What is Christianity? Part 17: Worldviews as “Master Stories”?

James Sire comes from an Evangelical Christian point of view, so for him the miracle stories in the Gospels are crucial to the Christian worldview, especially the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection of Jesus.  Belief in such miracles are indeed part of ancient Christian Creeds that are still used in most Protestant and Catholic worship services and are part of many catechisms, both Protestant and Catholic.

In Chapter 5 of Naming the Elephant (hereafter: NTE), Sire points to the Apostles’ Creed in order to argue for the importance of STORY in relation to the Christian worldview:

Perhaps the easiest way to see that this might be the case [that it is “better to consider a worldview as the story we live by”] is to examine the Christian worldview.  I have argued that the Christian worldview begins with ontology–an abstract concept, but soon ontology becomes lodged in story form.  The ancient Apostles’ Creed demonstrates this:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,

Maker of heaven and earth,

and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.

Only the first line is utterly ontological.  The second line brings in action, and while it does not take a position on whether creation was in or out of time, it recognizes God as origin of the earth.  It is the fourth line that roots the Christian worldview in story:

Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit,

born of the Virgin Mary,

suffered under Pontius Pilate,

was crucified, died, and was buried.

He descended into hell.

The third day he rose again from the dead.

There is no need to quote further.  The remainder of the creed is steeped in story.  (NTE, p.101)

One of the earliest Christian creeds clearly summarizes the “story” of the life and death (and alleged resurrection) of Jesus.  But this is NOT being told as a fable or a myth or a legend or a tall tale.

The point of reciting this creed is, in large part, to declare that one BELIEVES that there was in fact a real historical Jesus and that the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as told in the canonical Gospels is true, at least concerning some key events that the Gospels present (the birth of Jesus, the trial of Jesus before Pilate, the crucifixion of Jesus, etc.).

Sire is confirming my point (made in Part 16 of this series) that the “story” at the heart of Christianity is, for the most part, a non-fiction story, a story about events that allegedly occured in reality.  But if this is the case, then it follows that at the heart of Christianity there is a set of related factual claims or BELIEFS (e.g. “Jesus was tried by Pilate”,  “Pilate condemned Jesus to death by crucifixion”,  “Jesus was crucified by Roman soldiers”, “Jesus died on the cross”, etc.).  These beliefs about the life and death of Jesus might be false, or might be inaccurate, or some might be true and others false, some accurate and others inaccurate.

Because we are talking about a non-fiction story here, we are talking about BELIEFS or CLAIMS that could be either true or false.  If such beliefs or claims are at the heart of the Christian worldview, then the Christian worldview is fundamentally an INTELLECTUAL and COGNITIVE entity.  Once again, Sire provides evidence that supports a cognitivist view of worldviews, and that undermines his attempt to promote an alternative way of understanding the nature of worldviews.

On the next page after Sire quotes from the Apostles’ Creed, he makes a similar point about the Bible in general:

When one turns to the Bible itself, the ground of all Christian theologies–Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox–the element of story is even stronger.  Most of the Bible is story, and all of it is embedded in story–a history, a story of events that really happened (not just-so stories, or likely stories, or myths).  (NTE, p.102, emphasis added)

To the extent that Christian theology, and thus presumably the Christian worldview, is grounded in the Bible, and to the extent that the Bible mostly presents stories “of events that really happened”, at least according to Sire and other Christians, this is further evidence that the Christian worldview consists of BELIEFS and CLAIMS, namely BELIEFS and CLAIMS about events that (allegedly) happened.  Once again, Sire’s attempt to raise an objection to the cognitivist understanding of worldviews actaully provides support for the cognitivist view.

But, someone might object that a story is more than simply a list of events, even a list of related events.  The story of the life and death of Jesus, for example could be summarized like this:

Jesus was a Jewish male who was born in Palestine about 2,000 years ago.  He grew up to become a travelling preacher and faith healer, and he gathered some dedicated followers who would often travel with him around Palestine.  Jesus taught theological and eithical principles often using parables and memorable aphorisms.  In about 30 CE, Jesus was crucifed by Roman soldiers.   According to some of his followers, Jesus was then buried in a stone tomb, but came back to life just a couple of days later and met up with and spoke with some of his followers.

This is a very short story, and it is composed of various historical claims.  However, this short story has little meaning or significance on its own.  It has almost no religious or theological significance as stated above.  However, the whole point of the story, from a Christian viewpoint, is the religious or theological significance of this story.

We can asks a few obvious questions about this story, and the religious or theological significance will rise to the surface.  Why was Jesus crucified?  Did he commit some terrible crime?  No, according to Christian believers, Jesus was a very good person who never did anything bad or evil.  Well then, did Jesus protest against the proposal that he be executed?  No, according to the Gospels and Christian believers, Jesus fell silent and simply accepted the condemnation and his horrible execution.

If he was innocent, then why did Jesus not protest against being condemned to death?  Was Jesus suicidal?  Was Jesus a masochist?  Did he want to be crucified?  No, according to the Christian faith,  Jesus was sent by God with the primary purpose of suffering and dying as a sacrifice or atonement for the sins of all humankind.

Jesus was, supposedly, God in the flesh, the divine Son of God, and he had lived a life of perfect moral goodness, so because Jesus was a divine person and because Jesus was a perfectly good person, his death would have great power and value, and thus make it possible for God to forgive the sins of anyone who put their faith in Jesus as lord and savior of humankind.  Jesus submitted himself to be crucified, because this was a critical part of his mission from God.  God raised Jesus from the dead, not just as the granting of a wish to a swell guy, but as proof that Jesus had been sent by God to die as a sacrifice for the sins of humankind and to be the lord and savior of every human being.

OK, so now the “mere story” of the life of Jesus has been given a religous meaning or significance,  and it is this religious meaning that elevates the simple historical sequence of events  (summed up in the bold font above) to something of greater importance.  Note, however, that the religious meaning of the story of the life and death of Jesus is presented by means of various religous and theological BELIEFS or CLAIMS that concern the religious significance of the life and death of Jesus:

  •  Jesus was sent by God with the primary purpose of suffering and dying as a sacrifice or atonement for the sins of all humankind.
  • Jesus was God in the flesh, the divine Son of God.
  • Jesus was a good person who lived a life of perfect moral goodness.
  • The death of Jesus  made it possible for God to forgive the sins of anyone who put their faith in Jesus.
  • God raised Jesus from the dead as proof that Jesus had been sent by God.

So, it is the combination of the “mere story” of the life of Jesus (consisting of various ordinary historical claims) with other religious or theological claims concerning the religious significance of those (alleged) historical events, that constitutes the full story, from a Christian point of view.

While it is true that the “mere story” or sequence of ordinary historical events is not sufficient to constitute the heart of the Christian worldview,  the difference between the “mere story” and the “full story” is a matter of adding some religious or theological BELIEFS or CLAIMS to the ordinary historical claims in order to spell out the religious significance of the events in question.

Thus, to the extent that the “full story” of the life and death of Jesus constitutes the core of the Christian worldview,  the Christian worldview must be made up of BELIEFS and CLAIMS and thus it is fundamentally a COGNITIVE and INTELLECTUAL entity.

Sire has again failed to show that there is any significant problem with his older cognitivist conception of a worldview (see his book The Universe Next Door, pages 16 & 17) as a set or system of beliefs.