Friday, 19 February 2010

The "Real Christian" Question

[This post has nothing to do with probing my identity. Sorry if this is what you were expecting.]

Lately I've been spending a little time at Atheist Revolution, a blog which is devoted to "breaking free from irrational belief and opposing Christian extremism in America." I originally found it at the Blogger's Choice awards, and have been snooping over there silently to see what the atheists are getting up to these days. It's part of my personal fair-reading policy, though it's also an excellent exercise in keeping my temper and not writing stupid things on the Internet.

A common theme at Rev. Atheist's blog (the url,, always makes me think of an atheist reverend) is discussing why people like Pat Robertson are "real Christians." Or, actually, from what I can tell, the theme is discussing that more than discussing why, but I think I can infer the why easily enough by what Vjack (the author) says. You could likely find a representative post in short order by going through the recent archives, but I'll give you a good one here. I encourage you to go and read it now. It's rather short.

Alright, I hope you've read it. In case you missed it, the article was supposed to be ironic. That is, Vjack does not remotely buy the claim that people who claim to be Christian and then do un-Christ-like things are thereby not Christians. Given the sorts of arguments he has likely been in and given his understanding of what Christianity is, I completely understand where he is coming from. On the other hand, I have heard Christians discuss the idea of "real Christians" and "non-Christians who say they're Christians" enough times to know that they are using the term in a valid way. What we have here is a case of equivocation: one term, in this case "real Christian", has two or more meanings, and these are getting confused. I hope to clear this up.

I can imagine the sort of debate Vjack might be in; Vjack will make a claim like, Pat Robertson and George Bush and Pope Urban II all demonstrate that Christians can be dangerous and stupid, and then his Christian opposite will make a claim like, Those are not real Christians. Vjack will then try to parse what his opponent means, and his opponent will 'help' him as follows: Because these people do things that are not in keeping with Christianity, they cannot be Christians. And this sounds an awful lot like, if a Christian sins, they either immediately become non-Christian or reveal that they never were Christian.

You can understand why an atheist would find this notion absurd. Stated like that, I find the idea absurd. An atheist, especially a rational materialist one, will likely understand Christianity as a sociological phenomenon; a Christian is a member of this movement called Christianity, or this group of individuals, organizations, and institutions roughly known as Christendom. Thus it seems kind of silly to claim that there is some sort of moral identity clause in Christian membership that says that one can only be a Christian if one doesn't do such-and-such and always does this-and-that. If you are part of the sociological movement, then you are a Christian. Of course, some behaviours might strongly suggest you aren't actually a "real Christian"--consulting the priestess of Delphi, for instance, or summoning Satan by burning a Bible--but for the most part, if a person is any sort of Christian, they are necessarily a "real Christian."

There remains the slight concern about how a person becomes a member of this sociological phenomenon, which is thorny and, regardless of what anyone might say, intractable. You cannot simply say that anyone who claims to be of a particular religion is of that religion. I can claim to be Taoist however often and vigorously as I like; if I don't believe that there is a Tao ordering the world, if I take pride in pride, if I shun the local natural world and delight in the cosmopolitan centres, if I have no truck with either the Tao Te Ching or the I Ching, if I am determinedly competetive, and if I think meditation, feng shui, and tai chi are for idiots, then I am absolutely not Taoist. Claiming membership is not sufficient. (Which is to say, Ghandi was not Christian or Muslim, regardless of what he might have claimed.) Membership must instead lie in some combination of beliefs and behaviours, but the requirements are a source of contention even among Religious Studies scholars, who presumably would have the best idea about this sort of thing. Like all sociological phenomena, religions have fuzzy borders.
However, if we can grant that all Christians must agree on at least some basic set of beliefs (the existence and divinity of Jesus Christ, the existence of a Holy Spirit, the value if not truth of the Bible, the existence of a potentially eternal soul, salvation acheived through the Crucifixion, the in-born sinfulness of human nature coupled with the inherent goodness of the soul) and that anyone who professes these beliefs and meets some minimum requirement of Christian behaviour (which may be no more than not worshipping other gods), then certainly there are Christians, under the sociological definition just given, who do profoundly un-Christ-like things. Claiming that these people are not "real Christians" seems utterly absurd if you are thinking of "Christian" in the sociological sense required. Of course they're real Christians; they are real people, and they meet all of the criteria required to be a Christian.

If Vjack's hypothetical opponent indeed did mean that these people do not fall under the sociological umbrella of Christianity, then he would be rather wrong. A Religious Studies scholar* must conclude that people like Pat Robertson are Christians, and real ones, at that.

