If Christianity is to be viable in the twenty-first century, it will need to be reformed to a degree perhaps even more sweeping than the Protestant Reformation five hundred years ago. The reason for this is that in those five hundred years, the development of the conscience of humanity has outpaced the development of the Christian conscience, which has been retarded by the investment of authority in the Bible. It has now for a long time been possible for intelligent nonbelievers to confidently determine that Christian teaching is morally wrong. In the face of this, Christians have largely refused to reexamine what they believe, resulting in Christianity losing both credibility and relevance to contemporary issues.
For the sake of brevity, I am not going to try here to defend any of the above propositions. This severely limits the usefulness of this article for anyone who does not already agree with them. At the moment, however, I am more interested in moving on to this question: what principles could guide such a reformation?
Before we get there, let’s clear up a few initial things. First, it seems clear to me that such a reformation is already well underway, albeit quietly. Second, it is not desirable that such a present-day reformation should be focused around a few charismatic authority figures, like Luther and Calvin in the sixteenth century. A key part of what needs to be reformed is our tendency to defer to human authority, our attempt to bring other people under that authority, and our limitation of fellowship to those who submit to that authority. Third, the word “reformation” itself has probably been rendered useless by history, even though it accurately expresses the literal “re-forming” that needs to take place. For that reason, in this article I am going to refer to it as a “redefinition”.
It should also be clear that one of the main things that was wrong about the Reformation of the sixteenth century, with its long, continuing aftermath, was the drawing up of quasi-comprehensive, inflexible statements of belief, and the limitation of fellowship to those who subscribed to those statements. Human fellowship must be based on shared humanity. There should be no other condition.
Thus, in attempting to draw up a relatively short list of principles that could be useful in the redefinition of what it means to be a Christian, it should be understood that the list is only useful if it is not seen as authoritative. Although it may be my own attempt at envisioning a “mere Christianity”, it’s clear that if anyone else were to attempt their own list, they would most likely want to include either a good deal more, or a good deal less. With that being said, I’m going to enunciate twelve non-binding principles, six epistemological and six metaphysical, and then briefly explain what I mean by each one.
My list of principles
- Metaphysical reality is amenable to rational thought.
- The search for truth is for the sake of the discovery of truth.
- Discovered truth should always be held in such as way as to enable further discovery.
- The discovery of truth should not be limited by an external verbal authority.
- We should always remain open to learning from other people.
- Fellowship should be based on shared humanity, not on shared beliefs.
- The fellowship within the Trinity is the source of all reality.
- All people are children of God by their origin in him.
- God cannot lose even one of his children.
- God’s unconditional mercy extends equally to everyone.
- Our human purpose is simply to know God’s love and creatively express it.
- Jesus shares our humanity to help us learn the fellowship of the Trinity.
Explanation, Part I
These principles were developed in the belief that how we handle knowledge is just as important as what knowledge we handle. A healthy epistemology is essential to a healthy Christianity. With that being said, I want to explain a little bit about why I chose to include these specific principles.
- “Metaphysical reality is amenable to rational thought.” I would call this the Principle of Intelligibility. It is useless to talk about a search for truth unless you believe that truth can be discovered, that is, that the universe is intelligible. This is as important for theology as it is for science. It does not mean that truth is limited to what can be discovered by the scientific method, any more than it is to be limited to a revealed canon of Scripture. Empirical methods and intuition both have their place in the discovery of truth.
- “The search for truth is for the sake of the discovery of truth.” This one is difficult to name, but I might call it the Principle of Heuristic Purpose. I included this principle because it is possible, in shaking off external constraints on the search for truth, to forget that our search is not an end in itself: it is meant to be rewarded. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s opinion to the contrary seems to me to be based on a key misunderstanding of truth. Lessing said, “If God held all truth in His right hand, and in His left the ever-living desire for truth, although with the condition that I should remain in error for ever, and if He said to me ‘Choose,’ I should humbly incline towards His left, and say, ‘Father, give; pure truth is for Thee alone.'” If Lessing had truly grasped how rich and multidimensional pure truth is, or how different it is from the barren system-building of the philosophy and theology with which he was familiar, I don’t think he could have imagined that knowledge was a dead end. See the next few principles for what I see as the proper safeguards against the arrogant possession of knowledge.
- “Discovered truth should always be held in such as way as to enable further discovery.” I would call this the Principle of Epistemic Flexibility. It is fine to delight in the vision of the truth that you can see, as long as you do not allow that vision to harden into a structure that does not permit growth or revision. We must understand that our knowledge is never final. (Here is the element of truth in what Lessing was saying.) This means we should always give ourselves the room to make new discoveries, even if these significantly revise our existing worldview. This means not becoming so invested in our opinions that we allow them to define us.
- “The discovery of truth should not be limited by an external verbal authority.” I would call this the Principle of Epistemic Freedom. I do not think that the Bible itself is the problem with contemporary Christianity, but I do think that how Christians handle the Bible is a key problem with it. It is fine to approach the Bible as a sacred text. It is fine to love it, revere it, prefer it to other texts as a repository of wisdom. What I think must stop, however, is the assumption that it is necessary to believe that the Bible is inerrant in order to be a good Christian, the assumption that only what is “biblical” is true, and the assumption that what is or is not “biblical” can be objectively determined. These assumptions, as central as they may seem to be, at least to Protestant Christianity, are a large part of what distorts it. Sola Scriptura must go. God does not need to regulate us by means of a book; he has the Holy Spirit for that. Our elevation of the Book is an abdication of our responsibility for learning to an external human authority–the authority of whomever we feel correctly interprets it. The only reason to do this is the fear of going wrong (and being punished for it), which makes it a false step from the start.
