On Real Christians

Thursday, 24 September 2009 10:16 pm
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Melissa McEwan has a great post, On "Real" Christians and Christian Privilege, at shakesville. The whole post is fantastic, but here's one of my favorite paragraphs:
Christianity has a 2,000-year history that has seen countless iterations of the religion based on countless interpretation of the text and shaped to fit countless times and spaces and needs in disparate cultures all around the world. Christians have done great things, and not-so-great things—and anyone who makes the personal choice to carry the Christian mantle associates themselves with a history that includes all the good stuff and all the shitty stuff, too. One can't say, "I only associate with the good Christianity—not the inquisitions and the genocides and the warmongering and the colonialism and the institutional misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, racism, anti-Semitism…"
Part of McEwan's reasoning is that she herself is an atheist: "I don't want the responsibility of deciding who's Christian and who isn't—and I can't imagine why any Christian would want to give that responsibility to an atheist in the first place. Yes, I have personal opinions about how closely self-identified Christians of all stripes hew to their own religious text, but it's flatly not my place to kick someone out of the Christian community, even semantically." But she goes on to argue that the process of delineating between "real" and "fake" Christians is a disingenuous one even for the Christian: "Christianity is about culture as much as it is scripture no matter on what part of the Christian spectrum one falls."

Some of my agreement with McEwan's post no doubt stems from my own position as a Christian who knowingly holds a number of heterodox positions (alongside a number of orthodox ones; most of the theological discussions I'm in anymore fall more along Protestant/Catholic lines than conservative/liberal ones). I'm much more worried about the accusations of "not a real Christian" that may be lobbed from the conservative theological camp than from the liberal one.

But my concern runs deeper than just that. McEwan's position stems from a pragmatic approach to linguistics--and since language is not a transcendent phenomenon (okay, there's a very important sense in which it is--the limits of my language are the limits of my world--but that's not a can of worms we want to open right now), talk of "real" Christians just inserts bad metaphysics into the dialectic, and that doesn't help anyone. It's an ideologically-loaded statement masquerading as an ideologically-neutral one, playing dirty pool by trying to obscure the fact that the premises by which one is framing the debate are ones which are themselves controversial. It begs the question.

Not all Christians are, say, trinitarians. (I am.) Not all Christians are monotheists--hell, not all Christians are theists, even. (Do you have a week?) Indeed, there is no position which is held universally by all Christians--except maybe for "identifies as Christian." There are trends, sure; generalizations can be made, and I'm not arguing that it's always bad to make them. (I'm not arguing that it's not, either, for the record.) But that's no excuse for throwing the random Christian who doesn't fit the generalization out of the tent. As McEwan notes, "They might not be the same kind of Christian as you are, but they are nonetheless Christians." Otherwise one is just playing power games with languages. It's a version of the No True Scotsman fallacy. Ziztur explains:
So, the No True Scotsman fallacy is employed when people are debating as to whether trait X is a necessary condition of belonging to group Y, and the person committing the No True Scotsman fallacy simply defines group Y as one in which membership requires trait X. Ones does not win such a debate in this way, as whether or not trait X is required for membership in group Y is the very matter under debate. So essentially, the No True Scotsman fallacy is a fallacy in which certain traits X are defined as essential to belonging to group Y before it has been established that this is the case.
After all, it is not as if one needs to steep to making arguments about the reality of one's Christianity in order to make normative arguments about how Christians should act, after all. There are other axes upon which to make such arguments: namely, there's the axis of good/bad. One can still be a real Christian while being a really bad Christian, and we can all happily disagree on just what it is that makes a good Christian good.
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-- St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians 1:9-10

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