Christianity viewed as a world religion

The ultimate background for the study of Christianity does not lie merely within Christianity itself either in the sense that it can be isolated from the general fact of religiousness that includes other religions or in the sense that it is purely the concern of theology rather than part of the humanities in general. My contention is that Christianity, Christian faith, and Christian conviction can be seen in a new and more positive light not merely by being placed within a framework of general religiousness and the study of humanity but also by taking note of the work in world religions that has been done in recent years in religious education. Before we attempt to explore the advantages that can be gained by presenting Christianity as a world religion, let us first examine why the teaching of Christianity has been felt to be weak in recent years. One reason is that suitable provision has often not been made for it in many schools. The result is that it has often been inadequately taught. On the one hand the job has been given to enthusiasts anxious to proselytise in the school. Children have tended to feel instinctively that this approach was not appropriate in the school situation; and if they have not reacted in this way members of staff often have done so with the result that religious education has been felt to be an unprofessionally taught subject. On the other hand, in order to ensure that the subject was taught at all Heads have sometimes been reduced to giving the job to people who were not only amateurs but were also without faith. The results were equally unsatisfactory. The situation is now becoming better and faithful bands of teachers are bringing higher standards to bear upon the subject. Religious advisers have been appointed in a number of places and specialist teachers and departments have been set up. New courses have been introduced that are pitched at a high standard (for example the Religious Studies degrees at Edinburgh University). Examinations and certificates in Religious Studies have appeared in schools so that statutory backing is given to the desire of Heads to promote the subject (1).

Another reason is that too much knowledge is sometimes assumed on the part of the students who may be completely ignorant about the basic facts of Christianity. This is sometimes compounded by the fact that some teachers have received a church-type training (for example a Bachelor of Divinity degree) which may be good for work in the church but maybe inadequate to the very different atmosphere and conditions of the school. This does not mean that the church should be ignored in this discussion; but it does mean that Christian education programmes in churches geared for Sunday School work and the like cannot just be repeated in schools where the ethos, methods and aims are different.

Another reason is that Christianity has rarely been seen as a whole. Sometimes the Bible was the focus of attention and the beginnings of Christianity in the first century. It was not necessarily related to modern day questions or to other dimensions of Christianity, nor to notions of what scripture was all about. At other times church history was seen to be equivalent to Christianity so that the lessons became history lessons that omitted crucial aspects of Christianity. At other times theological doctrines have been the crux of the matter and the impression was given that believing certain theological propositions amounted to ‘Christianity’. Occasionally lessons on moral questions predominated so that Christianity was viewed as a system of morals. The difficulty was that Christianity was not seen as a whole. The individual work (say on the Bible) might be done quite well but it was not related to other equally important dimensions.

A fourth reason is that too parochial a view has often been taken of Christianity, either at the denominational or national level. Christianity was presented in terms of a particular church, or it was presented as a western religion rather than a universal one. We are now becoming increasingly aware that if Christianity is to be presented at all it must be in ecumenical terms. We are also becoming aware that Christianity is no longer a western religion alone. Its mission has gone into every part of the world; Christian theology is beginning to be influenced by ‘water-buffalo theology’ or Indian Christian theology or liberation theology or African theology; (2) realisation is dawning that the Secretary of the World Council of Churches has been a West Indian (3) and that the next centre may be in a place outside the West.

A fifth reason relates to the role of critical studies in Christianity. In some cases critical studies (of the Bible, for example) have been ignored altogether and fundamentalist views given. In other cases critical views have been given extensively so that the subject became devoted to literary and historical criticism rather than to the religious significance of Christianity as a humane subject. The point lies not in the critical views themselves, but in what they mean for Christians. The Myth of God Incarnate (4) is not a facet of the first century but of the twentieth century — specifically of a group of liberal Protestants of the twentieth century. If the Myth of God Incarnate issue is mentioned it should be discussed in these terms rather than in terms of ‘this is what Christianity is’.

Sixthly, and related to the reasons given above, it was difficult to promote a real empathy in regard to Christianity. If it was presented in a proselytising way or an ignorant way, if it was presented in a way appropriate to the church but not to the school. If it was presented in a partial way, or in too parochial a way, or in too critical a way, it was difficult to generate warmth or interest. The subject which has a real capacity to generate interest and involvement in that it deals with ultimate questions of meaning, purpose, life vision, and wholeness had become a bore.

