So, I read It’s All One Thing‘s response to an April 2005 post on Making Chutney and so I went over and read Making Chutney’s original post and got, I think, the most annoyed that I have ever been in my days of reading UU blogs. Not at Making Chutney (I mean I don’t even know him), but at the particular post and the way that it was written (so self-assured). I started to post a very long comment, but instead thought I would not usurp his comments section with my semi-rant (which I really try to keep to a minimum) and instead take it over to my own little blog and post. So here is his post and below is my response. Deep breaths, Elizabeth. Just calm down. (An area close to my heart….)
Rick Heller recently posted the first of four responses to Bishop John Shelby Spong’s “12 Theses Of Nontheistic Christianity.” Read through them and tell me if you agree:
Someone who (dis)believes what Spong (dis)believes is no longer a Christian. As I wrote in the comments to Rick’s post, if you don’t believe that Jesus is “the Christ,” then you are not a “Christian.” Period. You can play with “Christ” up to a point, but there are only so many shade of meaning you can attach to that word and still get away with it.
Why are so many people who no longer believe what Christians believe so desperate to still call themselves a Christian? Courage, my friends, is a virtue. Play with the language however you like. But if calling Jesus things like “Christ,” “Messiah,” “Son of God,” and “Savior” doesn’t resonate for you, you are at best a heretical Christian. At least own up to that much. Grandma and your childhood Sunday School teacher may not like it, but it’s true nonetheless.
I know that you posted this in April of last year (apparently) but I can’t help responding having seen it referred to on another blog. I am really shocked that you could think that you or anyone else could have such a monopoly on what being a Christian is and you can just state it so succinctly as if there aren’t centuries of debate on this irresolvable issue. You write about people “who no longer believe what Christians believe,” as if this is some sort of set of beliefs that everyone just KNOWS. As if there is some list of criteria of beliefs that one must been in order to be in the club. First, the term Christian was not even used until at least the second century. It was a term that likely began as a derogatory term, not a term developed by Jesus-followers themselves. The question as to when groups began to either be identified or identify themselves as “Christian” or when it makes sense to begin to call groups “Christian” continues to be a highly disputed point. Thus, if the earliest followers of Jesus weren’t understanding themselves as “Christians” and this only came up later, it is pretty hard to talk about the etymological meaning of the term to be its “real” and most basic meaning (as you write about “Christ” as central to what “Christians” apparently must believe). You can read more about the development of Christian identity(and how and when it began to distinguish itself from Judaism) in Gabriele Boccaccini, “History of Judaism: Its Periods in Antiquity,” in J. Neusner (ed.), Judaism in Late Antiquity 2 Historical Syntheses, Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1995: 279-302 and in Judith Lieu’s excellent book on identity in early Christianity in Christian Identity in the Jewish and Graeco-Roman World. For more on Christian identity formation, particularly as it relates to the term Christian, see Lieu, 1-26, 240-241, 250-259.
Your comment on people being “at best” a “heretical” Christian “if calling Jesus things like “Christ,” “Messiah,” “Son of God,” and “Savior” doesn’t resonate for” them so much reduces the possibilities for the ways that Christianity can be understood as a religious identity or practice of faith. So-called heretical Christians did not just show up in the early centuries after Jesus’ death and say “Well, we know what real Christianity is all about, but we have a different take on it so we would like to be the heretical Christians.” Oh no. The religious movement that has come to be known as Christianity has been diverse from its earliest moments. There have always been multiple, diverse, interpretations as to what being a follower of Jesus or part of the Jesus movement or a Christian means. Eventually, in the midst of all this diversity, some groups won out and started calling themselves “real” Christianity and they started calling all those that did not agree with them heretical Christians (and killing them). But just because one group announced that they had the right interpretation and right practices and killed those who were not on board does not mean that everyone else must resign and say, “Well, okay, you guys win. I guess our reading of the Gospel of Thomas is just wrong. We’ll be the heretics.” No no, double no. (That is unless you believe that God ordained some Christians to be “right” and others to be “wrong” in which case I suppose an arguement could be made for heresy, although I don’t think an argument can be made that shows that there was or is some sort of divine force granting some Christians “rightness” while others are wrong. Of course some Christians would disagree, but I’ve yet to see convincing proof of their position.)
I’m terribly afraid that this situation is one of the U.S. American Christian right somehow convincing Making Chutney, along with a bunch of other people that THEY have the monopoly on saying what being Christian means – that is, one must think that Jesus was the Christ, a Messiah, (literal) son of God and a Savior in order for it to be “real” Christianity. I think it is key to realize that people who don’t believe these things and still call themselves Christians are not new age weirdos who just woke up one morning and came up with crazy ideas or “desperate” people with out the “courage” to let go of their old tradition. There is a lloooong history of the Jesus tradition being understood in diverse, and contradicting ways. I think as liberal religious people of faith, in particular, we need to be sensitive to the varying ways that people make sense of their religious identity. To somehow imply that some people who understand themselves as Christians aren’t “real” Christians and are “at best” heretical Christians, seems both disrespectful and inattentive to the development of what we today call Christianity.
I suggest What is Gnostism? by Karen King and Redescribing Christian Origins edited by Ron Cameron and Merrill P Miller as helpful in understanding the diverse array of Christianities that developed in the wake of Jesus’ death. The Gospel of Thomas also helps shed some light on what some early versions of Christianity looked like that did not eventually “make the cut” into orthodoxy and did not understand Jesus as the ressurected savior of the world.
Please excuse the ranting nature of this post. I mean no disrespect, but just feel quite strongly about this and feel as though it is essential to respond strongly against the idea that some people can somehow own what it really means to be a Christian. If we let this go, then we cede the ability to define Christianity to the more conservative (if not right-wing) branches of the faith and, I believe, do an injustice to the messages attributed to Jesus and those messages and themes traditionally claimed by more liberal Christians.