However, I suspect Vjack's hypothetical opponent might have meant something else entirely, and in this case he could be quite right in his claim.
A Christian** will view Christianity as something other than a sociological phenomenon. (An intelligent one will still see that there is a sociological phenomenon called Christianity and that it overlaps rather a bit with the Christianity to which she claims allegiance, but strictly speaking she is not claiming allegiance to the sociological phenomenon.) Christianity to a Christian is more than just a set of beliefs and institutions, but also a relationship to God and a particular outlook. A Christian identifies themselves as such when they have decided to act like Christ, simply put. I suppose it would be more accurate to say that Christians have decided to try to act like Christ and call on the Holy Spirit for help. To a Christian, being a real Christian means genuinely attempting to share Jesus' worldview and trying to emulate Jesus' ethics.
Under this definition, it is unlikely that a member of the Ku Klux Klan could be a real Christian. Why? Because the KKK espouses hate, and Jesus espoused love. It is necessarily impossible that a person proud of hating could be a "real Christian." That's not to say that a person who hates cannot be a Christian. What I'm saying is that person who thinks that in some circumstances it's good to hate other people, as did the KKK, cannot be Christian. That's part of the definition of a Christian. (The Bible does, at least in the NRSV translation, encourage hating sin, but hating the sinner is not such a good thing.)

Of course, the KKK could talk about believing in Christ and salvation and the Word of the Lord; he could go to church and sing hymns; he could vote for the Christian Right and give to charity; he could be part of the temperance movement and teach Sunday School. Under the vast majority of sociological or academic definitions, he would be a Christian, and if we only were looking at this sociological membership, it would be absurd to claim that he was not a "real Christian." But, so long as he believes that it is good to hate black people, then he cannot in truth be a "real Christian," as a real Christian does not believe that it is good to hate. (Of course, we could always posit the existence of his daughter, who does not believe that it is good to hate but nonetheless attends Klan meetings, burns crosses in fronts yards, and if truth be told hates black people regardless of her desire not to. Whether or not she is a real Christian would be a matter of debate were it not for the fact that it isn't any of our business. It's God's business, and His alone.)

Is this sufficiently clear? To the rational-materialist/anthropologist, it makes no sense to distinguish between real Christians and less-than-real Christians; if a person is a Christian at all, then she is a real Christian. To the Christian, however, there is a huge difference between a person is following Christ and one who isn't, and that has little to do with public identification as a Christian.

Of course, the rational materialist atheist might say, "Sure, they think there's a difference, but I know there isn't. How does this make their claim any less absurd?" Put another, it's fair to ask how the Christian's understanding of the term "real Christian" has any relevance to an non-Christian. I do have an answer for that.

Let's go back to the hypothetical debate between our hypothetical blogging atheist and our hypothetical Christian. The atheist has made some arguement which attempts to undermine Christianity's validity by saying that many Christians are loathsome creatures who molest children and slaughter Jewish people and ostracize people for 'sins' that aren't actually wrong. This argument is trying to demonstrate that Christians are hypocrits and, somehow, that Christians are hypocrits will prove that the tenants of Christianity are false. (Which of course is a steaming pile of manure; that's an ad hominem arguement. However, I have heard this arguement before, so we'll run with it.) The Christian wants to demonstrate that most Christians are not hypocrits, so makes the distinction between real and not-real Christians. The atheist scoffs. But ought she? No. Because the Christian actually has a point here. That is, Christianity the sociological phenomenon may be flawed, but Christianity the religion, the Christianity which is neither more nor less than trying your hardest to be like Jesus and calling on the Holy Spirit to help you do so, that Christianity is a different thing altogether from the sociological phenomenon that shares its name. Which is to say that any judgement derived from the sociological phenomenon is invalid when applied to the "walk of like" Christianity.

I'll give you an example. A scientist somewhere does experiment in which he takes a frog and puts in the freezer. Note that, while doing so, he is wearing a lab coat and lab goggles and has his Ph.D.s in Biology and Astrophysics mounted on the wall behind him. He takes the frog out sometime later and thwacks it on the table, demonstrating that it is as hard as a rock. He then carefully thaws the frog, and it's quite fine. It hops around and ribbits and eats some flies and finds a lady-frog and begets itself some tadpoles. The scientist then writes a paper saying that if we freeze our limbs, we will be able to do more dangerous labour because we will be safe from damage. He cites his frozen frog as proof.
This is not "real" science, obviously. If this is all he ever does, then he is not a real scientist. We know this. A real scientist follows the scientific method, and that's not something this guy does. So he's not a real scientist. Except, of course, for the fact that he's receiving grant money to do this, is employed by a department of science in a accredited university, claims to be a scientist, and is perceived to be a scientist by his peers and students. Sociologically speaking, he is a scientist; as far as the scientific method is concerned, he is not. If we tried to claim that science is somehow flawed because this guy is an idiot and makes ridiculous claims in the guise of proven facts, we ourselves would be the ones making ridiculous claims. In fact, even if 99.9% of scientists were like this guy, we'd still be wrong to claim that science itself is faulty. The scientific institutions might be derailed, but that doesn't mean that science is.

