Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A Muslim/Christian Priest?

I came across an interesting story today in the Seattle Times. Apparently, a local Episcopal priest named Ann Holmes Redding has recently become a Muslim. However, she did not convert to Islam... she just added it to what I guess could only be called her repertoire of religious affiliations. I don't know how else to put it. The article is fascinating.

Redding does not have a problem being both Christian and Muslim. She worships and serves in her Episcopal church, and she prays five times a day to Allah, attending a local mosque on Fridays.

However, this does not come without difficulties for her (and I'm not speaking about interpersonal difficulties). Her appropriation was made easier by the fact that she has long rejected the deity of Jesus, the doctrine of original sin, and the redemptive nature of Jesus' death and resurrection... all central to any concept of historical Christianity. A conflict remains in that she does believe that Jesus died and was raised again, a fact that the Qur'an specifically denies... and according to Islam, one can't simply pick and choose what parts of the Qur'an to believe. As Redding says, "That's something I'll find a challenge the rest of my life."

No Muslim leader was quoted in the article saying that Redding's beliefs were acceptable. However, she is welcomed at the local mosque. Various Christian leaders were quoted in the article giving various perspectives, but the most interesting is the fact that her Episcopal bishop supports her multi-religiosity and considers her a "bridge" person, whatever that means.

I once knew some Christian missionaries living in a fiercely Muslim Middle Eastern country. Any activity designed to make Muslims leave Islam is strictly forbidden in those countries, so enterprising missionaries tend to get creative with their methods. These individuals decided that the word "Islam" literally means simply "Submitted to God", so they would call themselves Muslims. They prayed five times a day (nobody's against praying, right?); they gave the required tithes (giving money is a certainly a Christian thing to do); they wore the required garments (Christianity doesn't say what we should or shouldn't wear). And, as they mingled with their Muslim friends who considered them Muslim converts, they tried to convince them to become Jesus-following Muslims... of course, in the process, those true Muslims would have to turn against fundamental tenets of Islam. In the end, it seemed more than a little deceptive to me.

This all connects back to a point we discussed in our recent What Do You Believe? thread. How flexible can a word like "Christian" or "Muslim" be? "Christian" can be literally read as "Christ-follower", and can therefore be appropriated by anyone who follows a Christ. "Muslim" literally means "submitted to God", and can therefore be appropriated by anyone who submits to a God. But, if we interpret the words that broadly, they lose all meaning. To then begin to differentiate between various groups (which is, after all, the point of giving them labels in the first place), we need to come up with different words.

In Redding's case, she seems to interpret the words "Christian" and "Muslim" as words of affiliation and practice, not of belief. She is a Christian because she performs Christian practices and is affiliated with Christianity and feels like a Christian... not because of any particular beliefs that she holds. The same with Islam... she did not become a Muslim, nor does she consider herself now to be a Muslim, because of anything about Islam that she believes. No, she is a Muslim because she feels called to Islam, because she affiliates herself with Islam, and because she performs Muslim devotional practices.

So, is it possible to be a Christian and a Muslim at the same time? Nowadays, it seems that you need to define your terms more carefully before you can answer the question.

Is it possible to be a practicing Christian and a practicing Muslim at the same time? Is it possible to feel kinship with Christianity and Islam at the same time? Is it possible to be affiliated with Christianity and with Islam at the same time? Yes, Yes, and Yes.

Is it possible to believe core historical Christian doctrines and historically-defined Muslim doctrines at the same time? Emphatically, no.

There is a counter-argument that can be presented here. There are groups, both Christian groups and Muslim groups, that are generally allowed to use the term "Christian" and "Muslim" even though they hold certain doctrines that are historically at odds with the respective belief systems. Sufi Muslims, for instance, are considered heretics by more traditional Muslims... yet they still are able to call themselves Muslims. Lots of Christian teachers and fringe Christian groups exist that hold to doctrines that are not historically orthodox, but they are still allowed to appropriate the word Christian.

Given that, how can such words be used meaningfully?

And, if this isn't too personal a question... how would you answer if someone asked you: "What religion are you?" For me, it depends on the context. Sometimes I will simply answer "Christian", but most of the time I will add some sort of qualifier, something that I think will create the right mental impression in the listener. "Evangelical Christian" sometimes, or "Protestant" if speaking to a Catholic, or "non-denominational Christian", or one of my more recent favorites, "community-church Christian". But, it's a hard question for me, and each of those answers gives a distinctly different impression to different listeners. To a more theologically educated listener, I could give a three-sentence answer that would much more accurately describe what I believe and what I live... but I haven't been able to find a name that I'm comfortable with as a label for my beliefs.

Any thoughts?

Mark

28 comments:

MLO said...

Hrm... I don't think Islam and Christianity, are at heart, able to mutually coexist in the human heart.

Islam, unlike Christianity, has teachings from Mohammed endorsing warfare. Christ always said for us to turn the other cheek - or at worst to shake off our sandals as we leave. (In the Middle East footwear insults are still quite common.)

Now, of course, I have heard from friends who are of Japanese descent that it is not uncommon for people to practice multiple religions with no thought about the differences - taking only what fits for them.

As to Muslims who don't take all of the Koran, there is the equivalent to the "American Catholic", the "Turkish Moslem" - in pop terms, that is. The Sufis are mystics and seek the meaning beyond the words, so I wonder if she is more involved with them?

Pax,

MLO

MamasBoy said...

I think Islam and Christianity really are mutually exclusive. If somebody doesn't believe in the deity of Christ, I don't hesitate to say they aren't Christian. Not everybody who claims the title Christian really is one.

