Monday, September 2, 2013

Real

Let me tell you the problem with "real" Christians.

Man, I bet a few readers are already angry in anticipation of what I might write next. Those scare quotes look like a setup for some good old fashioned religion bashing, don't they? I bet +Jonathan Lange  read that and his chapter-and-verse gland went into overdrive, probably had some Irenaeus ready to go (I have no idea if Irenaeus is remotely relevant to modern theology, I'm guessing not). Sadly, it is not to be, the quotes are a little misleading. For starters I’m using Christian here solely because it’s the religion I have been most exposed to, feel free to find and replace with any other worldview if you’d prefer.

I used to be interested in religions, any and all, despite not being religious in the slightest. One part of it was the same curiosity that I have about almost everything and the history, mythology, and philosophy facets in particular tickled my fancy. The major part, though, was the idea that understanding religions would help me understand people better. The principle is simple enough: in their own ways every religion lays out some beliefs, from which some rituals and ethics are derived (this is not intended to be a full description of a religion, clearly, just the bit relevant to my point). It follows, roughly, that knowing somebody’s religion should say quite a lot about how they feel they ought to behave, if not how they actually behave.

Why did the interest fade? Never to be underestimated is my dilettante nature; there is no area of endeavour I cannot approach in a poorly structured and non-committal manner. That was a contributor, to be sure, but the primary cause was what I called the “real” Christian problem (before later finding out it was a subset of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy). I liked the idea of a person’s religion being a shorthand descriptor of some of their core values, but in the end it simply isn’t the case.

On the large scale this clearly isn’t true looking at some of the ideological differences between various denominations. On the small scale I have noticed no particular correlation in my acquaintances between faith and morality; I know good people and bad people on every point of the faith spectrum. In cases where the disagreements are small, within a certain bracket of deviation, they are explained as difference of interpretation and everybody is more or less happy. After all, a person’s relationship with God is personal and with personal relationships comes personal interpretation. When it comes to large differences, outrageous acts, or those questions of particularly strong emotion, the response turns into a variation on the same theme “someone who does/says/believes that is not a real Christian”. On occasion “good” may be substituted for “real” but the intent is the same.

This, then, is my problem. As somebody who is not a Christian and therefore in a very poor position to act as arbiter in such matters, who do I take advice from on who the “real” Christians are? For Catholics I guess the Pope would be the go to guy, although the differences between Benedict and Francis make me wonder how consistent the messaging is there. What about all the other denominations, is it by general acclaim? Who decides which fundamentalists are too fundamental, or which liberal dioceses are too liberal, or whether that’s even a decision that should be made? And if there isn’t anybody who can make the decision is the definition simply that anybody who believes themselves to be Christian is Christian? And if that's all it takes, what use is the word?

I imagine some people might read this and think “ah well, I can explain to Bice how I know that I'm a real Christian/Hindu/Rastafarian.” Please don’t. That urge means you missed my point, or more likely that I made my point badly. If you can explain how the classification problem is solved, go ahead.

Next week's word is rat.

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