made man in God's image. These are major theological points to be sure, but entirely agnostic on the scientific details.
posted by valkyryn at 9:09 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think there are more people like that than you realize.
There are many things about the Catholic church that I found troubling and antiquated. But, just because I reject Papal infallability (and many other doctrines), that doesn't mean I am not Catholic.

When do they stop being Christian by definition?
By who's definition. Do you think I am going to let them kick me out of the Church because I disagree with doctrine? You realize that Church doctine has evolved over the last 2,000 years. I am going to stay in the church, rattle my sabre at the antiquated notions, and work to change things. And I don't give a crap what the Pope thinks about my beliefs - I am as much a Catholic as he is.
posted by Flood at 9:12 AM on September 10, 2012 [6 favorites]


There must be many people in this world who don't believe in the conservative, formal and literal foundations of Christian religion anymore (or only in the abstract) but still call themselves Christians and actively believe in God.

The first thing that's wrong with this is that "fundamentalist" Christianity is not the foundation of Christianity. It is not an ancient thing that modern people set aside -- it is a modern invention, springing from the mid/late 19th century.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:41 AM on September 10, 2012 [11 favorites]


The OP's question is essentially, "can a person not adhere to any Christian belief or praxis in the slightest and still call himself a Christian?" Well, I suppose one can call himself anything he wants. I could call myself the King of Spain, but that would not make it so.

Almost nothing on the list of criteria listed by the OP are theologoumenon (religious opinion). For example, if one thinks that Jesus was just a "cool guy with nifty ideas", one is not a Christian. Evolution is the really the only one that I could say as a theological opinion, although it really isn't because it is a question of science. (to save anyone from wondering, I have never had any problem with evolution or the big bang. An expanding universe was first posited by a Catholic priest, I might add)

As for me, I am Eastern Orthodox (formerly Roman Catholic). C.S. Lewis wrote that the word "Christian" has every virtue except utility. People will take great offense if someone is described as not being Christian, but the fact is that "Christian" is a word with a definition, and either a person fits that definition or not. Anyone who cannot abide by the Nicene Creed cannot call himself a Christian, and I don't know why he would other than for cultural or societal reasons. Let him call himself something else (or nothing at all) but he is not a Christian.

There is really no such thing as a "liberal" or "conservative" in Eastern Orthodoxy because the faith does not change, although its expression might. Being charitable is just as commanded now as it ever was; certain behaviors are as wrong now as they ever were. This is a contrast with the west, such as the Roman church, where new beliefs kept getting discovered e.g. the immaculate conception of Mary or papal infallibility. The eastern church has never known original sin, the rapture, or snake-handling.

just because I reject Papal infallability (and many other doctrines), that doesn't mean I am not Catholic.

Actually, your failure to accept dogma (such as papal infallibility) makes you a heretic under canon law (Canons 751, 1364) and you are automatically excommunicated. The fancy Latin term is latae sententiae. Technically, you are a Catholic but are not in communion with the church: may not approach communion, not entitled to a church funeral et cetera. It has nothing to do with you "letting" them kick you out. It is done. However, you can always come back so long as you abide by its dogma.
posted by Tanizaki at 9:42 AM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


[Keep this narrow and on-topic folks.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:58 AM on September 10, 2012


I think that any definition of "Christian" that excludes bishops of the Anglican Communion is not a very useful definition of "Christian".

OP, yes, there are people who are Christian clergy in good standing who meet the criteria you describe, except for eschewing ritual. The opinions of members of other denominations about those clergy members' views are irrelevant to their status as active leaders in a Christian religious denomination.

After all, Pat Robertson thinks the Pope is going to Hell, but that doesn't lessen the Pope's spiritual and temporal leadership one iota.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:59 AM on September 10, 2012


makes you a heretic under canon law and you are automatically excommunicated.

Non-sense. I am a lector and a eucharistic minister at my church. My uncle was a priest, I was educated at Catholic schools, I taught at a Catholic school for a few years, I am friends with my many preists and nuns. I have never hid my views from anyone - and I can point to many who would agree with them.

I am an active member of the Catholic church in the United States.

It is utterly assinine for to pronounce me excommunicated based on your reading of canon law. There are nuns in the United States working on Gay rights - are they excommunicated too?

It is archiac and antiquated to suggest that the Catholic Church, an institution involving over one billion people, always speaks in one voice. It is also cowardly to allow those who are currently in power to run you out of the church because your voice differs from theirs.

It is absolutely incorrect to say that you can not be a Catholic unless you accept everything the Pope says. Whatever canon law might say, that simply is NOT the reality of the American Church today.
posted by Flood at 10:01 AM on September 10, 2012 [6 favorites]


[Once you have made your point and are no longer answering the OPs question, take this to MeMail/email, please do not continue this "Who is/is not okay in Catholicism" derail here any further.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 10:03 AM on September 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


Nthing the works of John Shelby Spong. See in particular his books Why Christianity Must Change or Die and Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism.
posted by slkinsey at 10:08 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I offer Spong's famous "twelve points" not as a subject for debate in this thread, but just to demonstrate how they may speak to some of your points and questions. Spong is a very powerful voice in the Anglican/Episcopal church and larger Christian community, so it goes to show that there is some very progressive and modern thinking out there that addresses some of your key questions. Here they are:

1. Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless. A new way to speak of God must be found.

2. Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity. So the Christology of the ages is bankrupt.

3. The Biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.

4. The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ's divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible.

5. The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newtonian world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity.

6. The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.

7. Resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. It therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history.

8. The story of the Ascension assumed a three-tiered universe and is therefore not capable of being translated into the concepts of a post-Copernican space age.

9. There is no external, objective, revealed standard written in scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behavior for all time.

10. Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.

11. The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behavior control mentality of reward and punishment. The Church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of behavior.

12. All human beings bear God's image and must be respected for what each person is. Therefore, no external description of one's being, whether based on race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, can properly be used as the basis for either rejection or discrimination.


