…And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
Matthew 28.18-20 (ESV)
Known as ‘The Great Commission,’ Matthew 28.18-20 records the last encounter between the resurrected Jesus and his disciples in the first canonical Gospel account. These few verses are foundational to the evangelization and expansion of the Christian church. They are also a key impetus for the more quotidian activity of evangelism – most basically the act of sharing the Christian gospel. As a Kenan Summer Fellow this summer, I am back in Durham researching the Christian ethic of evangelism, and will continue to do so in London, UK, my hometown. My project will explore the Christian concept of ‘truth’ and how that ‘truth’ informs how the believer understands and approaches his/her responsibility to share ‘truth’ with others.
Exclusive claims to truth are becoming much less fashionable in an age of moral relativism and expressive individualism, which makes evangelism such a contentious and exciting ethic to explore. Christianity follows and proclaims a firm concept of Truth, whether or not his or her neighbor believes, which provides for unique areas of philosophical challenge in the increasingly relativist, post-truth cultural contexts of the United States and the UK. The evangelist is frequently inhabiting what I like to call ‘truth’s frontiers,’ an area of thought and conversation where there is a fundamental, and beneficial, clash of worldviews. If nothing else, these clashes provide enormous opportunities for self-reflection and education of people’s more fundamental belief complexes.
Personally, I am also excited to engage and grapple with an ethic I am not only interested in, but deeply committed to. While I have been nominally Christian all my life, I have only recently become fully committed to following Christ, and have yet to have the opportunity to study and engage with a comprehensive, systematic theology of the Christian faith. Therefore, when addressing the KSF prompt, “what does it mean to live an ethical life?” I felt drawn to explore my Christian ethic, as my understanding of ‘the ethical life’ is deeply, if not wholly, defined by my faith. It is also a practice I engage with more frequently, and I am looking forward to learning more about the historical and contemporary evangelical praxis, and see how that begins to de-construct and evolve my current conceptions of my faith.
Now, I understand I am introducing the nebulous phraseology of ‘Christian truth.’ In the age of the post-reformation, multi-denominational church, there arises the question whether we can ever actually define an exhaustive Christian understanding of ‘truth.’ Nevertheless, as far as I am aware of, all Christianity shares key Biblical foundations that profess the centrality of and faith in Jesus Christ as the incarnate Deus, and the savior of humankind, and part of my project will look to identify the most basic and common truth claim of Christianity. Part of the purpose of this research is to gain a greater understanding of the diversity within Christianity, and how different denominations, and nations, understand and perform Christianity and evangelism. I recognize that my Anglican and charismatic experience of the church is only a sliver of what Christianity encompasses, and I am keen to survey the breadth and depth of the Christian faith.
My research will be divided into two parts. First, I will be investigating Christian truth – what is Christianity’s exclusive truth claim which demands proclamation? In order to tackle this rather monumental task, I will be attending a three-week theological intensive at King’s Park International Church in Durham, NC. Though naturally limited in its scope, the program will certainly aid in defining the overarching Biblical narrative and what all Christians (supposedly) profess to believe. Then, I will explore the means through which that truth is then proclaimed – how does the Christian believer understand and perform his/her responsibility to share ‘truth’ with others, and why? For this segment of the research, I will be conducting semi-formal interviews with leaders of Christ-centered communities – churches and other organizations – in Durham and London and distributing online survey to various church congregations on how individual believers understand and engage with evangelism. I will also be surveying scholarly literature on evangelism, to gain an insight into how authoritative scholarly contributions and the history of Christian evangelism informs the current praxis.
One thing that worries me about the upcoming eight weeks is whether the task I have set before me is unrealistic. There is no way I will be able to capture the entire essence and diversity of what is ‘Christian truth;’ however, that is certainly no reason to shy away from the endeavor. The nature of the topic naturally leaves much room for uncertainty, and I hope I am able to capture something coherent between my readings and interviews.
Another challenge will be engaging with my own faith throughout these eight weeks, which will naturally affect the purpose and tone of my project. My subjectivity is certainly worth acknowledgement and ample reflection; correction, however, is not a task I deem necessary for the convictions and goals of this research. While I am academically trained to oppose bias, I question whether it is incumbent upon me to separate myself from a perspective that informs my life and most certainly affects the course of this research. That being said, I do hope that my own understanding of Christian faith does not obstruct essential insights to the thoughts and ideas of my interviewees.
It is a big process, and I have very little idea of how it will all turn out. I am enormously grateful to the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke for providing both the means and motivation for this project. I am excited for what lies ahead!