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CHRISTIANITY

by The Rev. Thomas A. Baima, S.T.L.
Catholic Priest, Director of the Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious
Affairs of the Archdiocese of Chicago, and Trustee of The Council for a
Parliament of the World's Religions

The origin of Christianity begins in the heart of God. The Divine nature is Love. Love is not something that comes from God. Love is God and God is love. If a Christian were to name the Divine in English, the best term would be simply "God-Love."

Within God-Love, before time, came an urge to create. This urge was not for pleasure, since God-Love is beyond such things. Rather it was, as Archbishop Joseph Raya says, for the multiplication of love. God created for this reason alone, that love might grow. Divine love by its very nature shares itself.

Made in the image and likeness of God-Love, humanity had the essential quality or condition that makes loving possible, free will. Some humans chose to reject the offer of close relationship with God-Love. This rejection, which we will call sin, entered human experience and remains a permanent part of it. Sin is separation or a false autonomy, false because it is not possible to be or exist independently of God. This false autonomy is the basis of human rejection of God-Love.

The separation between humanity and God-Love required divine action to overcome it. As a permanent part of human nature nothing we could do of our own power could heal the separation. A new offer of relationship by God-Love was required.

So God-Love selected one of the nations of the earth to be a sign and instrument of this divine action. That nation was the Hebrew people. Through a process of self-disclosure, God-Love guided Israel out of slavery into an experience of rescue. God-Love guided Israel through the naming of sin in the Ten Commandments and the calling to virtue through the commands to pray, celebrate sacred ritual and act with compassion.

The guiding and forming of Israel created a sign and instrument which could extend and express God-Love. Throughout almost 2,000 years of faithfulness and struggle, this one people, guided by prophets, priests and kings, was the light of God-Love among the nations.

Then God-Love chose to graft onto this one people all the nations. In a small village in the northern part of Palestine, a young woman became pregnant even though she was a virgin. Though no man had ever touched Mary, Life grew within her. Nine months later "a child was born, a son given, upon whom dominion rested. And the prophet had called him `wonder-counselor, God-hero, Father forever and Prince of Peace.'" Mary named him Jesus -- "God saves."

It is here that Christianity, which began eternally in the heart of God, is made visible in the person and event of Jesus. We who are his disciples have come to see the fullness of revelation from God-Love, of God-Love in him. For this reason we call him Lord, Son of God, Savior. And it is in the teaching of Jesus that we learned something new about the inner life of the one God. Within the Godhead there exist relationships of love -- as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God is personal, not merely as a way to relate to us, but in the very divine being. We would not know this about God had not the Son taken flesh in Jesus of Nazareth and revealed it to us.

In addition to this revelation of the inner life of God, the Lord Jesus taught a way of life that made it possible for God-Love to be experienced as a reality in the world. After his earthly ministry the Lord returned to his Father. He empowered and designated a few of the disciples to carry the teaching on. Thus it has come to us, handed on by living witnesses.

These living witnesses or apostles went out from Jerusalem and founded local assemblies of faith. Like Israel of old, these assemblies were the sign and instrument of the Lord Jesus in that place. It was by the example of love that others became attracted to Christianity. It was through prayer and life within the assemblies that the living witnesses were able to go forth and preach. And it was through incorporation into these assemblies that an individual came to know the Lord Jesus, receive formation in the Teaching, be sanctified in prayer and be guided in the Christian life.

Within these assemblies believers entered into worship of God -- as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Through the singing of psalms, hymns and inspired songs, through the breaking of bread and the prayers, they met the Lord Jesus who sanctified their inner life. Through devotion to the teaching of the apostles, they came to know the revelation of God which Jesus had disclosed in himself.