I'm not so sure warfare is a good way to separate Islam and Christianity. After all, Jesus didn't come to bring peace, but a sword and he even commands his disciples at one point to sell their mantle and buy a sword if they don't have one. While some say Jesus was a pacifist, others disagree and it is not a simple topic.

Personally, how I describe my religion varies. Christian works, but if people want to know more, Catholic Christian of the Roman rite is about all they need to know to peg what I believe and practice.

How is community-church Christian any different from non-denominational Christian?

MB

MamasBoy said...

M: I'm a bit curious as to what you would say to describe yourself in three sentences or so.

MB

MLO said...

The easiest way to describe myself is as a mystical non-denominational evolutionary Christian Spiritual Seeker. Basically, I believe in the Nicene Creed, and that while God never changes, man's understanding does, and thus, none of us will understand Him until He decides we will. Some who know me say I'm very close to traditional Christian Quakers. Authority cannot come from anyone but God.

More in-depth:

I completely reject the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. (Of course, I reject organized religion.) I know way too much about the history of the various Apostolic Churches and would probably be more aligned with the early Church Father Valentinus than anyone else. His concept of different callings for different people resulting from their spiritual maturity just makes sense. (Not to say I agreed 100% with any of them. Of course, I have forgotten tons of stuff which is why I've decided to start blogging through some of the early Church writings.)

I consider Augustine to be one of the worst influences on modern theology. The warfare that we are to wage is not a "physical" warfare, rather a Spiritual warfare. Thus, there is no "just" war. Sometimes this means laying down one's life.

I also completely reject predestination - that violates free will. I love Madeleine L'Engle's explanation, to paraphrase: life is like a haiku within which you can write anything you want. (I got the poem type wrong.) Calvin was just plain wrong on that count.

I have in-depth training in Catholicism, Presbyterianism, Church of Christ old style (supposedly Apostolic Northern European - prior to the Roman See's invasion), and studied various Eastern Orthodoxies and other Christianities.

I am also very familiar with the various flavors of Islam, Paganism, Judaism, certain Hindu beliefs, and the inate animism that is culturally based.

Pax,

MLO

MamasBoy said...

MLO:

Thanks for answering. My question had actually been intended for Mark, since he seemed to indicate that three sentences could do some justice to a description of himself. Of course, I didn't indicate whom I was writing to clearly.

Thanks though, for answering. I will probably drop by and look at some of your blogs on early Christianity.

MB

Kevin said...

"It wasn't about intellect." That about sums it up for me.

I found the article to be lacking. Which religions, if any, does Redding think are incompatible with her beliefs? Which denominations? Is she also Jewish? Or Sikhist? How does she approach Sharia and her role as a woman and clergy in Islam? Perhaps she'll also be the first Sunni-Shiite.

I think that belief in Jesus as Christ, the (not "a") Messiah, is fundamental to the definition of Christianity. I'd venture a guess that it is even fundamental to Episcopalian teachings, despite Redding's status and terminology.

Her stated views are more consistent with Islam than Christianity, and I'm left wondering what specifically she is holding onto or gains by redefining terms, beyond creating her emotionally validating and largely syntactic bridge.

IIRC, the term "Christian" was originally pejorative. Alas, the meaning of words are very fluid, perhaps often influenced by politics. People are "allowed to appropriate" pretty much any word, with permission amounting to individual propagation of that word with those semantics. That is essentially the extent of our control over words: how we use them, and how we convince others to use them.

"There is no greater impediment to the advancement of knowledge than the ambiguity of words." -- Thomas Reid (1710-69), Scottish philosopher.

Kevin

steviepinhead said...

I find it interesting that Kevin's latest post ends with a quotation from a Scottish philosopher.

This brings to mind the logical fallacy that goes by the name of No True Scotsman.

Given the histories of both Christianity and Islam--a continuing proliferation into a multitude of sects in the former case and into several distinct, long-lived, and mutually-hostile sects in the latter--I find it a little bit untenable for anyone in either religion to set themselves up as an authority allegedly possessing the power (conferred by who? and how do we know for sure?) to declare for others whether those others are or are not "true" Christians or "true" Muslims.

I recognize, of course, that there are authorities who presume to do this, and I suppose they can do whatever makes them feel better or holier, but ultimately no such "authority" can extend any further than the self-proclaimed authority's own belief.

Others may, of course, surrender their own spiritual authority to someone else. But, at least in a democratic society that enjoys freedom of religion, no such exterior authority possesses any actual power to proclaim or impose a religious authority that effectively extends to anyone else.

Freedom of religion, needless to say, precludes the state from interfering in internal matters of dogma of a group of people who have collectively decided to practice a religion (or who feel called to do so, or however it might be most appropriate to put it...).

Let me just make up a fictional Christian sect, say The Most Respectful And Only True Followers of Christ ("True Followers"; no disrespect to any actual worship community that may possess some similar name is intended). Let's also assume that the True Followers have agreed among themselves on the essential points of their faith and have likewise agreed on some form of internal governance with the poser to pronounce dogma and regulate admission and expulsion to the ranks of the Followers.

Let's say some poor misguided Follower either announces their own "heretical" interpretation of the tenets of the Follower faith (or ticks off somebody in authority for non-dogmatic reasons). The poor misguided follower is expelled from the Followers by the latter's duly-constituted governance body, becoming the Poor Misguided Former Follower ("PMEF"). The PMEF attempts to invoke the jurisdiction of some state or federal civil court, insisting the the expulsion was improper for whatever reason.

