At the beginning of Pope Benedict XVI’s encylical Deus caritas est we are taught what it is to be a Christian. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.
This post is corrected in Christianity Requires People Bonding With Jesus Now! wherein I admit that a Christian religion becomes only an ideology unless a significant number of its members personally bond with Jesus as a real being.
My post on the incompatibility of aceptance of the Sexual Revolution with being a Christian suggests that holding some doctrine about Christ’s making atonement for our sins is a necessary condition for being a Christian. No one may claim that any condition, let alone holding a particular doctrine, is a necessary condition for encountering Christ. Christ can meet whoever He wills and as He wills. We can say that holding some doctrine about atonement or redemption is a necessary condition for an honest claim to be a Christian by a person who also maintains that Jesus was crucified, buried and rose from the dead thereby radically transforming the condition of humanity. Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, was such a Christian.
It is interesting to note that Ratzinger rather reluctantly acknowledged the need for a doctrine of atonement. In his Introduction to Christianity 2nd ed. On pp. 148ff. he contrasts incarnation Christology with Christology of the cross. Incarnation Christology focuses on the work of Christ as forward looking. Christ came to transform humanity so that we could progress to sharing divine nature. Cross Christology focuses on the work of Christ as reaching back to atone for past sins of humanity. He clearly prefers Incarnation Christology but admits Christian doctrine contains both.
Here, though, the question is whether Pope Benedict XVI taught that a personal encounter with Christ is a necessary and perhaps, sufficient condition for being a Christian. In light of his well known rejection of relativism, the answer should be “no.”* Christianity cannot be turned over to people’s personal experiences. But some, relatively few, direct personal encounters with Christ were necessary and have been sufficient for the authentic Christianity of billions of people through two millenia. These relatively few were Jesus’ apostles, disciples and many others who encountered Him before and after His resurrection. The truth of Christian doctrine and action guides for Christian living is based on the witness of those privileged few in apostolic times who saw, heard, touched and trusted Jesus as enabling them to find the way and for what to live. Without the experienced reality of Jesus’ public ministry, crucifixion and post resurrection appearances Christianity is, at best, reflection of ethical choices and lofty ideals.
Our current Christian faith is based on trust in the testimony of those who actually encountered Jesus.
Christianity has empirical falsification conditions as St. Paul clearly realized in Ch. 15 of 1st Corinithians. If Christ has not risen from the dead, then your faith is in vain.
I write of the direct witnesses of Christ as being a privileged few. And, so they were, to some extent. They experienced the reality which provides the truth conditions for Christian teaching. However, the experiences themselves did not provide the conceptual resources to articulate the doctrines. Articulation of the truths about this reality to which they were witnesess required a few centuries of testing lofty ideals about what was witnessed.
I stop here because writing about development of Christianity under the Church Fathers would be theology. I want to stay with philosophy. This post is philosophical because it makes no claim about the truth of Christian doctrine. Indeed, it concedes how they could be false. I make the philosophical point, maybe only a banal critical thinking, point that even if direct experiences of some are needed to support a doctrine not only those who have direct experiences are entitled to believe the doctrines.
*In paragraph 17 of Deus caritas est, he writes of encountering Christ by seeing Him in the others we serve through acts of charity. I do not think that Benedict XVI is writing only of the expression of a lofty ideal which some, including me, express when asked why we serve the poor and needy. For instance, when asked why I dealt politely with someone obnoxiously seeking assistance, I might reply “Oh, I still saw the face of Christ in him.” I frequently make such remarks although I am not sure exactly what I mean. On reflection, I realize that I am only saying that I do these charitable works because I have the “lofty ideals” of Christian teaching and I have made the “ethical choice” to put them into practice.” Benedict XVI teaches that more than the lofty ideals of Christian doctrine and the ethical choice to put them into practice is necessary for being a full-fleged Christian. But this something more than holding the doctrines and morals of Christianity is not the truth conditions for the doctrines. It is some condition, properly called an encounter, which converts the holder of Christian doctrine into a full Christian. See my post on bonding with Christ.