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On Sunday mornings I now fill a pew not a pulpit. Recently, a preacher’s sermon sent me down the proverbial rabbit hole. 

She shared how a young person had put it so succinctly, asking her “How is being a Christian different from the general impulse to be a good person? I can be a good person without the church and religion, or even Jesus.”

Every pastor, probably almost every Christian, has received this question in one form or another. Many may have asked it themselves.

Phil 101

I am not a philosopher. But I have frequently pretended to be one before a classroom of college frosh. I’m the utility-infielder of the Religion-Philosophy department, filling in as an adjunct professor wherever and whenever the need arises. My Ph.D. is in theology, not philosophy, so I try to assuage my impostor syndrome by telling myself that my non-expertise makes me more able to connect with a group of intimidated and unprepared young people. 

In this intro-level course, we cover the waterfront.

  • Philosophy of Religion — is there a god and how might we know? The students are mildly interested.
  • Epistemology — discussions about truth and knowing generate a little more energy.
  • Ethics is what they want to talk about  — right/wrong, good/bad, utilitarianism, how to live. 
  • Ontology — what is real — is usually the bottom of the barrel for these 18 and 19 year olds. On first blush, the students are basically common sense realists. For them it is obvious. Stuff, material, tangibility are real. 

I try to make ontology “relevant” and nudge them by asking questions like “What sort of stuff will bring happiness? Are people the same or different stuff than the rest of creation? Would extraterrestrials be the same stuff as us, and thus valuable and to be respected? Or would aliens be different, other, and thus likely lesser and dangerous?” It feels like my questions meet with only marginal success, so we move on quickly.

Pew Ponderings

Back to the question the young person asked the preacher. What’s the difference between a Christian and a good person? I might report that while I remember the preacher sharing the question, I can’t recall her reply. How might you answer?

As I wandered down the rabbit hole, trying to compose a reply in my head, I found my “Intro to Philosophy” template helpful.

Over the centuries, Christians’ first instinct is to answer “ethics.” Somehow to be a Christian is to have different (read better) ethics. It’s to act differently, to follow a different code. It is about behavior. But is it? We’ve all met incredibly admirable, honorable people who are not Christians. And when we think Christianity as primarily an ethical system it is usually only a matter of time before we slip into rigidity, judgmentalism, and self-righteousness. 

If it’s not ethics, then it must be epistemology. We Christians know more, or at least have the inside track on knowing. We have the capital T Truth — The Truth. The Bible, or Jesus, gives us better information, truer facts. To be a Christian is to be correct. In a world full of stories and conflicting claims, we have an unshakable foundation, many Christians have claimed. But science has chipped away at what we thought were truths, and postmodernism has undone the whole notion of truth, or exposed the connection between truth and power. Over the centuries, many of Christianity’s so-called Truths have often been found to be laughable, outdated, or pretentious.

What if instead, it isn’t totally absurd to answer “ontology”? Perhaps this is what distinguishes Christians. We aren’t more ethical. We don’t know more. We see reality differently. 

The resurrection of Jesus altered reality. For Christians, reality is different because we trust that the Kingdom of God has come near. In Jesus Christ, God has come among us in a unique and definitive way. Things are not always what they seem. Evil and death have been vanquished, despite the immense evidence to the contrary. Not just this planet, but the entire universe is charmed, God-visited, God-laden, blessed, beloved, thick with glory. God is among us and on the move. 

I realize that to talk about Christian ontology is rather clunky, not especially winsome or accessible. It probably won’t preach and almost certainly won’t fit in a meme, a tract, or a bumper sticker. Maybe it isn’t even a good blog topic. In fact, as I think about it perhaps what I find most compelling is that it steers us away from the predictable answers of “ethics” or “epistemology” — which I contend have led Christianity down some blind alleys and into some unhealthy relationships. 

Maybe it would help to say it like this — as those early Christians spread across the Mediterranean basin their message was not “We’ve got Truth for you!” Nor was it “We have a really good book you should read.” It wasn’t even that we have an astounding ethical system, although historians say that Christian behavior made them intriguing, even attractive, to many. What they had to say was more along the lines of “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” Reality has been changed. 

As is so often the case, poets seem to say it better

Little round planet
In a big universe
Sometimes it looks blessed
Sometimes it looks cursed
Depends on what you look at obviously
But even more it depends on the way that you see

~ Bruce Cockburn

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • RZ says:

    Extremely relevant! Very thoughtful, as usual. Thank you Steve. Unless we keep these what-if questions before us, we lose our humility, our depth, and our relevance. It is not just a who-is-right question but who -would -want-to-listen-to-us -and-why question. This, it seems to me, is why Jesus so naturally and instinctively stressed belonging so insistently and why healing seemed to flow spontaneously, with trust before understanding. Fear, on the other hand, is a great motivator but only a temporary one.

  • Marlyn Visser says:

    When is the next class scheduled? Will the academic dean permit me to audit the course?

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I’m with you. Kind of why the CRC folks stress “worldview.” But I would agree with you, that the foundation of the worldview should not be “creation, fall, redemption,” but rather “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” As you say, “The Resurrection of Jesus has altered reality.” At the same time, as those college students get older, many will move from ontology to agony, and “How am I right with God?”

  • Gloria J McCanna says:

    “Perhaps this is what distinguishes Christians. We aren’t more ethical. We don’t know more. We see reality differently.”
    This truth jumped out at me and will help me to sit with those who are struggling with the unethical remarks and actions in the Church.
    Thank you.

  • Cheri Scherr says:

    As usual Steve takes a difficult topic and gives a wonderful take on it. I especially like that he doesn’t claim to be the one expert in anything.

  • David Hoekema says:

    Theologians are always welcome to moonlight as philosophers, and it sounds as if you drew your students into deeper critical reflection. But maybe we need to be less philosophical and less theological too in answering your pastor’s ever-recurring question. Theories of knowledge and reality become real and visible when our hearts and lives are renewed and transformed, and grace flows through us to others.

  • Ria says:

    Being a Christian, I believe, is having a friendship with God. No other group has this covenantal promise from God that will redeem us and make us holy, able to be his friend and reflect his love to others.

  • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

    Thanks everyone for your input and ideas. I appreciate it when it feels like a helpful conversation not an argument. Obviously I’m not suggesting churches start advertising, “Come try our ontology!” For me it does steer me away from the go-to ethics and epistemology answers. David, I hear you that theories are enlivened by grace and “incarnation.” I might be a bit concerned that could lean too much into “ethics.” Nonetheless…

    • Thomas Goodhart says:

      You jest, but I can imagine a church in Queens that might put “Come try our ontology!” on their sign!

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