It was partly in response to this seeming impasse in presenting Christianity that emphasis has become placed in recent years on the teaching of world religions. The feeling has been growing in certain quarters that the presenting of world religions is right and positive and should not be neglected but that the time has come to place emphasis, thought and vigour into the teaching of Christianity — and the process may be aided and advantages gained by learning from some of the work done in world religions and by seeing Christianity as a world religion. What then may be accomplished by seeing Christianity as a world religion? (5)

In the first place it can be seen as a whole. In a recent conversation with an Edinburgh colleague, Professor William Montgomery Watt, the question arose of what book on Christianity one could recommend to a Muslim student who wished to learn what Christianity was all about. The answer was that no book sprang to mind because there was no book that treated Christianity as a whole. The nearest possibility was the now dated one by Edward Bevan. At the simplest level productions such as Broadberry’s Thinking about Christianity (6) are valuable but are too slender to do more than scratch the surface. Deeper works are presentations of partial aspects of Christianity rather than the whole. Even the recently topical book on The Christians by Bamber Gascoigne (7) is basically a historical presentation rather than an attempt to see Christianity as a whole. The same is true of other works which offer one dimension of a many-dimensioned religion. It is at this point that it becomes instructive to glance at the work done on world religions. Better (although by no means perfect) attempts have been made to present them as a whole. The series entitled The Religious Life of Man published by the Dickenson Publishing Company of Belmont, California, includes books on The Way of the Torah, The House of Islam, Japanese Religion, Chinese Religion, The Buddhist Religion and The Hindu Religious Tradition. (8)

In the space of approximately 150 pages these works manage to convey an impression of Judaism, Islam, Japanese religion, Chinese religion, Hinduism and Buddhism as whole entities. Interestingly enough there is not a title on Christianity. Why is it not possible to present Christianity as a whole? Perhaps we may hazard two suggestions. On the one hand the need has not been obvious before. It is only now, with our global village situation, that Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and others, are becoming interested in the question ‘What is Christianity’? The same is true of our own islands where immigrants from other cultures are asking the same question within the British context. Equally, and perhaps more importantly, there are areas of our western civilisation, especially in inner cities, where the same question is being asked from the same depth of ignorance. And it is often a cry from the heart, a feeling that something of deep value is being lost almost by default. The assumption that everyone born in the West somehow knows what Christianity is remains no longer valid yet it is a widely held assumption. The response to this can only be in terms of a presentation of Christianity in its wholeness rather than in its part or parts. On the other hand, the scholarly work on Christianity has been organised in disciplines which concentrate upon a particular aspect of Christianity. For example, the divinity faculty at Edinburgh (which has a high world reputation in the field) has departments of Ecclesiastical History, Old Testament, New Testament, Systematic Theology, Christian Ethics and Practical Theology. Other Divinity faculties around the world tend to duplicate this pattern.

The danger is that stress becomes placed upon the discipline and its boundaries rather than upon the wholeness of Christianity. The different disciplines come to be seen as ends in their own right rather than as interlocking bricks in the greater Christian structure. Just as universities as a whole have come to stress the different disciplines of sociology, psychology, history, etc, as separate fields of expertise rather than humanity itself in its social, psychological and historical aspects, so that the emphasis has been placed on the discipline as though it were an autonomous meaningful study in itself — so also the study of Christianity has tended to become split into separate compartments as though the compartments meant something in themselves rather than as parts of the whole. If it be argued (as it will be) that there is greater expertise in the study of Christianity than there is in the study of other religions, we may at least partially agree with this and indeed glory in it. It is a clear gain to have 24 people presenting Christianity as opposed to four presenting another religion. Yet if the 24 are freed to specialise in their own smaller fields of expertise, the temptation is to lose sight of the whole in a way that the four who are studying the other religion will not. The study and teaching of Christianity can gain from the work done in other religions by regaining a vision of the wholeness of Christianity. When this has been done the parts can be explored more thoroughly.

