Why Christianity is Not Understood

"There are many reasons why Christ's teaching is not understood...

But the principle reason, which is the source of all the other mistaken ideas about it, is the notion that Christianity is a doctrine which can be accepted or rejected without any change of life."

--Leo Tolstoy

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29 thoughts on “Why Christianity is Not Understood”

  1. Amen. From the perspective of the first intercultural mission, I think something was lost in the translation of emunah, the Hebrew concept of faith, into Greek. In the letters, you see Peter and James and Paul all trying to explain to a Greek-speaking audience how emunah is not like pistis, where pistis is understood in the rhetorical way that a lot of Greeks understood it. Still, I think this goes much deeper than translation. We keep deciding that Jesus wanted pistis, in the sense of 'being convinced by an argument', because we don't want him to be able to ask for our emunah.

  2. Leo Tolstoy is probably right. . . it just seems that most "Christians" in History have not rally bothered to follow the ethics of Christ. I know that critics will just accuse me of regurgitating the no true Scotsman fallacy.. but honestly, if you read the behavioral/social teachings of Jesus can we honestly say that most of the christian world has done anything near live up to them?

  3. The no true Scotsman fallacy doesn't work here, for so many reasons. But you're right, some people would bring it up. I think the misapplication of the no true Scotsman fallacy needs its own special name, since it happens so much. I'd vote for calling it the "Scotsmen are leprechauns" fallacy.

  4. Slightly OT.. I've noticed this trend on the internet quite a bit. Folks seem very keen to label a "fallacy" as soon as they think they see one. The assumption I guess, is that if you just name-it.. it goes away (sounds like some versions of charismatic "spiritual warfare"...)

    My favorite is the "double godwin". This occurs when you make a very valid comparison to Nazism. The objector then says "Godwin!" without realising that this has done nothing to assist the discussion.

    Maybe whole fallacy-fallacy needs its own name? The Phallissy? .. ;)

    Sorry for bringing the tone down a few notches Richard....

  5. I've called that 'fallacy fallacy' the classification fallacy, but that isn't nearly as fun, and doesn't capture the infinite regress of accusation that is lurking beneath the surface. Maybe the real underlying issue is a disposition and not a fallacy at all. I will dub that the "Lord grant that I may not seek to understand, so much as to be understood fallacy which isn't a fallacy but an intellectually unvirtuous disposition." It is routinely abbreviated as the lgtimnstusmatbufwinafbaiud non-fallacy. To make a futile but earnest attempt to link this back to the OP, maybe what we need are generous dispositions and ways of interacting, instead of an ever-expanding list of psuedo-intellectual arguments and gotcha' lines. But jokingly expanding the fallacy index might be a good way to point us back to that...

  6. I joke all the time that I've never actually met a Christian. Or I'll joke that there are, like, three Christians in the world today.

    For myself, I think of myself as someone who is trying to become a Christian. And I do think that developmental frame helps here. That is, the more you become like Jesus the more you understand, the more truth is revealed to you. Knowledge and praxis here go hand in hand. You know what you do, not what you think.

  7. There are, in my opinion, fundamental flaws in what we call the Gospel. I began teaching our Senior women's class the other day, 10 or so women in their 70's, and the lesson was on judgment. I asked them what they thought about when they thought about judgment and the first answer I got was that when she stood before God that she was good enough to let into heaven. I completely destructed that myth and this group of women were smiling from ear to ear when we finished. I could physically feel a wash of relief come over the group. I'm a fifty year old man, by the way. We really need to get at the root of the problem of American Southern Christianity. The Emperor is naked.

  8. This is true. However, this itself is easy to misunderstand. It's easy to go from rationalized Christianity to moralized Christianity. As Paul Tillich was so fond of pointing out, faith includes the intellectual, volitional, and affective dimensions of humanity, but it can be identified with none of these without losing itself. And that's another reason that Christianity (as faith) is not understood.

  9. I have appreciated what Peter Rollins says on this, which is essentially that I can may aspire to be a follower of Jesus, a Christian, but whether I succeed or not, whether I truly am Christlike, I can only know by asking my neighbor, or more importantly, my enemy.

  10. Or we could call it skepticism. ; )

    Yours does have a certain ring to it though!

    It all seriousness though, I think that the heart of this disposition is the unwillingness to open one's self to seeing things from a new perspective. It is the fear that to say that another's view has something yo offer means that my own tenuous grasp on control over my world is threatened. The cure, of course, I to come to a place where one really truly knows, in the heart rather than in the head, that it is not my grasping that offers security, but the fact that I am being upheld by another who will continue to do so no matter what I believe with my head.

  11. I recently read a super post at The Evangelical Liberal entitled Why I am not a Christian which speaks to this so very well http://evangelicaliberal.wordpress.com/2013/10/29/i-am-not-a-christian/. I think you might relate to some if his points, Richard. I sure did.

  12. Nietzsche: "The last Christian died on the cross..." Is there a quote more amenable to alternative interpretation?

  13. Yes, there needs to be balance. I then to think of it as an ordering, getting first things first. Here's an oversimplified sketch of how I see things:

    Orthodpraxy leading to Orthopathy leading to Orthodoxy.

