Review: Who is a True Christian? by David W. Congdon

Book: Who is a True Christian?: Contesting Religious Identity in American Culture by David W. Congdon

Publisher: Cambridge University Press, 2024.

Overview: Congdon wrestles with a vital question: What is the permanent essence of Christianity? First, he surveys the liberal quest, which adopted a flexible definition of Christian essence. However, the majority of the book focuses on three anti-modern (conservative) attempts to reconstruct the “rule of faith” in far less flexible terms by the prescriptivist criteria of reason (orthodoxy doctrine), experience (cultural identity), and morality (conservative politics). Along the way, Congdon critiques the anti-modern approaches as inadequate and dubious; it ultimately relies on authoritarianly defining Christianity by what it isn’t, thus defining it by who’s out as much as who’s in. Finally, Congdon argues for rewriting the rule of faith by imagining a Christianity without orthodoxy—comparing orthodoxy to a kind of violent patriarchy that has outlived its usefulness. He suggests a move toward “polydoxy,” instead. The choice, for Congdon, is between a fascist or pluralistic Christian future.

This is an excellent study—part history and part constructive proposal—on the essence of Christianity. The question of what is left of Christianity when you strip away everything nonessential is not as innocent as it first appears. Indeed, the more we think about how this question functions practically, the more it becomes clear how the definition we give determines how we live out that essence and what it means for how we treat others who do not fit our definition. If my definition of Christianity involves a rigid adherence to my orthodoxy, then my Christian faith must involve the violent expulsion of heretics. In other words, this question can be and often is weaponized.

Congdon begins by describing the modern quest to define the essence of Christianity. To trace this quest, he examines figures such as Luther, Locke, Schleiermacher, Ritschl, Harnack, and Barth. “They show,” Congdon writes, “that the essence of Christianity is inherently flexible, constantly adapting to new conditions and new discoveries” (p. 39).  However, this modern quest was met with an anti-modern, conservative quest.

Congdon’s analysis of the conservative quest makes up the bulk of the book. He organizes that quest in terms of what defines the essence: reason, experience, or morality. These are further described as recovering the rule (historic orthodoxy), inhabiting the rule (Christianity as culture), and weaponizing the rule (the politics of “make Christianity/America great again”). In other words, the three conservative responses to the question of what defines Christianity are to define it according to the prescriptive norms of doctrine, culture, and politics.

The first approach defines Christianity according to orthodox definitions of unchanging doctrine. An example of this approach is C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, which defined Christianity according to a historical definition of doctrinal unity. However, the assumption that the essence of Christianity can be found in timeless doctrine is actually ahistorical—the historical approach results in a denial of history through the idealism of historical doctrine.

The second approach moves in the direction of culture. If Christianity cannot be defined according to rigid doctrine, then perhaps its worldview, its cultural norms, define the essence of faith. The enemy is, therefore, secular modernism. A Christian is one who adopts a different culture, one that is clearly anti-modern and conservative. Culture, not doctrine, became the norm. But this leads to cultural imperialism and other dubious problems. The fruit of this approach is a faith that defines itself according to the “culture war” of Christian culture vs. secular modernism.

The third approach weaponizes the Christian essence in an effort to make Christianity (and America) great again. This is the political definition of Christianity’s essence, which is a natural development from the cultural definition. The clearest example of this approach is the emergence of the religious right and the unholy alliance of American conservative politics with Christian identity. A particularly dangerous aspect of this Christianity is its violence against political outsiders, such as the LGBTQIA+ community. In other terms, it is Christianity as Christofascism, to use Dorothee Soelle’s poignant phrase.

Congdon’s first four chapters masterfully surveyed the history of this quest, but his final chapter (and conclusion) offers a radical proposal, even though he admits it is not likely to be received warmly. His basic argument is that we need to imagine a Christianity without orthodoxy. There is no way to go back before modernity. The anti-modern quest tries to do exactly that by blaming modernity for the distortion of faith, but Congdon places the blame “on the very idea of a divinely authorized, orthodox tradition—not tradition as such but the notion there is one right tradition to the exclusion of all others” (p. 234). He compares orthodoxy to patriarchy—defining both as systems of authoritarian exclusion. Congdon argues that “orthodoxy is only possible through the coercion of an imagined conformity. Orthdox religious identity operates, in other words, under the threat of violence” (p. 259). Orthodoxy led to further problems: It “silences the complexity of the past” (p. 263), “erases the complexity of the present” (p. 264), and “the community constructs orthodoxy by policing heterodoxy, which means orthodoxy cannot exist without heterodoxy” (p. 264). It is in that sense that orthodoxy is authoritarian and operates similarly to patriarchy.

Congdon appeals to Barth’s eschatological definition of dogma as a helpful approach (even if Barth did not always live up to it). No theology can claim to be orthodox because dogma is an eschatological concept, and therefore, any claim to “have” orthodoxy risks becoming an idolatry. This is a step in the right direction, for Congdon. His proposal follows this line to constructively suggest the adoption of “polydoxy,” which is the embrace of pluralism within Christianity itself. Congdon borrows the concept from Alvin Reines. This approach asks the Christian community to embrace “many beliefs” and “many rules” without the enforcement of those beliefs and rules as a prerequisite for the community. The solution, then, is not to abandon the quest, but to go further and always be questing. Congdon describes this proposal:

A polydox Christianity, as I am defining it, would be a religion in which the defining characteristic is that its religious and theological order is never finally defined. Christian prescriptivism would be a site for struggle and dialogue over the essence or rule of faith, a constant contest over the structures and norms of Christian community. The possibility would be always open for people to choose what norms are more appropriate to the given moment. Theological disobedience would be built into the very fabric of the religion… A questing, polydox Christianity is a transgressive Christianity (p. 287).

Overall, Congdon’s book is a detailed, erudite, and profound study of the quest for the essence of Christianity. His proposal is innovative and original. I highly recommend this thought-provoking book.

I want to thank Cambridge University Press for a review copy of this book. I was not obligated to offer a positive review and have presented my honest reflections. 

Watch my interview with David W. Congdon: