Christianity




As a basic description, Christianity is the religious faith grounded on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Beyond this point, the scholarly understanding  of  that  concept  has been the object of much discussion in modern times, particularly in  the  realm of the  social sciences. In an attempt to put some order into the social, religious, historical, and ideological reality that  corresponds to  the  term  ‘‘Christianity,’’ a synthetic account may be offered, covering its history and the main dimensions.




Christianity was, at its inception, a religious movement of messianic apocalyptic character, born from the preaching and destiny of Jesus, deemed by  his  disciples to  be  ‘‘the Christ’’ (Messiah or Redeemer), in the context of the anxieties and expectations of the Jewish religious milieu of the first century. The  experiences of his followers after the death of their master   and,   particularly,   their   purported encounter  with  him  as a  resurrected  person triggered the first expansion of this movement, which was perceived at the time as just another apocalyptic sect within Judaism.

Gradually,  the  Christian  teaching reached ever more people outside the  Jewish boundaries. It finally appeared as a new religious faith oriented to a broader public inside the Roman Empire, and achieved stability as a more institutional  and  salvific religion. The  new faith expanded  despite  the  persecutions  suffered throughout the first three centuries of its existence, and  finally acquired the  status  of the official religion of  the  empire.  During  that time, the new religion struggled to better define its own beliefs, among many contrasting interpretations, in order to organize its aggregations at all levels, and to discipline its followers.

All of this endeavor in pursuit of order was unable to prevent successive splits among different groups and ideological orientations, the most remarkable being the schism between the eastern and  western branches of the  church during the Middle Ages, followed by the various Reformations of the sixteenth century.

Over the centuries, Christianity has shown a particular ability to  adapt to  the  changing social and cultural conditions within which it finds  itself. It  was nurtured  by  the  waning classical paradigm  of  Greco-Roman  society, later adapted to the new structures of feudalism in  the  traumatic  early medieval period,  and flowered during the High Middle Ages, when the faith, supported by the church, was a central element of the social and cultural configuration of society. Modern  times have raised new challenges for Christianity, now impelled to search for a new balance within highly pluralistic societies and (in the western world) a less religious cultural milieu. Christianity, however, has  always suffered  from  considerable stress caused by a polarization between two tendencies, one centripetal, seeking the establishment of a common realm, a unity that  is not only religious but  also cultural  and  political, and the other centrifugal, as some historians have shown, which is  the  ability of a  religion to render self conscious and empower the identity of different peoples and social entities, nourishing  their  own self affirmation and  providing the space for a more pluralistic society (Brown 1996).

At the present, Christianity is acknowledged as a ‘‘global faith’’ that numbers, according to the latest estimates, around 2 billion nominal members,  spread  through  nearly  the  entire world, which assumes a multiplicity of confessional  forms,  Catholicism  being  the  largest (around 1 billion members).

Sociological Dimensions  Of Christianity

Christianity  is  basically a  faith,  canonically established and regulated through a system of ‘‘dogmas’’  or ‘‘mandatory beliefs’’ concerning the understanding of God and the way he saves or benefits humans. A significant feature of this faith has been its ability to engage with reason since its first appearance within Greco Roman classical culture. Indeed, for some authors, the cognitive form of the Christian religion is the synthesis between a positive, revealed religion of Semitic origin and the rational framework provided by ancient Greek philosophy. However, this synthetic encounter has not always been peaceful and is far from simple, and sometimes contrasts blatantly with the dogmatic – i. e., not open to rational enquiry – nature of its principles. It  would seem that  this  cognitive framework is rather based on a permanent tension and dialectic between faith and reason, a tension that  continually arises in the ongoing struggle to cope with new standards of rationality in the long history of Christianity. The permanent   struggle  with   reason  has   been deemed a sign of vitality for a religion called to actualize permanently its core beliefs through innovation and dialogue. Furthermore, a symptom of the ‘‘rational incompleteness’’ of Christian faith is the irresolvable dialectic between its apophatic and cataphatic aspects – mysterious/ mystic and  affirmative/rational.  As a  result, the  Christian  faith experiences a polarization of  cognitive expressions, along  the  dualistic schema, which distinguishes faith as an experience of the  mystery or  the  limits of human intelligence and faith as a way of understanding and deepening human knowledge. Even if the first seems to give rise to a ‘‘religion of mystics’’ and the second to a ‘‘religion of intellectuals,’’ Christianity has kept both ways as legitimate expressions of the same faith.