- “We should always remain open to learning from other people.” I could call this the Principle of Mutual Learning. It is needed to balance the assertion of individual freedom contained in the last principle. We should not limit truth to what is contained in one book, but we should also not limit it to what we can discover on our own. We ourselves are not the authority or measuring stick for truth any more than an external verbal codification is. We should always assume that we have a great deal to learn from each new human being we encounter. There is no reason to impose arbitrary limits on this learning because of how differently they think from the way that we do.
- “Fellowship should be based on shared humanity, not on shared beliefs.” I could call this the Principle of Liberality. It is, of course, closely related to the preceding principle. It is also a bridge between the epistemological principles and the metaphysical ones. Metaphysically, it recognizes that we are inescapably a part of each other because of our common origin in God. This is the ground of our fellowship with each other. Epistemologically, it recognizes that if our knowledge is never final, and error not the final catastrophe, if our opinions do not define us as people, if truth is not only in the Bible, nor only in ourselves, but, on the contrary, every person contributes to our own understanding, then our own understanding of the truth should not make a barrier between ourselves and other people.
My hope is that if we are doing theology in a healthy way, we will get healthy results. In my understanding, this open, yet purposeful stance toward truth is necessary for us to learn together, without repeating the disastrous harm and injustice perpetrated by past theological movements. Now, of course, we move to statements about God and his relation to us. These I have kept deliberately vague and open, although unabashedly universalist.
Explanation, Part II
- “The fellowship within the Trinity is the source of all reality.” I could call this the Principle of Trinitarian Origins. I don’t think that we limit our fellowship to those who believe in the Trinity, but I do think that you don’t really have Christianity without the Trinity. The idea that the One God is a community within himself (with the full acknowledgment of the trouble with the masculine pronoun) lays a distinctive, rich foundation for understanding what love is, and what our place is in the universe. It is this love that gives rise to creation–in whatever way we understand creation to have taken place.
- “All people are children of God by their origin in him.” I would call this the Principle of the Universal Fatherhood (Parenthood?) of God. We do not become children of God by believing the right things about Jesus. We are children of God because God has given us being–the closest, most intimate possible existential relationship is between Giver of Being and Receiver of Being. This relationship has no conditions, and cannot be undone. The moral standing of Christianity cannot be restored without universalism. We are not the People of God in distinction from other people.
- “God cannot lose even one of his children.” I would call this the Principle of Conservation of Personhood. It is a corollary of the preceding principle. The children who come from God’s heart are not dispensable, nor disposable. There is no way to justify God, no theodicy, if God creates that which he is not able to rescue and preserve. Human freedom is real, indispensable, and precious, but cannot be absolute. Only love is absolute. God allows us to choose, but he does not allow us finally to destroy ourselves, because that is not love. He knows that we do not understand what we are doing well enough to be forever condemned by our ignorant choices.
- “God’s unconditional mercy extends equally to everyone.” I would call this the Principle of Universal Reconciliation. It deliberately does not specify the means of salvation, only that what is free to us is free to everyone without exception. And it is free–our lives are defined by the endless, overwhelming gift of himself that God makes to us, and this gift washes away and overcomes all evil. Yes, we have a participation in it, but it is not necessary to nail down how this participation happens in order to define what we mean by Christianity.
- “Our human purpose is simply to know God’s love and creatively express it.” I would call this the Principle of Human Entelechy. We do have a purpose. It is open and free: to delight in God, and to be his delight–to be what he made us and what he is making us, through our free participation with him. As the creative offspring of the creative God, we express in countless creative ways the love God has planted in us, toward each other and toward the whole universe. Our participation can be as simple as our Yes to his delight in us.
- “Jesus shares our humanity to help us learn the fellowship of the Trinity.” I would call this the Principle of the Universal Brotherhood of Jesus. Again, we should not limit our fellowship to those who accept Jesus as their “personal Savior”, but we don’t have anything that we could call Christianity without Jesus at the center of it. The wording deliberately does not go into the details (important as they may be) of the incarnation, ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, glorification, or return of Jesus. It simply says that Christians have found that Jesus is a part of the Trinity, that he is also fully human, and that he has an essential role to play in bringing us into the joyful, eternal fellowship of the Trinity that is our ultimate purpose.
Is this not saying enough? Is it saying too much? Is it too much in some areas, and not enough in others? Such a list must be open to endless criticism. If I still even felt it wise to make a list like this five years from now, it might not look the same. (See Epistemological Principle #3!) The only reason I make it at all is to help myself think about what I am thinking. If anyone else finds it helpful, I hope it will not be as prescriptive, but as a way of talking with each other about what we are thinking. I think it critical that we redefine what it means to be a Christian, in a way that is compatible with the best moral sense we can agree on as human beings. If we can do this, then Christianity will have a great deal to contribute to the good of humanity, and to the good of the planet we share with so many other beings.