Are the Truth Claims of Christianity Literal?

In last week’s article The Motte and Bailey of Christian Belief, I commented on a trend I’ve noticed among Christians to make bold, hard-to-defend claims (the resurrection of Christ) and then retreating to broad, easy-to-defend claims (God is the ultimate mystery or “ground of being”) when pushed to defend the former.

I got a strong reaction from some progressive Christians and theology enthusiasts, and I thought I would take some time to unpack the responses.

Commenter Kaleb Graves strenuously disapproved of my post:

I do not mean to offend, but this is a broad reading which lacks depth. 

You’re stuck in an exvangelical mode where Christianity is reduced to “things that did or did not happen in the past.” Because of this, you cannot conceive of existential or similar theology having any real connection to the Christian narrative because their basis is in something besides historical criticism. You even relay the myth of a universal, apostolic tradition, that “certain claims have been a foundational part of most Christian institutions throughout the centuries.”

As far as you’re concerned then, modernist and postmodernist theologies like existentialism have “absolutely nothing to do with whether Jesus Christ was resurrected on the third day.”

Unfortunately, you may have left fundamentalism aesthetically, but you actually kept most of the metaphysical baggage with you.

This is a helpful comment because it hits on a few themes and misunderstandings that I frequently deal with. Let me take them one at a time.

Kaleb writes, “this is a broad reading which lacks depths.”

Probably!

I will readily admit that I am not an expert in philosophy, theology, or any other ology. I’m a grocery store manager with a music degree. I’m not a trained theologian or scholar. Because of this I will make mistakes that trained theologians will catch.

Instead, I see my role on the blog and podcast as being a professionally curious curator of conversation. I see it as my civic duty to engage with philosophy and ideas as a layperson and that’s what I’m trying to do here. This means that my public work is a conversation, not a lecture, and that I will frequently get things wrong.

Kaleb suggests that I’m “stuck in an exvangelical mode where Christianity is reduced to things that did or did not happen in the past” and that because of this I “cannot conceive of existential or similar theology having any real connection to the Christian narrative because their basis is in something besides historical criticism.”

Kaleb is new to my work, so I don’t blame him for not knowing this, but I’m happy to confirm that this is not at all true. I consider myself deeply religious because I find meaning in the myths, metaphysics, rituals, and community of religion. I wish that more Christians were like me in this regard, and I’m always heartened when I encounter Christians who take a less literal, more expansive approach to their faith.

It’s also worth mentioning that I think Kaleb is responding to something real. Some atheists are jerks and reductive in their view of faith and religion. Popular atheism is frequently a response to popular theism, and therefore the more nuanced versions of both get sidelined.

Finally, I mean no disrespect to Kaleb or any of the other commenters who had similar objections to this article, but there’s a fundamental weirdness about these reactions that I don’t quite understand.

Kaleb is accusing me of reducing Christianity down to “what did or did not happen” in the past. But I’m not the one claiming that Christ was literally raised from the dead 2000 years ago on the third day!

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, of which there are over a billion adherents, reads:

The truth of Jesus’ divinity is confirmed by his Resurrection. He had said: “When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will know that I am he.” The Resurrection of the crucified one shows that he was truly “I AM”, the Son of God and God himself. So St. Paul could declare to the Jews: “What God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus; as also it is written in the second psalm, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you.’” Christ’s Resurrection is closely linked to the Incarnation of God’s Son, and is its fulfilment in accordance with God’s eternal plan.

I find similarly unambiguous statements of faith from the largest and most representative Christian institutions from across the globe, including Anglicans, Orthodox, and Protestant denominations.

Not only that, the creeds claimed by the most established Christian institutions are ancient and make unambiguous statements about history, miracles, and the nature of the Trinity. The Apostles Creed was written between 120-250, and the Nicene creed was written in 381. There isn’t unanimity through all of Christianity on the validity or nature of the creeds, but it is delusional to say that the creeds are not representative of large swaths of Christian believers now and throughout history.

There are certainly rich layers of meaning in all these statements of faith. They can be metaphorical, metaphysical, mythical, etc. but they are also — unless I’ve truly had the wool pulled over my eyes for 34 years — literal. Am I delusional in assuming that the Roman Catholic church actually states that the resurrection truly happened? If so, I will be happily flabbergasted and throw up my hands in the most pleasant defeat I’ve ever experienced.

I think that it is reasonable to assume that many members of these institutions believe what they claim to believe. That isn’t me being “unable to conceive of alternative theologies rooted in historicity” or whatever. That’s me taking these institutions at their word. They are telling me what they believe, and I believe them.

I want to understand why the historical claims these institutions make are reasonable, and the rest of my Motte and Bailey article was an observation of what happens when I try to do that.

Pointing out that a great many Christians – most, in fact, today and through history – believe in literal claims of the miraculous is not a denial of more expansive and less literal theologies. It’s just a statement of fact. None of this means that there isn’t space for alternative theologies that are less rooted in historical literalism. I want to see more Christianity like that in the world because I believe it makes for more humane religion.

I have to say, this whole interaction is weird, and it’s one that I’ve had multiple times. I respond to the straightforward, obvious, widespread claims of the Christian faith. The progressive theology people, who I generally consider my allies, then have a sort of meltdown, and suggest that I’m oversimplifying the claims of Christianity by reducing the faith to literal, historical claims. But, again, I’m not the one making these literal, historical claims – the most powerful, ancient, and representative Christian institutions are.

I don’t entirely understand what’s getting lost in translation here, or why these interactions keep happening. But it’s weird, and I don’t get it.

I got another response (this time on Facebook) that is also worth unpacking.

I enjoyed the read. Very thoughtful piece. I guess the first thing that comes to mind is how, in the very first sentence, you make sure to describe yourself as a non Christian while at the same time explaining how you hang out with and (presumably) spend a considerable amount of time discussing issues of theology and faith with Christians, even to the point of centering an entire piece ultimately centering on the viability/plausibility of the resurrection. It’s curious to me why someone who claims not to be Christian should be so concerned with other’s belief in the resurrection if they themselves have no skin in the game.

I categorically reject the notion that I have “no skin in the game.”

It’s hard to truly grasp the dominance of Christianity until one no longer identifies as a Christian. Christian belief is hegemonic, not just in the Southern United States where I live, but the globe. As a citizen of the world, I think the beliefs of the most powerful religion are entirely my business. Truth claims matter because a great amount of conflict emerges from differing notions of what is true.

But I also have skin in the game because Christianity is my own background and lineage. My deconversion was fairly recent (2017). My life has been formed by Christian belief and practice, and my closest family and friends are still Christians. Inevitably, the truth claims of Christianity still have a tremendous impact on my life, and I still find myself discussing them. It’s weird to me to assume that I suddenly have no skin in the game, or no place in the conversation because I no longer consider myself a Christian. I lay claim to Christian discourse because it’s mine by every right.

A final criticism of my article does have merit, though, and it is that I unhelpfully conflated First Cause, Ground of Being, and Being, Consciousness, Bliss by David Bentley Hart. I think that’s fair, and I will try to be more careful in the future. I do believe that my broader point still stands, though: all three are notable in their breadth and cosmic nature, and none of them (in my view) would meaningfully lead anyone to believe specific creedal claims on their own. They are all broad claims about the nature of reality, and Christians frequently retreat to them when pushed on the specific claims of the creeds. So, while they are different, they still strike me as the same species.

As always, I enjoy the back and forth, and I look forward to more discussions in the future.


But that’s just me. What do you think? Let me know in the comments below or on my discord server. And, if you enjoy my work, please consider becoming a patron and signing up for my newsletter.

2 thoughts on “Are the Truth Claims of Christianity Literal?

  1. Love this article. And as someone who is a trained theologian I can say I wholeheartedly agree with you. It was actually the realisation of all the mental gymnastics I was doing that pushed me away from theism in the first place and I find it a particularly infuriating part of trying to talk to Christians now. The complete inability to actually critically evaluate a particular point and think through it without resorting to some kind of defence (which does often tend to be retreating to fluffy, waffley nonsense which no one can prove or disprove anyway) is something I’ve witnessed in multiple trained theologians who really should know better.

    Like

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