Agree on What?

Recently I wrote a post that triggered a conversation with an atheist who made some interesting claims. One of which was that Christians cannot agree on how to read the Bible so how can their claims be true. What an interesting claim to make, at what level must Christians agree for Christianity to be true? We do profess that unity is not simply our goal, but one of our virtues; but does this mean we have no room for differing opinions? I want to deal with this question in two parts, first the logic of the objection, then circling back to Christianity I will talk a little about proper unity and where we can differ.

I want to compare the logic of the objection to a similar one I hear frequently: “climate change cannot be real because climate scientists do not agree about climate change.” This objection actually holds more weight than the objection to Christianity, because the objection to Christianity assumes that all Christians have equal expertise in theology. The climate scientists I have listened to have said there is unity in the metanarrative and division in the details. That means they all agree on the big picture but have differing takes on some (or even many specifics). Does this mean climate change does not exist or is in some way invalidated? Obviously not. The same is true in many other arenas in the sciences– experts disagree; but such disagreement does not invalidate the fields of research. Rather, such disagreements simply point to the complexity of the problem and our ignorance of solutions. What does this atheist argument have in common with climate change deniers. Well yes, denial. Now yes, for a statement to be true there must be some macro level of agreement (we will get there); however, in each case the macro level agreement is ignored and the disagreements are highlighted. Also, in both cases the experts who are discussing the unity of the position are ignored by people with far less information.

This objection is especially difficult to pin on Christians as a whole because not even Christian is in expert in theology. Making the claim Christianity is false because Christians disagree on theology is like making the claim the Liberal or Conservative politics is false because of a person on the street interviews. It is intellectually dishonest to judge the claims of a group by the person most ignorant of the group’s position. I have beside me Thomas Oden’s Classic Christianity, a systematic theology in which he hardly contributed an original line. His endeavor was to show how the historic Church has been united on the core of Christian belief. Yes, the people whom he quotes had disagreements, and some changed their minds on issues, however he could show a historic continuity within the beliefs of the Church. A second example of this principle is John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One, a fantastic book on the first Biblical creation account. Christians in general have vastly diverging opinions on the opening chapter of Genesis, and many would have harsh criticism of Walton’s treatment. However, among scholars there will be a general agreement that his approach is valid even if there are some disagreements in specifics. What does this prove– there is less disagreement about Christian beliefs among those who have studied the most than those who have studied the least. If I am going to analyze a philosophy (religious: Christian, Buddhist, Atheist or Political: Liberalism, Conservationism, Marxism) I should, if I am intellectually honest begin, and probably end, with those who are the most educated and best able to make a reasonable defense of their position. Thus to point out that Christians have differing beliefs on elements of Christianity is not inherently a valid argument. Rather one must pint out that the central core is intellectually void or irrational.

But then this begs the question, “What is the intellectual core of Christianity?” What are those teachings on which all Christians must agree. I think the best definition is the Apostles’ Creed:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

These words echo the very heart of the Christian tradition and are universally agreed upon. Beyond that, Christianity is inherently relational. Jesus when asked what the core of his teaching is responded,

"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’  The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:30-31

Understood correctly, these words mean that proper beliefs about God derive from proper relationship with God, and stand behind John Wesley’s famous words, “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.” The truth is if you ask five of my friends to describe me you will probably end up with five similar general descriptions which differ (sometimes wildly) in the specifics. Such differences of opinion are inherent in humanity. Ask witnesses about an event, you will get multiple accounts which have both overlap and divergence.

The Church is continuously trying to understand God, something we should naturally expect from humans trying to comprehend the infinite. And in recent years considerable efforts have been made to be more open about the Church’s unity, because many have recognized that when we dwell on the the disunity people sweat the small stuff and forget the overarching picture. In the end are there differences of opinion among Christians– yes. Do these differences among to significant disagreements– sometimes. Do they rise to the level of inherently falsifying the faith– considering the number of extremely intelligent individuals who have professed Christian faith I would have to answer no.

5 thoughts on “Agree on What?

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  1. I like the idea of your discourse however, as with all arguments of faith, your entire premise is fatally flawed right off the get-go. You argue that your conversation with the atheist revolved around the lack of a common, uniform, coherent belief or “intellectual core of Christianity” and its’ effect on the veracity of Christian claims. Then you go on to site the Apostle’s Creed as effectively your choice for encapsulating the “intellectual core of Christianity” or “those teachings on which all Christians must agree.” But since you threw in the shema, I’ll throw in another another question later. The question of practicing what one preaches or believes and whether or not that has an impact on their common Christian core values.