    Practice ---> Affection ---> Belief

  14. From a developmental perspective, that does seems to make the most sense, roughly speaking.

    We might think of practice as more than a mere "doing." Practice could be thought of as the whole environment of relations from which affect and cognition take flight. Screw up that initial environment that gives shape to our meanings and the "ortho" drops off of pathy and doxy as well.

  15. I wasn't quoting anyone in particular, but Rollins says similar things and the idea has been around a long long time. I grew up hearing similar things from my Dad.

    In the 14th century an unidentified Christian mystic wrote a book called "The Cloud of Unknowing." This is the earliest use of the term in Christian context in English that I know of, but I haven't studied it or anything.

    Really though, it's in the Bible!

    Matthew 11:25-27 (NLT)
    25 At that time Jesus prayed this prayer: “O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, thank you for hiding these things from those who think themselves wise and clever, and for revealing them to the childlike. 26 Yes, Father, it pleased you to do it this way!

    27 “My Father has entrusted everything to me. No one truly knows the Son except the Father, and no one truly knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

    28 Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”

    My dad has always been fond of explaining this passage saying that a young inexperienced, unbroken ox is yoked by the neck together with a sturdy experienced ox. He can rebel and thrash around all he wants and the older ox is unperturbed and just keeps plodding forward patiently. Peace comes for the young ox when he learns to rest under the yolk of the older ox. The yoke will feel like a heavy, restrictive burden to one who is tugging against it or running from it, but to humbly keep in step is to find peace.

    This is not a popular notion today to say the least. It is misunderstood because we assume that freedom is the ability to do whatever we want, when true freedom is in the peace that comes with doing what we are made to do.

  16. I've read "The Cloud of Unknowing," and was appropriately bewildered. But I gleaned enough to know that it tracks with the Biblical passages you cite.
    Thanks for the help!

  17. Haha, well, you did better than I did then. I only tried to read it and was definitely bewildered. I keep meaning to find a more modern translation and give it another go. It's one of my dad's favorites (along with St. John of the Cross's books) so I've heard a lot from him.

  18. The struggle for me is integrity in practice. When I feel alone, like God's not there or does not care, I begin to have doubts. My intellectual thoughts affect my practice. It feels hypocritical for me to practice without belief, but I must agree that continuing to practice even in the midst of doubt does eventually seem to produce belief again. I guess "fake it, til you make it" contains an element of truth?

  19. Hi Kevin, I'm sort of cool to the whole "fake it, til you make it" notion when it comes to faith. I think the key thing to search for isn't something beyond the practices but the practices themselves. That is, the goal is to find the practices as intrinsically rewarding rather than something you do expecting something to change or pay off in the future.

    For example, I was thinking about prayer this morning on my bike ride to work. The description of prayer that came to my mind was this: prayer is an embodied practice of reverence. Prayer teaches me how to treat things as sacred. And if I neglect prayer what do I have? Just the ways our consumeristic culture shapes us, where nothing is sacred, where nothing is reverenced and everything is monetized by markets. Sure, there are practices of reverencing other than prayer. But prayer is one of them, and if we neglect it we'll be deeply impoverished as human beings. There is nothing to be doubted about or hoped for in any of this. The practice is the reward.

  20. Beautifully put. I'm hearing Alasdair MacIntyre's account of "goods internal to a practice" which he later came to as an instance of Aquinas' relation of being and good in his 5th question. Engaging in the practice of prayer as you describe it, Richard, has a way of developing a new ontology in us, one in which terms like belief and doubt mean different things than they do in our usual ways of thinking (I'm thinking here of Charles Taylor's suggestion the ontology we live by is an outworking of our moral experience).

  21. Thank you, that's very helpful to me to think about. I don't think I have been considering the practice as the reward, but only as a vehicle to some greater enlightenment or something else. Maybe I could view exercise the same way and stick to it easier.

  22. Thinking of Tolstoy... there is a marvelous collection of his short stories...


    The two that go along with your quote: Where Love is... and Three Questions...

    Thanks for the quote.

  23. Richard, I have always had trouble being convinced of the "fake it til you make it" perspective. It seems to me that if I condition myself, I'll be convinced of any thing. Perhaps even a placebo effect? It's almost as if it is a counseling prescription, ie tell your wife you love her fives times a day even if you don't, and perhaps one day you will. What's to say the mind does not convince itself of a spiritual presence regardless of it's there or not? Just something I would like to hear your take on.

  24. It depends upon what we are talking about. In this conversation we are talking about a "fake it until you make it" in regards to a belief in something supernatural. That's a bit of an odd application, faking something to eventually believe in God. Which is why I don't think it applies in this case. Or at least not very well.

    But in other situations "fake it until you make it" makes perfect sense because what is being changed isn't belief but feeling. I act a certain way and then I come to feel a certain way. Here behavior is pulling emotion, rather than metaphysical belief.

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