Distinctiveness of Christianity

Christianity makes a big thing of being counter-cultural, but when the rubber hits the road, how much does it actually differ from the culture it claims to run counter to? I grew up understanding the sum total of Christian Morality to be a sort of middle-class respectability and politeness, and I’ve seen little since then to suggest that it’s much deeper than that. There’s variation depending on your location and flavour of church, and those different flavours will often disagree with each other, but the result always seems to be a sort of institutionalised, co-opted secular morality, reflecting the dominant culture of church members rather than an objective standard.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the church often seems to lag a long way behind general cultural trends in the morality stakes. A couple of current examples are homosexuality and the role of women. The wider population largely got over these some time ago, and is now waiting impatiently for the church to catch up. That isn’t necessarily an indication that the church is doing anything wrong – it could be argued that it’s holding to moral principles in the face of a hostile culture – but given that the church is in fact moving towards the centre ground of popular opinion, albeit with glacial slowness, it looks far more like the church really is following at its own pace, rather than leading.

Maybe that’s not entirely fair. I’ve said before that the weakness of the church is that it’s run by people, and maybe it’s lost its way a bit over time, so what about the foundation of the church? There’s plenty in the New Testament about being different and standing apart from the world, so it was radical and different back then, wasn’t it? No, not really. The epistles suggest that local churches would have a strong flavour of whatever local customs there were (in the port of Corinth, for example, St Paul’s main concerns appear to have related to sexually promiscuous polyglots), so the church doesn’t appear to have been al that distinctive in its early days in the 1st Century.

You could argue that this is a reflection of a movement that was still young and somewhat raw and disorganised, but it never seems to have changed very much. The Letter to Diognetus – the earliest known example of Christian apologetics, dating around the late 2nd Century – appears to confirm Christianity’s conformity to cultural norms, even when trying to show how different and remarkable Christians are:

Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life… With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.

So even by the most positive interpretation of what’s often regarded as the church’s golden age, it appears that Christianity doesn’t offer an alternative to mainstream culture so much as a slight variation. That’s not so terrible, but when it’s cast as distinctively counter-cultural and a source of objective morality (neither claim being particularly rare), it does cast doubt on the honesty and self-awareness of the person making the claim.

Looking at the way the church has worked in the past, the way it’s shifted with culture and changed its position on various issues, I can see it as a plausible result of a lot of people trying to make the world a better place, one step at a time, through careful application of the Golden Rule. What I can’t see is any way it could be the outcome of a huge community in possession of a clear, unambiguous, objective moral code.

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

7 responses to “Distinctiveness of Christianity”

  1. AnotherChristianBlog says :

    You said, “As if that wasn’t bad enough, the church often seems to lag a long way behind general cultural trends in the morality stakes. A couple of current examples are homosexuality and the role of women. The wider population largely got over these some time ago, and is now waiting impatiently for the church to catch up.”

    #1 Doesn’t that fact that the church is opposed to homosexuality an indication of its distinctiveness?

    #2 Just because the “wider population” accepts or rejects a specific moral topic does not make it right or wrong. It is right or wrong weather someone accepts it or not. So, to make the general claim that homosexuality is right because the wider population does is really not a good argument.

    #3 Christians were at the forefront of many social justice issues in the world. On the topic of modern slavery have you ever heard of William Wilberforce? He was a Christian and led the way for the abolition of slavery in England. I would say that is not lagging behind but rather leading the way.

    #4 If you are looking at the roles of women only Christianity can give a balanced approach to that topic. The naturalistic worldview would like to totally eliminate all gender roles but in the end only a woman can give birth and naturally feed a child. Yet, all of the major religions in the world look at women as second hand citizens.

    What is counter-cultural about Christianity?

    God wrapped himself in flesh to redeem his people. He redeems white people, black people, slaves, free, rich, and poor. That is what makes Christianity distinct. The Gospel it self is distinct enough but what is truly distinct is that it doesn’t matter who you are or what you have done. God can still save you.

    Keep Writing,

    Travis (anotherchristianblog.org)

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      I’m not sure you quite understood my argument.

      1. As I argued, the church is drifting slowly towards the general consensus, suggesting that it’s following general cultural trends, albeit about a generation behind.
      2. I’m not arguing that homosexuality, women in leadership or anything else is right or wrong, just observing that the church is being led rather than leading.
      3. I had a little bet with myself that Wilberforce would be mentioned. Looks like I win. Yes, he played a major part in the abolition of slavery, after 1800 years of the church apparently being just fine with the idea. One notable example of a single Christian (not the church as an institution) doing something good isn’t much. And as I said, the dramatic shift over time in what the church considers (im)moral (as with slavery) speaks strongly against the notion of a clear, objective moral standard underlying the religion.
      4. Any evidence for that assertion? You seem to be saying only Christianity’s balanced because everyone else is wrong. And what’s “the naturalistic worldview”, and since when has a single philosophy/understanding/worldview been the only alternative to religion?