As I understand it, the civil courts would not interfere in the Followers' internal religious determination. So the Followers would be allowed to exclude the PMFF from their services, buildings, and other get-togethers.

But if the PMFF wished (or felt called) to continue to view him or herself as a True Follower, and wished to continue to announce him or herself to be a True Follower (indeed, perhaps The Only True Follower), I can't see any basis upon which the Followers--much less any civil authority--would be able to do anything about it. Short, perhaps, of preventing the PMFF from using the sect's name in some legally-fraudulent manner (selling or purchasing realty or personalty or putting out publications in a manner that might confuse the other party in the transaction--or the "consuming" public--or lead to apparent liability of the "original" True Followers).

In certain countries that don't practice freedom of religion, matters might well go elsewise for PMFF--a Muslim "apostate," for example, is theoretically subject to a death sentence in such charming places as Iran, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia (as I heard on NPR while driving to work today).

But this Episcopalian?Muslim lady lives in good ol' (and equally charming) Seattle. She can believe whatever she wants, and apply whatever label she wants to her beliefs. Others may, of course, endlessly debate and decry the "appropriateness" of her self-identification (and, as suggested above, she would have no right to "force" herself into the buildings or services of any "official" religious organizations with which she claimed to identify, against their will, and would perhaps have no right to "usurp" their names in certain sorts of transactions).

We might well compare what such a person claims to believe with the "official" tenets of belief espoused by such a body as the True Followers. And we might reach various conclusions, binding only upon ourselves, as to who had the "right" of the matter.

But, frankly, it all seems to be a bit of a tempest in a teapot (though I can, of course, imagine circumstances in which the matters might seem of supreme importance to those embroiled in such a debate).

I'm no advocate of PoMo or unbounded relatavism. Reality enforces certain unavoidable categories and behaviors, and the functional use of language imposes some sort of interpersonal agreement on what most words in a given language mean, in given contexts. But, based on the nigh-limitless internal dogmatic disagreements, angel-counting, and hair-splitting engaged in by the various factions of Christians and Muslims themselves, it frankly seems to me that one area of "language" in which relativism can safely be claimed to hold sway is this one.

As can probably be deduced from the foregoing, nothing about what this lady says about her beliefs bothers me in the least. That's not to say that I think she makes any great degree of sense, when tested against some standard of external "logicical" consistency, but then neither do any of the other claims of this sort made by anyone else.

That's why we call it faith, and not logic or science.

The only "authority" with the power to expel her from the ranks of the Episcopalians would be...the Episcopalians. Since they haven't done so, whatever the rest of us may think about the matter doesn't count for much.

Likewise, even if the Episcopalians (or whatever mosque worship community she attends) were to expel her, that act would have only whatever impact on the lady's personal practices, beliefs, and professions that she empowered it to have.

My $0.02

MarkC said...

Stevie,

Wow... I appear to have touched a nerve.

Let me start by saying that I can't think of anything that you wrote that I disagree with. In fact, it's all pretty self-evident to me.

At the same time, I'm having a hard time figuring out what you wrote that contradicts the letter or spirit of my post (or the ensuing comments).

Let me quote what I meant to be the central crux of my post:

Is it possible to believe core historical Christian doctrines and historically-defined Muslim doctrines at the same time? Emphatically, no.

Notice my reference to history there. You are correct that Islam has split into a collection of antagonistic-toward-each-other sects, which disagree with each other on a great many issues. However, there are some things they all (or near enough to "all" to be historically discernible) hold in common.

The same, to a somewhat lesser degree, with Christianity. Though there are innumerable sects of Christianity, particularly in recent years, there are some "core historical Christian doctrines", as I put it. In our previous conversation, katia argued that Mormons should be allowed to use the word Christian for themselves... but she didn't argue this because of agreement with "core historical Christian doctrines"... she argued it from the standpoint of returning to "Christ", to the true teachings of Jesus which had been lost for all that time.

Now, as I did then, I'm willing to let her appropriate that term. And, I am also willing to let Redding appropriate the term Christian and the term Muslim. As I said, one can be both a practicing Christian and a practicing Muslim at the same time. But, one cannot hold to core historical Christian doctrines (say, the creeds of the early church which are nearly universally held to be normative even in today's Christianity pluralism), and also core historically-defined Muslim doctrines (the ones shared in common by all the various sects of Islam) at the same time. They are mutually exclusive.

And, all of this was not to accuse Redding of misusing terminology, or to suggest any sort of government restriction (!)... it was to point out the difficulty in understanding what such words mean when they are used, and to suggest that we take the opportunity to think about what we believe and how we would label ourselves in a recognizable way.

I hope that makes sense.

MB, I'll answer your question about my three-sentence self-description soon. For the moment, I can say that my three sentences would change depending on the context, so I'm not suggesting that I can summarize everything essential about what I believe in three sentences! I just think that, given a particular context, I could clarify my beliefs pretty well given three sentences. I'll take a stab at it, for this context, soon. :)

Mark

Kevin said...

Stevie,

Stevie wrote: "This brings to mind the logical fallacy that goes by the name of No True Scotsman."

That is funny, given my trailing quote by a Scotsman. Thanks for mentioning it. The No True Scotsman fallacy centers upon shifting the definition of "Scotsman".

Of course, a valid version of the argument could occur if one falsely claims to be a Scotsman, with the natural response clarifying a "true Scotsman". The pertinent question is, what is the definition and who is shifting it?

Stevie wrote: "But, based on the nigh-limitless internal dogmatic disagreements, angel-counting, and hair-splitting engaged in by the various factions of Christians and Muslims themselves, it frankly seems to me that one area of "language" in which relativism can safely be claimed to hold sway is this one."

