Did people create Christianity?

In the previous post, a reader asked:

I am a Catholic homeschooling mom who has been reading your blog for a while. One thing I have been wondering is this: how did you come to terms with the argument that Christianity is merely an anthropological construct? So many of the Old Testament stories seem to have parallels in ancient mythology. My kids are now asking these questions as we cover ancient history in our schooling.

The last post answered the nuts and bolts of the question. But there’s something else worth considering as well, as regular commentor and Resident Conversion Diary Apologist Steve G. points out:

There’s another aspect of this question that’s worth thinking about: what if Christianity were an anthropological construct? Does that mean that it’s necessarily invalid? Let me see if I can flesh out what I am getting at.

Being as we are human, everything is, for lack of a better expression, an anthropological construct. Why should Christianity being such surprise us? Humans were used to write the Bible, to ordain the bishops who would hold the Episcopal succession, effect the sacraments, etc., etc., etc…in other words to build the institution of the church.

Humans by necessity are the tools of building any human institution. To say that a religion is an anthropological construct is to simply make an observation of fact that is admitted by the church, and by Christ himself. Christ says at one point, “on you I will build my church” to Peter, in essence confessing that indeed he is “constructing” something.

How could any religion come about in any other way other than to be built by humans (i.e. an anthropological construct)?

The problem is when we take this obvious fact and tack on “merely”. It makes it sound like the fact alone means something inherently detrimental about the value or truth of that construct.

Let me do the same thing with something outside the realm of religion: physics. Certainly physics is also an “anthropological construct”, right? It’s a constructed language and system of thought that we have come up with to describe reality.

If I tried to dismiss it as untrustworthy or untrue by claiming it is “merely an anthropological construct”, most people would not think that was a valid dismissal. They’d agree that the language and system might have been created by people, but would argue that we can see that physics does indeed tell us some predictable things about reality. It is one of those things that is a construct, but that is a truth/reality/fact-revealing construct. Thus we accept it as not only valid, but an incredibly valuable construct.

Interestingly, as physics advances, we find that some more primitive version got some stuff right, and were very useful in the context in which they existed, but they also had large swaths of things that were wrong. Thus Newtonian physics is traded in for relativity, which in turn gives way to Quantum physics.

So, what of Christianity? Shouldn’t it be judged on similar merits, and not on the fact that it is a human construct, not on the fact that it “looks” in some ways like other religions? Like physics, shouldn’t it be judged on whether we find that it is a valuable and truth-telling construct that helps us understand reality, ourselves, existence etc.?

For my part, I am squarely with Chesterton in that I’ve found Catholic Christianity to be not just right on some truths, but to be a truth-telling thing. I highly doubt that I am the only one who feels that way, and it is likely that so many hold to Christianity for similar reasons (yourself for instance). icon razz Did people create Christianity?

It is the key that fits the lock of the human heart. I’ve seen other religions that get parts of the key cut correctly, but none even close to being complete. (Comparative religions is a whole other discussion though so I’ll leave that aside for now.)

I want to add a bit here in order to be clear that in addition to the analogy I’ve offered, the other way in which we can contend against this notion of “merely”, is to say that by faith (based on the evidence of our experience) we also believe that God is the one using the tools to do the constructing. If that is true, again the “merely” is removed.

If man is truly made in the image of God, and is made to seek Him, part of his make-up will be to build a religious system to try to find God. In that case, we’d expect that all societies would at least make an attempt at constructing something to “access” God. And of course that’s exactly what we do see.

Now, what we believe is that those efforts, while worthwhile, are limited because of our fallen nature. So, we believe that God deemed it necessary to intervene and help us construct a “true” religion.

How do we know which one of those constructs IS the true religion is a different question that goes beyond this discussion. I think you know that I feel the case for Catholic Christianity is incredibly strong on many fronts, but the real point is that even a God-directed religion in which He used humans to build it might not look, from the outside, all that different from the purely human-made ones.

That this is the case (that there are indeed purely human ones) does not give anyone the ability to look at all of them and blithely dismiss them as “merely” constructs. Some may be true, none may be true, one may be true. But to observe that they are anthropological constructs gives us no insight at all into that question.

Thank you again to Steve G. for his great response, and to my reader for asking such a good question.

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Enter the Conversation...

14 Responses to “Did people create Christianity?”
  1. Tienne says:

    Steve G. is completely awesome and needs to write a book. :)

  2. Patrick says:

    Jen,

    Pardon me for making my first comment a critical (and verbose) one; I’ve been reading and enjoying your blog for a while now, even as I’ve taken your path in the opposite direction.

    The analogy between Christianity and physics is an interesting and important one, for there is both a key similarity and a key difference.

    The similarity is that both have a process of feedback between their content and external reality, as well as feedback with social realities. In the case of physics, the acceptance of a theory may be influenced by sociological factors, but it also is heavily influenced by the results of experiments, which don’t depend (except in extreme cases) on the social milieu. That is, a major cause for the belief or disbelief of a physical principle depends directly on its objective validity.

