Is Christianity a Philosophy, a Moral System, a Way to Salvation or What??
Maybe Christianity is more akin to a “natural spirituality” than many of us, myself included, have thought! If it can properly be considered a philosophy, either a “philosophy of life” for an individual or a more developed and formal philosophy, then this would be the case. When I started this blog about 5 years ago, I was in a transitional mode as to my own Christian identity and involvement. BTW, I’m not done transitioning (or growing). About 2 or 3 years ago, after a several-year period only observing and studying further about Christianity and the Bible (on top of many years of formal and informal Christian education and teaching I did), I decided to affiliate actively again with Christian causes and communities… of the “Progressive” type this time. (This is to be distinguished from “oldline” Liberal, and importantly so for me.) The earlier form of progressiveness (“liberal” Christianity) was overly naturalistic and socially oriented at the expense of an adequate inner and personal focus. It also was too accepting of “material-only” science. One result of this: All forms of spiritual experiences and phenomena tended to be either discounted or labeled as merely psychological.
So around 5 years ago, prior to my gravitating slowly back to owning a Christian “label” again, I’d decided on a blog title and a focus that could be considered “spiritual but not religious”. Thus, “Natural Spirituality”. (My “position” was then and is now represented perhaps best by what is called “process theology”. It is within the broad Christian tradition, though often not considered orthodox. The broader “process philosophy” can take Christian or other forms.)
So again, not much has changed in my thinking since 5 years ago, except the decision that it is a good thing, for others and for me, to fellowship and work with the more progressive and open of Christians. In this, I seek to be a friend of all Christians as well as “SNRs” and “unbelievers” of all types. I do see spirituality and spiritual pursuits as broader than those of any religious system or tradition.
Now, what about a moral system? Is Christianity, most importantly, a guide and inspiration toward moral behavior and a moral society? Many Fundamentalists and Evangelicals (there are differences along with many overlaps) seem to act as though this is the case, although they might tell you that it is primarily about a “personal relationship with God” (or Christ). They would quickly add that this relationship, via Christian faith, is necessary for salvation, which gets us to the third option I listed: a way of salvation.
For this post, I’m going to focus primarily on the first option: a philosophy.
To keep this article relatively short, I will cite just two examples of highly influential and very early (Common Era) Jewish and Christian authors. We’ll mostly just note that each presented Judaism and Christianity, respectively and at least in part, as philosophies.
The first is Josephus, the Jewish historian of the period of the Jewish-Roman War (ending, except for Masada, in 70 A.D./C.E with the destruction of Jerusalem). He was clearly a contemporary of our second example, Luke. The possible relationship between their works, of roughly the same time, is uncertain. I lean to believing that Luke drew directly, though mostly in details, from Josephus’ histories (in two major works, the later completed about 93-94). The broader sense of “borrowing” Josephus’ general method and purpose makes good sense in terms of our subject, as you’ll see. If they are both fully independent authors, some similarities are still interesting and important.
Now Josephus is a significant author mainly because he is the only person to document the long, horrendous and history-changing 66-70 war centering, in final stages, on Jerusalem. But his work is broader and influential for its historical data and its consistently positive presentation of Jewish life, culture and religion overall (with the important exception of his blaming a supposed small minority of his own people, fanatics, for managing to foment an ill-advised and disastrous revolution). Now, in saying he defends Jewish religion, it is not that he has entirely equated it with a philosophy in the secular sense of either his day or ours. (Philosophies then, like now, spoke of God some but more specifically and fully about the nature of life, living life well and with virtue, good morals, etc.)
In order to keep this relatively short and uncomplicated, let me share a pertinent scholar’s words (Steve Mason in Josephus and the New Testament) regarding Josephus’ important point of making Judaism appear like a philosophy, rather than a potentially threatening or competing religion to Roman rulers and elites (Josephus wrote under the patronage of the empire):
Josephus explicitly compares the Pharisees to Stoics and the Essenes to Pythagoreans; he insinuates that the Sadducees are Jewish equivalents of the Epicureans. His bid to make Judaism a philosophy is already implicit in War, but it is fully developed in Antiquities and Against Apion. (p. 215)
I should add here that outside observers in the Roman Empire also tended to sometimes think of Judaism as a philosophy already, in that it lacked most of the key markers of pagan and Roman religions, particularly outside of Jerusalem, the only site for performance of animal sacrifices until the destruction of the Temple in 70, when they ended there as well.
Luke is the presumed author of both the Gospel of Luke and The Acts of the Apostles. The latter is the single most influential book in the picture of early Christianity that became “standard” within a century or two and has continued so for almost two millennia for most orthodox believers. Actually, it is the only record of its kind covering the first 3 decades of Jesus-following (whether “Christian” or still Jewish) and early Christianity.
As an ancient “historian” (often not paralleling current ones), Luke faced a similar task for Christians that Josephus had for Jews. (I say “had” in that I believe Luke was written slightly after Josephus’ works, or perhaps just before their completion, but with Luke having at least exposure to the bulk of it, from where he seems to have gotten material). Both authors faced similar situations and challenges:
Josephus to reassure Romans that Jews and Judaism were loyal to Rome, highly moral and culturally respectable, with the rebels of the recent war having been exceptions;
Luke to reassure Romans that Christians were tied to the lofty heritage of Judaism and that they, also, were not a threat to Roman governance and were to be respected, did not represent a “superstition” (at least one Roman official of the general period used this term), etc.
Much else could be said about Luke’s interest in and case for budding Christianity being a philosophy, but I will cite just one example, perhaps the most memorable one to readers of the New Testament or students of history. That is his representation of Paul’s appearance in the great philosophical city of Athens (Acts 17). Luke carefully crafts a speech which Paul supposedly gave (and Paul may have indeed spoken similarly), in much the same way he does repeatedly for Peter and other characters in Acts. (This is one of the more credible settings and sets of words among some high-flying “impromptu” speeches.)
Prior to the speech, Paul encounters Stoics and Epicureans. They are intrigued and invite him to the Aerogapus. There Paul introduces them to the Greeks’ “unknown god” he has seen referred to in an inscription. He quotes from their “own poets” as to being offspring of God and that “‘in him we live and move and have our being'” (17: 23, 28).
The point of citing this is to give a flavor of Luke’s interest in making the still-very-new Christian beliefs appear on a par with (and to go beyond, of course) the philosophical sophistication of Greece and the prior moral, ethical monotheism of Judaism. Luke surely is not trying to say Christian faith is merely a philosophy but that is in the same general category and has that kind of respectability. It is as compatible with stable government as are the Roman, Greek and Jewish philosophies. (If he were to tie Christianity too closely to Judaism it might be harder to make his indirect, between-the-lines case that the Romans need not fear Christians taking up arms as had so many of the Jews just a couple decades prior. Incidentally, Luke’s Gospel, as well as the other three in our New Testament work with the same task of avoiding the raising of alarm about further rebellion.)
Next time we will look at Christianity as a moral system.