The Truth of the Christian Fiction: Belief in the Modern Age
by Donald E. Miller
Dr. Miller is assistant professor of sociology of religion at the University of Southern California. This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 31, 1979, p. 97. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Despite the growth of conservative expressions of Christianity during the past decade, many liberal Protestants and Catholics have found that Christian faith is for them increasingly perplexing and ambiguous. The membership losses in mainline Protestant denominations indicate that, at least for some sectors of the population, religious commitment is becoming more problematic. Although changes in church membership and attendance figures may stem from a variety of causes, theological reasons should not be neglected in favor of an exclusive focus on psychological and sociological explanations (that is the failure of Dean Kelley’s now-famous argument linking the decline of liberal churches to the lack of institutional demand).
A Crisis of Faith
In my experience as a more-than-casual observer, many liberal Christians are marginal in their commitment to the church for primarily theological rather than sociological reasons. The recent statement on homosexuality issued by the United Presbyterian Church, the issue of ordaining women in the Episcopal Church, and a host of other lesser and greater concerns provide the occasion for disenchantment -- but they are not its source. In my view, those individuals who are not merely switching denominations but dropping out of church participation altogether have experienced a strain in their fundamental belief structure in regard to the principal theological elements of the Christian faith. If this assertion is correct, the “precondition” for the church dropout is a crisis of faith -- an event which may take place at an almost subliminal level, given the theological inarticulateness of those churchgoers who are unable to conceptualize even to themselves the ambiguities in their understanding of their Christian identity.
In some ways this argument is a strange one for a sociologist of religion to make. My professional commitments should tend to bias me toward more subtle social-psychological explanations. But sometimes sociologists are blind to the fact that people do not attend church merely for reasons of social status and psychic relief; they are also thinking, contemplative individuals who bring an inquiring mind to their quest for meaning. My focus in this discussion, consequently, is theological; it reflects my own theological pilgrimage and my evolving understanding of the Christian faith (cf. “Returning to the Fold: Disbelief Within the Community of Faith,” The Christian Century, September 21, 1977). What follows is not so much a description as a prescription of what may constitute an adequate faith for this final quarter of the 20th century.
My argument is not addressed to those who feel comfortable in their faith, who read the Bible regularly and are nurtured by that experience, and who pray with no difficulty. Rather, my concern is directed to those who contemplate prayer with troubled spirits (wondering what kind of psychological trick they may be playing on themselves), who try to read the Bible (but question Paul’s right to tell them how to understand Jesus, let alone their own existence), and who seek an all-embracing identity as a “Christian” (but realize how divided are their loyalties).
Form and Substance
I part company with many in the evangelical camp not on pietistic grounds but on epistemological grounds. Many of those of the “born-again” persuasion believe that Reality is identical with the written text of Scripture and that salvation comes through assent to a set of doctrinal statements. In contrast to the literalism of such individuals, I must confess to having been influenced heavily by the social sciences in my interpretation of how meaning systems are created and evolve; although I view the New Testament writings as foundational to Christian faith and practice, I see them also as “social constructions” which are the natural by-product of a community’s struggle with questions of meaning and faith. Furthermore, I do not regard God or Ultimate Reality as identical with the creedal statements or liturgical forms of which we are heirs.
Having stated these reservations, I nonetheless assert that Christianity is true. I believe it is true despite the fact that I simultaneously see our conceptualizations of Jesus and God, and the liturgical forms with which we celebrate their presence within our community of faith, as the creative products of individuals wrestling with their own fate.
What may sound paradoxical in my affirmation -- namely, that Christianity is both true and a product of human creativity -- can be clarified by making a distinction between “form” and “substance.” The “form” which theological expression takes is always that of symbol and metaphor. As literal forms, these symbols and metaphors are “fictions.” God is never identical with an image or conceptualization. To identify the “form” of theological expression as fictional does not,. however, discount the “substance” or reality to which these “forms” may point. The power of a theological fiction is its transparency to the reality which it portrays. The literalist’s mistake is to think that form and substance are one and the same. Distinguishing between form and substance enables one to recognize the human element in the social construction of religious expression without denigrating the reality of that which is encountered in religious experience.
The Reification Process
Religious doctrine attempts to articulate the nature and character of the Ultimate Mystery, but it always falls short. Why? Because theology is the product of finite beings engaged in a reflective process that is always tempered by the limitations of the intellect at work. The best the Christian theologian can hope for is to contribute to the comprehension of that one, Jesus, who was most transparent to the Ultimate. Jesus, as we know him, is no less a symbolic form than the other socially constructed fictions which have emerged from the genius of individuals within the Christian community. To say that is not to discount his historical reality -- just as I do not discount the assertion that substance may underlie form -- but it is to say that reality, on whatever level, is always conceptualized from the perspective and interests of the individual.
Where religious communities (and individuals) go awry is in forgetting the human, and therefore finite and limited, authorship of all conceptualizations of the Ultimate. Reification is that process by which an abstraction or approximation comes to be treated as a concrete reality. Doctrines and creeds are in their origin a product of human imagination. The historical tendency, however, is to forget that they are mere conceptualizations and to see them as being identical with reality itself. In the words of sociologist Peter Berger, this is the moment of “alienation”: the point at which human authorship is denied and nonhuman origin attributed.
The doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture is a good example of the reification process. At the time of writing, the authors of the biblical text surely were never audacious enough to believe that they were uttering “holy writ.” They were writing letters to friends, offering churchly counsel, constructing biographical accounts, or fashioning interpretations to make sense of what they had experienced.
It was only after some historical distance had been reached that a doctrine of verbal inspiration could arise. (At a time when individuals were haggling over which books should make it into the canon, it would have been laughable to argue the line taken by some fundamentalist literalists -- that every word is inspired by God. And theologians as notable as Luther later raised arguments as to whether the early councils had indeed chosen rightly in what they had included and excluded.) To “humanize” the biblical texts by pointing to their human authorship is not to discount their importance as the foundational documents on which the church stands; but such an approach does remove the idolatrous authority with which the words are sometimes stamped, thus acknowledging their social and historical rootedness.
Fiction and Myth
For modern individuals who are the intellectual heirs of Kant, the Romantics, and the Enlightenment, the mind is better imaged as a lamp than as a mirror. A mirror reflects reality as it is; such an assumption undergirds biblical literalism. In contrast, a lamp is directional; it illuminates different things depending on where it is situated and how it is positioned. Using this model, we can see that the biblical writers were expressing the “reality” illuminated by their own interests and dispositions; they were reflectors of the discourse and concerns of their individual communities.
It is from this latter epistemological perspective that we must understand the writings which constitute our Scriptures as well as the doctrinal and creedal statements which fill church history. What is given in the Bible we read, the creeds we recite and the doctrines which guide our perceptions is what seemed important to the authors of these documents as they reflected the concerns -- social, political and psychological -- of their communities and of themselves. To call these “forms” which we encounter in Christianity “social constructions” or “fictions” is not disrespectful to their intentions. It simply expresses the way in which meaning systems come into being.
The most basic fact of human experience is the recognition of our finitude and limitations. At every point we are faced with the limits to our abilities to reflect on, and then to represent, the reality we encounter. This fact is particularly evident when we attempt to speak of what is Holy and Absolute. Fictional representation through symbol and metaphor is the only means whereby we can describe that which exceeds human comprehension. Myth enables us to structure insights that will allow us to follow our quest for holistic explanations of the cosmos and to understand the meaning of our personal existence in all its ramifications. It is from this perspective that I say Christianity rests on fiction and myth -- there being no other form which could enable us to speak of something so encompassing in its concerns.
Yet despite the abstract and metaphysical quality of some of our questions, we desire to express our religious faith in concrete and highly visible ways. Stated differently: we are both mind and body, and we consequently apperceive reality on both levels. Thus, we use highly concrete symbols in our worship, with architectural dynamics playing a not insignificant part in what one feels and experiences. The smell and taste of wine and bread, the visual ambience created by stained-glass windows, the costuming of priests and ministers -- these appeals to the senses all contribute to an impression that one is not in the profane world of everyday life. We are inextricably both flesh and spirit. Worship appeals in a highly integrated way to both these modes of perception and experience. The temptation, however, is to reify: to make these symbols holy as if they were identical with the reality to which they point -- when, in fact, they are the product of creative impulse. To reify is to engage in idolatry. Protestants and Catholics alike have forgotten the warnings explicit within the Old Testament. And that is the pathology of some forms of Christian faith and practice: individuals mistake their own creations, and those of the historic church, for the Mystery itself. Orthodox, fundamentalist and evangelical expressions of Christianity have all been susceptible to this perversion.
Vessels of the Holy
The theological confusions of many Christians at the present moment may in a strange way serve as a deterrent to idolatry. The lack of certitude about the nature of God may actually represent a healthy respect for the dangers of substituting human forms for Holy Substance. In fact, to argue that all religious forms are social fictions is to be faithful to the ancient Jewish custom of refusing to utter the name of God, as well as to the modern insight that the human elaboration of reality is as much a statement about one’s personal interests as it is a statement about the nature of reality itself. I am not arguing for solipsism -- the theory that the self can be aware of nothing but its own experiences and that nothing exists or is real but the self -- but I am suggesting that what we call reality within the religious sphere is a product of the dialectic between the individual with hand-held lamp and the truth which lies beyond the full reach of the beam’s illumination. Hence, our attempts at describing this Reality are always partial and appropriately identified as “fictional.”
But for the theologically troubled Christian who begins to identify Christianity as resting on fictive forms, the temptation is to dismiss the “forms” of the church (including both liturgy and doctrine) as being misrepresentations of the truth. This tendency rests on the mistaken idea that one could possibly have a nonfictional representation of Ultimate Reality. Perhaps most fundamentalists and a goodly number of evangelicals believe that such a thing is possible (that is, that the Bible is a “mirror” rather than a “lamp” to Reality), but I am not certain that those who embrace a post-Kantian epistemology can agree.
Ironically, many highly sophisticated individuals who forsake Christianity do so on grounds that have a closer affinity to the nonrelativistic stance of evangelicals than to any position represented by their own neo-Kantian ancestors. Which is to say, they reject Christianity because the “forms” are perceived to be socially constructed fictions, though they are aware that conceptualization of “the thing in itself” is impossible.
I see no reason why Christians cannot recite the creeds, participate in the sacrament of the Eucharist, and enjoy the rich symbolic structure of the church without feeling that they are somehow being hypocritical if they do not literally believe what they are affirming. Not to do so is to be imprisoned within a pre-Kantian world view. The power of the church’s “forms” is not that they are identical with the Divine. Their purpose is to be vessels of the Holy, vehicles that point beyond themselves to the Ultimate Reality which imbues these fictional representations with power. To recite the creeds and to read the Scriptures as part of one’s worship is to acknowledge that one stands in a history in which others have struggled to articulate the nature of the ultimate and the appropriate response to be made to it.
The Symbolic Form of Jesus
It is from the perspective outlined above that I understand “the way to God as being through Christ.” The Christ of the New Testament is that symbolic form presented to us by the Christian community of the first several centuries and is the form through which they understood their relatedness to God. It continues to be the symbolic form we use to talk to each other about the meaning of life, death and suffering. The symbolic representation of Jesus in the New Testament is not identical with the man who lived in the first century who was called Jesus. Yet this “form” symbolized in the eucharistic feast is imbued with the meaning which Jesus mediated to those early Christians who quested after a fuller experience of their Creator. The fiction which those individuals created was not without relation to the man who healed and taught and fed the multitudes, but his life was interpreted from the consciousness (and interests) of those who sought meaning for their own personal lives.
The symbolic form of Jesus changes expression as Christians of each new generation seek to understand the meaning of life in their historical period (even though the reference point is always that image presented in the New Testament documents). The theologians of the fifth, 12th, 19th and 20th centuries are many times removed from the Jesus of history. They interact not with the Jesus of Nazareth but with the symbolic representations of that man as pictured in the New Testament documents and the history of theological reflection -- the latter being the inevitable lens through which the documents of the New Testament are read.
This is not to say, however, that the theologian writing today is creating without the benefit of the Spirit. The power of Christ in our time correlates precisely with the degree to which we are able to participate in the symbolic representations of which we are heirs and therein to experience, the “substance” which lies behind the “forms.”
The possibility exists that there is nothing present within the “forms.” It is on this point that the man or woman of faith is distinguished from the one who is agnostic to the claim of an Ultimate Reality. The error of too many individuals experiencing a crisis of faith is their assumption that in identifying the “forms” as fictive they have committed themselves to an agnostic position. There is a difference between the Substance (God) and its representational forms. We are condemned to fictions -- at least on the level of human expressions or representations of the Holy. The mystery of the Christian experience, however, is that there is a Reality which stands both within and beyond our humanly created symbols.
Toward a More Mature Theology
Many liberal Christians today may be in the same position as those romantics of the 18th and 19th centuries who, having given up the God of the neoclassicists, returned to the church for solace and spiritual renewal. For these individuals, truth was not identical with the symbols of the church themselves, but these symbolic representations provided the avenue for experiencing the Ultimate. In quite a literal sense, the church was for them the repository of truth -- though in a much different way than for many of their contemporaries.
And we, I suspect, may be in a similar situation today: many liberal Christians may superficially resemble their evangelical brothers and sisters. They may say the same words and participate in the same eucharistic feast. Yet they mean something quite different when they recite the creeds or take communion. For them, the Reality is not identical with the “form” -- the “form” is fictive, the biblical accounts are mythic -- and yet tradition has proven them to be alive with meaning and consequently an avenue to the Holy. Therefore, the liberal or radical Christian may be as devoted to the church, to Christ, to the importance of worship as the evangelical who takes a more literal view of the symbols which empower the church.
Finally, to those who are experiencing a crisis of faith, contemplating for reasons of integrity their abstention from worship and the life of the church, I would argue that God can neither be experienced in the abstract nor conceptualized intellectually without tapping the fictive power of the imagination. The Christian church is a human community, and though its forms are fictive, the witness is that there is One who stands beyond final representation who undergirds these fictions. To doubt radically the validity of the symbolic representations of the Christian faith may be the first step toward embracing a more mature theology which does not mistake, in idolatrous fashion, God as being identical with the manifold expressions of God.