Hair splitting based upon a common source does lead to similar names between the branches, but succumbing to linguistic relativism would seem to result in words which can bear any meaning, and through that fundamental confusion, they would eventually bear no meaning, as if communication upon the subject itself were meaningless and irrelevant.

Stevie wrote: "That's not to say that I think she makes any great degree of sense, when tested against some standard of external "logicical" consistency, but then neither do any of the other claims of this sort made by anyone else. That's why we call it faith, and not logic or science."

The beliefs themselves may constitute faith, but such faith should not be required to convey meaning through words.

Stevie wrote: "The only "authority" with the power to expel her from the ranks of the Episcopalians would be...the Episcopalians. Since they haven't done so, whatever the rest of us may think about the matter doesn't count for much."

Inasmuch as the Episcopalians are a group devoid of any defining characteristics beyond being approved by a bishop, you're right. And, as you point out, we generally let people choose their own names. Thus, it's up to all the Episcopalians to decide her status in their group.

But when a name infringes upon an established connotation, other names are employed to communicate distinctions. Thus, for example, Redding's particular mixture might become known as "Muslian" by those who discuss it; at least until she chooses her own unique name for it. Maybe she'll choose "True". Maybe hers will be the True religion.

Alas, even as we strive to communicate, we also contend to give words our own meaning.

P.S. (updating this comment in light of Mark's comment) I am perhaps taking this thread in a somewhat different direction than Mark, since I do essentially think that Redding is misusing terminology.

To be clear, I'm not saying that God will not view her as a Christian, but simply that her beliefs are not what I am referring to when I use the term "Christian".

Nevertheless, such "misuse" is part of the semantically flowing nature of words and it is up to us, individually and as a group, to conclude upon some semblance of a consistent definition in our usage with each other.

Kevin

steviepinhead said...

Again, I'm not advocating that all words, or definitions and connotations thereof, should be abandoned to relativism.

But I do question the relevance of this doctrinal angel-counting to anybody outside the self-defined inner circle of a given worship community.

Sure, there is some sense in which one can go back and argue, with more or less conviction, about the "core," "traditional," or "historical" meaning of terms like Christianity and Islam.

In which case, Mark is right. This lady's beliefs probably do contradict the basic tenets of one "religion" or another (scare quotes here referring back to the multiple, rather than singular, quality of these "entities").

But I would argue that, unlike with language, where there is some discernible drawback--a breakdown of communication--to allowing a word to me whatever one likes whenever one likes it, there's just not much discernible drawback--for society at large, as opposed to someone sitting withing the worship-circle--of allowing somebody like this poor woman to "own" and use/abuse these terms any which was she pleases.

To you folks who self-identify as "Christian" (of one sort or another...), it seems self-evident that this woman is using the term incorrectly.

To someone like myself--not lacking in a life-philosophy or a world-view, or even a spiritual outlook, with moral consequences--but who does not self-identify as (any flavor of) either Christian or Muslim, nothing about it seems self-evident.

Sure, there is some historical content to such terms, and all kinds of historical consequence (I'm in the process of repairing gaps in my learning about the first century or so of European history following the reformation, and I still mean to delve into Pagels and Ehrman on the way to repairing similar gaps in my knowledge about the early Christian era) but--in our society, now--what are the functional consequences for the polity or its citizens of allowing someone to--hypothetically speaking--incorrectly appropriate such terms?

Who is hurt? Who is confused in some way that really counts? Who currently "owns" these terms in the first place?

I mean, look at the little side-discussion that's going on--the one about the "three-sentence self-description."

If a term like Christian ought to be so clear to any self-respecting, self-identifying Christian, why would any of you need the superfluous three sentences?

It seems to me, again looking "in" from at least slightly "outside" the inner circle, that the Christians have long ago, and largely through their own words and actions, allowed the content of the term "Christian" to fill with fog. Look not to the relativists--which, again, I ain't--look to yourselves!

(I say this all with a smile and a head-shake, directed as much at myself (I'm certainly not capable of a three-sentence summation, and not because my life lacks strongly-set anchors) and at this woman as at any of you...)

Again, I certainly see Mark's "core" point. I can imagine a procedure where we take the fundamental beliefs (arrived at via some sort of Top Ten procedure for each separate worship group perhaps) of the various strands of Christianity, then do some sort of a cross-comparison--overlapping belief cirlces until we come up with that section of the Venn diagram where almost everybody who claims to be a Christian seems to agree on those fundamentals.

Having done so--and I'm sure it's been done, not only in various early councils and in later "constitutional" documents, but by thoughtful Christians like Mark somewhere in these very blog pages--what do we have? Well, maybe we have something which within a Christian worship community, allows for some sort of a communication shortcut--like a color-coded badge--that allows you to save some time in getting to know, or communicate with, a "fellow" (to some greater or lesser extent) believer: to more quickly understand where they are coming from.

Cool.

But haven't you now pared away most of what you really need to know, to know how they're going to approach almost any hot-potato issue, or how to vote, or what vehicle they're likely to drive, or what contraceptive they're likely to use or avoid, or...

To put it another way, what useful meaning have I lost if I take Kevin's statement about Episcopalians, but replace the E-word with Christian, thusly?

Inasmuch as the Christians are a group devoid of any defining characteristics beyond being approved by whatever doctrinal authority any particular group of "Christians" recognizes, you're right.

Kevin, I guess I don't understand what you're trying to say here:

"The beliefs themselves may constitute faith, but such faith should not be required to convey meaning through words."

I'm sure I'm reading this in some unintended way, but to me it sounds more like you're making my point about the relative lack of firm definition of faith-defining terms, rather than establishing (what I thought was) your point that there is some nucleus of determinant meaning lying within them.

If we're not going to require faith to convey meaning through words, how is it that this woman's attempted appropriation of words like Islam and Christian to define her faith-beliefs violates some definitional category?

Mark, my nerve doesn't feel touched. But even if it did, that's okay, fire away!

MarkC said...

Stevie,

You asked why any of this matters. I'll give a shot to explaining.

There is a growing attitude in our society today that all religions are the same, and that only "fundamentalism" causes people to hate each other and fight wars. If we got rid of the "fundamentalists", this line of thinking goes, all the different religions would find they were actually speaking about the same things using different words, and all religions would mingle and coexist peacefully, each person picking whatever combination of religious practices and ideas worked best for them.

It is that idea, of which Redding is only one small example, which I consider to be dangerous.

There are differences of belief between the different religions of this world, and those differences of belief--of doctrine--are important. They have consequences. It matters, both to the individual and to society, what religous beliefs (doctrines) are chosen and followed.

I am less concerned about which particular word is used by any particular individual... and very concerned that we be willing to differentiate between different belief systems in some recognizable way. If the words "Christian" and "Muslim" become interchangeable, then our language will have lost an important distinction that has consequences. If, however, the word "Christian" morphs into what we might now call "monotheistic", and what most people now call "Christians" become "Jesusites" and what most people now call "Muslims" become "Allahians"... that doesn't matter to me a whole lot.

Does that make sense?

Mark

Kevin said...

Excellent comment, Mark.

Kevin said...

Stevie,

Perhaps Mark's comment makes mine superfluous or tangential, but seeing as I've already written it... :)

Stevie wrote: "Who is hurt? Who is confused in some way that really counts? Who currently "owns" these terms in the first place?"

Communication is hurt. Useful terms are made less useful. Granted, the confusion only "really counts" to those who care about communicating on these topics and meaningfully using these terms.

I suppose we all "own" these terms, which is why I think it is highly appropriate to discuss our consensus on their meaning. It helps us to estimate what meaning we can expect to give or take when we use them.

Stevie wrote: "It seems to me, again looking "in" from at least slightly "outside" the inner circle, that the Christians have long ago, and largely through their own words and actions, allowed the content of the term "Christian" to fill with fog. Look not to the relativists--which, again, I ain't--look to yourselves!"

That last sentence just made me smile, too. :)

We can also pick other words whose meaning has, throughout history and region, expanded and branched and changed. Anyone can call themselves a Christian, or any other name, really, and potentially dilute or shift meaning.

There is a constant struggle for the meaning of words, but you seem to be suggesting we abandon that struggle in the case of (certain?) religious terms because, whatever the meaning of the term, it is essentially irrelevant to you and society.

I think it can be both relevant and consequential to society, and I agree with the entirety of Mark's excellent last comment.

Stevie wrote: "But haven't you now pared away most of what you really need to know, to know how they're going to approach almost any hot-potato issue, or how to vote, or what vehicle they're likely to drive, or what contraceptive they're likely to use or avoid, or..."

Granted, the meaning of "Christian" is often broad with vague edges, but I'm arguing that it is not yet so broad that it is inclusive of anyone who might call themselves Christian. Whether it ever reaches that breadth is entirely dependent upon how each one of us uses and understands the term.

All words are essentially the "color-coded badges" you describe: shortcut representations of meaning so that we do not have to go into greater depth in order to effectively communicate.

Stevie wrote: "To put it another way, what useful meaning have I lost if I take Kevin's statement about Episcopalians, but replace the E-word with Christian, thusly?"

Actually, you could replace it with X and likely retain the same basic meaning I intended, which is that a group whose defining characteristic is simply individual selection by some authority probably has the most control over their name.

If, on the other hand, there are other characteristics that the name represents, then people should avoid using that name when those characteristics are largely absent. If they do not, then the meaning of the name is being changed by that usage.

Stevie wrote: "If we're not going to require faith to convey meaning through words, how is it that this woman's attempted appropriation of words like Islam and Christian to define her faith-beliefs violates some definitional category?"

Sorry if I was unclear. What I meant was that although one's beliefs may be entirely subjective, it does not behoove communication for the words used to describe those beliefs to be subjective and open to any definition. At moments, I got the impression that you may have been conflating the two.

Kevin

steviepinhead said...

Ah, well then...

No, I'm not intending to suggest that the doctrines believed in by folks who associate themselves with various religious identifiers may not matter. (I'm not convinced that they matter, or that taking them as seriously as people often have has aided, rather than hindered, the general peace and security of the world.) But clearly they could matter, and crucially. For example, it is certainly possible that Jesus did appear among us to redeem us, in which case failing to get that message right could matter a great deal (though the Muslim will tell me the same thing about the message Mohammad brought, and it's now clear how someone uninitiated is suppossed to choose between them...).

And, I suppose, if there was something distinctive about the short-cut name-tag that folks sharing such a doctrine selected to stand for the doctrine that would help someone outside the group figure out what the crucial aspects of the doctrine were from the name, then that might be useful.

But instead we're told that there are peace-love-good fellowship Muslims and peace-love-good fellowship Christians (and, removing tongue briefly from cheek, I know for sure there are some of the latter, because my mom is one of them, as are several members and posters on this blog!). And we're also told that there are fundamentalist-hate-mongering Muslims, and even fundamentalist-hate-mongering Christians.

And history and observation of current events would seem to suggest that there are some of each of those, as well.

