What’s the Point of Christianity?

[Ed. note: Tom has a very busy week, so Mike is filling in with a second post.]

Last Friday, the Chronicle Review published an article by Stephen T. Asma called “The New Atheists’ Narrow Worldview” (subscription probably required). The title intrigued me greatly, though the article itself was not quite what I expected. Asma argues that the New Atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, et al.) focus too much on arguments against Christianity and fail to engage non-Western religions, especially animism. That’s probably true. Asma then raises an excellent point that I wish he had developed further with regard to Western religions:

Harris and his colleagues think that religion is mostly concerned with two jobs — explain­ing nature and guiding morality…The horse­men’s mis­take is not their claim that science can guide morality. Rather, they’re wrong in imagining that the primary job of religion is morality. Like cosmology, ethics is barely relevant in non-Western religions. It is certainly not the main function or lure of devotional life. Science could take over the “morality job” tomorrow in the developing world, and very few religious practitioners would even notice. (emphasis added)

As a lay student of world religions, I think Asma overstates his case regarding animism and understates his case regarding Christianity. But his central point is correct, I believe: the primary goals of religion are not explaining cosmology and encouraging morality. At least, this is the case with Christianity. The Bible proclaims God is Creator as the foundation of its message, not the conclusion. While moral standards are an important part of the Bible’s message, they’re hardly the focus. (If you don’t know what I mean, read Romans. Or Galatians. Or Hebrews. Or Job. Or the Psalms. Or — well, you get my point.)

I’ve got my own ideas on this question, but let’s hear yours first. Bonus points for providing references.

What’s the point of Christianity? To borrow Asma’s language, what’s the primary job, lure, or main function of the Christian life?

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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4 Comments

  • jbw7@comcast.net'
    Joe Whitchurch commented on January 31, 2011 Reply

    Mr. Asma raises an intriguing critique, though I only read the short above. Missiologists once referred to it as ‘the missing middle’, perhaps one could call it Christianity appearing as ‘methodologically pragmatic deists’.

    Micheal’s reading exhortation is corrective but look at the chatter and talking points. Lots of stuff on ethics with social justice or cosmology with big bang. It seems to me that ‘God sightings’, power encounters, praying with the expectation of answers outside of mere cause/effect, interpretive providences, healings, etc are not-so common place in evangelical conversations.

    Even the creeds while recited are often understood and exegeted through a deist grid. Big bang and why do we need more, it somehow optimistically all pans out in the end eschatology, and atonement as sacrificial love demonstrating social justice avoiding the controversial issues of angst with sin and God’s righteous wrath.

    Where IS the Living God? I don’t think Mr. Asma will find God in animism though he might find some fear and a little awe. From the short above, I think he raises a VERY interesting critique and perhaps question as well.

    • mikehickerson@gmail.com'
      Micheal Hickerson commented on February 1, 2011 Reply

      Excellent points, Joe. I just read this essay by David Bentley Hart yesterday which touched on how the New Atheists regularly attack Deism when they think they are attacking Christianity.

  • jbw7@comcast.net'
    Joe Whitchurch commented on January 31, 2011 Reply

    I was at a brown bag lunch discussion with four PRC grad student agnostics or atheists, an African grad student who was iffy about his Catholic childhood influences and more of a syncretist animist, and a VERY open-minded grad student from India who said if she had to choose, she’d be Hindu and well..she was choosing.. just last week. It took place at a Big Ten University.

    The topic, cosmology. The approach, the Kalam argument for the existence of God. The universe had a beginning, the big bang gets near universal scientific approval, and all that follows from the Kalam argument, e.g. theism with some defining characteristics. It seemed that the gotcha of the logic was intriguing to the mind and even somewhat compelling but the desire for mystery that transcended a merely cause/effect universe beginning and line of argument forward, assuming all cause/effect was not as satisfying to the participants nor as persuasive. And I empathized.

    The Jesus narrative was introduced but I wondered if a connection between creation and resurrection with, what about today, was missing. I do not think we should try to escape reason and rationality but I’m pretty confident rationalism (ok, modernity and hyper-modern post-modernity) isn’t getting the full story either. We do live in a well ordered universe and I even buy the Kalam argument. But not too dissimilar to Mr Asma whose article I have now skimmed, discovering I did not HAVE to be a subscriber to do so, I DO believe in angels, demons, spiritual gifts, and miracles.

    Some of what people think they are rejecting about Christianity ‘methodological deism’ I too reject. Back to Micheal’s corrective, biblical worldview readings. Now…tell me…how does this intersect with YOUR life. John 9:24-34

  • jbw7@comcast.net'
    Joe Whitchurch commented on February 2, 2011 Reply

    From another quick, late night skim, I enjoyed this ‘First Things’ essay also, Micheal. Thanks for it. I’ve not read the new atheists nearly as widely a DBH. I did notice he too saw a rejection of deism. He has a funny, edgy sense of humor. The missing major premise lists in response to CH was a riot. Thanks for your reply.

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