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). 😛
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.