Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Study of Christian Origins

Just a few more weeks until the worst of busy season is past at work. I'm still posting pre-written pieces, but they're things that haven't been posted before.

How did Christianity become the most widely believed religion in the history of the world? How did it become the most widely spread, cross-cultural religion ever known? What could explain its rise from a despised sect of Judaism to its phenomenal success in the succeeding centuries? What could explain how it grew and thrived even when persecuted by both political and religious opponents?

The study of Christian origins seeks to answer these questions. Specifically, it seeks to answer them through academic study, without making any appeal for the truth of Christianity. It seeks to answer these questions while assuming a secular point of view; that is, while assuming that the truth claims of Christianity are not relevant to the question.

This type of study of early Christianity has made some interesting observations. Women may have enjoyed relatively better status in Christianity. Christianity's insistence that life is sacred meant that children were not exposed to the elements as infants in order to be killed. Jesus' teachings on compassion for the sick -- put into action through his followers -- meant that more people survived diseases and epidemics. In short, part of Christianity's success has been attributed to the fact that Christianity is useful to a culture's survival, a beneficial influence in practical terms.

However, all of this overlooks one vital factor, the one that was excluded from the beginning of the study: the question of Christianity’s truth. It may be that the academics studying the question have already decided in their own minds that nothing supernatural could possibly be true. It may be that, in their care to exclude any personal bias from their studies, the believers have accepted the restriction that the truth or untruth of Christianity must be set aside as a personal view irrelevant to the question before us. So the academic field seems to have concluded that the question of Christianity's truth or untruth must be excluded from the equation of how Christianity grew and succeeded. At any rate, in the interest of objectivity we should not bring our personal points of view into an academic question.

Here I would like to raise one question: was the truth or untruth of Christianity relevant in the perception of the new Christians in the period studied by Christian origins? For the people whose lives comprise this remarkable growth of Christianity, was the perceived truth of Christianity relevant or irrelevant? Would they have said they were Christians because it helped them to survive epidemics, or would they have said they were Christians because they believed Jesus Christ rose from the dead? And if some few were interested in surviving epidemics, does that mean that earlier Christians were already caring for the sick before they knew whether it would be helpful to them or might instead be their own death sentence?

I do not mean to say that the academic study of Christian origins should become another quest for the historical Jesus. I do not mean to say that academics should bring their own assumptions about the truth or untruth of Christianity to the table. I mean to say this: the secularists have already brought their own assumptions about the untruth of Christianity, or of the irrelevance of the truth, to the table and have projected their own unbelief or academic agnosticism back onto the earliest to converts to Christianity. Not only is this an anachronism, it is a complete loss of objectivity to project modern academic dispassion back onto the lives and motives of the earliest Christians.

The proper question for the academic study of Christian origins is why Christianity grew so successfully. If some modern researchers do not believe that Jesus rose from the dead -- or do not believe that they should bring their own beliefs into the study of Christian origins -- that is no reason to suppose the early Christians did not believe that Jesus rose from the dead, or that the early Christians would have found it irrelevant whether or not he did. There is reason to believe they did not consider that to be irrelevant, but may have considered it the most vital question.

It is completely true that I do not want to read a study -- that there is very little value in a study -- in which the researchers cannot set aside their own presuppositions and get a fresh look at the facts. In this sense, the study of Christian origins has made a contribution. The atheists, agnostics, and other secularists must do better than to claim that Christianity spread simply because the ancients were stupid and superstitious, and that no answer is necessary beyond insulting the backwardness of people who came before us. Christians likewise are challenged to see things through a different lens -- to recognize that early Christianity was not perfect and that some people find the supernatural difficult to accept. But the real answer to Christian origins does not lie in the reasons why we do or do not accept Christianity today; it lies in the reasons that the early Christians accepted Christianity in their day. For the study of Christian origins it is not a valid question whether or not we believe it to be true, but it is very much a valid question whether they did. Keeping that question off the table is a disservice to us all. Whenever it is excluded from consideration, the study of Christian origins is a travesty.

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