On anonymous Christianity

By “anonymous Christianity” I mean the idea that most or all people who are not believing Christians (perhaps having never been exposed to Christianity, perhaps having consciously rejected it) are nevertheless unconsciously Christians, in the sense that Christianity is their implicit belief system that grounds their explicit, consciously-acknowledged beliefs.  Furthermore, these people are in a state of grace, perhaps attenuated, without knowing it.

The claim is prima facia implausible but has been debated seriously in Catholic circles.

One common objection is that it seems to reduce the importance of explicit faith, the Christian Churches, and evangelization.  These would then only bring people to explicit recognition of what they already knew deep down.  I don’t find this objection decisive.  In matters of belief, bringing to consciousness is no small thing.  Consider Socrates teaching the slave geometry.  Even if it were true that the knowledge lay somehow dormant in the slave’s mind beforehand, that doesn’t reduce the importance of explicit recognition.  Recognizing the value of explicit knowledge of ultimate truths, it would also not be true that missionary work is pointless if heathen are not damned.  (This argument is like the one that without hell there would be no incentive to be moral, which only makes the orthodox sound like moral cretins.)  In any case, anonymous believers would not have anonymous sacraments of which to avail themselves and so would surely be living deprived lives by Catholic standards.

Because Rahner himself seems to have thought that his system would aid the evangelization of modern culture, it is a fair practical objection that it has completely failed in this regard.  Me-too-ism is never an effective apologetic tool–there is no point taking notice of a religion unless it is (as Chesterton put it) right where we are wrong–so to the extent that anonymous Christianity demands we endorse secular culture and the apparent beliefs and sentiments of secular people, it is a failure.  A more consistent application of the theory would be to dismiss the apparent beliefs of non-Catholics as inauthentic, but I doubt this would win any open-mindedness for our beliefs.  I myself find it less obnoxious to be told that my beliefs are wrong than that they are not really my beliefs and that strangers know my own mind better than I do.

More importantly, anonymous Christianity seems to be incompatible with the nature of the Christian faith.  First, the Christian faith includes contingent, temporally tensed statements such as “Jesus died for our sins” which cannot be part of the generic human consciousness, if nothing else than because there were times before these statements were true.  I know that some even of the Fathers believed that there were Christians before Christ (e.g. the Patriarchs of ancient Israel), but to seriously maintain this one must allow that statements like “Jesus died for our sins” are not an essential part of the faith.  Second, the faith is supposed to be supernatural, which would imply that doctrines like the Trinity should not be able to be read off from the default cognitive structure of the human mind.  If we strip everything in the faith that could not possibly be held anonymously, we are left not with an anonymous Christianity but, at best, an anonymous Deism.  So what anonymous Christianity boils down to is the liberal Protestant belief that deep down Christianity is just Deism.

So we should instead debate what happens to anonymous Deists when they die, with the hope that God will show them mercy for at least not being explicit Deists.

6 Responses

  1. You’re a professor, so you know that writing easier tests is one way to improve student grades. I know professors in the sciences who believe in the academic universalism of A’s for everyone. But the academic grift that comes closest to what you describe is clairvoyant appreciation of hidden merit in essays, where one sees through factual errors and grammatical blunders to splendid spirit of the thing.

    As with the concept of anonymous Christians, all of these grifts have two aims: to make the lazy grifter look compassionate and to up the graduation rate. I think there is a case for the virtuous Pagan who would have been Christian had that been a real option for him, but anonymous Christianity sounds like a mad scheme to declare that the Church is bursting at the seams while the churches are being torn down or converted into Jumping World franchises.

  2. In contrast to JMSmith, I understand the concept as acknowledging the fact that the religion of modernity, and most especially its liberal sect, could only have descended from, or arisen within, Christianity, in the way that Christianity could only have arisen within the later Roman world. Everyone is free and equal and must devote themselves to moral excellence, including nonviolence and universal, undifferentiated altruism? How do you derive that from atoms in the void?

    That said, if “anonymous Christianity” means that they really, at heart, are Christians in some way that counts, I don’t agree. Liberal modernity is an incoherent religion that owes its specific characteristics to nostalgia for the form of coherence that it rejected and abandoned.

  3. Paul @ That’s a good point, but I think “vestigial Christianity” might be a better name for it. Anonymous Christian seems to imply that they remain Christians in some theologically relevant way, having only lost a conscious identity as such. But it seems to me that their Christianity is vestigial in the same way that Christians bear, even today, traces of vestigial Paganism.

    I agree with what you say about a coherent worldview grounded in natural science. Its natural ethos is rational hedonism, despair, or existentialism. In fact, I see in myself a good deal of existentialist will to enact something more than the traces of vestigial Christianity. I once confessed on the Orthosphere that I may do this out of spite.

  4. The Church long before Rahner held that some individuals in the pagan world might achieve salvation without conscious knowledge of Christ, but this was considered greatly limited, this limitation being sufficient adherence to the conscience that all men are given.

    Rahner, and Balthasar, took the road of universalism. Everyone gets to Heaven, regardless. This entirely deprives this world of meaning. Why didn’t God just stick us all in Heaven straight away? What is the purpose of this life? Universalism would imply that God is a monster, subjecting all of mankind, not excluding His Son, to the suffering of this life for no purpose whatsoever. Of course, it is also a perfect recipe for utter immorality, for, in human terms, only a fool would abstain from his desires if there are no consequences.

    Ralph Martin’s ‘Will Many be Saved’ is a good read on all this.

  5. […] and Altar considers why Pope Francis is allowing idolatry in his church. Also, an examination of the concept of Anonymous Christians, being those who are unconsciously […]

  6. That idea is probably so seductive because everyone implicitly understands the nature of crypto-calvinism.

    Much of the words *is* anonymously christian. They adopt a framework of ideas that comes from the christian tradition.

    That just makes it harder to recognize the reality of paganism and incomplete christianity. Billions of people adopt christian ideas and frameworks, but not christ. This makes their salvation so much harder to come by.

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