Define 'Fundamental'.

I'm finally getting back to the subject of fundamentals that I started a while back. Reading back over my two posts and the associated comments, I've realized that I have some explaining to do. First is to give some back ground on why I feel the need to explore this topic. There's a several month history behind this that I ought to articulate. Although I've touched on it a couple of times, I'll save the complete story for another day.

The second thing, and the subject of this post is to define 'fundamental'. I realized that I threw the word out without really defining it in this context. I learned from radio talk show host Mark Scott in Detroit that one of the things one must do in any debate is to define your terms. (Once on 1270 AM, Mark is now heard only on the internet. If you're going to go listen, be forewarned - Mark is well right of center, unabashedly libertarian actually. I found his reasoning ability and methods excellent.) So when I said, " We ought to fight for unity on the essentials and let the rest fall where it may. " how do I define 'essential' or 'fundamental' or 'foundational'?

First some dictionary definition excerpts from dictionary.com:

Essential:


Adj.
  1. Constituting or being part of the essence of something; inherent.

  2. Basic or indispensable; necessary

n.

  1. Something fundamental.

  2. Something necessary or indispensable.

Fundamental:

Adj.
  1. Of or relating to the foundation or base; elementary.

  2. Forming or serving as an essential component of a system or structure; central

n.
  1. Something that is an essential or necessary part of a system or object.

Foundational:

Adjective form of Foundation:
n.
  1. The basis on which a thing stands, is founded, or is supported.

So the 'foundations' of Christianity would be, by definition, those things that make up it's essence, that define it. They are inherent in it, indispensable and necessary. The implication is that if you take one of these things away, you may have something that looks like Christianity, but is not. It is missing part of the essence the thing. So if we're to find the fundamentals, we need to be sure what we get is truly the essence. With out it, Christianity would be something different. They are "The basis on which [it] stands, is founded, or is supported."

Having the definition doesn't help us agree on what they are, although it should help us evaluate what we find. But even the search for 'fundamentals' can be problematic. My friend Virusdoc took minor offense (or at least displeasure) at the term 'fundamental', relating too closely to the fundamentalist movement in Christianity, which he is not too fond of. But I think that regardless of whether you acknowledge it or not, your Christianity is founded on something, some sort of fundamentals. So whether you choose to call yourself a 'fundamentalist' matters little, there is still something, some core that supports your faith.

In the comments here, he also challenged my use of the Bible as the only source for that foundation. He encouraged me to look at other sources as well. I'll admit to a personal bias here, but that concept is hard to consider. While I've gotten much inspiration and knowledge from other sources - books, preachers, seminars, friends, blogs, forums - I have always compared those things to the Bible. Why is that? Part is upbringing. I was taught to do that. But there is also a principle at work here. Jesus spoke of how we build our spiritual house, He told us not to be careful of how we build the house itself, but to pay careful attention to the foundation. In Matthew 7:24-27 He says that to build your life on his words is to build on a secure foundation. To not build on his words is to build on sand. We find his words in the Bible (An interesting question that I'm not prepared to answer right now is, Should our fundamentals only come from Jesus' words and not the rest of scripture? Perhaps so, but that's a debate for another post.) The Bible is not subject to man's whim. It is like bedrock: solid, secure, stable and unmovable. The opinions of men, even well thought out and agreed upon by many, are like sand, clay and dirt: they can shift and squirm. Today's revelation or inspiration may be out of fashion tomorrow, but Jesus' words will always be true.

Hopefully you can see the danger of adding in too much to the foundation. If everything is foundational, then you have nothing left to build the building. The Empire State Building, the Sears Tower, even your own home are mostly not foundation. In fact the foundation is the least attractive part of most buildings. Who wants to live or work in the basement? Who enjoys getting down into a crawl space? But without it, the 'attractive' parts of the building would be in danger of collapse.

Have you ever looked at the NYC skyline and wondered why there seems to be two 'downtowns' where the building heights soar, one at the tip of Manhattan and one about midway up the island? It has nothing to do with property values or social demographics and everything to do with bedrock. In these two areas the bedrock is much closer to the surface making it easier to get to and therefore easier and cheaper to build tall buildings. See, architects and civil engineers know that in order to build something great, you must look for the right foundation.

5 Comments

"So the 'foundations' of Christianity would be, by definition, those things that make up it's essence, that define it. They are inherent in it, indispensable and necessary. The implication is that if you take one of these things away, you may have something that looks like Christianity, but is not. It is missing part of the essence the thing. So if we're to find the fundamentals, we need to be sure what we get is truly the essense."

And herein lies the problem I have with anything more than a search for personal, temporary fundamentals. If you read what you wrote above carefully, you'll see that the argument is circular: "fundamentals" are those things without which Christianity would not be Christianity. This statment implies that you already have an internal image, or essense, of what "true" Christianity looks like, and you are evaluating individual beliefs for whether or not they fit with your image. Am I misunderstanding your intent?

