Wednesday, May 07, 2008

You are not a Christian

I am used to hearing some version of this from conservative Christians who happen upon my blog or visit the website or community of Open Circle Church. (You can read a recent backhand swipe at Open Circle of this nature here from a conservative member of my denomination.) If you don't believe in a supernatural God or the virgin birth of Jesus or his bodily resurrection, you can't be a Christian.

But recently I have had the interesting experience of having atheists tell me that I am not a Christian because I don't believe in these things. On two different blogs (here and here) where I have been involved in discussions I (and others) have been told that I am not a Christian. I am not a religious person.

How ironic to hear this charge coming from this quarter. This is coming from people who are completely at home in the world explained to us by the scientific method, a world where new knowledge, new information, new thinking is continually brought to bear on what we know to be true at this moment, with a result that the truth itself is continually evolving. In every field of knowledge known to humanity, this is the accepted and expected way the world works.

Except, apparently, religion. They can't "have" a religious person doing the same thing. They can't imagine that there are Christians whose thinking about God, Jesus, and Christianity has evolved as new information is processed about our global village, or Biblical scholarship and Christian history, or the scientific worldview that we all share today.

"No, you can't do that." In religion, changing definitions is not allowed. Religious people are not allowed to think, and change their minds, and explain their symbols and their view of reality in new ways. You can almost feel the heads exploding as they come face to face with a piece of information that doesn't fit their stereotype of a religious person.


James F. McGrath said...

Make that three... :)

Mystical Seeker said...

Isn't it funny how people who aren't even invested in Christianity feel that they have the right to make pronouncements on who is and isn't a Christian?

I think that a lot of it has to do with the fact that your brand of Christianity doesn't fit into the neat little paradigm that they've cooked up for themselves, so their solution is to fit you into their paradigm by denying that you are a Christian.

Also, some militant atheists who might be ex-fundamentalists suffer from the problem that they've never really escaped the definitions of Christianity that they inherited from their prior belief system.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Modernist atheists and modernist Christian fundamentalists do have something in common, the need to historicise and provide a pseudo-scientific view of religion, rather than see religion as art.

Anonymous said...

I'll bite.

I am struggling with this a bit. People like the good Dr McGrath have been advocating a Christianity beyond adherence to the traditional creeds. Okay.

I admire James a great deal and try to remain respectful. During these Are-you-REAL-Christian debates, he will sometimes try to illustrate his point by pointing to the beliefs held by some self-professing Christians but I find this leads to more sniping than resolution.

So my question would be, just where is the line that, once crossed, leads away from Christianity? After all, a term that means everything means nothing at all. I can accept a fuzzy line. Any line might move the discussion along.

Drew said...

The problem here is what criteria are necessary for something to be so. Dawkins and Hitchens (or as Eagleton calls them "Ditchkins") have specific criteria for the God they argue against. Do these criteria have roots in many ideas of God in history? Yes. But to say these are necessary attributes in order to be a Christian of any sort is precisely why the argument is a straw man. I think it has to do more with what is satisfactory than with what is empirically substantive.

L A Winans said...

I am an Episcopalian who is probably Quaker in theology and Humanist in ethics while retaining a High Church liturgy, I frequently find myself challenged by atheists who contend that I am not Christian. My atheist colleagues are of one mind with Christian Fundamentalists who assert that the only true Christian is one who adheres to Fundamentalism. So I understand when liberal Christians are likewise challenged.

Brethren Priestess said...

How true! I've had the same reactions from atheists, the questioning of my faith because it doesn't fit the box they've put religion into. I've also had friends tell me I need to explain my "weird" beliefs to my fellow churchgoers, because they think I'm tricking them - I try to tell them that a LOT of us churchgoers don't believe the pre-modern, superstitious worldview atheists and fundamentalists pin on us, but I don't think I've convinced them.

I would disagree with Mystical Seeker in that atheists really ARE invested in Christianity (as the dominant religion in the US) being one particular way, which justifies their rejection of it. Unlike folks who have transcended religious labels entirely (which I think is itself the ultimate spiritual-religious quest!), atheists seem to still be defined by NOT being whatever particular theists ARE. Especially the big-time atheists (Hitchens, Dawkins, etc.) spend a lot of energy first defining religion as the basis for their argument to reject it. If you don't buy their basic premise of what religion is, you can't buy into their flat rejection of it, either, and they are puffing steam that goes nowhere. And then they don't sell any books.

In 2007, I attended a great, spicy debate between Christopher Hitchens and Chris Hedges in Berkeley, with the atheist arguing for war and Islamophobia, and the Christian arguing for peace and progressive politics. It was recorded on San Fran's public radio KPFA, and I'd recommend a listen. Hitchens had been drinking before, we think, because he just erupted at the audience, and couldn't cohere nary a sentence to argue his point.

Here's a bit of it, partway into the show:

Thanks for this post! It is well-needed!

W said...

this is absurd.

The bible presents itself as unwavering fact, ineleastic, unchangeable.

Science is not this way, and saying it is is wishful thinking in order to justify your "spirituality."