I suppose at some level of not-so-short shorthand, maybe some of the self-referential terms selected by some of the belief-groups probably DO assist the outsider in figuring out the doctrine of whoever he's come upon: Seventh-Day Jesus-Believing Steeple-But-Not-Onion-Dome-Building Gay-Disavowing-But-Not-Really-Hating Stem-Cell-Favoring But-Abortion-Definitely-Not-Favoring Ana-Cuspists, or something of that kind...

(I've always been curious what the "Ana-" prefix means; I'll have to go google that...)

But when we're talking about an admittedly rather confused-sounding Episcopalian Seattleite, I'm pretty sure already that I'm not dealing with somebody who's too likely to be burying roadside IEDs.

And, frankly, at the level of generality of "Christian" or "Muslim," I also don't think, again, that any attempt to confine the appropriate doctrines within the appropriate label is much help in my differentiating the potential terrorists or fundamentalist from the rest of us friendly folks.

And the lack of usefulness of those particular terms--the degree of relativistic smearage, if you will--is, I would assert, not the fault of sloppy language use by the public in general, but the result of can't-seem-to-agree-on-very-much-of-anything-ism on the part of the ones self-identifying with those terms.

steviepinhead said...

That confusing "now" in the 1st para. of the preceding comment would make more sense if, as intended, it were read as "not."

MamasBoy said...

Boy, I sure missed some interesting discussion. After further reflection on early Christianity I was going to update my earlier post, but I'm glad I didn't have time until now.

Islam is in many ways an Arian heresy, though they take it to a whole new level. Mohommad's brother-in-law was an Arian monk and much of what Islam teaches about Christ has its roots in Arianism.

In the early days of Christianity there was lots of debate regarding who was really a Christian and what Christian belief really was. Gnostics, Monophysites, Arians, Docetists, Nestorians, Montanists and Marcionites (to name a few) all claimed to be the real deal. Iranaeus' classic, "Against Heresies" was an example of those early idealogical battles over true Christianity. Most of those heresies were short-lived, though, and by the 5th century there was only one surviving version of Christianity.

Today, the situation is far different. With the rise of relativism and the fadish popularity of some of these early heresies (e.g., gnosticism and Da Vinci Code followers), many are trying to again say that these people had just as much of a right to call themselves Christian as anybody else.

I suppose, if it could be agreed that every one of those sects mentioned above has just as much a right to be called Christian, then this lady certainly does.

As Stevie probably suspected, my confidence in saying that woman's beliefs are not Christian is based in part on my being Catholic. In short, I'm part of a group that claims to be able to determine what true Christian beliefs are, to the aggravation of heretics and relativists around the world. :-) Some may think that is simply an exercise in elitism, but there are important theological reasons for making such a determination. In the case of baptism, since valid Christian baptism should not be repeated and since there has been a tremendous rise in the number and variety of schismatic groups over the last few hundred years there are more and more people converting to Catholicism from these groups. Was their baptism legit or not?

However, beyond mere theological concerns, there are certainly linguistic concerns. As others have stated the word Christian certainly does lose meaning and force if anybody who wants to can use it to describe any belief remotely related to Jesus. Even Muslims could call themselves Christians, since (unlike Jews, Hindus and others) they believe that Jesus was a legitimate prophet from God and truly spoke God's word. To make a loose analogy outside the realm of religion, can you imagine the fit Coke and Pepsi would throw if the somebody began to call a rival cola beverage Coca-Pepsi (shortening it to either Coke or Pepsi whenever they pleased). Both of those companies have invested millions in branding their products and there would surely be a legal battle. What if Mexico was to break out into civil war, the upshot of which was the creation of another country called the United States of America. How would the historians react? How would the UN react? Is there some international law somewhere that says all countries must have different names? What if that new country doesn't recognize such silly laws? I could go on with examples, but I'll stop there. While the analogy is only a loose one, some of the same ideas are at stake. If anybody can use the term Christian to describe their beliefs, no matter what they are, then the term has lost all meaning and it makes communication concerning Christianity more difficult. Either Christians need to start calling themselves something different or abandon the convenience of a label altogether. That can be a bit of an aggravation when there has been so much history behind the term and a general understanding has more or less been reached among Catholics, Orthodox and a large majority of the Protestant sects regarding what the term "Christian" really means in a minimalist sense.

---------------------
Mark,

Would you mind explaining what those three sentences would be to a few different people, since they vary? If you don't mind, I'll give five scenarios, 1) To a Mormon/JW, 2) to a Catholic/Orthodox, 3) to an agnostic/atheist, 4) to a Hindu/ Buddhist and 5) to another Protestant. I hope that isn't too much work for you. If it is, I'll settle for one explanation.

Please, too, don't forget about the difference between community church and non-denominational.

MB

purple_kangaroo said...

Words have meanings, and those meanings are important. Those meanings can also change over time.

Earlier I used the term Kosher as an example . . . someone can call anything they want Kosher, but that doesn't make it Kosher, since the word Kosher has a very specific and detailed meaning that doesn't include, for example, oysters. But someone certifying something kosher that isn't has impact for those who believe it affects their standing before God to accidentally eat something non-kosher.

I dislike seeing people misuse the term Christian because I feel that it reflects badly on my faith and my God. Since part of my desire is to see others come to share my faith, anything that misrepresents that faith and gives a skewed perception of what it really means is something I would consider harmful. Does that make sense?

MarkC said...

MB,

As for the last question... there is no appreciable difference between "non-denominational" and "community-church". I would use "non-denominational" with someone who was well familiar with the concept of (and term) denominations. I would use "community-church" with someone who was more likely to be familiar with Christianity only through the signboards of churches that they drove past. That's all.