    In the case of religion, analyzed from a social standpoint, there are several great processes of feedback; but none of these depend directly on the truth of the beliefs. Rather, they depend on such things as whether an image or narrative inspires devotion (that is, on human psychology), whether an educated elite can believe the theology sincerely (that is, on philosophical cogency and consistency), and whether the social structures it promotes are such as to maintain the civilization (that is, on the quality of its ethical and political consequences). There are many different and incompatible theologies that satisfy all these criteria, so a religion’s development and success depend on something more complex than the truth or falsity of its content.

    Strictly speaking, this doesn’t make a logical argument against Christianity (as you noted), but it does provide a rationale for doubt. For the reasons above, a knowledge of the history of physics provides a strong encouragement to trust their conclusions; but this is precisely where the analogy with religion ends.

  3. Patrick says:

    In addition:

    Given the history of development in Christian thought (particularly its long rapproachment with philosophy, and the sequence of movements within the Church that influenced the next centuries of preaching and practice), it is not surprising at all that Christianity resonates deeply with the ways we tend to experience the world, that it is in many ways wiser than our naive initial ideas of human nature. Not only this, but one who has conformed his heart, will and life to the Catholic faith in particular would indeed find that Catholic theology describes his experiences of being human far better than do other religions- because they more accurately describe the human experience of their own adherents.

    But the above is quite true whether or not God exists, and so the leap from finding the Church trustworthy in descriptions of human life to finding Her trustworthy on the grand metaphysical questions is not as justified as Chesterton and others felt.

    That, in my opinion, is the import of the anthropological study of religion. Sorry for the long posts.

  4. Cathaholic says:

    The most powerful argument against the ‘manmade’ interpretation of Christianity that I have come across is provided by René Girard, a French anthropologian who converted to Christianity after realising that the anthropological basis of the Gospels (and much of the Old Testament) is completely different from that of all stories/myths/legends from that period or earlier.

    His contention is that most societies (and hence the legends that come from these socities) thrive on a scapegoating procedure, whereby the regular scapegoating and exclusion/execution of individuals serves to bind the society in question and heal divisions caused by rivalry within the society (such rivaly occurring because of mutual ambitions to have the same things, including eg status as well as possessions).

    The Gospel accounts seem to share this scapegoating mechanism (as do eg Book of Job), but they differ fundamentally in that the post-scapegoat society (Pilate’s empire) does not get to write a falsified account of what has happened. Instead, the innocent victim returns (resurrection of Christ) and retells what has happened from the perspective of the vicitims, and does so in a non-revengeful manner which also illuminates the nature of the scapegoating/vilification process.

    See eg http://www.firstthings.com/ftissues/ft9604/girard.html

    + his various books (the more recent ones being better on the Christian angle).

  5. SteveG says:

    Hi Patrick.
    First, thanks for you thoughtul and civilly posed comments. It’s such a pleasure when we find oursevles in disagreement, to be able to discuss those differences respectfully. I’ll do my best to return kind for kind.

    The analogy between Christianity and physics is an interesting and important one, for there is both a key similarity and a key difference.

    I have to most definitely acknowledge the imperfection of the analogy. It’s the nature of analogy after all. Almost by definition, they can’t be perfectly alike, only similar.

    My point though was primarily that everything human is by necessity a human (anthropological) construct, not that religion and physics were the same type of construct. Maybe something like democracy would have been a better analogy, but even with physics I think the primary point is still intact. It is a human construct.

    The similarity is that both have a process of feedback between their content and external reality, as well as feedback with social realities. In the case of physics, the acceptance of a theory may be influenced by sociological factors, but it also is heavily influenced by the results of experiments, which don’t depend (except in extreme cases) on the social milieu.

    I think it goes well beyond this. It is much more than a ‘may be’ influenced. It is undoubtedly profoundly influenced by sociological factors.

    Sociological factors determine in large part the very approach taken, the questions that are being asked, what we care about discovering, and even if we think we can discover anything by experimentation, just to name a few influences.

    I think that a very strong case can be made that modern science (that has really only ever come about in the West) rests squarely on the foundational principles that the JudeoChristian tradition holds…that we live in an ordered, rational universe about which we can discover things.

    That is, a major cause for the belief or disbelief of a physical principle depends directly on its objective validity.

    But there is no such thing as objective validity, even in science. There are only highly probable theories that haven’t yet been disproved, and which have been repeated over and over without fail…yet.

    There is no truth in science as such as nothing can be truly proven in an objective way.

    I’d argue that the major cause for belief or disbelief in physical principle is that it has a seemingly high probability of being correct, AND that it is useful.

  6. Patrick says:

    Steve,

    Thanks for your thoughts. I suppose that what I was trying to get at by “objective validity” is that, regardless of our epistemology, the universe does behave in certain ways and not in others. (This is prescientific andpractically indisputable: the scientific claim is that the ways the universe does behave follow patterns of a sort.) Physical models and theories may not admit of Platonic truth, but we can distinguish between a theory that well represents/predicts those actual happenings and one that doesn’t. And my point is that, despite its very human origins, one can conclude from its experimental history that physics’ major conclusions can be trusted in that sense.

