Outline

I. Christianity is the most familiar and least understood of the world religions.

A. Americans in general suffer from a systemic religious illiteracy.

1. Sophisticated knowledge in other areas is not matched by knowledge about religion.

2. Ignorance about religion is revealed in everyday life and in the popular media.

B. Despite its cultural familiarity, Christianity remains little known as a religion.

1. Educated adults have a smattering of knowledge about other world faiths.

2. The same educated adults know little about the dominant faith of the West.

C. Common perceptions of Christianity combine ignorance and emotion.

1. Committed Christians have little sense of their tradition in comparative terms.

2. "Post-Christians" view this tradition with hostility or contempt.

D. Ignorance of Christianity is more striking in light of its remarkable worldwide resurgence.

1. In terms of adherents, it is globally by far the largest religious tradition.

2. Its growth in the First World, as well as in the Third World, is a puzzle to those who think it a moribund and discredited tradition.

E. Christianity's success is better understood when it is perceived as a powerful and persuasive religion.

II. Christianity's historical immediacy obscures its nature as a religion.

A. As an "official religion," Christianity has shaped the contemporary world.

1. Since the time of Constantine, Christianity has played a role in political rule.

2. In Europe, Christianity provided the form for the culture called "Christendom." It has profoundly shaped the arts, especially painting (from the Middle Ages to Salvador Dali); music (from Gregorian chants to Andrew Lloyd Weber's Pie Jesu); literature; and philosophy (Christian Platonism and Scholasticism).

3. As an instrument of colonialism, Christianity has influenced the history of Asia, Africa, and the Americas.

B. Christianity is best known in its "official" form (political and institutional).

1. The history of Christianity and world history intermingle at every level.

2. Christianity tends to be identified with its doctrines, moral teachings, and institutional arrangements.

C. Christianity as a "religion" among other religions is less known.

1. Christian scholars only slowly unknot political and cultural entanglements.

2. Comparative study of world and "primitive" religions tends to exempt Christianity.

III. The study of the origins of Christianity helps in grasping its religious character.

A. Such study does not accept the implicit identification of "origins" with "essence."

1. That is a theological project masquerading as history.

2. The developed forms of a religion can reveal its essence, as well as its origins.

B. The study of origins is nevertheless critical for understanding Christianity as a religion.

1. It enables contextual comparison with the religious traditions of paganism (Greco-Roman religion) and Judaism.

2. It sees Christianity before its political and cultural triumphs, which tend to obscure its religious character.

3. It clarifies the elements that first made Christianity appealing and, perhaps, continue to draw adherents despite political and cultural entanglements.

IV. This course seeks to understand Christianity by analyzing the religious dimensions of its birth and first development.

A. We begin with theoretical considerations concerning the nature of religion, the importance of religious experience, and the methods for studying religion in antiquity.

B. We then place Christianity in its context by examining religious patterns and examples of religious experience in Greco-Roman and Jewish culture.

C. We examine several dimensions of earliest Christianity in its experience of the divine, in each case continuing the process of comparison with other ancient traditions.

D. We see how Christianity maintained and transformed its religious character as it developed through its first three centuries.

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