Book Club: Can Christianity Survive Modernity? Ctd

Andrew Sullivan —  May 2 2014 @ 2:20pm

Readers take stock of the conversation:

Your original question, “Can Christianity survive modernity?” has two dimensions to it, only one of which is addressed in Ehrman’s book. That’s the question of how modern scholarship sees the scriptural and historical record of Jesus and his age. But another, how-jesus-became-godoverlapping issue is also brought to bear by modernity. The Christian tradition about who Jesus was, and how his Divinity can be defined, is bounded by a very particular set of notions about God that in an earlier era were either forcibly isolated from the rest of the world’s religious cultures, or only passively separated by the limits of those times.

But in the modern age, when vast amounts of historical knowledge of not just Christianity, but the rest of the world is readily available, we now know what multiple branches of Hinduism thinks, what the various sects of Buddhism understand, what Bahai believes, what Taosim grasps about the nature of the cosmos, what shamanism discovers, even what secular mystical and hallucinogenic experience has to offer, and and so on. The modern mind isn’t just confronted with scholarly knowledge of Christianity’s real past; it’s also confronted by a whole range of experiential and conceptual knowledge about God, Divinity, and ultimate reality, including of course modern science itself. And the two can’t be separated anymore. That’s the dilemma of Christianity’s confrontation with modernism in a nutshell.


In arguing that Ehrman’s book does not “effectively debunk Christianity’s core claims in modernity,” I am struck by how elastic and indefinite the responses of you and your readers of faith are as to the notions of truth and Christian doctrine generally.   That is not meant as criticism, just an observation. One reader valued “the messiness and contradictions in the gospel accounts” as a virtue itself.  Another reader said the “literal truth or untruth [of the story of Christ] is of little to no interest,” and the practicing Catholic reader believes that the foundational doctrines of his church are “of course” not accurate because the truth of Jesus’s life and message can’t be known.  An earlier reader explicitly bookclub-beagle-tradvised you “to consider steering clear of words like ‘truth.'”

Is it then the better question to ask “whether postmodernism can save Christianity?”  And does the new historical research require a postmodern religious approach?  If so, what are the implications of that? It could strengthen and deepen Christianity’s core message and appeal.  But maybe not.  It seems certain to be consequential though.  Will this approach favor liberal Protestant faiths but pose a greater challenge to the more institutional Catholic Church?  If Christian doctrinal truths are admittedly unknowable and subjective to both Gospel writers and readers, does that mean that choosing between different Christian denominations is ultimately only a matter of personal comfort and/or inertia?  Or might this approach – as fundamentalists would argue – logically and inevitably weaken Christianity’s claim against competing faiths?


I’m an engineer and a recent convert to Catholicism (although I was always careful to say that I followed Dorothy Day, not Paul Ryan).  I know that my conversion process was not rational.  My overwhelming experience of something I can only call Grace has shattered every conviction I had about who I was, who/what God was, and my place in this universe.

I get impatient with those, on both sides, who try to use evidence to prove or disprove religious concepts. A scientist used modern tissue analysis as proof that a Eucharistic Miracle happened.  I felt that same impatience reading Ehrman’s book. None of these investigations have any relevance in comparison to my lived experience of Christ.

It’s not that I don’t think such investigations have value. I just see them as belonging to a realm of inquiry that is disconnected from my relationship with God.  If the Eucharistic Miracle turns out to be pig blood or the disciples had hallucinations of Jesus brought on by grief, it just doesn’t change anything about what happens when I pray.  It seems to me that a faith resting on such proofs is disconnected from the Source of faith.  For myself, I am better off learning how to tap into that Source more deeply and regularly.

I recently went on a pilgrimage to Assisi, the home of St. Francis and St. Claire.  They were declared saints soon after their deaths. Many artifacts of their lives were preserved within the lifetimes of those who knew them, and the town itself has been a place of pilgrimage ever since.  Pilgrims can be assured that the artifacts are real. When you walk the streets of Assisi, you are walking in the paths of the millions of pilgrims who came there to worship, contemplate and pray.  Even my agnostic husband felt the presence of so many souls seeking peace.

On the same trip, we saw a piece of wood that St. Helena claimed to be part of the table from the Last Supper, now preserved in the papal basilica of St. John Lateran.  She found it in the early 300s.  Who knows if it’s real?  For 1700 years, the faithful have venerated it as a connection back to the last peaceful moments Jesus had with his community of disciples, moments we recall every time we celebrate the Eucharist.

That veneration makes it holy.  The pilgrims make Assisi holy.  We make Christ holy. First the disciples and then the 2,000-year-old Christian community of the faithful experienced Jesus as someone extraordinary.  Jesus brought a powerful message that has come down through the ages and drawn millions of souls towards a stronger connection with the Source of faith, and more just, loving and care-taking relationships with each other.  How could the manifestation of such a person not be celebrated as miraculous?


You wrote, “I cannot rationally reconcile the divine and the human as single concept. But my faith, my personal experience of Jesus, forces me to accept it.”

And in so doing you are essentially recapitulating the experience of the disciples and the church. They tried every other explanation for what they had seen and heard, and none of them captured the length and breadth and depth and height of this man’s life.  So they were forced to come up with a formulation that made no sense, because it was the only thing that MADE sense.  Like the scientists who have to hold the absurd formulation that light is BOTH a particle and a ray, because only under those circumstances can they actually use their mathematics to make the equations correspond with the observed facts.

Credo quia absurdum.