DIFFERENT WAYS TO APPROACH CHRISTIANITY
There is more than one way to skin a cat, and more than one way to divide a pie.
There are three approaches to the analysis and evaluation of Christianity that I have noticed, and they each have different advantages and disadvantages:
- The Christian-Apologetics Approach
- The Philosophical Approach
- The Problem-Solving Approach
I’m sure there are other approaches besides these three, but these three appear to be useful and worth knowing about.
The Problem-Solving approach and the Philosophical approach can be applied to other religions and worldviews, so they are better for making comparisons and comparative evaluations. There might be a way to abstract from the Christian-Apologetics approach to make it applicable to other religions and worldviews, but I haven’t figured out how to do that, so far.
Each approach can be explained or defined in terms of a particular set of questions, questions that provide conceptual and intellectual guidance for exploring and understanding and evaluating Christianity.
THE CHRISTIAN-APOLOGETICS APPROACH TO CHRISTIANITY
The Christian-Apologetics approach is based on classical Christian apologetics, which goes back at least as far as Thomas Aquinas. Classical Christian apologetics starts out by arguing for the existence of God, and then in a second phase moves on to using miracles (divine interventions in the natural world) as the basis for determining the “True Religion” or the “True Church” or the “True Holy Book” or the “True Prophet/Messiah”.
Miracles (especially the resurrection of Jesus) are used to establish a primary source of REVELATION or theological knowledge. Once the “True Religion” or “True Church” or “True Holy Book” or “True Prophet” is established, then a third phase begins, and other Christian beliefs are justified on the basis of that source of theological truth or knowledge. The key questions that define this approach to Christianity are these:
- Does God exist?
- Did Jesus exist?
- Did Jesus rise from the dead?
- Is Jesus the divine Son of God and Savior of humankind?
I suppose one way to (partially) abstract from these questions that are specific to Christianity, is to focus on what appears to be the most central issue behind these questions:
What is a reliable source of theological or religious truth or knowledge?
The ultimate point and purpose of classical Christian apologetics is to “teach a person how to fish”, that is, to persuade people that there is a particular source of theological truth that one should rely upon (e.g. the teachings of Jesus, or the teachings of the Pope, or the teachings of the Bible). So, it appears that the ultimate or primary focus of classical Christian Apologetics is EPISTEMOLOGICAL: How can we determine what is true or false in the areas of theology and ethics?
THE PHILOSOPHICAL APPROACH TO CHRISTIANITY
The Philosophical approach is based on the major sub-disciplines of philosophy. The key questions that define this approach could be formulated in the following very simple way:
- What is the epistemology of the Christian worldview?
- What are the metaphysics of the Christian worldview?
- What are the ethics of the Christian worldview?
- What is the philosophical anthropology of the Christian worldview?
These four questions, however, are somewhat misleading. They assume that the Christian worldview involves explicit philosophical concepts and theories that are accepted by all or most educated Christians. But most people, and most Christian believers, are not that intellectually inclined, and among intellectually inclined Christians, there can be a diversity of philosophical concepts and theories. It is, of course, worthwhile to become familiar with some of the different philosophical concepts and theories embraced by different intellectually inclined Christians. But Jesus and the authors of the Bible were NOT philosophers, and they don’t lay out much in the way of clear philosophical concepts and theories.
So, although I think it is helpful to think about Christianity using these basic categories of philosophical investigation, one should not assume that there is such a thing as “the Christian theory of epistemology” or “the Christian theory of ethics”. It is tempting to think that there is such a thing as “the Christian theory of metaphysics” but even in this area there are gaps and disagreements between intellectually inclined Christian believers. For example, there is an ancient division between Platonist Christian thinkers and Aristotelian Christian thinkers, and that is mostly a matter of disagreements in metaphysics. So, the questions defining the Philosophical approach to Christianity should probably be a bit more loose:
- What are the epistemological assumptions, claims, and implications of the Christian worldview?
- What are the metaphysical assumptions, claims, and implications of the Christian worldview?
- What are the ethical assumptions, claims, and implications of the Christian worldview?
- What are the philosophical anthropology assumptions, claims, and implications of the Christian worldview?
In other words, there may be only bits and pieces of philosophy that can be extracted from the Christian worldview. There may be a variety of different philosophical concepts and theories that are compatible with the bits and pieces of philosophy that can be extracted from the Christian worldview. It appears to me that there is no such thing as “the Christian philosophy”.
Clearly, these looser questions involving basic categories of philosophical inquiry can be applied to ANY religion or worldview. These questions do not require that the religion or worldview has a clearly defined set of philosophical theories in these different areas of philosophy. The questions merely focus attention on parts and aspects of a religion or worldview that are RELEVANT to basic philosophical issues.
THE PROBLEM-SOLVING APPROACH
I learned of this approach from an explanation of Buddhism, and from a central teaching of Buddhism: the Four Noble Truths. In his book The Religions of Man (Harper & Row, 1958), Huston Smith summarizes Buddhism by briefly explaining the Four Noble Truths:
Buddha’s approach to the problem of life in the Four Noble Truths was essentially that of a therapist. He begins by observing carefully the symptoms which provoke concern. If everything were going smoothly, so smoothly that we noticed ourselves as little as we notice our digestion when it is normal, there would be nothing to worry about and we would have to attend no further to our way of life. But this is not the case. There is less creativeness, more conflict, and more pain than we feel is right. These symptoms Buddha summarizes in his First Noble Truth with the declaration that life is dukkha or out of joint. The next step is diagnosis. Throwing faith and myth and cult to the winds he asks practically, what is causing these abnormal symptoms? Where is the seat of the infection? What is always present when suffering is present and absent when suffering is absent? The answer is given in the Second Noble Truth; the cause of life’s dislocation is tanha or the drive for private fulfillment. What, then, of the prognosis? The Third Noble Truth announces hope; the disease can be cured by overcoming the egoistic drive for separate existence. This brings us to prescription. How is this overcoming to be accomplished? The Fourth Noble Truth provides the answer; the way to the overcoming of self-seeking is through the Eightfold Path.
The Eightfold Path then is a course of treatment. (p.102-103)
The analogy between medical diagnosis/treatment and the logic of The Four Noble Truths is helpful, not only for understanding the Buddhist worldview, but for understanding any religion or worldview. Furthermore, the medical analogy can be generalized into the logic of Problem Solving. Medical diagnosis and treatment is a particular kind of problem solving. We can thus state the key questions of this way of approaching a religion or worldview in more general terms:
- What are the most important human problems?
- What is the root cause (or causes) of the most important human problems?
- What is the best solution (or solutions) to the root-cause problem (or problems)?
- What is the best way to implement the solution (or solutions) to the root-cause problem (or problems)?
One can use these four key questions to analyze and evaluate not only Buddhism and Christianity, but also secular worldviews, like Humanism and Marxism. So, like the Philosophical Approach, the Problem-Solving Approach is helpful if you want to compare different religions or worldviews, and to make evaluative comparisons (e.g. Does Marxism provide a better account than Buddhism or Christianity of the root cause, or causes, of the most important human problems?)
One summary of the Christian worldview is presented briefly in pamphlets about The Four Spiritual Laws. While the Four Spiritual Laws might not exactly parallel the logical structure of the Four Noble Truths, they are very similar in that they focus on a root-cause problem (Buddhism: egoistic drive for independent existence. Christianity: sin or human disobedience towards God.), and provide a solution to that problem (Buddhism: overcoming the egoistic drive. Christianity: atonement for sin through the death and resurrection of Jesus.), and a way of implementing that solution (Buddhism: the way of life described in the Eightfold Path. Christianity: repentance and faith in Jesus as the divine Son of God and savior of humankind). So, both Buddhism and Christianity can be understood in terms of the four key questions that comprise the Problem-Solving Approach.