Some people would say (and do say) that this makes Spong "not a Christian" or even a nonbeliever. But as others have implied in their examples above, it is pretty impossible to be any kind of Christian and not have some other kind of Christian think you aren't really a Christian.
posted by slkinsey at 10:19 AM on September 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


As others have said, Spong seems to fit the OP's model pretty well. I haven't read much of Spong's work, but many of the things he writes about his own beliefs in Jesus for the Non-Religious lead me to believe that he is almost a perfect fit for the model the OP has outlined, minus the part about not following ritual. Having read his book, Jesus Was a Liberal, I think that Rev. Scotty McLennan is also a good fit. That said, he is a Unitarian Universalist minister so, strictly speaking, he is not a part of the Christian church (though he identifies as a Christian).

I suspect that it's going to be pretty hard to find a religious person who fits the model the OP gives perfectly, since that part about not valuing rituals is tricky. Generally, even the most liberal of religious people value the rituals of their religion. The rituals are part of what binds the community together, and many people are engaged in religious communities almost entirely for the community aspect. I mean, hell, as someone who is either an atheist or an agnostic (depending on when you happen to ask me), the rituals of my Unitarian church are one of the things I value the most about my religious practice.
posted by asnider at 10:24 AM on September 10, 2012


How do these people practice their believes?

That all depends on what, exactly, their beliefs are, and whether their beliefs require or even lend themselves to "practice" of some kind. Someone who just vaguely believes in an undefined concept of "God" that excludes all the stuff on your list would not, in my estimation, have much, if anything, to "practice" unless they had some other, additional beliefs to go along with that generalized belief.

Do they go to church where they get taught things they fundamentally disagree with?

In my experience and observation, everyone who goes to church is taught things they fundamentally disagree with, due simply to the near infinite breadth and variation of individual belief and the inconsistency of teachings in a church setting. For example, I'm a Mormon who regularly attends church. I consider myself to be an observant, fairly strict Mormon, in spite of the fact that I have fundamental disagreements with several things that many other Mormons consider to be key doctrines. I just think they're wrong, and that those are not actually critical doctrines, and that they are erroneous.

So when I sit in the first one-hour block of our three-hour Sunday service, where lay members of the church are called upon to give religious speeches based on their own personal beliefs and understanding, I inevitably hear things I disagree with. And I'm totally cool with that. I don't consider it important for me or anyone else to agree with everything that is taught or said from the pulpit. Our church leaders (e.g. Apostles) disagree with one another, as well, but they are united in their commitment to serve together.

Then, during the second hour, I am the teacher in the adult-level doctrine class, and I teach things that I know many people in my class disagree with, so there's a room full of people who are just as devoted as me but who disagree with some of the things being taught (because they're being taught by me). Fundamental disagreement and overcoming that disagreement to work together as a community and move collectively toward a greater understanding and capacity for Christ-like behavior is a pretty big part of my religion, though.

I know people who do; why?

For as many varied reasons as there are people. Some, for example, do because they value community more than dogma. Others because they recognize the fallibility of human understanding and see value in collectively stumbling toward truth. Others because they don't want to disappoint their families. And so on.

I know people who don't; what do they do instead?

Whatever they want to do. I know a lot of people who golf on Sunday and they seem to enjoy that.
posted by The World Famous at 10:27 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I grew up Modern Orthodox (Jewish.) I knew a ton of really smart, really educated people (NIH scientists even) who believe in evolution, etc. but also believe that God more or less dictated the Five Books of Moses to Moses at Sinai and also isn't okay with homosexuality, etc.

At work, they carefully design and execute unbiased scientific experiments and at the synagogue, they will wave palm branches and citrons around their heads while intoning Hebrew prayers to a God they think is listening.

After much consideration, I decided that the way they reconcile these apparent contradictions is... they don't. They compartmentalize their brains so that they never apply their skepticism to their religious beliefs (or vice-versa!) To some extent, this is actually a conscious decision.

I think Potok summed it up well when writing about The Promise:
In The Promise the confrontation is between a fundamentalist religion and another gift to us from our general civilization. A gift right from the very heart of that civilization developed in the Universities of western Europe in the last century. A methodology we call scientific text criticism. It's a methodology that uses all the modern findings of archeology, philology, ancient languages, and the new things that we know about the cultures of the ancient world and their interactions to explore the developement of ancient texts.. It brings all this powerful instrumentality to bear upon the central and sacred texts of the western tradition. The texts of the Bible. For fundamentalists, these texts are in one way or another divinely revealed. They are the word of God to man. We touch and tamper with those texts at our great peril.

Indeed for the Jew the problem is considerably exacerbating, in that for the religious Jew all of Jewish law is predicated upon the idea that the first book of the Jewish Bible, the Torah, is literally word for word revealed by God to Moses at Sinai and may not be touched. The entire legal religious tradition of Judaism is founded upon the infallibility of that text. You are forbidden to touch that text, especially its legal portion, for once you begin to tamper with the text and alter the words all the laws predicated upon those words begin to totter. It's quite as if we discovered one day that there was another version of the American Constitution and that the one we've been working with all along isn't quite the one that they were supposed to have agreed on at that meeting in Philadelphia. To tamper with the sacred text is to do violence to the core of a tradition.

Yet what do you do with the truths that seem to come to us from the discipline we call Scientific Text Criticism? What do you do with the windows that it opens up for us on the development of species?. Do you throw out truths in order to maintain your uniqueness, your allegiance to your particular core? Is that the price that is being exacted from us? That's the tension that an individual like Reuven Malter is caught up in in The Promise. A tension felt by many of the people with whom I grew up, that of a core-core confrontation of ideas.

