Shopfront Religion

Most people assume they know what Christianity is:

A set of competing explanations for things in the world.  Hence the refusal of some people to investigate Christian claims “because they believe in science” as a mutually exclusive choice.

A lifestyle choice.  The church provides community and rituals which give people a sense of purpose and fulfilment in life.

A moral code.  The Bible provides a pattern for a consistent and decent life.

Though Christianity does involve explanation, lifestyle and morality, it is not fundamentally any of these things.  A far more accurate was to see the Biblical claims as a whole is as a paradigm shift – they ask us to completely revisit how we link everything together.  We are promised a deeper and more consistent explanatory framework for understanding both ourselves and the wider reality in which we live.  But in return, we are asked to revisit everything we think we know.  This means we can’t just pick up isolated pieces of the the Bible and weigh them using our existing models for explaining reality. Christianity truly makes sense only as a comprehensive vision encompassing life, the universe and everything (including the transcendent God).  If we split pieces out of this vision and try to jam them into an existing time-bound picture of reality, we will end up with an incoherent mess.  To truly assess Christianity, we must try the whole lot on for size to weigh the internal consistency of the vision it provides.

Most people are unwilling to engage with the Bible on this basis, even those who express a degree of interest in Christian things.  We are prevented by our significant cultural baggage about the nature and content of Christianity.  As children of Christendom, we tend to see Christianity not as an all-encompassing vision for reality, but as a declining institution (i.e. the church) – an oppressive organisation more concerned with control than truth.  Moreover, as children of the Enlightenment we have all absorbed with our mothers milk a way of seeing the world that puts the individual mind at the centre of everything.  From Descartes onwards, human beings turned in rather than out to find a foundation on which to build a description of the ‘world out there.’

This very modern conception of the self has made our lifestyles very distinctive.  Most of us unthinkingly behave as if a kind of ‘firewall’ separates whatever is most fundamentally us from all our interactions with the ‘world out there’, whether with people, things, or information.  Charles Taylor calls our state the ‘buffered self’, a distinctively Western, post-Enlightenment vision of people as individual minds rather than embodied, communitarian beings.  Largely subconsciously, we put up a ‘buffer zone’, like an invisible wall, separating the ‘me’ from the ‘out there’,  In this paradigm, I see myself as defined most fully by what is within me, and particularly, by what is in my mind.  To modify Decartes’ famous motto: “I am what I think.”

As a result, in this very modern vision of the self, every action and choice in the external world can be viewed as a ‘lifestyle module’, as something we can bolt onto the core reality of the buffered self.  Our jobs, hobbies, entertainments, friends, relationship partners, education – all are external components that can be plugged in as upgrades for our distinct inner being.  They bolt onto our lives in service of our desires.  Lonely?  Plug in a new boyfriend or girlfriend module.  Bored?  Plug in an art, film or music module.  Unfulfilled?  Plug in a travel module or a new job module.  Unhealthy?  Plug in a workout module.  Uninformed?  Plug in a news or education module.

This vision of the self places us amidst a dizzying array of options for finding fulfilment.  Modern life becomes a vast shopfront of different options to be tried on for size, mixed and matched, plugged in and plugged out.  Yet that impermeable barrier, the ‘buffer zone’, always stands between our ‘true’ self and the world out there.  The external modules we bolt on can interest us, stimulate us and boost our self esteem, but we do not see them as fundamentally changing who we are.  There is nothing we plug in that we don’t reserve the right to unplug at will.  It is no surprise in this paradigm that a concept such as no-fault divorce can become the norm, or that many feel so little connection with geographical place, moving at will to seek new work and leisure opportunities.  After all, we reserve the ultimate right to reinvent and redefine ourselves and our connections to the external world whenever and however we want.

This view of our relation to external reality – unprecedented in any other age – has powerfully determined how ‘Moderns’ approach Christian claims. Indeed, if there is a prevailing view of Christianity in late Modernity, it is as just one more optional module that we can bolt onto the self.  This ‘Christianity’ module comes with certain content and routines inbuilt: some guidance for life, some rules to keep, some song to sing, and some rituals to engage in.  It is just one more ‘religion’ module in the shopfront of life’s apparently endless options, sitting on the shelf alongside the Buddhism module, the Hinduism module, the Mindfulness module, and all the rest. 

