And so the discussion on Christian unity and Christian identity continues. I apologize for my spotty engagement in the discussion. On Friday I drove five hours to another city to teach a Christian worldview course Friday evening and all day Saturday. Too bad y’all weren’t there because one of the points I emphasized is the difficulty in defining what the Christian worldview is. In fact, I stressed that the definite article is a mistake. It is hopeless to speak of “the Christian worldview”. Rather, we should think in terms of “a Christian worldview”. And each Christian needs to ask themselves whether they have one. To suggest that the monk at Mount Athos and metalcore singer Tim Lambesis and Thomas Aquinas and Dorothy Day and Paul the Apostle all had the same worldview is plum crazy.
(Crazy irrelevant fact: the fabled Dodge Challenger could be ordered from the factory with “plum crazy” purple paint.)
The diversity of Christian worldviews is created not only by cultural distinctives and divergent views of science and ethics, but also by theological diversity. And that pushes us back to the difficult question: where is the unity to be found?
In the discussion I made the following assertion: “For example a straight denial of Jesus’ divinity would warrant the boot.” What does this mean for a theologian like Sallie McFague? She infamously claimed (at least infamously in my book) that those who believe Jesus was (and is) divine are “Jesusolaters”. By calling Jesus God we are turning Jesus into an idol. What do I say?
Imagine that you’re at a meeting of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative pro-capitalism think tank in Washington, D.C. when one of the fellows stands up and confesses that he has become a Marxist. Fair enough, you wish him well. There’s the door.
Does that sound intolerant? Why would it? The American Enterprise Institute exists to promote capitalism.
Christianity also exists to promote something: the person of Jesus Christ and the kingdom he is establishing in the world. And so denial of that person and identity is warrant for exclusion from formal identity in the organization. No hard feelings. That is just how the organization defines itself.
I didn’t explain at length what it would mean to engage in a “straight denial of Jesus’ divinity”. Part of the reason is beacause this is actually very difficult to define. Sallie McFague’s Jesusolatry language may strike me as a clear case akin to a firm embrace of Marxist principles. But there are countless more ambiguous instances that would reasonably court controversy on how to define the boundaries of the organization.
Let’s say the fellow of the American Enterprise Institute becomes a Keynesian. Is that grounds for exclusion? You might think so. But then when many alleged fiscal conservatives were advocating the bailout of investment banks and even insurance companies (AIG) weren’t they being Keynesians (for the rich anyway)? In other words, in many cases it is not obvious or straightforward or manifestly clear what would constitute a violation of the AEI’s manifesto.
Is it any surprise that the same is true in the case of Christianity? In this case we can note that even as both Walter and Jeff disagreed with my statement (or at least appeared to, though since I didn’t define divine the extent of disagreement is not clear) they offered their own strict and necessarily exclusive proposals.
“I have heard Thom Stark flat-out state that he did not believe that Jesus was God, a view that is shared by Christadelphians. Does that mean that you do not consider Thom or any Christadelphian to be a true Christian?”
“My view of a Christian is one who believes in the supernatural resurrection of Jesus–regardless of Christology. If a person believes that Jesus was just a man who was not truly resurrected in a bodily fashion, then he should go ahead and admit that he isn’t a Christian.”
This is an interesting view. It shifts the necessary criterion for inclusion to the supernatural resurrection of Jesus. Let’s think about Walter’s proposal for a moment.
In Faith Lacking Understanding I talked about models of divine action. In the book I noted that it is possible to have a non-interventionist model in which God established the initial conditions at the Big Bang such that the Red Sea would part just when it was required to do so due to natural causes alone. Even more radically I noted how there is no obvious objection to God having set up the initial conditions such that at one moment in history a crucified body would reconstitute itself through natural processes leading to the resurrection of Jesus. If God superintended this process and oversaw it with the express purpose of demonstrating the deity of Christ through this event then it seems a view compatible with orthodoxy.
Walter’s proposal would seem to exclude this view explicitly because he requires a “supernatural” resurrection, “regardless of Christology”. Thus, on Walter’s view even if a person is a Chalcedonian Christian who adopts this model of resurrection, that person would not be a Christian. That is surprisingly dogmatic, isn’t it?