Reuven Malter resolves this particular tension in the following way. He will take this methodology and apply it only to the text of the Talmud. This is a vast work which took about 800 years to develop and create, and whose earliest texts are concurrent with the latest texts of the Bible. Now you will say to Reuven Malter, "What kind of sense does this make?" If you're going to apply this kind of methodology in order to understand the Talmud, why not apply it as well to the last books of the Bible? "Well," Reuven Malter will say to you, "if you want me to apply it to the last books of the Bible, I will. But then then you'll say to me, "Why not apply it to the books that are adjacent to the last books, after all aren't they also concurrent?" And I'll do that. And you'll say to me, "Why not apply it to those books that are adjacent to those books that are adjacent to those adjacent books?" And before you know it we're inside the first of the three volumes of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, in which the legal portion is supposed to be inviolate. Then we begin to tamper with the legal portion and all Jewish law begins to totter. Therefore, I will simply make a hard and fast rule. The Talmud, yes. I will alter text, change things around, maneuver and manipulate pages in an attempt to understand what is in the Talmud's order, but I will not apply this method to the Bible." Thus Reuven resolves this particular confrontation.
--Chaim Potok: On Being Proud of Uniqueness
posted by callmejay at 10:43 AM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Who gets to define the word "Christian?"

If you take a prescriptivist stance toward the definition of "Christian," you're going to get stuck in the power plays of denominations and sects defining away other denominations and sects. See above. For example, for those above who make acceptance of the Nicene creed a necessary condition of Christian identity, what would we say about the early apostolic churches prior to the council of Nicea? or Jesus for that matter, who never used creeds.

If you take a descriptivist stance toward the label "Christian," and include anyone who describes themselves as Christian, then you run the risk of including communities with whom you do not agree, e.g. mormons, seventh day adventists, or the sinister quakers.

If you look at popular religion, Christians have prioritized Christian identity to include 3 B's. 1) Believe correctly 2)Behave Correctly 3) Belong Correctly (i.e. be in communion with your neighbors), in that order. Many new communities in the emerging church movement and other liberal Christian communities reorder that priority to 1)belonging, 2)behavior, and 3)beliefs.

There are lots of folks who believe as you describe and actively live out their faith on a daily basis. In fact, we may say they see it as more important to live as Christ lived than to believe as the early Church Fathers did.
posted by reverend cuttle at 11:08 AM on September 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


I am a working microbiologist and a Methodist, so perhaps my perspective might be at least part of what you are looking for.

There are plenty of folks who see religion as retreating into believing in a God of the Gaps I suppose you can indeed word this negatively and still be factually correct, but I see this differently. There is a gap in the breadth of human understanding that scientific pursuits will never close, just as part of the nature of what science is and can do. Even as a religious person, I see the fact that science has pruned off so much bullshit off of religion as an amazing and beautiful thing.

In the one class I took in college that wasn't science, I had a professor who said something that has stuck with me to this day. She said that science is the process of telling lies with the truth, art is the process of telling the truth with lies, and indeed the telling of perfect truth is impossible.

The more I have worked in science the more I have grown to appreciate the first clause of the saying, that science is the process of telling lies with the truth. Almost by definition a theoretical model cannot be perfectly correct, it is a model of the truth, our best attempt to create a mirror image of it in a form that we can understand- and our understanding will never be perfect and without distortion. For example, there are a variety of ways to produce really awesome models of the 3D shape of biological macromolecules but none of these strategies can produce a real structure. NMR spectroscopy, X-ray crystallography, and electron microscopy each have their advantages and their disadvantages, and none of them will ever give you quite exactly the biological truth, though they can each provide incredibly valuable answers to specific kinds of questions. While this problem is universal to all of science it really ends up having very little effect on the practical application of scientific principles, though it does create a whole lot of non-intuitive weirdness in the philosophy and communication of science.

Similarly, the second clause has very little practical effect on a lot of art, but it is still largely – though depending on your definition not as universally- correct. For example, while there is a hell of a lot of truth to be found in the luncheon represented by my favorite painting, there is no boating party to be found behind the frame. All of representational art works the same way, the object d’art is indeed at least in a sense a lie, intended to tell the truth of the representation – you know, a metaphor. There are many kinds of truths that can only be meaningfully communicated as a represented metaphor. Parables are an excellent example, when people talk about the parable of the frog and the scorpion they are not referring to a factual frog and scorpion but still communicating a truth.

With the enlightenment it became increasingly clear that religious study was terrible at telling the first kind of truth, and the absurd hoops that the folks in the second video go through to insist that it isn’t is really proof enough of that on its own. However, if you open up the kind of old KJV that has them, the majority of the red letters in it are in parables. The kinds of truths that can only be told representationally are at the heart of Christianity, and indeed most religions. Religion works best when it is like how Werner Herzhog once described his movies (You’ve got to bear with me on this one, the description is at the end of the clip).

You might be interested in reading this letter by Galileo to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany in 1615. Since then it has served as the primary theological foundation of modern science – where it has needed one - And provides the strongest theological argument I've ever read for Christianity adapting to the modern world. Indeed it was the wedge where the predecessors of modern evangelicals split from what became modern science, and the message is just as valid today.
posted by Blasdelb at 11:18 AM on September 10, 2012 [9 favorites]


I don't agree with everything in it but you might be interested in reading The Language of God by geneticist Francis S. Collins, which is a recent attempt to resolve the dichotomy of science and faith using the lens of the author's personal experiences. It leans a bit on C.S. Lewis' apologetics which you might also find worthwhile. Genetics is moving so quickly that some of the science in the book is already dated, but that doesn't really detract from the book's purpose.
My question is: How do these people practice their believes? Do they go to church where they get taught things they fundamentally disagree with? I know people who do; why? I know people who don't; what do they do instead?
Some personal reflections on your question:

I think your listed characteristics are at one end of a wider spectrum that describes many many mainstream religious people today.

For anyone other than a physicist "the big bang" is pretty much as fuzzy a concept as saying "God did it." There may be a compelling reason based on some complex math/science why the big bang theory precludes the existence of a creator god, but it's fairly easy to resolve this reason/faith dichotomy by mentally categorizing the big bang as god's method for creating the universe. Ditto for evolution. (I have heard it argued that crediting god with implementing a complex self-sustaining self-regulating iterative process for maintaining life is more impressive than static unchanging biblical literalism.)

Abandoning most biblical precepts but believing in god/Christ as a loving god and following the golden rule is compatible with the accepting homosexuality, reproductive choice, stem-cell research, and sexual freedom. Not a problem for many people in the more liberal denominations cited by others. To some extent the same logic holds for the bible. It can be seen as divinely inspired but not infallible (being written by fallible humans is a get out of jail free card on this point).