In the second place, Christianity can be seen in its worldwide and ecumenical aspect. Studies of world religions have given a picture of all the groups within a particular tradition and of the geographical scope of the whole tradition. This perspective has been virtually taken for granted. Studies of Islam have mentioned the Sunnis and the Shia’s, and all the law schools, studies of Judaism have mentioned Orthodox, Conservative and Reform; studies of Buddhism have mentioned Theravãda, Mahayãna, and Tantra; studies of Hinduism have mentioned popular, Vedanta Bhakti, and modern strands; studies of China have mentioned Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist elements; studies of Japan have mentioned Shinto, Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist groups; and so on. Moreover, the geographical spread of the tradition has been outlined and seen as important. As far as Christianity has been concerned the temptation has been to present a denominational picture. Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant then become not elements within Christianity but foci of attention to the exclusion of other elements in Christianity. The temptation has been to present Christianity as a western religion whereas in fact the mission of the church has gone into every single land of this earth and Christianity is a universal religion. Bishop Stephen Neill asserts that Afghanistan, Tibet, and Nepal are exceptions to this claim and yet Christians do exist there even if missions are theoretically invalid (9).

Indeed not only does Christianity exist throughout the world, it is being deeply affected by developments in non-Western lands. Gandhi’s stress upon simplicity instead of opulence, non-attachment instead of greed, and active non-violence instead of oppression is being filtered by people such as Martin Luther King and his heirs into world Christianity; Latin American Liberation Theology is revealing for other Christians God’s concern for social structures and poverty; Indian Christian practise is transferring a Hindu discipline of interior prayer into world Christian circles; the stress of African churches upon healing, dreams, symbols and visions, often mediated through African primal religions, is producing echoes in the world Christian psyche; water-buffalo theology in Thailand is one among many prods to make Christians take nature and ecology more seriously; Chinese Christians, influenced partly by their Taoist and Confucian heritage, are showing that God, humans and nature are inter-linked; the Korean Christian stress upon religious emotion and Christian society, filtered through the Korean Confucian and Shamanistic tradition, is not un-noticed in the wider Christian world.’ (10)

A stress upon the universal nature of Christianity does not prevent more attention being given to local features, For example in Scotland more attention will obviously be given to the Church of Scotland than to the Orthodox Church; more attention will be given to the influence of Christianity upon western culture and Scottish values and modes of thinking than to African or Indian Christianity or the influence of liberation upon Latin America. Yet the local significance will be presented within the overall picture of ecumenical and universal Christianity.

In the third place Christianity as a world religion can be seen empathetically. The study of other world religions has usually involved the use of what the Germans call einfühlung (empathy), that is to say an imaginative attempt to get inside the worldview of the people concerned in order to see the universe as they see it. The presentation of world religions has dwelt upon their positive rather than their negative aspects. Other religions have not usually employed complicated textual critical methods themselves, neither have strenuous efforts been made to foist upon them methods they did not feel to be relevant. In cases where this has been done, for example McLeod’s book on Guru Nanak, (11) there have been howls of protest from the community involved. In general, traditions have been viewed sympathetically with a view to understanding their religious significance. To be sure, this has not been an easy process. To really understand another religion requires much knowledge as well as sympathy. After four years in India, four years of Sanskrit and three of Hindi and Hindustani, and four years at Harvard completing a doctorate including a specialism in Hinduism, I still wonder how deeply I understand the Hindu view of life. Colleagues will doubtless share my reticence. And yet the will to empathise has been there. When we come to consider the study of Christianity we face the strange paradox that the religion in regard to which empathy should have been most easy has not been accorded the empathy it might have expected. There are a number of reasons for this. Critical tools have sometimes become ends rather than means. Discussion of the authorship of a New Testament work has been given a prominence that should have been given to the religious significance of that work; the geographical date of St Paul’s journeys has received more attention than their significance for Christians. More prosaically much time has been spent on simply recounting biblical stories or church history without seeing their relevance for the people concerned. They have become items of information to be learnt rather than clues to transcendence, to Christian faith, to humanity. By focusing attention on ‘the facts’, critical studies have often taken attention away from the significance of the facts. Another reason has been the stress upon the belief factor in Christianity. It has become almost a commonplace to state that Christians have stressed belief, Jews and Muslims have stressed the Law, and Buddhists and Hindus have stressed religious experience. There is an element of truth in this in that Christians have stressed theology more than others but the pistis of the New Testament and the credo of the medieval church was not so much a believing in intellectual notions but a putting one’s trust in God. (12) Intellectual articulation of Christianity in the form of theology, important as it was, was secondary to the faith that lay behind it. In any case it is difficult to empathise with a set of intellectual formulations! A third reason for lack of empathy towards the teaching of Christianity has been the sometimes unthinking employment of the concept of neutrality and objectivity. This is a complex topic worthy of a book rather than a sentence. Part of the problem is that methods appropriate (and good) for the natural sciences have been applied to the humanities and the social sciences. The stress is thereby laid on outward objects or phenomena which are treated as external data to be analysed objectively and neutrally according to the methods of science. The stress is placed upon the outward data — rituals, institutions, beliefs, ethics, philosophies, churches, scriptures, etc — as though they have a reality in themselves structurally independent of the people (i.e. the Christians) who hold them dear. This method is good for objects; it is not so good for people. One can have empathy for people but not for objects.

