Allen Farris on The Two Christianities

 Posted by on 27 November 2006 at 6:21 am  Religion
Nov 272006

Allen Farris recently sent me this second essay on Christianity. (His first concerned Christian Fundamentalism.) I’m happy to post it.


I would like to thank all those who posted comments on my previous essay on Christian fundamentalism. I was a bit surprised at the number of people who recognized similarities to my own background. Several people also raised some interesting questions. Rather than answering individually, I decided to respond with this brief essay.

The Two Christianities

The Christian religion is not a monolithic structure; two major strains stand out in its history. From a philosophical perspective these two might appear to be separate religions only loosely associated, since they have very different answers to what is the nature of the world, the relationship between faith and reason, and how one should live one’s life. These two perspectives have formed a polar opposition and much of the history of Christianity can be seen as a struggle between them.

The first of these two derives from Saint Paul of the New Testament and Augustine (354 – 430). This world is to be avoided; emphasis is clearly on the kingdom of God. In fact, this world is regarded as corrupt, a source of temptation, and the province of Satan. Equally emphatic is the denunciation of reason. The only justifiable exercise of reason is as a handmaiden of faith. Without faith, the exercise of reason not only leads to error, it is also corrupt, evil, and the province of Satan. Without faith, mankind is hopelessly mired in mountains of sin, to the extent that no amount of good works could form even a molehill in comparison. Salvation, then, is a free gift of God’s grace, completely undeserved. Complete obedience to God is demanded in return.

Now, of course, it is not easy to remain alive in this world with such guiding principles. So, there has been a counter trend within Christianity throughout its history. The most articulate spokesman for this trend is Thomas Aquinas (1224 – 1274). The natural world is good; after all, God created it and pronounced it to be good. Consequently, interest in the natural world is appropriate and can even lead to God. This attitude is the source of such views of an awareness of the laws of physics as “thinking God’s thoughts after Him”. Reason is viewed as a natural capacity of human beings and can lead to truth about the world. Aquinas was very careful to distinguish philosophy from religion, and the “God of Philosophy” from the “God of faith”. His famous five proofs of the existence of God can be criticized philosophically; this is a proper subject of rational debate. However, the “God of faith” is not subject to rational deliberation. But, Aquinas insists, there can be no conflict between faith and reason. Ethically, to live successfully in this world according to one’s nature is a good thing for all living creatures, including human beings.

Most modern Christian denominations are complex mixtures of these two perspectives falling, on average, somewhere at an intermediate point on this continuum. This is also true of the Catholic Church. Various monastic orders tend to emphasize one side or the other of this divergence. For example, the Augustinian and Jesuit orders tend to fall on the Augustine side; the Benedictine order tends to fall on the Aquinas side. I attended a small Catholic college run by Benedictine monks my first two years. It was there that I was introduced to Aristotle, logic, and Thomas Aquinas, as well as getting a superb grounding in the fundamentals of mathematics.

Another example is also illustrative here. Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) was a theologian and a member of the Augustinian order within the Catholic Church. His “reformation” actually began as a friendly dispute over some rather arcane theological points related to the relevance of good works to salvation. His point of view was a conservative reaction to the “liberalism” of his day, harking back to the older teachings of Paul and Augustine. Later in his life, as the reformation took on political dimensions and resulted in an overt split from the church, he moved even closer to the positions of Paul and Augustine. His position on reason is unambiguous. He described it as “the Devil’s Whore” and urged the faithful to slay it.

Ideas matter; they influence and shape our lives. Therefore, these two oppositions are more than theoretical; they very much affect the daily lives of people caught in the grips of the Christian religion. One of the best portrayals of these affects is in the movie Chocolat. At the beginning of the story, a small French village is caught in the grips of the Augustinian side of this opposition. The mayor and priest keep the people in a dour state of misery, suffering, and general malaise. Along comes the heroine of our story who brazenly opens a chocolate shop, during Lent no less. The movie can be seen as an allegory, using chocolate as symbolic of the enjoyment of life, as it portrays the gradual transformation of the lives of the people in the village moving toward the Aquinas side of this opposition.

Now let us turn to Christian fundamentalism and ask how it fits into this picture. Traditionally, three pillars grounded Christian faith: the authority of the church, tradition, and Holy Scripture. The church provided an interpretation of the Bible; it wasn’t necessarily taken as literal truth. Fundamentalism in Christianity tends to reject the authority of the church and tradition, grounding its faith solely in a literal interpretation of the Bible as the revealed word of God. Fundamentalism may be found across all dimensions of Christianity. Many fundamentalists choose to remain in mainstream Christian denominations, including the Catholic Church. However, many do not; they may attend independent or non-denominational churches, or even gather informally in small groups. This is one reason why one must be very careful in interpreting polls about attitudes toward religion. Unless questions are carefully phrased, some fundamentalists fall through the cracks, since they do not regard themselves as part of traditional Christian denominations.