Christianity has a plurality of religious practices along its confessional lines. The  tension arises this time between a more sacramental communitarian trend and a more introspective personal    one.    Most    mainline    Christian communities  express  their  faith  through   a double ritual schema: the public reading and comment (preaching) of the canonical scriptures (the Bible) and the celebration of sacraments or rituals of mediation of divine force (grace). The second way of religious expression is through personal prayer, which has multiple expressions. A good deal of Christianity looks for a complementarity and balance of both dimensions, the ritual and the spiritual, but the achievement of balance varies among different Christian confessions and  even  within  the  same confession, allowing for different spiritual traditions.

Since its first days, Christian faith has been seen as a religion presided over by a quite strict moral code, struggling with an environment of more lax standards. However, Christianity has adapted its moral code to several different cultures, and has shown a certain degree of flexibility in the process. In this respect, a moral tension  has  been  kept  alive, among successive  apocalyptic  waves,  reform  movements, and  the  permanence of groups of ‘‘religious virtuosi,’’ more  prone  to  strictness  and  to stress the difference between Christian fellow ship and a worldly way of life. Christian morality has tended  to  be more communitarian, emphasizing engagement for  others  or  ‘‘love of neighbor.’’  These  ethics of mutual  dependence and responsibility, however, are grounded on a strong call to self awareness and the personal  divine  call  to  mission.  It  seems  that only with this sense of individuality and personal freedom before God and his norms is it able to provide for a moral schema of social responsibility.

Christianity has been from its very beginning organized in communities of hierarchical structure, which constitute the ‘‘church.’’ The term is applied to all Christian people – at least those belonging to the same confession – and, in a more  limited  fashion, to  any  community  of believers led by a pastor or priest that gathers periodically for ritual, instruction, and exchange, and offers different services to the community at large. The communitarian emphasis is not taken for granted in any part of this large religious spectrum. Indeed, some forms of Christianity have adopted a more individualistic stance. Conversely, church  activity has evolved in  many areas into a kind of ‘‘agency’’ providing rituals and other services to a broad public, changing significantly its meaning and becoming less personal. A second organizational trait concerns the balance between ‘‘church’’ – as institution – and ‘‘sect.’’ Christianity has lived the normal process, typified by every religious movement, of evolution from a more sectarian reality to  a more institutional, open form: the ‘‘church.’’ It is not easy to know how long the process lasted, even if it appears that quite early Christianity took  on  an  institutional,  less  apocalyptically oriented, form. Thus,  a dual schema has persisted within the Christian organization, predominantly as an institutional church but leaving room for sectarian expressions, which historically harbored minorities of greater religious intensity.  At  the  moment  Christianity  has a multiplicity  of  organizational forms,  ranging between both extremes of the spectrum: church, denominations, cults, and sects.

Also in this case a plural panorama is noted, as Christianity has developed many models of relationship with its social environment. Many scholars, from inside and outside the Christian field,  have  tried  to  objectify this  plurality, which ranges from the extreme of total integration and cooperation to the opposite, of distinction and sharp contrast. This configuration has given rise to several political systems as well (Niebuhr 1951). Even if historically Christian churches  have  tried  to  ‘‘Christianize’’ their respective  societies, raising  moral  standards, promoting their own agenda, or implementing ‘‘Christian policies,’’ more frequently they have looked for  accommodation within  the  social conditions of their context, adapting to successive changes. This, however, does not exclude moments of confrontation and resistance, or of unrest  and  social criticism, very often nourished by apocalyptic expectations. Yet, almost always, these  tendencies have been  those  of the minority, and have represented only factions  of  a  particular  intensity,  searching for social change or inspired by radical interpretations of biblical texts. Mainline Christianity has adopted a more ‘‘realistic stance’’ in its relationship with constituted powers, often serving even as a legitimizing agency, and has reacted only when the conditions for its survival have been threatened. In this respect, it is difficult to conclude whether  Christian  faith  favors any kind  of  political  or  social agenda,  as  some authors  have suggested. A kind of flexibility presides over its influence, which perhaps is to be seen at a different level: that of providing moral commitment and ideological empowerment to any cause deemed worthy of fighting for.

