Whose Christianity?

It has been a long time since I posted at Emerging From Babel. People are beginning to get concerned about me. James just asked, “Where are you?” Phil followed up with, “Is everything all right?

I’m fine (as readers of [A]mazed and [Be]mused are well aware) but I lost my enthusiasm for biblioblogging sometime around the end of January. I might return to it:  but if so, not in the same format as before.

The purpose of this post is to provide an account of why I grew discouraged with biblioblogging; and, more broadly, what it says about the ongoing evolution of my Christian faith.

Christians disagree amongst themselves, even on issues of fundamental importance. What, then, is “Christianity”? Obviously it depends:  whose Christianity are we talking about?

And a follow-up question:  If Christians fundamentally disagree on what Christianity is, what utility does Christianity have?

There’s a long history of frustration behind this line of thought. The immediate cause was my debate with fellow bibliobloggers over torture and pre-emptive war (e.g. the US invasion of Iraq). If Christians can’t take a united stand on the most pressing public policy issues of our generation, then “Christianity” as such has nothing to bring to the public square. So what utility does it have?

Stated another way:  I have now come down firmly in the postmodern camp. I am still a Christian, but now a postmodern Christian.

Postmodernism says there is no such thing as absolute, universal truth. There are only truths:  plural, local, and contingent. One must always ask,

  • Whose truth are we talking about?
  • Told in whose name?
  • Told to what end?

A postmodernist will not be shocked to learn that “Christianity” is an empty basket that people fill with their own prior convictions. Those all-important prior convictions are local and contingent — not to say self-serving.

I have been attracted to postmodernism for some while; but “attracted” isn’t the right word. I would prefer near-unanimity among Christians:

  • against torture;
  • against the doctrine of hell as a place of eternal torment;
  • against abortion;
  • in support of pacifism;
  • in support of a substantial redistribution of wealth;

— etc., etc. But my preference doesn’t count for much. Postmodernism accurately describes what is:  Christianities, plural.

Christianity in the USA is a different beast than Christianity in Canada or Europe. Christianity in Africa is different again. So is Christianity in Latin America. Presumably, so is Christianity in China or Korea, although I don’t know so much about “the faith” (so-called) as it is articulated and practised in Asia.

Indeed, there is no unanimity among Christians even within the borders of any given nation. Exhibit A would be Jeremiah Wright’s greatest youtube hits. Wright doesn’t represent Christianity in America:  he represents a local, contingent variant of Christianity in America.

Local because there’s a peculiar strain of Wright-ian sentiment abroad in the black community in Chicago. Contingent because Wright’s sentiments are rooted in the historical experience of his community. Specifically, the experience of being taken by force out of Africa and enslaved in America, plus its myriad associated injustices (disenfranchisement, Jim Crow segregation laws, chronic poverty, etc.).

Wright believes that AIDS was created by the US government as a mechanism to wipe out the black population. He’s wrong, of course, but it’s a conviction that arises out of his experience as a black man who came of age during an era when white Americans frequently committed atrocities against black Americans.

Here’s another way of illustrating the point. Ben Smith recently commented,

It’s a bit of a puzzle to me, though maybe it shouldn’t be, that some voters seem perfectly able to hold in their heads simultaneously the notion that Obama’s a Muslim and that his Christian pastor is a problem.

I think I know why those voters are confused. When they see Rev. Wright in flight, they mistake him for a Muslim. Thus their mistaken belief that Obama is a Muslim is corroborated by the fact that Rev. Wright is also a Muslim. (So it seems to them.)

Is their mistake really so hard to understand? Wright’s local, contingent variant of Christianity is indistinguishable from Louis Farrakhan’s local, contingent variant of Islam. What Wright and Farrakhan have in common is the experience of being a black man of a certain age in America. That shared experience is determinative of both their faiths. The labels “Christian” and “Muslim” are empty baskets that Wright and Farrakhan fill from their own, parallel life experiences.

The bottom line:  it isn’t that I’m attracted to postmodernism, so much as I think it accurately describes what is. But what, then, is the utility of Christianity?

What meaning does it have if I say, “I am a Christian”? It tells you virtually nothing about me. I might believe that torture is OK or I might believe torture is inherently evil. I might believe that abortion is morally neutral or I might believe that abortion is murder. I might believe that America’s “chickens” came home to roost on 9/11, or I might believe that America, God’s chosen nation, is under attack from evil islamofascists. I might subscribe to a set of beliefs that are distinctively Christian, or my convictions might be indistinguishable from those of a Muslim whose personal history is similar to mine.