    However, for now, let’s start with the fact that there really is no “intellectual core of Christian beliefs.” This is a evident from the very fact that there are so many variations of Christianity in the world and they are all over the place with respect to their specific dogma. There are presently approximately 32,000 (yes, that is no typo, thirty-two thousand) variations of just this one faith worldwide. There are over 1,200 variations of Christianity just in the United States and they are, also, all over the book about “the who, what, when, where, how, and why” of their faith; you know, the “small stuff.” In fact, there is much “big stuff” they don’t agree on as well. Just consider your submission of the Apostles Creed, written by the attendees of the Council of Nicaea after being voted upon by same and at which point slightly less than half of the attendees became heretics. No, they didn’t agree on the very nature of Christ himself; was he man “like” god or actually “God” or god-like human, etc.? There are many variations of Christianity that did not – do not – even belief this. John Wesley’s “famous words” could not possibly be more incorrect; all the children of God have been killing each other over their differences big and small since time immemorial.

    Let’s not even begin to bring up the many interpretations of scripture; that would knock your argument right out of the park. Is it literal? Is it allegory? Is it parable? Is it fact? Fiction, Mythology? Is it the “word of God” put down on paper? Divinely inspired or conceived, created, and written down by men then edited, redacted, interpolated, taken from, added to and so on? The opinions on these questions are also all over the dogmatic map.

    No, I think your atheist (“friend”) is much closer to the mark; there isn’t very much veracity to the claims of Christians based upon some popular or universal core belief foundation. It simply isn’t there. But let me get back to my question regarding practice: does it make any difference towards the validity of a religion if their adherents do not actually practice what they preach? I think this question is as valid as it ever was especially in today’s United States where we have a willfully ignorant Evangelical base that flatly refuses to acknowledge reality and therefore are choosing not to abide by Jesus’ command (known as the shema to Jews) “The Lord Our God is one, love him with all your heart and all your soul…..etc.” How can you “love your God” and not care about the state of the world; the environment, the political schism in the country, the complete lack of understanding or care for minorities, the poor, the working class, woman, LGBTQ people, etc. How does their support for a political party that chooses NOT to do anything for any of these demographic groups jive with their spiritual beliefs and what does that say about Christians and Christianity? What does their overwhelming support for a proven depraved, alleged and accused serial rapist and abuser of women, actual court-accused racist con man say about their attitude towards Jesus’/God’s command? What good is a core Christian intellectual belief foundation if Christians aren’t going to abide it?

    Seems

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    1. While I appreciate much of what you say in this, and do not want to underestimate the truth of some of your comments (i.e.many evils done in the name of Christianity) you have missed the mark. First you are confusing the Apostles’ Creed with the Nicean Creed (a much longer and more complex statement). The Apostles’ Creed is the modern version of a creed (Old Roman) which probably predates Nicea. Yes the Council of Nicea has created issues for the Church but your simplistic concept of orthodoxy and heresy does not accurately reflect the history of the Arian conflict. This council caused issued because it intentionally caused division (one of the dilemmas caused by Constantine) but it in no way answered the question in so neat a package. Also, of those 32,000 denominations I do not know of one which separated over any article in this creed, nor do I know of a denomination which would not endorse it. And though there are differences in theology among Christian denominations, which I not undersell, the reality is among those with strong intellectual commitments there is also a strong appeal to unity of shared common beliefs.

      I do not want to paint a picture of the Church without the flaws which do plague it (flaws which are inherent when people work together). But I am trying to paint an accurate picture with the same grace and standards I use for other groups. Do I want to paint a picture of complete uniformity, no. There are real theological disagreements, but these are inherently secondary and while these might provoke schisms and some anger, when cooler heads prevail there is a realization that these are secondary issues. Does this limited core of essential belief lead to abuse, certainly does that abuse inherently invalidate the core, no.

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      1. Hi, I’m back. While I did in fact mistakingly cite the Nicean Creed, I did actually go back a re-read the Apostles Creed. I would suggest that you do as well. there are many, many demonizations of Christianity have have many issues with what it says. I believe you will agree if you actually read it.

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      2. Hi, I’m back. While I did in fact mistakingly cite the Nicean Creed, I did actually go back a re-read the Apostles Creed. I would suggest that you do as well. there are many, many denominations of Christianity that have many issues with what it says. I believe you will agree if you actually read it.

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      3. While I know of denominations which take issue with the language used in the translation, I am unaware of one which denies the substance. Perhaps you would point to an example and how it denies the Creed. I would also suggest reading Things Ogden on the subject who in multiple works points out what I have outlined.

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