There are so many perceptions of what Christianity represents, and folks out there, in the “world” often attempt to understand what Christianity is, as a religion, from whatever their personal encounters with it has been. In fact today, I had an experience like this, an experience with a new co-worker who is realizing that I am different; different not because I am a weirdo, per se (although my wife thinks I am), but because I don’t run with the crowd, and I have a certain morality that is at odds with the one adopted by so many in the world (like hedonism). And so this represents one example of how a person “out there” might perceive Christianity; i.e. by reducing it to a certain moralistic position that he has built up based upon his own past experiences with Christianity.
Beyond these kinds of somewhat simplistic perceptions of Christianity as a religion, there have been more sophisticated constructions, or deconstructions of Christianity based upon certain types of criteria that Christianity’s critics have developed based upon their commitments to naturalism, or a certain kind of Kantian dualism, expressed, even still, through positivism. It is this kind of approach to understanding what Christianity is that I want to engage with throughout the remainder of this post; and yet as I engage with this (maybe somewhat outdated approach to Christianity, although I don’t really think it is), what should emerge is how in fact people’s perceptions of Christianity, even simplistic ones, have developed from a certain understanding of what ‘faith’ and ‘pietism’ entails.
Herman Bavinck, a Dutch Reformed (and I mean a genuine Dutchman) theologian from the late 19th century has this to say about some of the critics of his day, in regard to developing critiques of Christianity, as well as demonstrating just how Christianity has come to be understood (especially in North America) as a privatized-subjectivized thing. Here Bavinck writes how “experience” was understood among the critics that he himself is criticizing:
But in this way the word “experience” is made to play an ambiguous role. When used in religion and theology, it has a wholly different significance from that which it bears in empirical science. In the latter what is meant is, that, by consistent application of the empirical method, personal interest in the inquiry is to be excluded as much as possible, and that the phenomena are observed and explained in their purity and impartially; empiricism even calls to its help the experimental proof. But when men speak of experience in religion, they mean it to be understood, on the other hand, that religion is, or at any rate must become, a personal matter through and through. Religion is, according to this interpretation, no doctrine, no precept, no history, no worship, in a word, not a belief on authority, nor a consent to truth, but arises from within, when the heart is touched and a personal fellowship established between God and our soul….
It is really easy to see how what Bavinck is describing above has played out in North American evangelical Christianity; how a piety and in-ward individualistic religion has developed that no longer has the capacity to contradict and shape it by the Word of God. Christianity for so many has become whatever the particular North American evangelical wants it to be for them; if that means a legalistic Christianity, then so be it!; if that means an antinomian loosely lived Christianity, so be it; etc.
I wonder, honestly, if North American evangelical Christianity has the theological resource to repent of such sordid inwardness and self-centeredness, and come back to her first love?! My friend at work has every right to read Christianity the way that he does; it has been modeled for him, in spades, all over our American society.
The critics of Bavinck’s day helped to develop the intellectual space for pietistic Christianity to develop; unfortunately, so many Christians (myself included, at points) have helped to concretize this space into a foundational cornerstone of what it means to be a Christian. And not just for the Christian who lives this way (i.e. a personalized Christianity), but for those who we live with, day in, day out; we have the extra burden at points, of educating folks about such things.
 Herman Bavinck, The Philosophy of Revelation, loc 2786 kindle.