What Kind of Thing Is Christian Faith?
Westmont College Monroe Scholars' Weekend
February 9, 2013
Telford Work, Religious Studies

Sources: Brad J. Kallenberg, Live to Tell: Evangelism in a Postmodern Age (Brazos).
Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Eerdmans).
James B. Torrance, Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace (IVP).
James J. Buckley and David Yeago, Knowing the Triune God: The Work of the Spirit in the Practices of the Church (Eerdmans).
Nancey Murphy, Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda (Trinity).
James Wm. McClendon, Jr., Biography as Theology (Wipf & Stock).
Geoffrey Wainwright, Doxology: The Praise of God in Worship, Doctrine, and Life (Oxford).
George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine (Westminster).
Miroslav Volf and Dorothy Bass, Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life (Eerdmans).

Opening Exercise. Lesson: Luke 10:25-28.

What is Christian faith, and how do we learn and live it?
What seems like a straightforward question is actually an invitation into a centuries-old debate whose twists and turns have shaped our different communities and set them against each other.
George Lindbeck offers a simplistic but helpful list of three ways to conceive of (Christian) religion.
1. 'The Case for Christ': Christianity as Belief System
Christianity is basically a system of beliefs and ideas about God and the world.
Our 'values' are based on the 'facts' or 'spiritual laws' of this system.
The substance of Christian faith is its truth claims and worldview.
This system or worldview is justified if it refers accurately to the reality beyond it.
It can be learned through the acquisition of information, and defended through apologetic arguments.
Consequences Questions
  • Evangelism becomes the transmission of information.
  • Teachers are experts.
  • Conversion becomes assent to sufficient or even conclusive evidence about God and 'decision' on its basis.
  • Christian training becomes the cultivation of further expertise (Bible knowledge, theology, etc.).
  • The Bible becomes a study text.
  • Worship services center in lecture-style sermons ('feeding').
  • Sermons move from Scripture to universal principles through 'application'.
  • The Christian 'walk' becomes the navigation of life by heeding divine wisdom.
  • Is knowledge of God essentially objective?
  • What is the relationship between faith and reason? Does reason determine faith?
  • How do we move from universal 'facts' to voluntary 'values'?
  • How do we move from facts/values to actions (theory to practice)?
  • Does restating Bible material as principles mean the Bible is ultimately dispensable?
  • What about people who are less intelligent, less educated, or less biblically/theologically literate?
  • Do I or my culture contribute anything to Christian faith besides assent?
  • What are other religious traditions (such as Judaism or Islam)?
  • Is Christian knowledge as sound as scientific knowledge?
  • Is Christian faith a form of imperialism?
  • Is this how we actually learn and teach Christian faith?
2. 'Experiencing God': Christianity as Articulated Experience
Christianity is one name for a universal experience of the divine.
Our language and life express this experience in a particular way.
The substance of Christian faith is the way we name its experiences.
Christianity is a superior language for and way to this experience.
It can be learned through spiritual encounters, and defends itself by the absolute priority of experience.
Consequences Questions
  • Evangelism becomes the facilitating of experiences of God.
  • Teachers are mystics.
  • Conversion becomes an affirmative response to a supernatural encounter with God that invites one into a personal relationship.
  • Christian training becomes the nurturing of practices that promote further, deeper encounters.
  • The Bible becomes a means of encountering God; Bibles become devotional guides.
  • Worship services and evangelistic efforts become facilitators of experiences ('feeling').
  • Sermons move from music through Scripture to altar calls.
  • The Christian 'walk' becomes an experienced inward (but also outward) relationship with Jesus.
  • Is knowledge of God essentially subjective?
  • Is my experience of God determinative for who God is? Is others'?
  • Are Christian terms, even 'God', arbitrary?
  • Can it be shown that different people experience the same thing?
  • Is Christian faith a form of relativism?
  • How do we know that a 'transcendent' experience is an experience of God?
  • What is happening when people come to different conclusions from their experiences?
  • What do experiences of suffering, oppression, and isolation mean about God?
  • What does 'spiritual dryness' signify?
3. 'Practicing Theology': Christianity as Language
Christianity is a life with particular forms and thus a particular language.
Language is entirely bound up with the world's life, and arises only in its midst.
The substance of Christian faith is our practices (e.g., worship).
Michael Polanyi: One learns by 'indwelling' specific practices (e.g., learning scientific method or riding a bike).
Without using the language of Christian faith we neither know nor experience 'God in Jesus Christ' (cf. learning a sport, learning a trade, or becoming a part of a community).
Christian faith can be learned in the same ways by which we gain fluency in other languages.
Consequences Questions
  • Evangelism becomes the showing of a way of life, like exposure to a new activity or foreign language.
  • Teachers are mentors.
  • Conversion becomes the taking on of new forms of life.
  • This involves a change of social identity, a shift from one linguistic paradigm to another, and the acquisition of a new conceptual language (maybe quick, maybe gradual).
  • Training becomes further growth in fluency until Christian faith becomes a 'first language'.
  • This happens by exposure, by immersion, and by catechetical training.
  • The Bible becomes a grammar, with which we in its world learn, exercise, and show Christian trust.
  • Worship services become 'liturgical' and 'ethical', communally retelling the Bible's story
  • The Christian 'walk' becomes participation of that story by taking part in particular forms of life (e.g., hospitality).
  • Is knowledge of God essentially social?
  • How much room in language is there for factual depiction and articulated experience?
  • If Christian theology is 'just' language, is Christianity real, or just constructed?
  • Is the uniqueness of Christianity just like the uniqueness of every other community?
  • Do new forms of life (e.g., industrialization) mean inevitable and essential changes in Christianity?
  • Do we have any choice over our languages and paradigms (e.g., English or Copernican heliocentrism), or do they simply absorb us?
  • How can we judge one language better than another (say, Islam, Marxism, or capitalism) from inside a linguistic community?
  • What happens when our life, and therefore our grammar, is distorted?
Our culture and churches are still in the midst of transitions among these.
There are philosophies in each camp, with something of a trend towards the third.
The first springs from early modernity, the second late modernity, and the third a form of postmodernity.
The dominant culture has moved somewhat from the first to the second over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Liberal Christianity moved to the second from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries.
Conservative Christianity remained at the first, and has recently been moving to the second.
'Postliberal' Christianity is moving from the second to the third.
So both churched and unchurched westerners are all over the epistemological map.
The 'culture wars' are to some extent a battle between the first and second visions.
Some social observers report that young people are now shifting towards the third.
My answer: Door Number 3, without excluding the others' insights.
Final pastoral questions:
How do we respect the different convictions of different Christians and inquirers while moving the Church towards health and holiness?
How will your (church, school, family, community) environment be shaping you and forming your expectations for Christian life?