While I doubt that a blanket statement can be made that covers all fundamentalists, Christian fundamentalists overwhelmingly tend to fall on the Paul/Augustine side of the ledger. The Bible is the source of all truth: What is the nature of reality? Whatever the Bible says it is. How do you know? It is in the Bible. How should one live? Do whatever the Bible says. There is no room for rational debate; it has been completely cut off. This is why fundamentalists have so little regard for historical scholarship as it applies to the origins of the church and the Bible. The acceptance of the Bible is itself a matter of faith and is not subject to rational deliberation.

How does one judge the content of fundamentalism? By looking at what is philosophically significant about it. By asking: How do they view the nature of the world? How do they regard the use of reason and the relationship between reason and faith? How do they answer the question of how should one live one’s life? The answers to these questions are fairly easy to discover. Moreover, it is important to accurately identify their contents and treat fundamentalism accordingly. It is especially important to judge how they regard the exercise of reason.

Judging the cultural significance of contemporary Christian fundamentalism is more difficult. In this respect Peikoff’s DIM Hypothesis is very helpful. So is his The Ominous Parallels, which is an underrated work. I am aware that it is denigrated in certain quarters that call themselves Objectivist, but this is a huge mistake. Not only is The Ominous Parallels the most coherent account of the rise of Nazism in Germany that exists, it is a remarkably detailed account of how ideas are spread throughout a culture. This process is by no means obvious; it takes a lot of work to trace the interconnections. Furthermore, Peikoff shows that the essential preconditions that made the rise of totalitarianism possible are operative here in the United States.

Let me make one observation about contemporary society. If you look at the recognizable intellectual movements of the last fifty years or so: pragmatism, positivism, socialism, Marxism, post-modernism, multi-culturalism, etc. the adjectives one would use to describe these movements today would not include “rejuvenated”, “enthusiastic”, and “energetic.” Indeed, many of these movements are regarded today as a dead-end. Do they still have influence? Yes, but it is more from inertia than anything else. They are not going anywhere. Even linguistic analysis and existentialism, long dominant in many quarters in philosophy, can’t be described as “vital.” Their adherents continue to engage them because that is what they know how to do and they can’t see any alternative. At best, contemporary society is characterized by a kind of intellectual vacuum. Just as in science, nature abhors a vacuum, so does society. Something will emerge to fill that vacuum. Today, one movement that can be described as rejuvenated, enthusiastic, and energetic is Christian fundamentalism.

The kind of split within Christianity that I have characterized here is probably applicable to other religions as well. I do not know as much about the history of Islam, but my impression is that this kind of split is present there as well. Indeed, it seems that Islamic fundamentalism runs parallel to fundamentalism within Christianity and the Augustinian side of this split. This is one reason why the United States has been so ineffective in fighting the war on terrorism. To do so requires a vigorous denunciation of religious fundamentalism and an emphatic insistence on the separation of religion and state. But, of course, to take such steps requires a philosophical understanding of why these positions are necessary.

The antidote to Christian fundamentalism is a philosophy based on reason and reality. Our hope for the future lies in the fact that there is another movement that can be described as rejuvenated, enthusiastic, and energetic: Objectivism.

Allen Farris
November 22, 2006

For those of you wishing to explore these issues further, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy has reasonably competent overview articles on Augustine, Aquinas, and Luther. Also, if you haven’t read The Ominous Parallels I recommend it highly.

I would add just one small point based upon my own preliminary readings of the New Testament, Augustine, and Aquinas. It’s not just Paul that is allied with Augustine: Jesus himself is too. The Gospels — particularly Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” — are thoroughly anti-worldly and anti-reason. All of the values of this world are totally opposite to those commanded by God. Although I’ve just started reading Augustine, his fundamental philosophy is clearly that of the New Testament. In contrast, Aquinas is often shockingly Aristotelian in his fundamental method and principles, so much so that Christian doctrine often seems like an afterthought. While Aquinas often exploits Aristotle’s Platonic remnants (e.g. the contemplation of eternal as the best form of life), he’s fundamentally grounded in a philosophy contrary to that of the New Testament.

Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha