Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Christian Story

This summer the Horne Bible Study class at Second Baptist Church, Liberty, MO, has been studying James M. Fowler's book Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian (1984). Fowler (b. 1940), Professor of Theology and Human Development at Emory University, is better known for his Stages of Faith (1981), but I have found the former book to be theologically erudite and have enjoyed the discussion of it.
"Adulthood, Vocation and the Christian Story" is the fourth chapter of the Fowler book we have been discussing on Sunday mornings. Fowler uses Gabriel Fackre's The Christian Story (1978) in his presentation of "the Christian master story." In that connection I reminded the class that more recently Brian McLaren has attractively presented the Christian story in The Story We Find Ourselves In (2003), the second book in his "A New Kind of Christian" trilogy.
In the midst of the discussion about the Christian story, I mentioned what I thought was obvious and non-controversial: Christianity is different from religions such as Buddhism because it emphasizes a story, whereas Buddhism and other Eastern religions do not. But there was quick and vigorous disagreement with my statement: Buddhism has stories, it was pointed out, like the Buddha's leaving the comforts of his palace upon seeing, for the first time, illness, old age, and an example of the ascetic life.
Unquestionably, there are many stories found in Buddhism and other Eastern religions--as well as in Native American religion. But having stories and basically being a story is greatly different. That difference is due mainly to contrasting views of history. Christianity as well as Judaism and Islam are historical religions. They each are based upon a story--with a beginning, historical development, and an envisioned end. Their distinctive story is decisive for each religion.
Buddhism, though, is an example of a non-historical religion--non-historical not in the sense that it did not have a historical beginning but in the sense that history is not decisive for it. The "four noble truths" lie at the heart of Buddhism. They are "eternal truths" unrelated to history. There may be various stories about those truths, but those stories are not a part of a basic and defining story.
The Christian story is what makes Christianity unique. Christianity "conflicts" with Judaism and Islam--as well as with secular ideologies such as Marxism that are also based on the idea of linear history--because of the differences in the stories. But it "conflicts" with Buddhism, and other similar, non-historical religions, because of the difference between being a story--that is, being historical, considering some historical events crucial for meaningful life now and after death--and seeing religion as basically understanding eternal truths and as having immediate contact with ultimate reality (being enlightened) by comprehending those truths.
Whether one believes in or lives by the Christian story is optional, of course. But it seems to me that understanding the nature of Christianity entails recognizing the existence of a story which defines the faith. For comprehending the true nature of Christianity, acknowledging the centrality and the uniqueness of "the Christian story" is not optional.
Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam

1 comment:

  1. I think you make a good general observation about the importance of story and its reception as providing some linear continuity in time. However, I don't think that you can quite equate Islam in the same way, although this is just a minor qualification. The Qur'an presupposes a story more than it has a story. It assumes that its followers know the story of Muhammad. So, there are nothing but a series of allusions to the story--of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, the prophets, Jesus and Mary--in the classic text of Islam.In a word, the classic story of Judaism and Christianity is also the classic story of Islam. But the Qur'an does not set it out again. It only assumes it and qulalifies it, no?

    What is still more, I would suggest that, although Buddhists have stories, traditions, etc. that are somewhat discontinuous, Christians use their story as though it were so discontinuous and non-narrative. They use it in snippets, short episodes that do not necessarily have to relate to each other. And, Christians use the story for moral guidance as one might use a parable or proverb. Seldom in Christian worship or instruction is it possible to help a group to think globally about the whole trajectory of the story. Who knows it that way?

    Stories provides maps for the present day "journey." But map makers know that it's the journey that provides the boundaries that determine the look, shape, detail of the map. The map itself is not a necessarily reliable projection of reality. It is only so, if the user is on the journey for which the map is made.Fascinating to do a comparison of maps of Ancient Palestine to determine how they reflect competing interpretations of, not only scripture, but of contemporary Israeli politics. Stories do the same thing, I'm afraid. They are great at providing a map, but the map is really only meaningful to those on the particular journey.