Are Christian Beliefs Uniquely Grounded in History?
The idea of Christianity as unique (and “true”) because it alone, among religions, is grounded in historically verifiable events is still a common view.
I say “still” in that this belief has steadily lost ground over the last 2 1/2 centuries or so.
Why? Most everyone knows, in general terms, but more specifically, this: study of the Bible via the “historical critical” method, mainly in universities and seminaries.
Now traditional Christians, to varying degrees discount findings from this approach because it was/is thought to be driven by extreme skepticism, “humanism,” or even atheism. For the most part, this is wrong. Most early humanists were Christians (despite a few notable exceptions). Eighteenth and 19th century “historical-critical” scholars were almost all committed churchmen (virtually none were women until the 20th century). A desire to understand the Bible in greater depth drove them.
Yes, they were indeed influenced by philosophy and emerging science; however, most philosophers and scientists in early historical-critical days were sincere Christians themselves. And the major attention and loyalties of Bible scholars remained with the Church and the Bible as a spiritual guide. The trend of over a century, by the late 1800s, alarmed enough church leaders that a reaction against “modernism” began… a concerted new effort to combat conclusions of biblical scholarship and a renewed push toward the long-held face-value-acceptance of biblical stories… as generally literal, factual vs. humanly religious and partaking as much of mythos as of history.
So here’s the context for this blog post:
My own background for about 27 adult years was deeply in the just-described kind of defense of the Bible as historical, with key events (especially around Jesus) as verifiable. My own ever-deeper study of the Bible and theology, and related subjects of science (esp. psychology, anthropology, history) eventually led me to a more nuanced, realistic view of it, with a concurrent inner relief (despite many positives of experience in my earlier faith) and spiritual maturing. I now try to share some of my hard-gained insights with both Christians and non-Christians (the latter I don’t care to “convert” but to educate, as they often have hatreds and act uncivilly, driven by misinformation, just as many Christians operate on misinformation and flawed assumptions). This desire and personal curiosity has me reading Christian blogs of widely varying types. Sometimes I interact and sometimes challenge (civilly, which I consider important). The initial core of what follows is a slight modification (for this context) of a comment I made in reply to the basic contention I’ve described in the opening here: the unique historical basis of Christianity.
My slightly modified remarks:
As you said yourself, even if Christianity is unique in terms of basing itself largely on events claimed to be historical and able to be validated (according to orthodoxy), that does not make it “true” or valid. I’m not being merely “postmodern” when I say that the truth of Christianity, to me, lies elsewhere than in whether we can historically verify that a supernatural resurrection happened to Jesus. (Again, Process is my main model/guide… something more serious about the range of spiritual experiences in the Bible than is classical “liberalism,” while more regarding of literary and historical analysis of the Bible than is Evangelicalism.)
I’m no longer convinced nor can I find any solid evidence (though I used to hold your position) that encountering a bodily-resurrected Jesus up close, touching him, seeing him eat and such was the kind of experience that enabled the transformation of dejected, defeated disciples. I’m as certain as I allow myself about anything that Paul, for example, was transformed by a visionary and revelatory set of experiences with Jesus, in his belief, and subsequently laid out much of the theology Christians hold to today. Neither he nor Luke (in Acts) claims he encountered anything other than what could be called the spirit of Jesus, though he was taken as quite real, not as we think of a ghost. (Not making too much of this alone, but in II Corinthians Paul says Christ IS the Spirit.)
Now, going just briefly further, Paul’s “gospel” (“my gospel,” as he says) differs, at LEAST in emphasis (I’d say in content as well, pretty clearly) from that of those who not only learned under the earthly Jesus, but supposedly were taught further by him for 40 days after the resurrection. In other words, even with resurrection appearances taken as real, basically valid (though seriously confused in differing accounts), they significantly do not demonstrate that the beliefs of the earliest Christians all came either directly from Jesus or from the Holy Spirit in the “Apostolic age.” On this key point it certainly appears that Christianity, though a wonderful breakthrough in some respects, developed in basically the same way other religions tend to.
More than one of the many ways of understanding who Jesus was (or is), besides the “second person of the trinity” who was supernaturally raised, can potentially account for why his followers persisted and multiplied, unlike those of similar Jewish messianic figures of that time and place. But much also owes to Paul and the break-out to Gentiles he and others stimulated.
On my next post, in the next few days, I will add several related things for my broader audience.