Science can't really prove or disprove the existence of an afterlife (you can hypothesize that since there are no scientifically verified instances of communication from beyond the grave that the ability to contact physical reality as we know it from an afterlife is either impossible or very rare). Therefore belief that the departed are "in a better place" (or a worse one) can only be a matter of opinion. The implications of this belief for the actions and policies of individuals and societies can be debated using reason, and a case can be made that in some cases such beliefs are bad for a given value (e.g. martyrs believing in a heavenly reward are bad for society's peace and safety). However, this is generally left to Sam Harris et al, and doesn't matter in the day to day life of most believers.

Humans are generally sentimental and enjoy ritual. One can feel moved by ritual without believing some literal covenant or expression of faith is being validated. Baptism and marriage can be meaningful because they occurred in a "special" place without forcing the participants to question either their faith or their belief in science and reason.

Humans attach feelings to places and objects. They just do. Studying why they do can be fascinating but even if you deny the abstract holiness of places or objects you can't stop this human instinct (I suppose it could be suppressed, but that would have to come from an external imposition of will just as much as religious sanction would).

Was going to try and polish this further but Blasdelb just put it more eloquently than I could so I'll just post it as is.
posted by Wretch729 at 11:25 AM on September 10, 2012


Also there's something to be said for the amazing powers of confirmation bias. Or, as put more sympathetically by Neil Gaiman: "I noticed a long time ago that the Universe rewards belief systems. It doesn’t really matter what you believe — it’ll be there and waiting for you if you go and look for it. Decide the universe is, say, run by secret enormous teddy bears, and I can guarantee you’ll immediately start running across evidence that this is true."

Quote brough to my attention by mefi's own zompist
posted by Wretch729 at 11:31 AM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Do they go to church where they get taught things they fundamentally disagree with?

This will obviously depend on the denomination and the person's specific reasons for attending Sect A over Sect B (or even Congregation A vs. Congregation B), but most "modern" liberal people I know who are religious believers/practitioners attend churches where they are unlikely to be "taught" things they fundamentally disagree with.

In my experience growing up in a Mainline Protestant denomination that is usually considered to be on the liberal end of things, our priests often simply didn't talk about aspects of theology that were meaningless to most modern people.

For example I didn't find out until recently that we supposedly believe in the same end-of-the-world scenario that more conservative Evangelical Christians get so excited about (well, not the Rapture, but definitely the thing where Christ will return to earth to judge the living and the dead and establish a thousand year Kingdom Of God). We just don't really talk about it, and most people don't care and go on believing whatever they want about eschatology.

In the US, having a lot of religious diversity and the ability to choose exactly the kind of religion you want to practice probably has a strong effect on this sort of thing. If I don't like wishy-washy liberal Episcopalianism, I can go across town to the hardline Baptist church and get Born Again (something people in my family have done). Or if I think my Episcopal church isn't liberal enough, I can become a neo-pagan or a pastafarian or a Unitarian or whatever else. I can also meet a Jewish guy and decide to convert and raise our children Jewish (and encounter even more choice about how conservative I want my religious practice to be). Or attend ceremonies at a Buddhist temple. As an American, I have tons of choice about how to reconcile my beliefs with my outward participation in religion.

This may be different in Europe, where there are strong geographical associations with particular religious groups and less fluidity between them. If you grew up in Spain, you are strongly likely to be Catholic, and while there are surely some Spanish Protestants, you probably don't have 20 different Protestant churches to choose from which run the gamut from Unitarian to Pentacostal.

I think this probably accounts for the poll results for Britain in this link -- Brits don't really have a granulated choice of which religion to belong to. If you grew up Anglican, you're Anglican. So you get Anglican priests who openly preach counter to the central tenets of Anglicanism, and you also get a HUGE movement away from religious practice and towards out-and-proud atheism.
posted by Sara C. at 11:42 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


You're describing me! I am a Christian who came to faith as an adult. I never "stopped" believing in those things; I never believed in them in the first place. My church is the UCC, United Church of Christ, and they ALSO hit most of the points on your list. They (and I) definitely believe in the concept of the sacred, but believe that notion to be one that exists between oneself and God, rather than objectively. And certainly, we love our rituals. But I do not believe in an anthropomorphic, interventionist God; I do not believe that Jesus Christ was his only begotten son; I do not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, or the literal existence of Heaven or Hell, or in substitutionary absolution, or that God is picky enough about love to reject some of it on the basis of gender.

There are lots of people who claim that I'm not really Christian, as a result, to which I say I go to a church where we read the Bible, there's a big old cross on the wall, we say the Lord's Prayer, I was baptized in the name of Jesus, etc. Be pretty hard to say what kind of church it is if it's NOT Christian.
posted by KathrynT at 11:57 AM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm surprised this thread got this far without someone noting (unless I missed it, in which case sorry) that your question presupposes that belief is the defining quality of being religious, and that practice/ritual only makes any sense if it's grounded in belief. Karen Armstrong's The Case For God is a good counterpoint to this assumption. Her argument, or part of it, is that the concept of belief with which modern literalist fundamentalists and modern-day atheists are working – a concept closely allied to the scientific revolution - isn't one that would have registered as salient in former times. For modern-day religious people who see themselves in this tradition, then, it's quite possible to claim belonging to a tradition without accepting what beliefs mean, and which beliefs are considered crucial, to modern fundamentalists.
posted by oliverburkeman at 12:05 PM on September 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


There must be many people in this world who don't believe in the conservative, formal and literal foundations of Christian religion anymore (or only in the abstract) but still call themselves Christians and actively believe in God.

Religion is a pretty big tent to create room for diverse opinions, but without a certain amount of dogma it becomes irrelevantly universal. There have always been people whose personal beliefs put them on the margin. The history of Christianity is pretty much the struggle for its identity. All sorts of odd interpretations have been proposed that were (often forcefully) dismissed.