In other words:  Christians don’t conform their values and actions to the example of Christ. They merely use the name of Christ as cover for their prior commitments, which are locally and historically determined.

If and when I return to biblioblogging, that’s the perspective that I’d be writing from. Whether it’s worth articulating such a message, I haven’t yet decided.

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11 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Emerging From Babel » Whose Christianity?
  2. Doug Chaplin
    May 10, 2008 @ 11:34:07

    Stephen, good to hear you active again. This comment really belongs at Emerging from Babel rather than here, but since you’ve closed comments there … if you do reopen that site you’ll have to rename it diving headfirst into Babel.

    Reply

  3. Bridgett
    May 10, 2008 @ 13:35:15

    “In other words: Christians don’t conform their values and actions to the example of Christ. They merely use the name of Christ as cover for their prior commitments, which are locally and historically determined.”

    I think this has been true as long as Christ has been an icon. Even his apostles were trying to use his status or his name or what have you for their own purposes (overthrowing the Romans, for instance). The cognitive dissonance required to be a Christian and think torture is ok or that america is specially blessed by God (“English is good enough for Jesus, it should be good enough for immigrants” kind of idiocy).

    I have often been struck by how much more I have in common with my fallen-away Presbyterian (raised Southern Baptist) neighbor and emergent church neighbors than I do with any of my Catholic friends or neighbors. I know that’s teasing out denomination within the religion, but I call myself Catholic and so does my father. There is nothing, not a single thing, in the public sphere, that we agree on. How do we both go to church on a sunday and hear the same readings and walk away with two different interpretations? Because both of us have already made up our minds. My “liberal” tag is more ingrained in my personality than my “catholic” tag. Perhaps. I’d like to think they go hand in hand….But his “conservative” tag is obviously more ingrained.

    In the best light, denominational differences give a richness to our experience as Christian believers. The church in Central America should be different from the church in Poland or Missouri or Japan. It can’t help but be different. But you’re right–in the worst light, it is using the name of Christ to justify one’s own point of view.

    Reply

  4. Stephen
    May 10, 2008 @ 14:02:22

    • Doug:
    I forgot I had closed the comments at Emerging From Babel a few weeks ago. I’ve opened them up now.

    If you do reopen that site you’ll have to rename it diving headfirst into Babel.

    I understand your point, but I’m not about to concede it. The name of the blog communicates exactly what I intended to communicate.

    I have been flirting with postmodernism for a long time, and the name of the blog was chosen with postmodernism in mind. “Emerging” is a nod to the Emergent conversation, which is a form of Christianity with postmodern sympathies.

    As I argue here, postmodernism simply describes what is. And “what is”, as you suggest, is a kind of Babel in which different people take their stand on mutually exclusive interpretations of the Christian faith.

    The only way to emerge from Babel is, paradoxically, to acknowledge that every truth claim is local and contingent — not excepting one’s own truth claim. Having acknowledged the point, one can then take a stand and enter into a respectful dialogue with people of contrary convictions. Significant disagreement inevitably persists: but at least no one is permitted to play the “I have the absolute truth” trump card to dismiss the opinion of anyone else.

    We thus set up a constructive dialogue (hence the label, emergent conversation), which is to be preferred to the oneupmanship which is the way religious debates are traditionally conducted.

    Whether you like it or not you, too, are a resident of Babel. Agreement does not exist. You do not have adequate grounds to conclude that your Church of England, pro-war variant of Christianity is more true than the alternatives. You have only your personal inclinations, which of course arise from your personal, historical conditioning.

    • Bridgett;
    Thanks for sharing your personal account. I’m gratified to know that at least one of my readers understands where I’m coming from.

    Reply

  5. Doug Chaplin
    May 10, 2008 @ 14:27:02

    Stephen, could you clarify your position, please? Are you epistemologically post-modern (We can’t know the absolute truth) or ontologically post-modern (There is no absolute truth)? I leave aside the recursive contradiction present in either statement, for now.

    Reply

  6. Zayna
    May 10, 2008 @ 17:12:57

    Okay, at the risk of way oversimplifying the issue

    I was born and raised Roman Catholic and decided somewhere in my twenties that in fact I was a Christian.

    I didn’t then, and still don’t, really know what that means. Just that I resonate more with Jesus’ teachings than with anything else in the Bible.