Now let’s turn to Jeff:
“Randal, you seem to be taking a harder line on this than I would have thought. Walter asked whether you consider Thom Stark to be a Christian, and if you answered the question I must have missed it. I’d be curious to hear your answer.
“Focusing on this particular piece of dogma or that seems to me to be totally missing the point. I like Marcus Borg’s definition: A Christian is someone who sees in Jesus the decisive revelation of God.”
First, I’m not going to comment on whether Thom Stark is a Christian or not for an important reason: I have never heard Thom say anything that would exclude him from being a Christian. I haven’t heard him say what Walter reports him as saying, and if I did I’d want to probe him a bit to discover what he was meaning to say, not just what he seemed to say.
Second, long-time readers of this blog will know that I think doubt is a healthy part of the Christian community and the Christian life. One can have all sorts of real doubts that are expressed in varying degrees of conviction. You see, the whole discussion is assuming that you either believe p or believe not-p. But what if you are 50% sure of p on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and you are 75% sure of p on Tuesday and Thursday? (Weekends are a toss-up.) Do you believe p with sufficient conviction to be part of the community of faith?
Third, Jeff echoes Marcus Borg’s suggestion that “Jesus [is] the decisive revelation of God.” This is another dogmatic proposal: it includes many but excludes others (e.g. Ernst Troeltsch; John Hick; Paul Knitter). You might be happy excluding those three theologians since they are Christian pluralists. However, consider the following view:
Multiple incarnation view: the view that if there are other alien intelligent civilizations in the universe in need of redemption then God will incarnate within their communities to bring salvation to them in the same way he did for the human community.
If you hold this view then you might not be able to assent without qualification to the claim that “Jesus is the decisive revelation of God.” You could say that “Jesus is the decisive revelation of God for humanity” but if there are other revelations then those might be the decisive revelation of God for those communities.
That kind of view might strike you as strange, curious, perplexing. But if you are seriously interested in SETI then all sorts of perplexing theological questions might occur to you that never would enter the horizon of the average Christian. So by Jeff’s definition a person might be a Nicene Christian orthodox in every detail save his openness to the possibility of multiple incarnations, and this possibility would be sufficient to exclude him from being a Christian.
This brings us finally to Katie:
“It’s interesting that this (and most conversations about what it “means” to be Christian) revolve around orthodoxy, while Christ seems to have been more concerned about orthopraxy. Of course I don’t intend to imply that discussions of orthodoxy are unimportant.”
I discuss this issue in the chapter “Not all liberal Christians are heretics” in my book You’re not as Crazy as I Think (Biblica, 2011). So I would commend to readers interested in following up the discussion in more depth to read that chapter.
Here I will simply note two points. First, a healthy Christian community requires both orthodoxy and orthopraxis. Second in the chapter I present a thought experiment in which I discuss two individuals, real people from the Rwandan genocide. The first was a Christian with outstanding orthodoxy but horrendous orthopraxis. The second was a Muslim with (from a Christian perspective) very poor orthodoxy but outstanding orthopraxis (he saved over 100 Tutsis from slaughter before he died). I then ask the reader: if you had to choose one of these lives as your own legacy then which would it be?
Note that even if you choose the Muslim’s orthopraxis over the Christian’s orthodoxy, it doesn’t mean the Muslim was a Christian. His beliefs obviously exclude him from being a Christian. Rather, by identifying with him you would be taking the position that there are people who are in a saving relationship with God who are not members of the Christian community. There are many Christians who are inclusivists of this sort. They don’t believe works save but they do believe that works are evidence of a saving relationship and they might well think that a man who repeatedly risks his life to save people being massacred in a genocide is providing reasonable evidence for a saving relationship.
This brings us back to an important reminder: discussing who does and does not belong in the Christian community is not the same discussion as who is and is not in a saving relationship with God. The former is a discussion of ecclesiology, the latter of soteriology. And Jesus’ parable of the sheep and goats is a good reminder that we cannot simply collapse the one discussion into the other.