Another part of the problem arises from attempts made by Christians to grapple with the question of other religions. A few lines previously we mentioned the word einfühlung which can be translated (although not exactly) as ‘empathy’. This has often been coupled, within the phenomenological method, (13) with the notion of epoché (putting one’s own ideas into brackets in order to understand the position of another). This method has served its purpose in enabling Christians to gain insight into the religious position of others. However, in practice, more stress has been laid upon epoché (negatively putting aside one’s own ideas) than upon einfühlung (empathising deeply with the inwardness of the position of others). Christian understanding of others has too often been at the outward level. At this point our argument links up with the point made previously, namely the stress within science, the social sciences, and even the study of religion upon outward structures and data rather than what these have meant to people themselves. Perhaps semi-consciously the same method has been applied in some quarters to the study of Christianity. Teachers have employed epoché, they have put aside their own convictions for the sake of neutrality and objectivity, but they have not gone on to engage in einfühlung, empathy. Epoche is good for a student or teacher who engages in the exciting occupation of presenting Christianity, for he will bring with him a partial background (for example Methodism) (14) a partial knowledge (for example Sunday School and home), and a partial understanding. By the use of epoché he can gain a full knowledge, a more comprehensive grasp of the data of Christianity, and this is important. And yet just as important is the need to convey an einfühlung for Christianity, to indicate what the Christian data mean to the Christian, to indicate the faith that lies behind the Christian ‘facts’.

It is not impossible that the agnostic or the Muslim may be able to achieve this empathy for Christianity by recognising not just the data of Christianity but what they mean for the Christian. It is more likely that the Christian can achieve empathy for Christianity because he or she brings to it a faith perspective that he or she could not bring in the same way to a study of Hinduism. (15) Nevertheless for methodological reasons this is often not done. There are other reasons too for lack of empathy in the conveying of Christianity, for example, an ignorance of the subject that affects morale, and a naive proselytising that displays lack of empathy for the hearers and is the opposite of true empathy. In general the teacher of Christianity (including the Christian teacher of Christianity) has been impeded for one reason or another from applying empathy to his or her presentation of Christianity. The same reticence has not been there in principle in the study of other religions even though in practice empathy has been hard to achieve.

We have glanced briefly at the development in the study of world religions during recent years, and suggested that the presentation of Christianity can be helped in three ways if it is seen in the context of world religions. It can be seen as a whole rather than in part; it can be seen as ecumenical and universal albeit important in local situations; it can be seen empathetically. We are now ready to consider, in the light of our discussion so far, new directions for the study of Christianity in the years ahead.