Mark

MLO said...

Ack! Pet peeve of mine as a history buff:

"by the 5th century there was only one surviving version of Christianity."

NOT true! Common misconception, but just not accurate. (Get Armenian Christians and the like going on this, too.)

The Coptics are not Nicene Christians. There were already deep divisions within the various Apostolic Churches that continued despite the supposed formalization of doctrine. Also, the Gnostics really only got pushed underground during that time. You can see their influence in some writings of mystics in both Christian and Sufi writings. (There was cross-contamination(?) between the religions due to trade and conquest.)

Thomasine Christians of India have an older, more direct lineage than the Roman See, for instance. And, it is not uncommon for Hindus to accept Jesus as an Avatar - but that is another discussion altogether. (I once got into a deep discussion of this with a Hindu man. It was very enlightening, but I really don't understand all of Hinduism's many facets to comment intelligently on it.)

Spirituality is so complex that I sometimes think we don't really have the precision of vocabulary necessary to go into all of it.

Pax,

MLO

Kevin said...

Stevie,

Stevie wrote: "it's not clear how someone uninitiated is supposed to choose between them..."

Well, the New Testament is distinctly Christian and the Quran and Hadiths are distinctly Muslim. I'd start there.

Stevie wrote: "And history and observation of current events would seem to suggest that there are some of each of those, as well."

Granted, there is no guarantee that a person will do good or evil based upon any stated affiliation or even their explicitly stated morals. Of course, there may be tendencies. There may be statistical correlations.

Indeed, I think that there is no name whose meaning cannot be corrupted or changed. Define and name your own ideal morality and see how its adherents and those who claim to adhere fair over time.

Stevie wrote: "And the lack of usefulness of those particular terms--the degree of relativistic smearage, if you will--is, I would assert, not the fault of sloppy language use by the public in general, but the result of can't-seem-to-agree-on-very-much-of-anything-ism on the part of the ones self-identifying with those terms."

The terms are as useful as we agree to make them. You may be right about who bears the larger burden of the current meaning, though, as I noted earlier, the term "Christian" probably didn't originate from Christians.

Your appeal to general agreement between self-identifying Christians seems fairly reasonable, and I'd venture to guess that there is general agreement about Redding's case. And yet, you seem resistant to this or any definition of "Christian" that excludes even one person who claims to be a Christian.

Kevin

MamasBoy said...

MLO,

You are correct that the 5th century was a poor date in some ways to pick on my part, due mid-century schisms. I will still maintain, however, that by the 5th century, Nicene Christianity pretty much had a monopoly on the definition of what a Christian was. Since even most Protestants hold to Nicea, I still maintain that it is a most useful reference point, especially regarding the Trinity.

You are also quite correct that the Copts do not hold to all of the ecumenical councils. However, the famed Nicean participant Athanasius himself was from Alexadria and so was St. Timothy who presided over the Council of Constantinople. After that, Cyril of Alexandria presided over the first council of Ephesus in 431. From that perspective, I think one would have a very difficult time saying that the Copts are "not Nicene Christians." The Copts only broke off in 450 at the council of Chalcedon over some technical details regarding the human nature of Christ, and they hold to *all* of the previous ecumenical councils, which is a darn sight more than most Protestants. Try discussing the hypostatic union with the average Protestant pastor and you will most likely get simply a blank stare. I'm not sure Catholics would do much better, though I know they talk about it more, since they hold to Chalcedon.

The case of the Armenian Apostolic Church is very similar to the Copts, holding to all the ecumencical councils up to Chalcedon. Thus, the Armenians are also Nicene Christians. Plus, they also condemned the Monophysitism of Eutychus and dislike being called that, though they disagreed with the formula of condemnation for monophysite beliefs that came out of Chalcedon.

To my knowledge the only significant group of dissenters at Nicea were the Arians. As I noted in the previous post, they did survive in very much reduced form and Mohammad's brother-in-law was an Arian monk, however they were only a shadow of their former selves, since the council of Nicea slowly triumphed, even in the apostolic churches that would later go into schism.

I am not terribly familiar with the Thomasine Indian Christians. What I have read is has been sometimes contradictory (or at least seemed so to me), so I am reticent to place too much faith in any single source. It seems that the Thomasine Christians were fairly isolated from the rest of Christianity, though I don't think they were completely isolated. Does their theology represent an earlier time? It may, but my guess is that it would still be Nicene Christianity, since they didn't formally split until some heavy-handed latin rite catholics showed up in the 16th century. I would be interested in any references you could point me to that would say otherwise.

Another thing that I just didn't understand was the reference to the Thomasine Christians having an "older, more direct lineage than the Roman See." How can this be? An apostle is an apostle. It doesn't get more direct than that. Regarding being older, there are decent references that will put Peter in Rome before Thomas is in India, but at the most the difference is on the order of 10 years. My guess is that when one looks at the difference in arrival estimates among historians, the standard deviation is about the same as the mean. (Mark, if you didn't get that, then I need to totally rephrase that last sentence). In short, the difference is so small, the evidence is so scarce (and the consequences so nonexistent) that I think it would be futile to make an argument either way.

Seriously, though, if you have evidence of a major surviving Christian sect from the 300's that is not Nicene, I'd be more than happy to read about it. It wouldn't be the first time somebody has proven me wrong.

I'd discuss the gnostics and their "influence" on the Catholic/Orthodox mystics, but this comment is way too long already. Congrats if you actually read through the entire thing. You've exceeded your RDA of blathering.

