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Mere Christianity

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... Christ did not come to teach Christianity. He came to establish the Kingdom of God and to found a Church.


In the 1940s, C.S. Lewis gave radio broadcasts in England called "The Case for Christianity" and "Christian Behavior." These were plain and honest titles. When the talks were put together as a book, he gave them the unfortunate name, "Mere Christianity" -- unfortunate, because there can be no such thing, at least not as he understood it.

I suppose there is a merest Christianity. Jesus himself identified it. The apostles came to him complaining about a man who cast out devils in his name. They wanted to stop him, but Jesus blocked them, saying, "he who is not against us is for us." Take this to imply that the merest adherence to Christ, the merest Christianity, is simply not to be opposed to him -- which makes sense.

Yet, the description in practice needs a qualifier or two. Last week, there was a story about the prominent developmental economist, Jeffrey Sachs, a Jewish man, who in a recent lecture claimed that Catholic social thought provides his moral compass. The Vatican invites him to consult on economics matters frequently. Is this Jewish man "with us" in the minimal sense that he is not against us?

It's not so simple. Put aside the problem that much of the advice Sachs has given to developing nations has proved highly damaging -- that one would want even to claim him as an ally is puzzling. A more serious problem is that Sachs is a notorious supporter of population control and abortion. Thus, he can't really be taking the Church's teaching to function as anything like a compass, when in important matters he discards the direction in which it points. (Imagine trying to navigate by trusting one's compass only part of the time.) So, one must qualify and say something like: he is with us only so long as and insofar as he is not against us. That's not very much of a concession. Call it, if you want, the merest of the merest adherence to Christian teaching.

Let's say next that there is a kernel of Christianity implicit in the two earliest confessions about Jesus. You can find both of these in perhaps the earliest and certainly the simplest gospel by Mark. At a crucial point Jesus asks Peter who he is, and Peter replies, "You are the Christ," --that is, you are the Anointed One (as that is what "Christ" means in Greek). That is to say, you are the Prophet, the King, and the Priest -- as these were the figures who were anointed in assuming their office in the Jewish tradition. Peter's confession, the first, is that Jesus is the culmination of those three offices. The second confession, given at the end of the gospel, is by the centurion who watched Jesus die. He looked up at Christ expired on the cross and confessed: "Truly this man was Son of God."

Put together these two confessions, that of the chief of the apostles, and that of a pagan warrior, and you certainly have a core of Christian belief.

But Christianity is not mere belief. It is practice, too, and a community. It is a society. But if it is a society, it must have a government, since there can be no society without unity, and there can be no unity without a government.

Another way of putting the point is that Christ did not come to teach Christianity. He came to establish the Kingdom of God and to found a Church. His very first words of public preaching (again, as recorded by Mark) were a call to repentance because the Kingdom of God was at hand. His first sermon, according to Mark, was preaching alongside the sea to the crowd on the land about how the kingdom of God is like seed sown in the soil. He gave many parables to explain this. It was like seed sown on different types of land. Or it was like seed that sprouted and grew -- one could not say how -- and then was harvested. Or it was like a mustard seed, which began very small but grew into a great tree. That was mere Christianity for him, apparently.

Or take our very use of the Scripture in trying to figure out "mere Christianity." Why are we using the texts in the "Bible" and not the many other writings about Jesus? Because the Church picked out those texts and said they were to be trusted as inspired. But on what authority did the Church pick them out? Because Jesus gave the Church this authority.

So, unadorned Christianity must say something about the government and authority of the Church. Lewis deliberately avoids addressing this question in his book, because he finds it divisive. But that's as if someone attempted to describe the mere United States, while saying nothing at all about the Constitution, Congress, the courts, and the president.

Here's the irony. Lewis took his title from a book by Richard Baxter in 1680 called "Church-History of the Government of Bishops and Their Councils Abbreviated." For all its "abbreviation," it is almost 500 pages long. It's a tedious polemical work that lashes out repeatedly at "papists" for their misunderstandings of Church history. But at least Baxter saw that the question of the government of the Church had to be engaged; it could not be ignored.

The can be no "mere Christianity" that lacks a true account of the government of the Church.

- Michael Pakaluk is Professor of Ethics and Social Philosophy in the Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America. His book on the gospel of Mark, ‘‘The Memoirs of St. Peter,’’ is available from Regnery Gateway.

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