This, by the way, is one of the problems that has undermined foundationalism as an epistemology (also called "modernism") and led to many social/cultural models of knowledge ("postmodernism"). It seems that whenever you or I or anyone (Descartes was the first) tries to dig to the foundation of their own thinking, what they end up finding is merely that: the foundation of their thinking, not the foundations of reality itself (or in the case of this discussion, the foundations of a faith tradition spanning millenia).

I do think there are some non-relativistic approaches to this problem, but I'll wait for a response from you before I address them. I want to make sure I'm not miscontruing your argument.

As I re-read my above comment, it sounds mean spirited. I didn't intend it to, and I apologize if you interpreted it that way.

Also, as I re-read my -comment, I realize that even though I agree with it in a philosophical sense, in a practical sense I think it is possible to identify foundations of Christianity. There would be very few, and they would be in common with all faiths existent today that consider themselves Christian. Most of these foundations would, not surprisingly, deal with the nature of Jesus' identity, the nature of his teaching and will for his church, and the meaning of his death and resurrection. These would be beliefs and practices that were decided within the first few centuries of the church (although not all early Christian beliefs would qualify, I think, since many were specific to the era in which they were derived).

Beyond these few doctrines of Christology, I think the nature of any additional "fundamentals" would be heavily influenced by your own specific faith background, your personality, your nationality, etc. It is this realm of fundamentals that I am suspicious of, not the former.

So again, I apologize if I sounded preachy or dogmatic. It's just that most conversations about fundamentals end up drawing lines in the sand between "true" believers and those who are not, and I am wary against drawing those types of lines. I think only God can make those judgements. But then, that was your original idea for this topic, wasn't it: to get beyond the trivial. I should pay more attention!

Erik,

Thanks for the apology. Though I did not take your words that way, I do appreciate your sensitivity to that possibility.

As far as your comments go, well, as I said, I do have some explaining to do. To be brief, the answer isn't real simple. My honest intention is to find true fundamentals and to discover them for myself. I would be lying, however, if I said that I had no picture in my mind of what they are. I think you know enough about the backgrounds of my faith to know a bit of where I'm coming from on this. Frankly, I think I've taken some pretty firm stands on shaky ground in the past, and I am looking for some more firm footing on which to stand. I'll post more on that later.

Your comments are very valuable to me in this. You have consistently come at things from a direction that I either hadn't anticipated or at least cannot relate to. I appreciate the challenge to my thinking and the new perspective.

I believe that fundamental truth is knowable, and finding it is vital to our salvation. What kind of god would God be if that weren't true? If that were so, I'm not sure I'd want to serve Him.

I believe that fundamental truth is knowable, and finding it is vital to our salvation. What kind of god would God be if that weren't true? If that were so, I'm not sure I'd want to serve Him.

Good point, and well put. I think the only twist I would put on it is that if the fundamental truth is not knowable by humans, God would understand that and meet us where we are, honoring our honest attempts to seek it and Him out.


I've been ruminating on this post, trying to make some constructive suggestions about fundamentals. I seems that the best place to start, in defining the fundamentals of Christianity, is to stick with the root word: Christ. If you could answer the following questions, I think you would be well on your way to a nearly complete list of Christian fundamentals:

Who was Christ?
In what sense was He "annointed" (the meaning of christus), by whom, and for what?
What did he claim as his purpose on earth?
What did He demand of his followers?
How did he treat others? himself?
What are the practical consequences of his death and ressurrection?

These pretty much cover the bases, don't you think? Anything beyond this--whether or not women can be priests; whether or not gays can be believers; whether music should be a cappella or with instruments in a service--is merely gilding the lily, eh? Going beyond the nature of Christ may be good, as long as it helps a church communicate the nature of Christ to their community. If a belief or practice doesn't accomplish this, then to the toilet with it, I say.



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  • I've been ruminating on this post, trying to make some constructive suggestions about fundamentals. I seems that the best place to start, in defining the fundamentals of Christianity, is to stick with the root word: Chr...

  • I believe that fundamental truth is knowable, and finding it is vital to our salvation. What kind of god would God be if that weren't true? If that were so, I'm not sure I'd want to serve Him. Good point, and well put. ...

  • Erik, Thanks for the apology. Though I did not take your words that way, I do appreciate your sensitivity to that possibility. As far as your comments go, well, as I said, I do have some explaining to do. To be brief...

  • As I re-read my above comment, it sounds mean spirited. I didn't intend it to, and I apologize if you interpreted it that way. Also, as I re-read my -comment, I realize that even though I agree with it in a philosophi...

  • "So the 'foundations' of Christianity would be, by definition, those things that make up it's essence, that define it. They are inherent in it, indispensable and necessary. The implication is that if you take one of thes...

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