January 12, 2007

Identifying the "True" Christian

English: Medieval miniature painting of the Si...
English: Medieval miniature painting of the Siege of Antioch (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Pedro over at Way of the Mind recently did a great post on the "true" Christian issue (Update: this blog is no longer active). If you have ever talked with a Christian about immoral acts committed by another Christian, you have undoubtedly heard the "Well, I guess he/she wasn't a true Christian" claim. After pointing out the fallacy this represents, Pedro discusses 8 different ways of identifying a "true" Christian and notes problems with each. This is an important discussion which deserves more attention.

On the surface, the task of identifying a "true" Christian should be fairly straightforward. Christianity is an organized religion, rooted in a particular set of scriptures, which involves an identifiable dogma. People who believe this dogma are Christians, right? If only it were that simple!

As Pedro notes, the definitional problem begins with the observation that Christians themselves cannot agree on how the dogma should be interpreted. Two recent examples come to mind. First, prominent Christians are questioning how their god is to be defined. This seems to fundamental to a monotheistic religion such as Christianity that I wonder how "Christian" can even be a meaningful concept with a shared understanding of their god. Second, we see Christians questioning whether belief in the virgin birth is a necessary component of their religion. Now we grasp the scope of this problem to which Pedro referred. If Christians cannot agree on what they believe - at least some core set of foundational beliefs, how can they possibly differentiate between Christians and non-Christians?

Most Christians seem content to live with their individual understanding of their religion without awareness or concern that it is unlikely to be shared by a majority of other Christians. What is more likely to bother them, and where the "true" Christian statement is most likely to appear, are the cases where they see someone behaving in a manner which they consider to be inconsistent with their personal beliefs. I would argue that the heart of the "true" Christian claim amounts to something like this: "That person is not behaving in a manner consistent with how I personally define Christianity, and therefore, he/she is not a real Christian." Implicit in this statement is that the speaker defines Christianity for himself/herself and that this personal definition, even though it is not necessarily shared by others, is sufficient to permit the application of moral condemnation to persons who violate it.

Pedro is absolutely correct to bring up biblical literalism in this discussion. Whatever else can be said about Christianity, it is difficult to deny that it is rooted in scripture. I think the biblical literalists are right about one thing: If one believes that the Christian bible was inspired (directly or indirectly) though a god which has the attributes described in this same bible, a literal reading is the only viable option. To think that a human has any business interpreting the Christian bible at all is the height of arrogance. The words are there for all to read and to follow. To engage in even the slightest distortion through interpretation, especially symbolic interpretation which often departs significantly from the written words, is unjustifiable. Even if interpretation was somehow necessary, how can anyone seriously think that humans are competent to provide it?

Christians who read their bibles literally, truly believe the dogma therein, and make an honest effort to live in accordance with its contents (including handling serpents, stoning persons who commit adultery, etc.) can certainly be called "true" Christians. I'm not sure that anyone else qualifies. If you disagree (and I expect most of you will), then you need to be able to come up with a compelling rationale for ignoring or reinterpreting the many parts of the bible of which you disapprove. More importantly, you need to come up with a defensible way of evaluating your reinterpretations (i.e., determining how you know you are correct in your reinterpretation).

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