At the present time there is a national discussion in progress in Great Britain concerning the question of education. There is talk about the need to get back to the three Rs, and to define fundamentals once again so that students at school receive a basic yet rounded education. The argument of this paper is intended to feed into this discussion. A fourth R is important, namely Religion. Religiousness is basic to humanity; religious studies, when viewed in a wider light, deepen our understanding of the meaning and purpose of life; religious studies are part of humane studies and deal with persons rather than objects. Within religious studies the study of Christianity is important and it can be strengthened by learning from developments in the study of world religions in the ways that have been suggested. The next step is to consider the basic subject matter of studies in Christianity. Before we commence this task three points need to be made. The first is that this study should not be a separate watertight department but it should open out into and help to integrate other studies; however it is also important that a basic body of knowledge should provide the parameters from which it will open out into wider areas. Open-ness is not the same as vagueness, and it is important to delimit the general subject matter a young adult of 18 should ideally have grasped (or better have been grasped by) when he leaves school. Secondly, there is the important question of how much knowledge of other religions should be available to our young adult. I will make no attempt to tackle this point in this paper. It must be tackled elsewhere. Basically it is a question of weight and it will be generally agreed that in the western world with its Christian background more weight should be given to Christianity. Thirdly, my intent is not to dwell upon teaching methods as such. There is neither the time for this, nor do I particularly have the competence to pronounce on this topic. At the end of the day, each teacher ‘finds’ his or her own way of communicating or sharing the relevant material. Our concern is that there should be some general agreement about the basic body of knowledge that pupil and teacher should be grasped by. In the last analysis it is more important that methods should arise out of the subject matter than that the subject matter should be subordinated to the demands of methods. What then is the basic subject matter involved?

In our presentation to this point we have intimated certain criteria which are relevant to deciding the nature of the basic data of Christianity. These criteria are that Christianity should be presented in its wholeness, that it should be presented in its universality, that it should be presented empathetically, and that it should be presented professionally. We have suggested that the data of Christianity point beyond themselves to the faith of those for whom they are meaningful and ultimately to the God who is known through them. Nevertheless, the first requirement is that a body of knowledge should be outlined whereby we can understand humans in their religious dimension, just as there is a body of knowledge whereby we can understand humans in their economic dimensions, or in their social dimension. The trap we must try to avoid is that of placing all the emphasis upon religion (or economics, or politics, or sociology) rather than upon humanity, although there is some overlap between the different bodies of knowledge, and although their aim is the same (to deepen our knowledge of man), even so the subject matter is not the same, and it is important to establish professionally what is the core of that subject matter. Our aim at the moment is to establish it in regard to Christianity as the most important manifestation of the religiousness of humanity in the western world.

The data of Christianity may to some extent be objectified like any other academic data. This can be done according to the following model (16) (which would hold true for other religious traditions as well). The data are set within a historical context which indicates the inter-denominational, international, and comprehensive nature of Christianity. The historic process of Christianity is the framework within which certain main sub-divisions of the data may be conceptualised. These sub-divisions may be seen in the form of eight dimensions. These dimensions are: the communal dimension, the Church and the main denominations; the worship dimension, liturgy, sacraments and preaching; the cultural dimension, the church and wider culture, Christian attitudes to society; the ethical dimension, the nature of Christian ethics; the scriptural dimension, the role of the Bible, the main scriptural themes; the doctrinal dimension, the role of doctrine, the main doctrines, philosophy of religion, especially apologetics; the aesthetic dimension, music, painting, sculpture, dance and literature; and the spirituality dimension, ritual, devotional, mystical, and involvement spirituality. These dimensions are not so much separate compartments per se but interlocking approaches to the same tradition. The data may be separated for convenience. However, they are not separate in principle; they belong together within the wholeness of Christianity. Let us examine the data a little more closely. In the first place the data of Christianity are seen as part of a historical process. (17), (18) The main elements in this are the fact of Jesus, St Paul and the first generation of Christians, the change from the martyr church to the imperial church from Constantine onwards, the work of missionary monks in taking the message to eastern and western Europe, the development of Christian institutions and life in medieval Europe when it was cut off from the rest of the world, the Reformation, the planting and spread of Christianity in North and South America, the rise of modern missions and the growth of African and other non-western Christianity, the impact of urbanisation, liberalism, Marxism, and other religions upon modern Christianity, and the present situation. The data of the communal dimension of Christianity recognise the importance of the church and her denominations in the life of Christianity. Christianity is far more than what an individual does with his solitariness (to use Whitehead’s aphorism); Wesley was nearer the mark when he said there was no such thing as a solitary Christian. The main elements in this dimension are the role of the church, and a glance at the main churches, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, the main Protestant churches (especially those locally present), indigenous non-western churches, and the ecumenical movement.

The data of the worship dimension recognise that worship and ritual are important in Christianity. The main elements in this dimension are the importance and role of liturgy, the chief sacraments, and the significance of preaching and of the great festivals.