    For a concrete example, the argument over the composition of the atom had much to do with specifically human ways of thinking, bad analogies, and academic politics; but it was also directly influenced by things like the Rutherford experiment, whose results are directly entangled (to use the popular word) with the actual behavior of the universe. The sociological factors would have been much the same in a universe with different physical behavior (insofar as such a thing could give rise to human-like beings), but the experimental factors would generally influence debates in a decidedly different direction.

    And, again, this is where the case with Catholicism becomes difficult: the only factors in the history of the Church that we can agree would be different whether God actually existed or not are things like miracles and inspirations, and the question of whether the reports of such can believed is one of the other highly disputed questions. Thus one doesn’t have a similar reason, from what one can learn about the history of the Church, to trust Her proclamations about God.

  7. SteveG says:

    And my point is that, despite its very human origins, one can conclude from its experimental history that physics’ major conclusions can be trusted in that sense.

    It’s impossible to conclude anything ‘despite’ its human origins. Without those origins it becomes meaningless.

    If we do not infuse it with meaning, if we are not present to draw the conclusions, if we are not there to perform the experiments, it can’t be trusted at all. It’s a human construct through and through from top to bottom.

    Humans make the observation. Humans perform the experiments. Humans make the conclusions about the experimental history.

    To try to somehow distill the ‘real’ physics from the human element is, in my opinion, an exercise in futility.

  8. Patrick says:

    Steve,

    Well, but you do trust the conclusions of physics- the ones far beyond your power to test or even understand- far more than you trust the conclusions of, say, phrenology. And I’ll bet you think that it’s eminently reasonable, given only the disciplines’ histories, to make that judgment, because the success of a theory in the one is entangled with actual reality to a degree that the other lacks (instead, the personal charisma of the phrenologist played a very large role). That’s precisely what I’m talking about.

    In short, “because it is human in origin” is no reason to distrust the claims of an enterprise, but one can trust more or less based on what sort of feedback the enterprise has with things that don’t depend on human sociology. I don’t think I need to spell this out to have it acknowledged, because we all use such criteria in separating sciences from pseudosciences.

    Again, I’m not trying to disprove the Christian faith (and I think such a thing is quite impossible); but I’m pointing out that the analogy between the Church and physics breaks down at exactly the point that makes it reasonable to trust physics based solely on its history. This doesn’t affect other lines of argument.

  9. SteveG says:

    In short, “because it is human in origin” is no reason to distrust the claims of an enterprise, but one can trust more or less based on what sort of feedback the enterprise has with things that don’t depend on human sociology.

    That is actually very much a part of the point I was making in the post. The original questioner was struggling with the objection that Christianity could be dismissed because it is ‘merely’ a human construct.

    My point was much the same as yours. That is no reason alone to distrust its claims. That’s the reason for the analogy, not to posit that they were the same or didn’t break down at some point (all analogies break down at some point), but to show that we don’t make the same kinds of dismissals in other spheres of life.

    Sometimes ideas (phrenology) should be dismissed, but not solely on the bases that it is a human construct.

    I get the sense that we actually largely agree on that and probably more than just that. :-)

  10. Tertium Quid says:

    I think we eventually must have faith in something, either God, the man in the moon, the Great Pumpkin, Zeus, Isis, and/or our own reason.

  11. Patrick says:

    Cathaholic:

    Sorry for the delayed resonse. I completely agree with you that there is something singular about Christianity- the ideal of charity was one that was not found in the pagan milieu, and it has spoken to the human heart and achieved things that never might have happened under any other cosmology.

    On the other hand: I haven’t read Girard, but it seems to me that the difficult point in the argument is establishing that Christianity couldn’t have just been the result of very unique sociological circumstances and a good deal of serendipity. The fact that it differs from religions that arose out of (more or less at first) tribal societies may just be due to the fact that it arose at a later stage of history, in a time and place of conflict between two very singular cultures of the older sort. I could note that some other late-developing religions like Buddhism also lack the scapegoating mechanism.

    Girard may well have a reply to this, I imagine, and I’d be interested in it.

  12. Patrick says:

    Tertium:

    Oh yes, I completely agree that we have to go and trust some things we can’t prove. One can’t even be certain we’re not brains in vats.

    Of course, neither you nor I think it’s a matter of indifference what we decide to put that trust in, and so it’s important to discuss the reasons for doing so. Right?

  13. Patrick says:

    Steve:

    Yes, I agree with that. Sorry if I gave the impression of agreeing that “human-created”=”untrue”, or some other such naive nonsense; and I’m sorry if I thought you were arguing a stronger point than you were. I think you’re right that “democracy” would have been a less distracting example. These discussions are so tough to have in plain text, but I’m happy to have had the chance.

  14. Julia says:

    Thank you so much for writing on this topic, Steve. This argument is one that has always gnawed at me and at times cast me into doubt. I am so happy to read your reasonable, accurate explanation as to why the “merely an anthropological construct” argument isn’t valid. May God bless you.

    Thank you again so much.