In science of physics, scientists recognize two distinct branches of study. One is known as theoretical physics and the other as applied physics. Theoretical physics is that branch of physics which employs mathematical models and abstractions of physics in an attempt to explain natural phenomena. Applied physics, on the other hand, involves the use of knowledge gained through theoretical physics to develop technologies and make practical application of that knowledge.
I personally draw an analogy between these different ways to approach the study and practice of science and what we observe as two different approaches to the practice of Christianity. For the most part, it would appear that the Church, its ministers, and even many of its followers have been historically involved in what one might reasonably call “theoretical Christianity”. This study of the theory of the Christian Church has evolved through a centuries long parsing of the Bible in an attempt to unravel all the doctrinal details supposedly contained therein. These details have generally been seen as vital to our spiritual health and well being but yet somewhat hidden and difficult to decipher and communicate. Endless debates have resulted and untold energies have been expended trying to “nail down” both “essential” and incidental doctrinal points. Each generation largely retraces the same steps and thereby reinforces the previous conclusions. New knowledge is never really the intent of all this study, because despite the supposed emphasis on study, “newness” in relation to doctrine is seen as threatening and even condemned by God. In this sense “theoretical Christianity”, which is by far the most popular kind, is not a search for greater knowledge but rather an effort to replicate and confirm a traditional understanding
There is another approach to Christ and His message which I am inclined to identify as “applied Christianity”. Those who practice this discipline do not expend much effort in trying to decipher and reconcile scripture verses. All the issues that consume so much effort by preachers, theologians, and self appointed Bible students are of little interest to this group of practitioners. They recognize in Christ a call to minister to one’s fellow man without having to sort out the Bible. For these followers, knowing that Jesus preached Love, tolerance, and self sacrifice as the means to achieve a fulfilled life is sufficient for incorporating Christian principles in daily life.
All too often, these “back to the basics” type Christians have been derided or even condemned by the theoreticians of the church. The Bible expounders generally insist on doctrinal purity as the most essential element of Christianity. Practicing the basic principles without regard to doctrine is seen by this group as an attempt to be “good” without being a real Christian.
One can rightfully ask the question: Is doctrinal correctness really important or is a life lived according to the lofty ethics proposed by Christ the essential identifying element for a true follower of Christ. I have myself been too often absorbed by doctrinal arguments and endless efforts to make the entire Bible fit my preconceptions. I am certainly not alone in that preoccupation. It represents a very large portion of the history of the institutional church and its members.
Those among us who avoid Bible study and doctrinal debate in favor of embracing the marvelously counter intuitive aspects of Jesus message, forsaking judgment, gaining through sacrifice, and loving without reservation are the ones who show the rest of us real definition of Christian or follower of Christ. In this regard, a person does not even need to know who Jesus is to be a follower. He or she can be a student of “applied Christianity” regardless of their religious persuasion. To paraphrase the old saying, a sermon seen is much better than a sermon preached. Surely then the incorporating of Jesus’ message of love in one’s daily life is vastly superior to any claim of doctrinal correctness. I would conclude that my own and the church’s historical emphasis on Bible study as an identifier of the Christian is largely misplaced. Such theoretical or academic exercises most often simply inflate our ego and detract from embracing the essential message of Christ. We tend to get all wrap around the axle in details of the Bible and lose all focus on the simple but yet profoundly important general truths.
Without application, science is merely a “head trip”. Christianity is no different. Theory inflates the student and tends to put God in a small box. Application, on the other hand, is an act of humility which frees the believer and allows for a God of vast majesty and integrity.
Without people who are interested in applying new science to developing new technologies to aid mankind, new theoretical science is mind expanding but not particularly useful. In the same way, the church’s preoccupation with theoretical Christianity and its short shrift of Christian principles is the very reason many, especially the young walk away from the church proclaiming it outdated and incapable of contributing to their daily lives.