The data of the cultural dimension recognise that Christianity is embedded in a wider cultural setting. Christianity and surrounding culture influence each other and are part of a process that takes different forms in different places. There are certain main types of Christian attitude towards culture. Christianity may be against culture, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoller were against Nazism in Germany, or the Russian Baptists are against the restrictions placed on them by the communist state; Christianity may agree with culture as in medieval Christian Europe East and West; Christianity may not agree with culture but acquiesce in it, as the Syrian Christians of India acquiesced in the caste system, or as the Polish Catholics acquiesce in the Polish communist state; Christianity may see Christ as the fulfiller of culture and yet above culture, as in the thought of Aquinas and later medieval Europe; Christianity may feel that culture is the realm of Caesar and the Church is the realm of God therefore the Christian should be wary of ‘culture’ but accept it as God-given, as in the thought of Luther and a number of later sects; Christianity may see her role as that of transforming culture from a defective into a more Christian state. (19) The data used in this section will preferably be modern and will raise the question of what is and what should be the Christian attitude to culture in the British Isles and other areas of the West. The theme of secularisation will also be relevant at this point. The data of the ethical dimension follow on from the last section. What is Christian ethics? What has it been and what is it now? How is it related to the other dimensions? Relevant modern examples would be race relations, ecology, medical ethics, the nature of individual freedom, what attitude to adopt towards intimidation and aggression, world poverty? What does loving one’s neighbour as oneself, and loving one another as Christ has loved us mean today?

The data of the scriptural dimension return us to the beginning of Christianity but they also do more than that. They show the role of scripture and why it became important; they see the Old Testament as being integral to Christian scripture; they see the main themes and stories of scripture; they show the new Testament witness to Jesus through the synoptic gospels, St Paul, St John, and Hebrews; they show how the canon arose; and they show the use of the Bible in the Church.

The data of the doctrinal dimension show doctrine to be reflection upon the biblical witness, and intellectual formulation of what Christian faith is all about. They look at the main doctrines of God, Christ, man, salvation, love and hope. They also look at the main themes in Christian philosophy of religion. The data of the aesthetic dimension demonstrate the importance of the architecture of church buildings, of music such as hymns, of paintings, of dance, of stained glass windows, and of general Christian literature.

Finally, the data of the spirituality dimension reveal how Christians experience meaning, truth and God in their lives. This can be done in ways that are sometimes inter-connected, namely through mysticism, through devotion, through ritual prayer, through inwardness, through practising God’s presence.

It is clear that these eight dimensions are interlinked, and the temptation must be resisted of erecting them into eight disciplines pursuing their separate ways. It is also clear that only in some cases would it be possible to cover all this material in depth because of timetable and other exigencies. The ideal would be to cover the whole field in general and one or two areas in more detail. The minutiae of this must be left to curriculum groups working out their own priorities. Clear, too, is the fact that some of these dimensions are more appropriate for younger children than others. For example, some of the historical episodes, some of the details of churches, some of the New Testament stories, some of the festivals and sacraments, some of the prayers, some of the ethical tales, would be more relevant than the more intellectual doctrinal, philosophical and cultural matters. Again this must be left to curriculum groups. However, this summary includes the body of knowledge that constitutes the subject matter of Christianity, and it can provide the starting point for new directions in this exciting field.

And yet we must go further than this. Why it may be asked? Is it not enough to set out the body of knowledge, the Christian data, that must be grappled with? Is it not a step forward to give an overall view of Christianity in regard to its content and academic framework? Is it not good that we are agreed that academic rigour and integrity is called for in this field, that this study is not a soft option, that it must set up and maintain its own academic standards, that it is seen to be professional? Why must we go further? The point is that not only do we intend to give an overall view of Christianity in regard to its subject matter and academic wholeness, we propose also to bring out the unique features of Christianity. In other words, we aim to be true to the subject matter of Christianity. What then does this entail? If our aim were to present Chemistry it would be sufficient to set down the scientific data of Chemistry and to study them objectively in order to gain an understanding of Chemistry. Doubtless the personality of the person studying Chemistry would have some influence upon his study in intangible ways and yet the chemical data themselves are reasonably objective and can be studied in themselves. The same does not apply to religious studies. It is not enough to study the data of Christianity in themselves. Something more is involved. What is this something more? For something more is involved in the study of Christianity than the study of Christian data ‘out there’ as though they were external and objective as chemical data. The same is true incidentally of Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, or Muslim data. As we have intimated before, the crux of the matter is that religious data are significant not merely, perhaps not mainly, in themselves, but rather in what they mean to the people concerned. Therefore our academic picture of Christianity (or indeed any other religion) must take seriously not only the Christian data but what those data mean to Christian people. In other words, there is a ‘faith dimension’ built into Christianity that is not built into Chemistry. The Christian commitment that makes Christianity meaningful to Christians is part of the Christian data. This is not to say that only committed Christians can study or teach Christianity. In principle anyone can study or teach Christianity just as anyone can study or teach other subjects. However, to be academically true to the subject matter of religion means taking seriously the meaning of religious data to the persons concerned; it means taking seriously the faith element that is built into religion. Our aim is not therefore merely to present the content of Christianity as an integrated whole and to place that content within a recognisable academic structure (which we have already done), it is also to take seriously the faith element that is important in any authentic academic presentation of Christianity.

This does not involve wrestling with any new data. It means looking at the existing data in a deeper way. It means knowing the ‘objective facts’ about the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (the use of prayers, the eating of bread, the drinking of wine, etc) but also enquiring what taking part in the sacrament means for Christians. It means knowing the shape of a church building but also why the building is a sacred place for Christians. It means knowing that Martin Luther King made ethical claims in his famous ‘I have a vision’ speech but also what were the Christian assumptions behind that speech. It means knowing that Bonhoeffer died because he took a certain attitude to the Nazi state but also what it meant to him as a Christian to take that attitude. At the mundane level of examinations, it means setting questions such as ‘Who was John Knox?’ and ‘What is his significance for Christians?’ The first part of the question requires knowledge of the data; the second part requires insight into the faith element lying behind the data. Both are important. In the answer to the first part of the question we are saying something about the data; in the answer to the second part we are saying something about humanity (and indirectly something about God). Let us not labour the point but simply reiterate that in studying Christianity we are not merely studying the Christian data in themselves we are also studying their significance for Christians, their significance for humanity. To put it in other words, our concern is not just with Christianity (after all ‘Christianity’ never did anything or saved anyone) but with men for whom in large numbers the Christian data have been symbols of the Transcendence that does save.

The study of Christianity is not like the study of a fossil that can be laid out on a table and dissected as though it were a lifeless object. It is a creative process which in grappling with the faith element in Christianity involves (whether we are Christians or not) a stimulus to the element of faith and conviction that lies within ourselves. It speaks to the religiousness that is part of our basic equipment. It opens up the question of meaning and purpose and transendence in life. For we ourselves are part of this study. Many of us have been born into the Christian tradition in the sense of the wider community of Christian civilisation. All of us have been born into the inheritance of religiousness that is part of our human nature. Some may come to the study of Christianity from outside the orbit of Christian civilisation yet aware that Christianity is a significant response made by man’s religiousness to the ultimate affairs of life. God may remain the same; Christianity does not, it is in flux. In studying it we may be involved (under God) in creatively changing it. In studying it we ourselves may be involved in change. The teaching and studying of Christianity is therefore an exciting occupation. It includes professional awareness of an academic body of knowledge; it also includes reflection upon what that knowledge has meant to men; it also involves us in an ongoing creative process that has consequences for our civilisation and our world as well as for us.

In this paper we have attempted to set out a universal model for the conceptualising of Christianity in the framework of religious studies. It encompasses worldwide Christianity yet can be adapted to local needs; it views Christianity as a whole but allows expansion into more specialist areas; it considers the basic subject matter of Christianity but also the faith element underlying it; it establishes it as a professional subject of academic standing yet fits it in the humanities as deepening the study of humanity. It does justice to the Christian community’s own self-awareness (for what is said about Christianity must be subject to verification as being a responsible statement acceptable to Christians of what their tradition and faith is) (19) yet it meets the needs of the members of another tradition or of a secular tradition who wish to know what Christianity is all about.

In principle, it can be applied to the study of other religious traditions, and it is important that this should be done, for the study of other religions is in danger of being relegated to the status of area studies wherein religious considerations are subordinated to historical or other quasi-reductionist factors. However, its main immediate service may be in regard to Christianity as a world religion.

There is a growing interest that has recently emerged into the light of day in new ways of speaking to the basic question, ‘What is Christianity?’ The question itself has been with us in one form or another for a very long time. Recent radical works, such as those of John Robinson or The Myth of God Incarnate or Don Cupitt have received much (perhaps undue) publicity, but the concern has recently become more widespread in general church circles and within the public at large. What is fresh is the realisation that Christianity can be viewed in a wider and deeper sense as a world religion. This realisation is shared at different levels by those who are convinced Christians and those who are not. By viewing Christianity in this different context new depths and horizons are opened up that have significance at world as well as national level. It is not so much a question of making sweeping changes in the data of Christianity as the radicals have done, it is rather a question of framework and context and the type of questions we ask and the type of insights we desire. The significance of these new insights is not confined to the obvious area of religious education (although its main impact may be here) but is much wider. To use the language of the New Testament writers, the present time is a kairos for this new theme. In this paper I have briefly established a framework for the discussion, the books, the dialogue that will emerge over the years on this important theme.


1. Things have improved further since this was first written but much remains to be done for Religious Education to attain the status it deserves.

2. See K. Koyama, Water Buffalo Theology, London:

3. SCM, 1974. J. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy, London: Heinemann, 1969. L. Boff, Jesus Christ Liberator, New York: Orbis, 1978. R. Boyd, An Introduction to Indian Christian Theology, Madras: CLS, 1969.

3. Dr Philip Potter.

4. J. Hick (Editor), The Myth of God Incarnate, London: SCM, 1977.

5. E. Bevan, Christianity, London, 1953.

6. R. St. L. Broadberry, Thinking About Christianity, London: Lutterworth, 1973.

7. B. Gascoigne, The Christians, London: J. Cope, 1977.

8. J. Neusner, The Way of Torah: An Introduction to Judaism, 1970; K. Cragg, The House of Islam, 1969; H. B. Earhart, Japanese Religion: Unity and Diversity, 1974; L. G. Thompson, Chinese Religion: An Introduction, 1969; R. H. Robinson, The Buddhist Religion, 1970; T. J. Hopkins, The Hindu Religious Tradition, 1971.

9. See S. Neill, Christian Missions, Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1964.

10. See Frank Whaling, Christian Theology and World Religions: A Global Approach, Basingstoke: Marshall Pickering, 1986; Kim Yong Bock (Editor), Minjung Theology, Singapore: Christian Conference of Asia, 1984; J. Mbiti, Concepts of God in Africa, London: SPCK, 1970; Vandana, Gurus, Ashrams and Christians, London: Dartman, Longman & Todd, 1978; G. Challiand, Revolution in the Third World, Brighton: Harvester, 1977; K. Koyama, No Handle on the Cross, London: SCM, 1976; J. V. Taylor, the Primal Vision, London: SCM, 1963; J. Sobrino, Christology at the Crossroads, New York: Orbis, 1978.

11. W. H. McLeod, Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion, Oxford: O.U.P., 1968.

12. See Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Belief and History, University of Virginia Press, 1977.

13. Classical examples are: B. Kristensen, The Meaning of Religion, The Hague, 1960; G. van der Leeuw, Religion in Manifestation and Essence, London: Allen & Unwin, 1938; M. Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion, London: Sheed & Ward, 1938; J. Waardenburg, Reflection on the Study of Religion, The Hague: Mouton, 1978.

14. I use this example because I am a Methodist — any other would have sufficed!

15. See Edward Hulmes, Commitment and Neutrality in Religious Education, London: Chapman, 1979.

16. See Frank Whaling, Christian Theology and World Religions: A Global Approach, Basingstoke: Marshall Pickering, 1986, chapter 2; F. Whaling, Contemporary Approaches to the Study of Religion: The Humanities (Volume One), Berlin, New York, Amsterdam: Mouton, 1984 pp. 270—72.

17. This procedure holds true for any religious tradition. In the case of Christianity there is also a stress upon history within the tradition itself.

18. A slight variation of this is found in H. R. Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, New York: Harper Torchbook, 1956.

19. In other words the church or its responsible representatives are important links in the process.

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