Christianity Is an Event, not a Philosophy
The “Truth of Reality” is a Person, Discovered not by Arguments, but Through the Event of a Human Encounter

When the early Christians entered into the religious world of the Roman Empire, they associated themselves intellectually with its philosophical critics (cf. my column of Vol. 5, No. 11 of Traces, p. 51). “Religion,” at that time, was not considered as a source of truth about reality, but as the realm of poets and those who sought ways of interpreting the rites, myths, and symbols that expressed the people’s sense of identity, meaning, and purpose.
“ Rationality,” the way to discover “the truth” of the universe, had nothing to do with religion. Christianity, of course, saw itself as the fulfillment of human religious needs, but only because it was the way of grasping what is real, of grasping the “truth.” That is why the early Christian thinkers were considered “atheists,” allies of the rationalists who sought to “de-mythologize” religion.
Christians today face a similar situation. Christianity is “acceptable” as a private religious option, as a way of expressing and dealing with the emotions and conflicts that characterize human “interiority.” It is even possible to accept Christianity as a way of dealing with a “Mystery” that transcends human life, as long as it is seen as one of many possible ways of responding to this Mystery. For others, Christianity is valid as a moral force for good in society, as an inspiration for human creativity and works of compassion. Problems arise when Christians insist—in the words of Tertullian—that Christianity is the following of Someone who did not come to teach us an ethical social behavior, but the Truth of God’s creation.
This is what provokes opposition to Christianity, from its beginnings until today. This claim of Christianity is seen as a temptation to intolerance and social divisiveness, all the more so when “truth” is defined not by reason but by Power.
Whatever else we do in the “New Evangelization” in order to propose the Christian Gospel to today’s world, it is absolutely essential not to reduce the Christian message to an ethical system or a way to express the perceptions of transcendence, of mystery, of the “unknown.” The Gospel is
not merely a proposal about “values” to guide our lives. There is an observation by Fr Giussani that shocked me into realizing how my thinking as a theologian stood in the way of grasping the “origin” of the Christian claim. In L’avvenimento cristiano [The Christian Event], Giussani writes, “In the end, it is possible to recognize Christ as the consistency of all things and even to base a theology on this affirmation. But Christ is first of all a lump of blood in the womb of Our Lady. This lump became a child and then He grew up, died, and ascended into heaven. And, as a method of His continuing presence in history, He chose a companionship: the Church, with a head, St Peter; a companionship in which His presence could be visible, touchable, verified experimentally; a companionship that would render analogically possible today the same dynamism of the encounter that Andrew and John, Zaccheus and the Samaritan woman experienced with His physical presence. In fact, the Christian event has the form of an encounter, a human encounter in the banal reality of everyday life. It is a human encounter through which He who is called Jesus, a Man born in Bethlehem at a precise moment in time, is revealed as significant to the heart of our lives.”
Christianity, therefore, is not originally a religion, a theology, a philosophy, or an ethics, even though it gives rise to all of these. The “truth of reality” that it proclaims is not a conclusion of those disciplines. The “truth of reality” is a Person, discovered not by arguments, but through the event of a human encounter in which all the
desires of the human heart are fulfilled. It is this that prevents the Christian claim from being an intolerable presumption. “When we encountered Christ, we discovered ourselves as human” (M. Vittorino, fifth century).