What did people do a thousand years ago when they didn't agree with the Priest or Bishop? They largely kept the matter private and contemplated it and accepted that the other person was an official speaking in an official manner on behalf of the Church. That is pretty much what people do today.
posted by dgran at 12:50 PM on September 10, 2012


Who gets to define the word "Christian?"

Who gets to define "frog" or "baking soda"? I think a good rule of thumb in evaluating whether or not a belief or practice is "Christian" is to ask oneself if the belief or practice could be found in, say, 4th century Asia Minor. Do we see people there believing in the rapture or original sin or predestination?

For example I didn't find out until recently that we supposedly believe in...establish a thousand year Kingdom Of God

Actually, you're not supposed to. The fancy name for that belief is chiliasm and the Nicene Creed says "whose kingdom shall have no end" to reject it expressly. Historically, this is why the ecumenical councils were convened: to address heresies.

For example, for those above who make acceptance of the Nicene creed a necessary condition of Christian identity, what would we say about the early apostolic churches prior to the council of Nicea?

Well, that is not how the seven ecumenical councils worked. They were bottom-up rather than top-down, unlike the western conferences of today. If you were to take your DeLorean to the 1st century and recite the Nicene Creed to Ignatius of Antioch, he would say, "yes, that's true" even though he died a few hundred years before the Nicene Creed existed. There is nothing in that creed he would call made-up or heretical.
posted by Tanizaki at 1:01 PM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think a good rule of thumb in evaluating whether or not a belief or practice is "Christian" is to ask oneself if the belief or practice could be found in, say, 4th century Asia Minor.

With respect, that is part of your denominational beliefs. Any useful extra-denominational, extra-Christianity definition of "Christian" will include many people whom your definition excludes. Again, a definition that excludes many actively serving clergy members of some of the world's largest Christian denominations is not going to be helpful to the OP or to anyone trying to assess what Christianity, as a social and cultural phenomenon, means from the outside.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:14 PM on September 10, 2012 [6 favorites]


The thing about orthodoxy (small-o, not any of the self-described "Orthodox" denominations) is that within that context it is only natural to say "you can't possibly believe" X, Y, Z and still be part of the real thing, and from the inside it is true because the orthodox definition of the "real thing" is the orthodoxy. But once you exit orthodoxy you're no longer beholden to these definitions. If you are a member of an organized religion there may well be some formal process for the removal of those who believe "incorrectly". Saying to someone "you are excommunicated based on what you believe" however is merely rhetorical flourish: I am "excommunicated" (or whatever) when you manage to convince an appropriate authority to eject me from my congregation and/or synod.

I have been a member of a conservative mainstream Protestant congregation led by my father as its minister, I have been a governing officer within a conservative Evangelical students group and a liberal mainstream Protestant group and I have been an adult lay leader in the same conservative and liberal Protestant churches - I am currently a lay leader in a liberal Protestant congregation I have been active in for about 7 years. I also earned a degree in a physical science in college, also studied both the history and philosophy of science to a small degree in college, and have worked in a variety of fields related to science (though I would not call myself a working scientist today).

I have observed hundreds of Christians engaged in the practice of their belief and spoken deeply to several dozens about their individual beliefs. My observation is that when people exit the context of orthodoxy (and in general the conditions of belief you describe are definitively outside the boundaries of orthodoxy) their beliefs by definition become idiosyncratic. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that they become more self-consciously idiosyncratic: in my experience the majority of people who practice and profess to believe in an orthodox Christianity do not understand the tenets of their own denomination, have usually read the bible in a fragmentary and desultory manner, and if pressed on specific issues of theology will both profess opinions that flatly contradict the teachings of their denomination (often without knowing it), and indeed positions that are fundamentally heretical (the professor who delivers this recently linked podcast relates asking his students to write an essay on which ancient doctrine of Christology these (predominately Christian) students felt most matched their personal beliefs - and their answers placed many of them in the ranks of frank heresy!).

I'll hasten to note that I'm not suggesting that the self-consciously unorthodox are characteristically more thoughtful or organized in what they believe. My basic observation is that most people do not think rigorously. While I sincerely try to think critically, honestly and continuously about what I believe and how and why I practice it, for example, I can hardly deny that (for example) I belong to the church I belong because of some exhaustive process of selection in which I applied a critical analysis of my personal belief structure to the professed theologies of various denominations. I am a member of the same synod as my wife's family and pretty much the nearest thing (though now widely diverged in theology) to the church I was raised in (in which my father practiced ministry and professed and as far as I know maintained fundamentally orthodox beliefs to his final day) - after I left that church over irreconcilable differences with its doctrine). Indeed, had he studied for his M.Div. a decade later my father might have well gotten caught up in a doctrinal schism, the smaller part of which ended up as a part of the synod I'm now a member within. These things don't come out of nowhere. They have history, stories, justifications, politics. This isn't particularly characteristic of religion so much (in my opinion) as of human conduct.

There is belief, and there is doctrine, there is organization (denomination, synod, congregation) and there is practice. Although related in anyone who is actively engaged in an organized religious community, they are all separate things and many elements go into each.

The answers to the questions you ask are going to be diverse as individual believers. I can give you my own.

I go to a mainstream church that is fundamentally within the modern Christian orthodoxy and thus diverges greatly from me in many principles (depending on who you listened to I suppose I could be deemed unorthodox, quite possibly a heretic, or even an apostate). There are many whys for this. It is a family association, it is a foundation of doctrine (the doctrine, in a nutshell, of Martin Luther and his successors) that I do not wholly reject, it was a convenient location. Here and now it is a community where I have connections, acquaintence, investment. I go there because of the good work that is done there (among other things we run a food shelf that is important to our community). I go to church because I feel better when I go to church. I go to church because I deem it to be a positive influence in my child's life (despite the fact that he is being exposed to orthodox indoctrination - indoctrination being a word I don't attach a necessarily negative value judgement to - when he is there. I trust him to work out his own belief, with all the input from me that he wants or asks for, just as I did). I go to church because I like to sing. Because I have subjective experiences that are important to me there.

How do I "justify" what goes on with church, the doctrine of orthodox Christianity, the content of the Bible with my intellect, with my secular understandings of the phenomenological universe, with my "liberal" social beliefs? To some extent I don't. I profess a lot of ignorance.

I have never personally observed anything that I took to be straightforwardly supernatural in an an unambiguous, commonplace definition of the word. I see no reason to believe any such thing has occurred in human history (though I don't know I would go so far as to assert a positive denial of its possibility - though I positively deny its necessity).

How then do I interpret the unambigously supernatural events in the Bible? In essence I do not assert any particular historicity of anything in the Bible. I think it is undeniable that the bible is a human construct - that it was created under the auspices of human labor as far back as it is possible to see. Do I think it is false? I don't think it is "historically accurate." I doubt a lot of history is historically accurate. As I said to a friend recently I personally don't see things as so much a matter of my investing so much of my life and energy into things that have a foundation in constructed human narratives as of everyone else pretending they're doing something else. The bible is an artifact of communities, organizations, nations, practices, stetching back thousands of years. I consider its interconnected narratives to be contain a history of evolving thought that I am a part of in an unbroken chain. I have a personal narrative of Christianity I extract from it, and I recognize that like any personal narrative, it is fragmentary, errant, inconsistent, evolving. It is my scripture and study and meditation on it are a critical element in my life.

I do not have much of an opinion on "what actually happened" between say 10 BC and 50 AD. I have read some of the prevailing theories and there seems to me to be very little support for positively believing in any of them. I'm somewhat versed in the intellectual traditions behind the canonization of the Gospels and I'm somewhat versed in the varieties of other "gopels" and early Christian writings (such as the Gnostic gospels). It's clear that the establishment of the canonical Gospels was among other things part of the establishment of a Christian orthodoxy. When I read the gospels it is clear to me that they unambiguously contradict one another in a variety of places. With both the Gospels and the "Old Testament" scriptures I have been exposed to enough orthodox, doctrinally conservative efforts to assert a literal interpretation of the Bible's compatibility with the scientific understanding of the natural world, history (inasmuch as it is known), and an assertion of internal consistency to know that it doesn't convince me and I'm not going to expend any more time paying attention to it.

At the same time, you know, Christ is real to me. "Real how?" The center of a narrative? A "spiritual" presence in my practice and meditation? A principle? I understand this sort of grasping around is going to result in eye rolling along the entire spectrum from rigid orthodoxy to trenchant atheism but there it is. At the end of the day I receite the proscribed creed of the day in fellowship with my congregation during worship on Sunday and you could say that I do so with a large body of internal considerations and caveats. Some would say this is intellectually dishonest and others would say exactly the same thing for totally different reasons. I am generally sanguine, participating in my community, and my tradition, and the complex, messy, evolving state of my personal belief. I will say this: unlike, I would suspect, a significant number of good orthodox pew occupants on any given Sunday, I do not reel it off by rote without a second thought.

I don't know if all that mess helps you but hey, it was a long question. That isn't the half or the tenth of it but perhaps starts to provide the flavor of the mind of an individual who generally rejects doctrinal orthodoxy but consciously and intentionally practices within an orthodox context. Most of the time I deem it pointless to get into the specifics because the thoughtful orthodox and atheists alike are mostly going to just say what a lot of bother dancing around the fact that you don't really believe in anything. I don't personally agree but, you know, I understand where it comes from.
posted by nanojath at 1:22 PM on September 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


What nanojath said, but, you know, as pertains to my own denomination, more or less.
posted by The World Famous at 1:41 PM on September 10, 2012


There's no generalisations for this, really. It's different for every believer.

Every person who has thought through their faith and actively accepted it has a different experience and understanding of what God is and what God means and what that means for them. What I assume is figurative, Fred believes is literal and Alice hasn't decided yet and someone else doesn't know about and someone else knows about, but doesn't think is very important, and so has no opinion.

It's very personal, and very nuanced, and you're going to get a lot of different peoples' opinions but you're not going to get a lot of agreement across the board. If I sit in church beside two people who go to the same church as me and have been going there for the same length of time as me, we are all going to have different ideas and thoughts about these subjects, even though we might assume that we share the same thoughts about them.

This is why we have different denominations and discussion groups and group prayer and individual prayer and sermons and people who go to school to learn how to interpret scripture and so on. This is why people can spend their entire lives learning how to be Christian.
posted by windykites at 3:31 PM on September 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


the most broad definition of "Christian" as possibly exists, i.e., someone who believes the things in the Nicene Creed,

I heartily disagree that this is the most broad definition of Christianity that exists. The most broad definition of Christianity is "Christ-followr"; someone who tries to be a disciple of Christ. What this means to one person, it does not to another. You can live as a disciple of Christ without believing/ agreeing with everything in the Nicene Creed.
posted by windykites at 3:35 PM on September 10, 2012 [8 favorites]


Oh! I also meant to say something about the Bible.

People talk about "Biblical infallibility" and "inerrency" and so forth etc. and they seem to totally forget that the Bible is not one book. It is a collection of different books written by different people at different times FOR DIFFERENT REASONS. Some of it's geneaology and history. Some of it's poetry. Some of it is parable and some is meant to describe an aspect of one person's relationship with God. Some is about the inner workings of one person's soul or emotions. Some of it is about the life and teachings and works of Jesus. Some of it is interpreting Jesus's life and how we should behave. And although it's interconnected, it's not it's not exactly one continuous document... and so, to me, arguments about the errancy or fallibility or literalcy of "The Bible" are essentially meaningless. Pick a book of the Bible, give me some context about the book and the environment in which it was written, and then it makes sense to start having these arguments about it.
posted by windykites at 4:00 PM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Just a comment:

reject the concept of holiness and sacredness

I think that this something believers or practitioners of almost any religion would have a problem with. Even Unitarian-Universalists, many of whom are atheists, consider their religious spaces and rituals sacred. The same goes for Buddhists.

There isn't an inherent property of the sacred things that makes them sacred, it's the meaning they have for you. They are of course not sacred for people for who they don't have the same meaning. (This pretty much goes for national symbols and historic places as well, even though they're not religious.)

Almost everything else on your list would be rejected by a lot of religious people as not an issue for them because they don't they don't believe in that, and it's not something their religious community insists they should believe, though it will vary a lot depending on the belief and their religion.
posted by nangar at 8:27 PM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


There must be many people in this world who don't believe in the conservative, formal and literal foundations of Christian religion anymore (or only in the abstract) but still call themselves Christians and actively believe in God.

This is me. I am a Quaker, which steps right around most of the problems you present with more dogmatic variations of Christianity.
posted by Miko at 9:28 PM on September 10, 2012


A counterpoint to Tanizaki's comments on the Orthodox church - the Nicene creed is certainly a baseline, but the church isn't a monolith of 1st century beliefs and practices. The Orthodox church changes over time as many voices of the church fathers and mothers come to deeper understanding and practices. There have been points where what is now an accepted heresy was considered canon, and vice-versa. The iconoclasts are a really good example. There are plenty of Orthodox people who believe in evolution and the scientific method and lgbt rights etc.

You seem to be asking about following Christianity as a moral framework without any supernatural elements or requirements of leaps of faith unsupported by concrete evidence. That's a sort of Jeffersonian Christianity and more atheist or remote deist.

I find a sticking point in what you are asking to be miracles. Personally, I find miracles to be really, really hard to believe in. But I do, because I accept so much else of my church's teachings and I figure that two thousand plus the years before of very intelligent and compassionate people thinking and debating these things, I should trust their teaching. It helps that for every question I can think of, there's usually an answer already written by some abbess or monk a couple of centuries ago. And where there isn't, I can ask and argue and figure it out. I could choose to separate the two - church brain/real life brain - like some people do, but I think that's a bit daft.
posted by viggorlijah at 11:53 PM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think a good rule of thumb in evaluating whether or not a belief or practice is "Christian" is to ask oneself if the belief or practice could be found in, say, 4th century Asia Minor.

Ah, Arbitrarianism!
posted by reverend cuttle at 5:30 AM on September 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


4th century Asia Minor.

Ah, Arbitrarianism!

To dampen the pre-coffee snark, I suppose I'd say I am curious why you chose that time and place as the paradigm of Christian belief, as opposed to 3rd century North African churches, 1st century Judean movements, or the 14th century Roman faith. What non question-begging reasons are there to grant normativity to one form over another in the varied story of the Christian faith?
posted by reverend cuttle at 5:37 AM on September 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


There have been points where what is now an accepted heresy was considered canon, and vice-versa. The iconoclasts are a really good example.

What ecumenical council stated that iconoclasm was canon/dogma? (no patriarchs were present at Hiernia - you will find that both iconoclastic periods were spearheaded by emperors, not clergy)

I suppose I'd say I am curious why you chose that time and place as the paradigm of Christian belief, as opposed to 3rd century North African churches, 1st century Judean movements, or the 14th century Roman faith. What non question-begging reasons are there to grant normativity to one form over another in the varied story of the Christian faith?

I picked 4th century Asia Minor at random. It could have easily been 3rd century North Africa or 1st century Judea. The point is that I think many people have the western idea of Christianity being a philosophical movement i.e. when someone on the street asks, "are you saved? do you know where you would go if you died tonight?" he is seeking to convey a piece of information about how to get to heaven. The perspective of the churches that claimed apostolicity, such as the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Roman Catholic, would say that the church is a community and one is either a member or one is not. It's just the same as if one is either a Boy Scout or not or a can of cola is either Coca Cola or not.

The non-question begging reason is historicity. There is a saying, "to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant". For a person to belong to a church body that first started in the 17th century or 1957, one has to believe in the Great Apostasy i.e. that at some point, the true church disappeared from the face of the earth and that one's chosen church has somehow restored it. In America, this was called Restorationism. Of course, the problem is that if the church has disappeared, how can you know you have restored it? More fundamentally, it is at odds with Jesus' promise that the gates of Hell would never prevail against His church. (Matthew 16:18) For a time the Baptists attempted to address these issues through the idea of Landmarkism, but this belief has largely been discarded. Most Baptists today have never heard of it. No one of such churches seem to know when the Great Apostasy started. Some say when the bishop of Rome started to assert universal jurisdiction, some say when the Edict of Milan was issued, and some go as far back as the death of the Apostle John or even the Ascension itself.

Now, that having been said, at least the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches would then say that it is not at all accurate to say that any non-EO or non-RC is necessarily damned, or that any baptized EO or RC is necessarily saved. The Holy Spirit blows where He wills (John 3:8) and as Blessed Augustine wrote, there are wolves within and sheep without. While I think that, say, Baptists or Methodists have deformed the faith in one way or another, I certainly believe that those churches are filled with good and holy people who are really loving Jesus Christ and trying to confirm to His will.

(please forgive me if I discussed my beliefs too much, but I was asked the reason for why I wrote something)
posted by Tanizaki at 6:59 PM on September 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


For a person to belong to a church body that first started in the 17th century or 1957, one has to believe in the Great Apostasy i.e. that at some point, the true church disappeared from the face of the earth and that one's chosen church has somehow restored it.

Nope!

I belong to a new church and don't hold this belief. Careful about those sweeping generalizations; nobody "has to" believe anything just because it's what your personal world view would require in order to go in a certain direction.

This is what I mean when I say that it's individual, that there are going to be a lot of contradictory answers; because people are not all the same.
posted by windykites at 11:46 PM on September 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, you don't have to believe in a church's theological dogma to belong to the church. Almost no one, Catholics included, believes wholeheartedly in each point of faith prescribed by the Vatican. Or even knows many of them.
posted by Miko at 5:54 AM on September 12, 2012


prescribed by the Vatican [or their own church leadership]
posted by Miko at 5:56 AM on September 12, 2012


Also, if a tenet of your faith is ongoing revelation, then you definitely don't have to be Restorationist.
posted by Miko at 5:57 AM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


For a person to belong to a church body that first started in the 17th century or 1957, one has to believe in the Great Apostasy i.e. that at some point, the true church disappeared from the face of the earth and that one's chosen church has somehow restored it.

