Why Christians need a Minimum Viable Theology

I am a Christian, and part of what that means is that I am an heir of an incredibly dense and comprehensive cultural tradition. I would call it a maximal cultural tradition, as it has produced art, music, literature, language, buildings, societies, revolutions, philosophical thought—just to mention a few things.

I take joy in all of that richness and depth, and want to claim just as much of it as I can, and help communicate it to others.

But most Christians understand that you don’t start with all of that. Nobody wakes up one day and suddenly believes in the doctrine of transubstantiation, the consubstantial nature of the trinity, or the non-use of instruments in worship.

Instead, they start with something much more direct—a desire to be a follower of Christ.

Because Christians are on a mission to spread the message, they take this into account in how they communicate Christianity to others. Evangelical Christians have taken this so far, they’ve found ways to express the message in comic books and tracts that have been distributed to every truck stop and phone booth in the country.

The message is usually presented like this:

God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish, but will have eternal life.

We might call this the minimum viable version of the Christian story.

And among many people, in many parts of the culture, telling it like this has been very compelling. But an increasing number of people can’t even read the above sentence without balking.

Just saying the word God sounds implausible, or worse, evil. Isn’t God anti-human? This God has a Son?—What is this, medieval superstition? Why would any God worth its salt care about what you believe? We’re supposed to find it credible to talk about eternal life?

At this point, we Christians have two options.

We can pursue a path called apologetics, and attempt to prove our position on all of those things using complex arguments about philosophy and science.

One problem with this is that it’s very complicated. Most people are not going to pause in the middle of reading your church tract to go get a degree in philosophy, and see whether your arguments hold up.

A deeper problem is that it’s very fragile. In most apologetics presentations, everything hinges on you being right about an incredibly long list of specific things.

People sense this, and whether or not they know where you went wrong, they know that you’re not omniscient, and it’s likely that you made a mistake somewhere along the way. If I was being told some of this stuff, I might get to the end, and say, “Well, it all sounds right, but I just don’t buy it.”

You can berate those people all you want, but for the most part, this is a reasonable position to take.

Fortunately, apologetics isn’t the only option.

Instead of pursuing apologetics, we could pursue what I call minimum viable theology.

Minimum viable theology isn’t about proving our particular conception of things to be correct. Rather, it is about creating a context in which a conversation about our different beliefs and perspectives becomes reasonable.

What if we could have a shared context in which to talk about “good”, about “meaning”, about things out there that are bigger than we are? What if we could talk about “faith”, “belief”, and “religion” not as things that are anti-rational, but as things that are positive and core to the human experience?

We don’t actually need to have a shared worldview or metaphysical understanding to get to this conversation. All we need is to be able to show that from within whatever worldview you have, these categories start to show up.

And I think we can. This is the conversation before the conversation, so to speak.

For many people today, just “telling them Christianity” doesn’t really work. We’ve sometimes responded to that failure by resorting to arguments and approaches which only make the problem worse.

But I think we have the opportunity to take a different approach, to pursue conversation and open-ended dialogue, by stepping into the worldview of others, and finding the theology hidden within it. This approach feels much more like the way Paul engaged the pagan world.

And it feels much more like Christ, who entered our world to do the exact same thing for us.