Hence, the question of whether to ‘plug in’ to Christianity is not a matter of great existential importance, mainly because in this new world order, nothing is a matter of existential importance at all.  There is no option, no religion, no set of norms, no sexual partner, no identity, that can’t just be returned to the store of life’s options if we don’t get on with it.  The significance of anything is effectively decided by how much we decide value it.  In this sense, we are living out the obvious endgame of the consumerist revolution, the great retail motto, extended to all of life: ‘the customer is always right.’  Against this backdrop, the earnest evangelism of some Christians can be frankly a little embarrassing, if not unethical: Christians should shut up and just let people get on with making their own choices.

We will never understand what Christianity is unless we stop seeing it as a lifestyle choice – a bolt-on module – and realise that it breaks across the buffer zone between mind and world, claiming to transform everything.  

One of the most fundamental statements of the Bible is in the opening line of the opening book: “In the beginning, God…”.  Even without any further context or action, this claim establishes that the scope of reality is not determined by us.  Reality is not defined by what we can reach out and grasp from within the buffered safe spaces of our own minds.  Instead, as embodied and contingent beings, we are positioned within a vast and pre-existing reality which is emphatically not within our control.  We are not the defining centre for the understanding of reality.   As such, we need to be open to the idea that God may wish to speak.  There may be things we cannot possibly figure out unless the architect of all reality reveals them to us.

This is exactly the scope that Christianity claims.  It testifies that we cannot reach up into a firm grasp of reality from within the shifting sands of our own certainties and assumptions.  Rather, the infinite and eternal God has situated us in a reality of his own making and speaks to us – if we will listen – through the order of the physical world, through the testimony of our internal conscience, and through the Biblical revelation.  Everything we know is a subset of what God knows.  We do not get to transcribe what the world out there is allowed to consist of.  The choice we all do have is whether to insist on our own epistemic authority or not.  We must decide whether it is more likely that frail, finite beings have the last word on the undergirding truth of a vast and staggering universe, or whether this vast and frankly miraculous reality might speak of things beyond itself. 

So, Christianity is not an external bolt-on to an authoritative and self-existence self.  Rather, the Biblical paradigm provides an all-pervading testimony contextualising who we are, why there is a physical reality that pre-exists us, and the personal nature of the non-physical God by whom and for whom everything exists.  Either this vision transforms everything we know, everything we are, everything we do, or it does nothing.  The Christian testimony blows apart the Modern vision of people buffered consumers who reserve ultimate rights of control and rejection over external influences.

And this is why our prevalent model of human engagement with the world – the consumer model, the bolt-on model – can never properly account for what Christianity claims to be.  If the only reality we admit to is what we permit to filter across the firewall of the self, then we remain forever self-blinded to anything that our own finite, physical, time-bound minds cannot imagine.  Thus we are blind to the possibility of an infinite God who stands outside time, who calls us to a hope that transcends space and time.  We are blind to the fundamental reality of what Christianity claims to be. 

If Christianity is stripped of its transcendent, all-encompassing, all-transforming reality – anything that is not confined to space and time – then all that is left is explanation, lifestyle and ritual.  And since since most people refuse to consider that any transcendent reality exists, it is no wonder that these meagre, worldly things are all that most people allow themselves to see in Christianity.  No wonder that most people don’t even bother to take a look.  But as the apostle Paul says, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.  Here is an explicit admission that a Christianity that is only institution, explanation, lifestyle and / or morality is pitiful.  Effectively, if Christianity is only one more bolt-on option in the shopfront of life choices, then we’re idiots to plug it in.

But if Christianity is what it claims to be – a sharing in the vision and life of a transcendent creator who reaches down to us in love – then our paradigm must change.  If we treat Christianity as a bolt-on module, we will never understand it.