    To me being a Christian means believing that Jesus was a child of God, just as we all are, and that His example is worth trying to follow.

    I don’t know from born again or postmodernist, and in fact I’ll bet Jesus isn’t hung up on such labels either.

    Just trying to lighten up the conversation. 🙂

    Reply

  7. Paul Wright
    May 10, 2008 @ 18:23:38

    I think you’re right to say that there are Christianities rather than a Christianity.

    One problem for a lot of Christians in acknowledging this is that most Christians think that God cares about what people believe. If they want to avoid deism, this forces them into the position of believing that the other lot are blinded by sin, the world and the Devil; or that stuff which Christians disagree about isn’t that important (in the debates I’ve been involved in, such trifling matters include homosexuality and the morality of the Iraq war. I suppose I’d add your own examples of torture, the distribution of wealth and so on to the list). I’ve seen both positions expressed on the uk.religion.christian newsgroup when I’ve mentioned this problem there.

    Based on the idea that stuff about which Christians agree is the only thing which is important to God, as I said over here, I think the key doctrines of Christianity are that that you should be nice to people, that Jesus was probably a good bloke, and that it’s important to gather with your friends every so often and sing songs.

    Reply

  8. Stephen
    May 10, 2008 @ 20:07:48

    Doug:
    Put me down as epistemologically postmodern. I assume, for example, that Jesus either approves of torture or he doesn’t: if only he were here we could just ask him, and we’d settle that question in a few heartbeats.

    But given that Jesus isn’t physically present among us, we’re left with only the New Testament documents; and Christians disagree on how those writings should be interpreted. In principle, then, I believe there is a true answer to such questions, but that truth is beyond our reach.

    • Zayna:
    I resonate more with Jesus’ teachings than with anything else in the Bible.

    That, in a nutshell, is why I continue to identify as a Christian: Jesus’ message and example resonate with me in the very way you describe.

    btw, I also agree that Jesus would have had no use for labels such as “postmodern”. I don’t care whether anyone else subscribes to the label; I just find it a useful way of describing what I see. Such things matter to me personally, though sometimes I wish that they didn’t matter so much.

    • Paul:
    Thanks for the comment. I don’t know how you stay on top of these topics around the blogosphere to the extent that you do.

    One problem for a lot of Christians in acknowledging this is that most Christians think that God cares about what people believe.

    That’s a good point. I agree with those Christians who think that God cares what we believe. But it seems scripture is not clear enough to settle such questions with anything like a consensus.

    Reply

  9. Bill
    May 21, 2008 @ 12:38:56

    Like Stephen I would have to say I am in the epistemologically postmodern category myself. Being a liberal Christian I am of the mind that we are in a continuous state of learning. I think that we could take a chapter from the Buddist idea of searching for enlightenment, but our enlightenment is an attempt to conceive a portion of Gods mind. We need to seperate the mind of man from the mind of God. Unlike the fundamentalists that attempt to know the will of God I think we need to go further, and that the search for truth is more important than the answer we find. If we think we know the answer and stop searching as many faiths have done then we stand a very good chance of being wrong. I tend toward the idea that trying to live as Christ lived or as I percieved he lived from what I have read I live a life which God would like me to live, not because he/she commands it but because as a benevolent being he/she would like us to have a good life. But even with that I accept that any Christians individual belief could be closer to the truth than mine. It is the searchg that is important.

    Reply

  10. Zayna
    May 21, 2008 @ 14:39:29

    Bill – “I tend toward the idea that trying to live as Christ lived or as I percieved he lived from what I have read I live a life which God would like me to live, not because he/she commands it but because as a benevolent being he/she would like us to have a good life. But even with that I accept that any Christians individual belief could be closer to the truth than mine. It is the searchg that is important.”

    That’s beautiful and so well put. I agree, it is the relationships we build…with our fellow man, with Jesus and with God…along the way, that really matter.

    Reply

  11. Stephen
    May 21, 2008 @ 15:32:59

    Bill:
    I think that we could take a chapter from the Buddist idea of searching for enlightenment, but [for the Christian] enlightenment is an attempt to conceive a portion of Gods mind. We need to seperate the mind of man from the mind of God.

    That’s an interesting and thought-provoking way of expressing it.

    Unlike the fundamentalists that attempt to know the will of God I think we need to go further, and that the search for truth is more important than the answer we find.

    Truly, words to make a fundamentalist choke.

    Reply

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