      As for the rest, I don’t think it’s entirely relevant to my argument. So the church believes some distinctive things – fine. But culturally, it’s done a very good job of fitting in with everyone else, with a few tweaks here and there. I think my last paragraph sums up my thoughts pretty well – this doesn’t make Christianity untrue necessarily, but it does make me strongly doubt that there’s any clear, objective moral rule at its heart, as some claim.

  2. unkleE says :

    “What I can’t see is any way it could be the outcome of a huge community in possession of a clear, unambiguous, objective moral code.”

    I wonder what you are expecting of a “moral code”? When Jesus was asked about the moral code, he gave a very simple answer – (in summary) love God, love your neighbour.

    Not long before Jesus there was a famous Jewish rabbi, Hillel, who was once asked to summarise the law, and he said: “Do not unto your neighbor what you would not have him do until you; this is the whole Law; the rest is commentary.” Jesus several times agreed with statements by Hillel, and it is clear that his summary is a positive version of Hillel’s.

    And I think Jesus would have agreed with Hillel’s conclusion too: “The rest is commentary.”

    Many christians (IMO) misunderstand christianity as a long list of do’s and don’ts, but Jesus is clear that the list is very small, but needs to be worked out in each situation.

    I think christianity is indeed in possession of a clear, unambiguous, objective moral code, it’s just not very detailed.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      I think it’s the working out that’s difficult, and what makes the Golden Rule sufficiently ambiguous to have led to so many different interpretations. I quite like it as a rule, but it’s more of a moral algorithm (and even then, a fairly basic one) than a genuine moral code, don’t you think?

      Take gay marriage as an example – should it be permitted because gay people want to be able to marry, or banned because it would be deceitful and lead people into sin to pretend that it was even possible? Either side could plausibly claim to be obeying the Golden Rule.

      • unkleE says :

        I think we need to ask what is the purpose of a moral code.

        One possible purpose is to do our thinking for us, perhaps even to force us to live morally. That is a legalistic approach, and it may be Ok for forcing conformity, but I don’t think it is very helpful in getting voluntary acceptance and a growth in a person’s ethical sense.

        There’s a story of a schoolboy who stood up in class and refused to sit down despite repeated requests from the teacher. Finally the teacher said if he didn’t sit down he would be sent to the Principal. Under this threat, the bot sat down, but said: “I’m sitting down on the outside, but inside I’m still standing up.”

        Rules don’t win hearts and minds. And they are not flexible either, so cannot easily adapt to changing situations. Some of the laws recorded in the Old Testament were very relevant at the time, but quite irrelevant today.

        So I think God’s purpose is to see us mature as ethical beings. We start as ethical babies, and need very close guarding and guiding, but as we grow, we need principles rather than rules. So Jesus says the law can be summed up as “Love God, love neighbour” and Paul can say anything not done in faith is sin. Simple principles rather than detailed rules is the ideal, and we mature ethically by working out how to apply them.

        Of course society needs to codify laws, for the sake of safety and good order, but these are pragmatic and will constantly change.

        The disagreement you mention re gay marriage is a case in point. Even if we don’t decide to change laws (I think we probably should) our society needs to change attitudes to gays, and it is in the process of discussion that changed attitudes can appear.

      • Recovering Agnostic says :

        I don’t disagree with any of that, and I like the Golden Rule as a concise instruction, but nevertheless, there are a huge number of Christians who believe (or claim to believe) that the Bible constitutes a specific, detailed list of things you should and shouldn’t do. That’s what I’m arguing against.

        I mean, it would be very nice if that were the case, and any moral dilemma could be solved by looking it up in some sort of index, but that’s plainly not what we have, so any change is incremental and strongly based on the prevailing culture. I think that’s important, because a lot of issues are debated within the church with reference to the historic position (“this has been our belief for 2,000 years, why do you think you know better?”), but that argument only has any great merit if there exists a clear and specific list of “thou shalts/shalt nots”. When it’s a question of working out for yourself the most loving thing to do in a given situation at a given time, other people’s opinions in different cultures and places at different times aren’t hugely relevant.

  3. unkleE says :

    Since we agreed here, there is little more to say. : )

    I think God has “brought up” the human race in a similar way in which good parents bring up children. Parents start with simple do’s and don’ts, gradually increase the explanations, then start to relax the rules and offer opportunities for freedom of choice and responsibility, then finally the children (by then grown up) start to make their own decisions and live their own lives.

    Now I don’t think we can ever live our lives apart from God, but I think the situation is analogous. Unfortunately, some christians are still living in the age of rules (the Old Testament) when they should be in the age of grace and the Spirit (the New Testament).

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