The primary elements of the Teaching are:

There is one God who is almighty, whom Jesus called Father. This one God is the Creator of heaven and earth. Jesus is the divine and human, only Son of this Father, and as we call God Lord, we call Jesus Lord, for the Father is in him and he is in the Father. The miracle of Jesus' virgin birth attests to this. Jesus suffered at the hands of the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, giving his life in the process. He died and was buried as we all shall be. But he did not remain in the tomb, for God raised him up out of death. His suffering and death broke the chains of sin for all who died before his coming, again making God-Love available to them. He rose from the dead, making life with God now and forever our blessed hope. He ascended, returning into the presence of God-Love from which he came. He sent the Holy Spirit to create the assembly of believers and to be its constant guide in faith, hope and love. He will return to bring time to an end, to judge the living and the dead, and to complete creation with the inauguration of the eternal kingdom of, with, and in God-Love.

These assemblies of faith, formed and guided by the Spirit, also taught a way of conduct based not on law, but virtue. The Lord Jesus taught that all sin in life could be overcome and rooted out of human experience by the avoidance of negative behavior and the substitution of a corresponding virtue. These virtues are seen as active gifts of the Holy Spirit to the believer. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control are the spiritual means to a Christian life.

This simple foundation of doctrine and virtue has been reflected on over the centuries in the development of our understanding. Through prayer, holy women and men have penetrated to the depths of these mysteries guided by the Holy Spirit of God-Love. The assemblies look to four sources for insights to develop the living faith carried in the mind of the whole people of Christ. These are the sources of theological reflection: Scripture, the Oral Tradition, Reason, and Experience.

  1. Scripture includes the Hebrew Scriptures interpreted through the New Testament.

  2. Tradition is the preaching, teaching and ritual which guide the assembly in prayer life, work and worship.

  3. Reason is the application of disciplined thought to understand more fully the mystery.

  4. Experience focuses on the changes within us which doctrine makes.

Faith is handed on through life in the assembly, sometimes through preaching and sometimes through sacred rites. Baptism and Eucharist are the signs and means of entrance into and nourishment of the assembly's life. Confession of sins and anointing with oil heal the spiritual and physical life of the body, while marriage and ordination create, lead, and guide the family and the assembly.

In Christianity today, almost 2,000 years after the ascension of the Lord Jesus, divisions exist. John Wesley, one of the great reformers in England, spoke of a fully balanced Christianity having the four components mentioned above -- Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience -- as the bases of religious knowledge. We could consider the divisions within Christianity to be a function of favoring one or more of these components over the others. Political, economic and other human considerations aside, the division in the Church has resulted from the development of different theological schools which emphasize the different components. For example, the Orthodox are known for their emphasis on Tradition and Experience; the Catholics on Tradition and Reason; the Protestants on Scripture and Reason; and Pentecostals on Scripture and Experience. These differences in emphasis have led to differences in the formulation of doctrine, the number and status of the sacred rites or sacraments, and the authority of the ordered ministries. These emphases have brought each Christian community a deeper insight into faith but also have limited their fellowship with the rest of Christianity.


INTERFAITH RELATIONS

Christians also differ in their relation to non-Christians. These relations are characterized by three positions:

  1. The "exclusive position" holds that a saving relationship with the Lord Jesus is the only way to salvation. In this perspective, those who lack this will suffer forever, excluded from God-Love.

  2. The "pluralist position" sees Christianity as merely one path to God among other religions which also offer the possibility of salvation. This view sees salvation as universal and knowledge of God as relative to culture and tradition.

  3. Between them is the "inclusive position." While holding to the belief that the fullness of revelation came in the person of Jesus and that he is the ordinary way to right relationship with God, here it is believed that God-Love can work beyond this. Hence a Christian may esteem truth where he/she sees it, and we will know it is the truth when it agrees with Jesus and the teaching and example received from him. The revelation of God-Love is fully disclosed in Jesus.

This description of Christianity can in no way capture the breadth, height and depth of the religion. But it is our hope that this summary has presented a glimpse of our life.


Copyright 1993 Thomas A. Baima. All rights reserved.

Approximate Census of Christians Worldwide

ROMAN CATHOLICS: 900 million
ORTHODOX: 125 million
PROTESTANTS AND PENTECOSTALS: 622 million

Taken from A SourceBook for Earth's Community of Religions


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