Christianity  As A Sociological Question

The sociological understanding of Christianity has dealt with several problems, which sometimes have challenged, and still do, the scientific enterprise. A very short list would include: the historic question on the origins and rise of Christian  faith,  the  paradoxical  relationship between Christian religion and modernity, and the enigma of secularization or the possible end of religion.

(1) From a sociological point of view, Christian origins seem to offer a ‘‘case study’’ on the ‘‘probability of the improbable,’’ to use Luhmann’s expression. The rational reasons which might explain the success of a religious movement  fail in  this  respect.  Almost everything conspired for the  failure of this  project: the disastrous end of its founder, the persecutions suffered from the beginning by his followers, the  hostile  environment  encountered  among Jews and pagans. Modern times have seen several attempts to rationalize the rise of Christianity and to supply an answer to the question of its unexpected success. Liberal understandings of biblical criticism have pointed to the eschatological strength of the new religion, able to  convey the  anxieties of a segment of the population at that  time. Marxism has shown the ability of that faith to inspire an expectation of fulfillment for masses living in the midst of miserable conditions. Nietzsche has denounced the Christian maneuver of inverting values in order to satisfy the resentment of the weakest. The  list  may be  enriched  with  many  other kinds of arguments. Recently, more sophisticated sociological analysis has endeavored to decipher  some of the  clues of Christianity’s success, in a close alliance with insights offered by   modern   biblical  scholarship.  It   seems, according to this point of view, that the growth rate, through conversion, in early Christianity is not much higher than that observed in other processes of religious conversion (Stark 1996). Class, gender, and social structure are some of the factors contributing to the positive trend, and engagement with the needy, especially in times of crisis, convinced ever greater numbers of people of the advantages – rationally speaking – inherent in such a religion. It must be said,  however,  that  aside  from  the  fruitful engagement of biblical studies with sociology, the explanations provided by a more rational stance  do  not  exclude,  or,  for  that  matter, require the presence of what can be called the ‘‘religious factor’’ or  some measure of ‘‘religious capital.’’

(2) The problematic relationship between Christianity and modern society has been shown, perhaps better  than anybody else, by Max Weber. In  The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1906) and later works, the German sociologist struggled with the foundational role of this faith as a necessary element for the  configuration of the  modern  western world, social differentiation, and the development of science. Weber was concerned with the historical data which showed the lack of modern forms outside of the Christian matrix, and researched the positive role played by Protestant ethics and subsequent strictness in the development of capitalist societies, even if the causal relationship was minimized as a mere ‘‘elective affinity.’’ The  relationship could be broadened, as Christianity is discovered as a factor of greater rationalization in diverse fields, theoretical and practical, anticipating a modern trend.  Furthermore,  Christianity is perceived as a key driver in the rationalization process, either  in  the  theoretical  or  in  the  practical dimension, and as contributing to modern development. For Weber, the dialectics between Christianity and  modernity are, nevertheless, more complex. Modernity  may be seen as a result of mature Christian expression, but  at the same time as a factor resulting in religious crisis. Indeed, the faith that helped give birth to the modern world later suffers the pressure of modern differentiation and disenchantment (Entzauberung),  which deprives it of its ideological and practical basis. In  a further  step, Weber has conjoined religious crisis and personal disruptions  brought  on  by the  lack of a framework  where  certain  values  and  senstivities find  their  support.  Other  sociologists have tried  to better  understand  this complex relationship, which very often appears as paradoxical: it seems that modern society can go on neither with nor without Christian faith. Functional  analysis has  demonstrated  the  needed contribution of this religion for social processes in advanced societies. That ‘‘function’’ may be construed in many ways, from the classically attributed  or acknowledged capacity of social integration and moral enforcement to the more abstract views of Luhmann: the ‘‘management of contingency,’’ the ‘‘semantic openness that allows evolution,’’ and the ‘‘blocking of reflexivity’’ needed to avoid an unmanageable number of paradoxes (Luhmann 1977, 2000). At the same time, sociologists may be concerned with the negative effects that may unleash an ‘‘excess of  religious faith,’’ undermining  the  proper functioning of a society intended as a system. There  is currently  a lack of empirical proof regarding the  possibility of a modern society without – at least some measure of – Christian religious presence.

(3) The last observations point to the third question: ‘‘secularization’’ as a dynamic affecting the essence of Christian faith, threatening its existence and giving rise to dark expectations. Even if the  discussion around  the  so called ‘‘secularization thesis’’ remains  active, some agreement has been reached on the study pertaining to the Christian origins of the secularization process, intended as a byproduct of modernization. Many see the secularization question as a ‘‘Christian question,’’ i.e., as a problem arising from the constituency of the Christian   faith,  which  has  conceded  great autonomy in many spheres of action and long acknowledged the  special dignity  of  rational inquiry. In that sense Christianity creates the conditions for the possibility of its own historical demise, as social differentiation makes that faith more dispensable and scientific progress seems to  make it  more  irrelevant.  In  other words, it would seem that the Christian faith may be more vulnerable to practical dissolution than others, being too prone to accommodation to social realities, which in the end leave no space for religious affirmation. The  question refers to the Weberian perception of a kind of ‘‘social incompleteness’’  which requires in some ways the presence of the religious element that helped to implement such a society. Thus, the more a society becomes secularized, the more it needs a Christian reference. The  situation is perceived as  very  problematic, from  both  a theoretical and empirical point of view: first, because, as Lo¨with (1949) has demonstrated, many ideas and  values of modernity are the outcome of a secularized process of Christian ideas and values, and no one knows if these values can survive completely outside of a religious matrix; second, because the survival of a society without religion is still an open question,  and  a  greater  question  is  posed  as  to whether ‘‘modern social configuration’’ might find  a  firmer  foundation  by means of other secular or religious forms once the ‘‘Christian capital’’ has been exhausted.

Christian  Faith  And Sociology: An Open Question

At a deeper level, Christianity may be seen as a kind   of  ‘‘competing  instance’’  with   social science, and sociology as a renewed attempt to accomplish the enlightened tendency to ‘‘religion’s Aufhebung,’’ or its suppression and replacement   by   rational   means.   Since   August Comte,  sociological endeavor  has  been  suspected of presupposing the dissolution of religion,  and  the  sociological understanding  of society has been perceived as being incompatible with the religious one. This applies particularly to western Christianity, because it has kept its own ‘‘theory of society,’’ its own view of the goals, limits, and means of social action, which have been challenged by a more enlightened   or   rational  program   (Hervieu Leger 1986). Recent theological approaches have radicalized the  perceived tension and denounced the aporetic character of the attempt to provide a secular program for social development, because of the  violent and  nihilistic basis of such a voluntaristic enterprise (Milbank 1990). The relationship between sociology and Christianity has been marked by conflict and signed by warfare until  very recently. As any other social science, sociology has  been  suspected of applying a ‘‘reductive stance’’ to Christian realities, hiding any element which could not be completely rationalized. The  suspicion has at times reached empirical sociology, deemed as unable to ‘‘observe’’ what is, by definition, an inside and mysterious unobservable reality.

This,  however, is  only a  part  of  the  story. There   is   yet   a   tradition   of   collaboration between  Christian  faith  and  social  studies. Surely  there  is  no  other  religion so able to integrate and to make good use of sociological research, as this faith has, more often than not, accepted the challenge of rational inquiry, even when  applied  to  itself.  Furthermore,   it  is important to consider the fact of the existence of sociologists working often for church agencies and, more interestingly, recent trends in sociological research which have stressed a less reductive approach and a disposition to acknowledge a place, even a ‘‘rational weight,’’ to the ‘‘religious factor,’’ though they may apply an economic method for better understanding it (Iannaccone 1998; Stark & Finke 2000).

References:

  1. Brown, R. L. (1996) The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, AD 200 1000. Black- well, Oxford.
  2. Hervieu-Leger, (1986) Versun nouveau christianisme? Introduction a la sociologie du christianisme occidental. Cerf, Paris.
  3. Iannaccone, R. (1998) Introduction  to the Economics of Religion. Journal of Economic Literature 36: 1465 96.
  4. Lo¨with, (1949) Meaning in History. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  5. Luhmann,  (1977) Funktion der Religion. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main.
  6. Luhmann,  (2000) Die Religion der Gesellschaft. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main.
  7. Milbank,  (1990)  Theology and  Social  Theory. Blackwell, Oxford.
  8. Niebuhr, R. (1951) Christ and Culture. Harper & Row, New York.
  9. Stark, (1996) The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders  History. Princeton  University  Press, Princeton.
  10. Stark, & Finke, R. (2000) Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion. University of California Press, Berkeley.
  11. Weber, (1958 [1906]) The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York.

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