What is Christianity?

I just started working my way through Brian McClaren’s Finding Our Way Again, a book which serves as an introduction to a series of volumes on spiritual practices (sometimes also called “spiritual disciplines”).

In the first chapter, McClaren recounts a remark that was once made by Dr. Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline, and one of the fathers of systems analysis. In short, Senge remarked that writings on Buddhism were becoming increasingly popular because Buddhists present their religion as a way of life, rather than a system of beliefs. Christianity presents a system of belief, he said, but people are seeking a way of life.

McClaren observes that this is not an “either/or” proposition. Religion in any form can – and probably should be – BOTH a system of belief AND a way of life. However, insofar as Christianity is concerned, the tension between the two has proven difficult to manage.

At the end of the first chapter, McClaren invites us to think of this tension on a grid that looks like this:


From left to right is an axis that represents an increasing conviction that Christianity is a way of life. From bottom to top is an axis that represents an increasing conviction that Christianity is a system of beliefs. Thus, those whose convictions lie in quadrant II are will tell you that Christianity is what you believe. One cannot be “Christian,” they say, unless one is in agreement with certain central teachings of the Church.

Those in quadrant IV, by contrast, see Christianity as a way of life. Their Christianity, so to speak, is about living in the way of Jesus. If you are committed to living as Jesus lived, they will say, it isn’t particularly important that you conceive of God, or Jesus, or God’s “plan” in a particular way.

Quadrant I is inhabited by people who don’t care to define Christianity in either sense. Some of them,for example, might conceive of themselves as Christians because they were born into a culture and/or family that is primarily Christian, but they don’t have strong convictions about what Christians ought to hold as true, nor about how Christians should conduct themselves.

Quadrant III represents an approach to Christianity that holds belief AND practice in high regard.  In this quadrant, one cannot be “Christian” unless both a commitment to certain core teachings AND a commitment to living as Jesus lived.

Some people will find themselves hovering on the borders between II and III.  “Both ARE important,” they will say, “but in the end your system of belief is more critical.” Similarly, others might dwell on the border between III and IV, thinking of Christianity as primarily a way of life, but a way of life that must be held together – in a rough sense at least – by a particular set of beliefs.

My life can be traced along a trajectory which transitions from II to III, and I now find myself in quadrant III, but with a definite leaning toward quadrant IV.

How about you? Where would you plot yourself on this grid? Where would you have been 5 years ago? 10 years ago?

5 Responses to What is Christianity?

  1. Rob Grayson says:

    Hi Matt,

    Thanks for sharing McLaren’s insight here. I was in quadrant 2 for many years and am now firmly in 3; but also feel the pull towards 4, particularly when I read about those who are very practically working out what the kingdom of God looks like (I’m thinking for example of Shane Claiborne). I wonder why it is that us humans seem to naturally lean towards putting the emphasis on belief rather than practise? I suppose it’s so that we can havev the appearance of holiness thorugh what we say we believe, rather than dealing with the difficulties of living it out.


  2. Yudhi Gejali says:

    Jesus is absolutely teach us to believe first…after that we act and live like believer.
    Christianity is system of belief..absolutely yes…!
    Christianity is always way of life too..
    James said, that “Faith without Work is absolutely nothing!”
    For me…I believe in Jesus, and in this life..i walk with HIM..
    So i am in Quadrant III

  3. Steve says:

    I’m following the same trajectory as you.

    As a mathematician however, I struggled with the grid, since Quadrant I is always the upper right and it goes counter-clockwise from there.

    We mathematicians are weird and highly inflexible people.

  4. Christianity is a way of life. Some people’s way of life is to spend it worrying about their getting system and beliefs right.

  5. Richard says:

    2 to 3 to 4 and now in a kind of Lorenz attractor orbit between 3 and 4.

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