That assumes that everyone believes that their church is the one true church and that everybody else is simply wrong. An awful lot of people in an awful lot of different denominations do not believe this. In fact, I think that the sort of believers this question is asking about would specifically not believe this.
posted by hydropsyche at 7:43 AM on September 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


Also, if a tenet of your faith is ongoing revelation, then you definitely don't have to be Restorationist.

Please forgive me, but that is simply not accurate. You are in a better position than most to know that the Religious Society of Friends is one of the main textbook examples of the Restorationist movement, and it certainly holds to continuing revelation. George Fox and Penington the younger, for example, were quite clear about the Great Apostasy and that the Society of Friends taught the true apostolic gospel that had been lost but recently found (by Fox).

As a logical matter, if one believe in ongoing revelation, one is not going to be concerned with a visible church. One need not worry about a visible church with apostolic succession to find proper teaching because one can simply look to the "inner light" and receive the proper teaching directing from the divine source. In fact, the whole idea of ongoing revelation is that one can know better than the apostles.

I belong to a new church and don't hold this belief.

Well, I do not know your church or your heart so it is very difficult to comment. However, I was speaking in terms of logical progression. A certain set of beliefs, just as a certain course of action, has certain consequences. If one chooses a certain set of beliefs, one chooses the consequences and conclusions that necessarily follow. In this case, if one chooses a post-Reformation western church, one necessarily must believe that other churches have fallen into apostasy. Otherwise, why would one choose the newer church?

Of course, this logical progression assumes that one is concerned with dogma and praxis. If one is simply "spiritual but not religious" or think that all religions lead to the same place or some other such thing, then this logical progression does not apply but then the question is raised of why such a person would choose any Christian house of worship. For many people, I think that identifying as a member of a certain religion is more important than actually practicing its precepts. To give an example that skews the other way, it is a lot easier to scream about evolution being a lie at the local school board meeting than it is to practice humility and to be long-suffering. (in case anyone asks, I accept evolution)
posted by Tanizaki at 7:43 AM on September 13, 2012


If one is simply "spiritual but not religious" or think that all religions lead to the same place or some other such thing, then this logical progression does not apply but then the question is raised of why such a person would choose any Christian house of worship.

I believe that was what the OP was asking and that many, many of us have tried to answer that question here.

I think perhaps the distinction you're missing, Tanizaki, is the weight of the word apostasy. I recognize that the Orthodox and Catholic churches think in those terms, but most Protestants don't. We have doctrinal disagreements disputes, but we don't generally use words like heresy and apostasy. To me they suggest a certainty and permanency of a single interpretation and doctrine that I, as a Presbyterian, don't feel.

Perhaps one confusion is between the Priesthood of All Believers, the idea that we each interpret scripture for ourselves, versus those groups that have named priests and pontiffs and church fathers who have special authority in scriptural interpretation. For someone coming from the latter tradition, the former one may seem confusing. The logic you're trying to impose seems to be that of the latter tradition imposed on the former, where it just doesn't work. But it is the established, accepted tradition of many Christians (and in my opinion is more in keeping with the Hebrew Midrash tradition that we inherited).
posted by hydropsyche at 8:16 AM on September 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Please forgive me, but that is simply not accurate. You are in a better position than most to know that the Religious Society of Friends is one of the main textbook examples of the Restorationist movement, and it certainly holds to continuing revelation.

Well, in making my comment I'm not asserting that the Friends specifically aren't Restorationist, just that a tenet of ongoing revelation means that it's possible not to endorse an apostasy. In other words, I'm speaking broadly, not about my own religion.

As a logical matter, if one believe in ongoing revelation, one is not going to be concerned with a visible church.

Since when has religion followed logical paths of development? Plenty of contemporary churches , not exclusively but very often Christian ones, are founded on ongoing revelation and yet are structured as visible churches.
posted by Miko at 11:20 AM on September 13, 2012


Not surprisingly this post is quite long. I hope to take time to read all of the wisdom here soon. Before then, I feel compelled to respond to OP's original list: "I am interested in people who..."

I was raised Catholic (12 years of Catholic School) and currently attend a Congregationalist Church. I still consider myself a member of Catholicism and (more broadly) Christianity. I also find deep meaning in the philosophies of Buddhism. These apparent contradictions are not allowed in the list you supplied.

Your list supposes black and white answers. I used to search for spiritual meaning using a dualistic paradigm. Enlightenment came to me when I realized that the truth has nothing to do with yes/no answers. Seemingly contradictory perspectives all contain truth!

At first, this concept seemed unworthy of consideration to me. Though, with time, contemplation and experience it did become clear.

Krista Tippett came up with an analogy that for me helps to understand the need for religion and spirituality: "Spirituality is like water. Religion is the cup that holds it." We all have a favorite cup to hold our spirituality. If we didn't hold it, there would be no apt way to experience it.
posted by lake59 at 7:23 AM on September 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


I really enjoyed this book So you think you aren't religious by James Adams, who was an Episcopalian minister.

Cribbed from Amazon review:
"It's for people who think they're not conventionally religious but who like the idea of belonging to a faith community (a local church), or who have some religious beliefs but not, they think, to the extent their church would demand. If you would feel like a hypocrite standing up and reciting the Apostles' or Nicene creeds ("We believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth, and in Jesus his only begotten Son . . ."), then this book is for you.
Adams makes some very useful points in this layman-oriented book. First, many churches--especially Espiscopal churches, his home base--are open to skeptics. Second, many skeptics have more beliefs than they realize. Third, many of your pewmates are more flexible than you may think and perhaps they are somewhat skeptical themselves. Fourth, reciting the ancient creeds is not a scientific formula ("WE belive THAT") but instead a confession of corporate hope and longing ("WE believe IN"). Adams even adds some helpful pointers on how to go "church-shopping"--very useful in this age of ecclesiastical diversity (for example: in other countries of the world, an "Anglican" church is merely a church that is descended from the Church of England, but here in the USA it's often used as a code word to indicate conservatism of style and theology)."
posted by vegetableagony at 5:41 PM on September 20, 2012


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