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