MB

steviepinhead said...

Heh!

I definitely get that Christians would like to reserve the term "Christian" for those who profess certain authoritative beliefs.

And thus protect the term against dilution and adulteration by all the Reddings and Stevies of the world.

But again I say--all I have to do is go away for 24 hours and you're already arguing among yourselves about who the heretics are and aren't, and when, and about what...

Not to mention previous discussions with regard to the asserted "Christianity" of the LDS, etc.

Of course, Kevin, I can tell the difference between the Muslim and Judeo-Christian texts. It's the part about verifying which of the texts, if either, contains the One True Religion that gets a little more difficult for me.

Fortunately, however, I've only been baptized once. Still have the cup with "Steviepinhead" engraved upon it.

Anyway, I'm apparently more disposed to cut this lady some definitional slack than are most of the rest of you.

Kevin said...

Stevie,

I don't blame you for cutting Redding definitional slack, considering it is an irrelevant word and topic to you. Nevertheless, it is a defeat for the rest of us in maintaining a more meaningful definition.

I apologize if my comment seemed obvious or impertinent. For some reason I thought you were trying to identify and distinguish between Christianity and Islam, rather than searching for the One True Religion.

How does the saying go? "No one can be told what the One True Religion is; you have to experience it (and morally judge it) for yourself." It's kinda like the Matrix in that respect. :)

Kevin

steviepinhead said...

Kevin, I do appreciate your gentle and humorous handling of my at times irreverent-seeming self.

But Christianity is hardly, of course, an irrelevant word or topic. To you, me, or the world at large. It's just, I think, a less self-evidently well-constrained term than it might be.

As I mentioned somewhere above (but, admittedly, have also "threatened" before), I'm actually interested in going back to some of the early textual and doctrinal controversies and--aside from proving my "point" here (in my own mind, at least)--I've appreciated some of the discussion of that kind above.

When I do get around to Pagels and Ehrman (I'm rather deeply enmeashed in the Missippian/Southeastern Ceremonial Complex of native american iconography at the moment, and some evolutionary topics), it will be reassuring to know that I can bring any questions or confusions here and touch base with well-grounded thinkers.

Kevin said...

Stevie,

I'm intrigued by your wide breadth of studies. Perhaps your can share interesting tidbits as you come across them.

Alas, I think you'll have to look to MamasBoy, MLO, et al. for the breadth of Christian history, and not myself.

My role in this discussion is actually somewhat funny, since I would not strictly be considered a Christian by many definitions. Instead, my interest has been largely pragmatic in that I'd like the word to have _some_ definition, beyond one's claim, and I think the differences between Christianity and Islam necessitate it.

It's always fun debating with you. Thanks for your gentleness and humor as well. :)

Kevin

MarkC said...

Stevie,

You wrote: It's the part about verifying which of the texts, if either, contains the One True Religion that gets a little more difficult for me.

I didn't think we were undertaking that task here. I certainly hadn't intended to.

Kevin wrote that it matters to him that the word "Christianity" mean something. I agree, though I'm willing to use a different word if necessary.

A basic set of beliefs about God, Jesus, and humanity was codified in creeds about 1500 years ago, and has been dominant in Western civilization ever since. That set of beliefs has, for basically all of that time, gone under the name "Christianity". The word has had (and still does have) additional meaning in some places (in a predominantly Catholic country, for instance, the word Christian will be nearly synonymous with Catholic). But for at least 1500 years there has been vast widespread agreement on the core doctrines set out in the creeds of the early church.

I think that maintaining a doctrinal, historically-centered definition of the word "Christian" is important. And I do not mean that the only people who can use the term are those who toe the creedal party line.

Kevin, you disagree with key portions of those early church creeds. I don't have a problem with you calling yourself a "Christian", though. You understand yourself as a Christian because you are closer to Christianity than to any other major world belief system. You are connected to Christianity through its doctrinal meaning and its historical definitions, even as you disagree with parts of those definitions.

Redding, on the other hand, makes no attempt to connect herself to the doctrines or the history of Christianity. She calls herself a "Christian" because she works in a "Christian" church, she likes the way Christian worship makes her feel, etc. She calls herself a "Muslim" for identical reasons.

I do not object to Redding calling herself a "Christian" because she disagrees with some of the basic creeds of the historical church. I disagree with Redding calling herself a "Christian" because she disagrees with nearly all of the basic creeds of the historical church. She refers to herself as a "Christian" not for belief-centered reasons, but for feeling-centered reasons, and I think that is a very dangerous terminological shift.

If "Christian" is truly going to become a word in our language that means "one who considers Jesus an important religious figure", then it will have become uselessly broad. In that case, I hope that we as a society will be able to find some other word to stand in its place as an identifier for the more specific, widely-held, historically-defined views of God, Jesus, and humanity set out in the creeds of the early church, and dominant in the Western world for the ensuing 1000+ years.

Mark

Kevin said...

Just an update on Redding to round out the thread. Her bishop has ruled that she will not be permited to serve as a priest for a year.

"""During that year, Redding is expected to "reflect on the doctrines of the Christian faith, her vocation as a priest, and what I see as the conflicts inherent in professing both Christianity and Islam," the Rt. Rev. Geralyn Wolf, bishop of the Diocese of Rhode Island, wrote in an e-mail to Episcopal Church leaders."""

Kevin said...

The Christian Post also notes the suspension and the potential schism between Anglicans and Episcopalians regarding same-sex marriage.

CBN quoted a Kurt Fredrickson with an interesting analogy of being both a Republican and a Democrat.