In the same way, claiming that people like Klan members demonstrate that there is something wrong with Christianity is only valid if you're talking about Christianity as a particular sociological phenomenon. This is a different Christianity than the one I am claiming to be a part of; there is overlap, of course, and I am certainly a member of the sociological Christianity, too. But what is not flawed is the religion in which I attempt to be Christ-like and, frankly, people who espouse hate are not a part of that religion. What this means is that you may point out as many problems as you like with the Pat-Robertson Christianity; that bothers me not, for he's not part of my Christianity. In this sense, he is not a "real Christian".

To be honest, I don't think it is often my place to judge whether or not a person is really trying to follow Christ. I cannot get into their headspace and so simply cannot know. For this reason you will not often see me making the real/not-real distinction. But I wanted to outline why this distinction could be a legitimate claim on the part of a Christian and how this affects concerns about making generalizations about Christianity as a whole.

[This post is too long, so I'm cutting it off now. I'm actually truncating the "Why this is important part," because there are a lot of anti-religious arguements that fall down when this distinction is brought to light. But I realize blogs are not the best forum for dissertations, so I will stop going on now. Just one more paragraph and then the footnotes.]

Of course, there's also the issue that the debate itself is derailed, here. Whether a person does horrific things doesn't affect whether or not "their" Christianity--even if it's the very specific kind my hypothetical Christian is endorsing--is a good thing. We don't want to abolish science because the Nazis did real science (ie. following the scientific method) when mutilating people in their Holocaust laboratories. But that's a whole new ball-game.
*I'm not an authoratative Religious Studies scholar; it was my minor in undergrad, is all. I am not claiming to represent the standpoint of such a scholar. Rather, I am saying that from such a standpoint a person would likely draw such a conclusion.
** I suppose it's not quite fair to generalize like this; certainly many Christians will disagree with what I've said. I am being lazy and saying "a Christian" when what I mean is "the sort of hypothetical Christian I'm talking about who could reasonably make the claim that some people professing to be Christians are in fact not real Christians."
***At this point I've voyaged to far into speculation to make any claim that my hypothetical atheist resembles vjack at all. Not that he ever did, more than likely.


Christian H said...

Bah. I had envisioned this post as being better. Oh, well.

mskarenau said...

This post is actually quite good, my friend. I suppose your standards of writing are higher than mine!

Arkanabar said...

My take is a bit different. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that everyone baptized with water, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (or Ghost), is really and truly an adopted child of God -- a Christian.

But then there's behavior. Those who freely assent to sin in grave matter, with full knowledge of their sin, reject God's love and place themselves outside the Body of Christ. Repentance gets them back in, but with penance due, in order to heal the damage done to others by their sins. God has done penance for our sins against Him.

The Catholic should readily admit that every member of the Church is a sinner, and that one purpose of the Church is to help them resist and overcome their own sinful natures. If he's clever, he refuses to let the atheist cherry-pick what truly represents the Church. He demands that the atheist also weigh all the contributions of all the saints, blesseds, and Servants of God -- those who founded hospitals, fought the universal institution of slavery, and sought to feed and improve teh lot of the poor everywhere -- everyone from Matt Talbot and Dorothy Day to Ss. Damien of Molokai and Maximillian Kolbe. The one gave his life to the betterment of lepers and the other volunteered for execution by starvation and dehydration in the place of another while innocent of any crime. He will also point out to the atheist that, contra popular history, such beloved institutions of the rationalist as the university and the scientific method are products of the Church, not atheism.

I am not compelled to defend Pat Robertson, Mark Driscoll, or any other Protestant, unless they are upholding a position also upheld by by the Catholic Church in the Catechism. Odds are that the Protestant positions are going to be the source of irrationality rightly decried by atheists. Nor do I fret much about the status of their souls; that is for God alone to judge.

Christian H said...

@Arkanabar: The trouble with your definition is that it only allows Catholics to be Christians. This is obviously untrue in at least the sociological sense. It is also untrue according to the teaching of the Catholic Church, which does acknowledge Protestant and Orthodox believers to be Christians. Since not all Protestant denominations baptize, I wonder whether you can base a definition around that. There are also atheists who were once baptized. Indeed, this whole membership=baptism thing seems shaky to me for these (and other) reasons.

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