Shuck and Jive

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Meaning of Life, Part 53

If one takes as a norm for Christianity Augustine, Bishop of North Africa in Hippo in the fourth and fifth centuries, how do my beliefs measure up to his standards? Many of his ideas were reflected in Methodist catechism class.

Do I believe in the literalness of the Bible and explain the differences between the gospel writers with the simple observation that "different eyewitnesses normally give different accounts of the same event"? No.

Can I defend the "just war" theory? No.

Does God work miracles at the expense of natural law? No.

Do I believe in the blood atonement? No.

Do I believe in original sin? No. (And, therefore, baptism is not necessary--at least no for that reason.)

Do I believe in predestination? No.

Should clergy be married? My answer is yes, if she or he wants to be and, even more heretical to Augustine, to a person of either gender.

Should there be a hierarchical ordering of the ministry? No.

Is the pope infallible? Answering as a United Methodist, certainly not!

Is God male? No. ...

....In spite of my differences with Augustine and my later repudiation of affirmative answers to all questions asked of me at the Official Board Meeting determining whether or not I could be confirmed at age twelve, can I still call myself a Christian? Yes.

How can that be? Here is my answer.

I believe in Jesus' teachings and I attempt to follow them. pp. 4-5

--Glenna Jackson, "From Hippo to Hippos" in When Faith Meets Reason: Religion Scholars Reflect on Their Spiritual Journeys.


  1. I bought a copy of that book when I attended a Jesus Seminar event in Santa Rosa a couple of years or so ago. I don't think I got around to finishing it but I did read several of the chapters and found all of the various first person stories to be quite interesting.

  2. We are reading it in our Thursday discussion group. I am warming us up for a Jesus Seminar on the Road this coming fall!

  3. Glenna can call herself whatever she wants. People usually do think of themselves whatever they want, regardless of what the evidence may say. However, not being upset if others don't accept your self labeling is a bit harder to come by. You have to be willing to accept the social consequences of how you label yourself as it clashes with how others see it.

  4. What is the evidence in this situation?

    I think Glenna is a Christian, too. So she now has at least two votes, hers and mine.

  5. Based on the answers she has given, a great many Christians would deny that she holds the basic beliefs to really be a Christian. You know that as well as I do. Could she take the vows to be a church member or a minister? In a great many churches, probably least not without equivocating.

  6. This is the whole point of this book, of course. What do scholars really believe despite the creeds and so forth. What she is implying is that the definition of Christian is broader than what the various sects have decided it is. It should be noted that the sects do not agree between themselves who a real Christian is.

  7. Of course, in the end, it isn't what you or I or anyone else (regardless of their credentials) has to say. God is the final arbiter. What does God say?

  8. Seriously, what does "God" say is part of the whole discussion here, including if "God" can "say" anything at all or who gets to say what "God says" or even if "God" means anything at all. In the end, I am quite happy leaving it up to God. It is the followers of God I tend not to trust.

  9. What if God is really Allah...and not just any Allah but the Allah of the Islamists?

  10. I like that she goes back to Augustine, but it would have been more interesting from a rhetorical standpoint to go back to the Apostles.

    Where's the evidence that any of the 12 believed in predestination? The blood atonement? Original sin? That clergy should be unmarried? That the pope is infallible?

    To quote Joe then, "Could they take the vows to be a church member or a minister? In a great many churches, probably least not without equivocating."

    So she's in good company, I'd say.

  11. Or the Allah of Joseph Smith. Christ will return (to Salt Lake City). Or the Allah of Spinoza or the Allah of Jesus or the Allah of...well it seems we get the idea...

  12. In the end, I am quite happy leaving it up to God. It is the followers of God I tend not to trust.

    So true, so true.

  13. I thought the Mormon Christ was returning to Missouri?

  14. I think his itinerary has been updated and he will be returning to the land of milk and honey, Utah.

  15. Well, if the Mormon God is God, it might not be as bad as some of the other possibilities. I don't think there is hell in their theology. Everyone is "saved", though, if you aren't a good Mormon, you will end up as a servant to some good Mormon who is made a god in the next life.

  16. I am all in favor of Gods who are less vengeful, small-minded, and fickle than I.

  17. Long term question John: can the word "Christian" have a definition? most words have meaning. My foot (at least in English) is a foot. It is not an ear or an eye.

    I recognize different people define the word Christian differently. I do wonder if in some circles the word has lost its meaning entirely.

  18. Bob,

    Sure the word can have a definition. Glenna gave hers. I don't think there is an objective reality out there called "Christian" nor is there a final arbiter out there who decides who gets the name (save God) but we can't even agree on what God is or even if God is. The definitions are made and shaped by those who have some sort of interest. Messy.

  19. But is a foot the same as religion? I like to bring up Wittgenstein when the question arises over whether the word "Christian" must have a precise definition. There is a web site that introduces Wittgenstein's concept of the "language game", which I quote a section from here:

    Wittgenstein developed 'language-game" from the word "game." He looked at many games to see what they had in common. He asked, why are they grouped together and called "games"? What does the concept "'game" really mean?

    We can see that the games of catch, skip rope, video games, solitaire, football, chess, etc., have some things in common: They are all activities, for instance, but so are things that are not games, like eating a pizza. Wittgenstein found that games have no one defining attribute that all games share.

    Wittgenstein also developed a related concept he called "family resemblance." This fueled his attack on essentialism, the view that there must be something common to all instances of a concept. You have seen people flounder trying to define a concept like "liberal." They are seeking the essence of "liberal." Because the concept is really a thousand different concepts, the search is fruitless. The world "liberal" is not specific in the way that "cat" is.

    Once you understand that, you may be spared an argument about nothing.

    Language consists of many practices (games). Many practices share resemblances, but there is no one thing that runs through them all. Language has no essence but only different phenomena related in various ways.

    Wittgenstein did not claim that all concepts are family resemblance concepts. Some, like "cat," are not.
    As Aristotle put it, one should not treat any subject with greater systematicity than it allows. Of course, it is dogmatic to deny uniformity when it exists.

    So my response to the analogy between foot and Christian is ot say that the concept of a foot is not like the concept of a Christian. But the "family resemblance" concept does seem to apply to the word "Christian" pretty well. I would argue that there is no precise definition of the term, and that's okay, because that is how human language often works.

  20. Maybe I should have expressed myself differently. The word Christian used to have specific meaning, even in the midst of arguments between different branches. Now it seems to me "I feel like calling myself a Christian and I can give any content to the word I want."

    As for Wittgenstein, this is one of the things I disagree with him about. He chose for religion to be a word game. Why?

  21. When did it have a specific meaning? The history of the church can be seen as a history of certain Christian groups making certain other Christian groups knew they were not real Christians.

    Are Mormons Christian? They say they are.

    Are Roman Catholics Christians? Many Christians around here say they aren't.

    Glenna's definition of one who "believes in the teachings of Jesus and attempts to follow them" seems legitimate.

  22. I'm big into postmodern thought, so it's not surprising that I look at Christianity in light of relative culture. Katheryn Tanner has a great book about this, and several years back I heard one person claim that she is the new Niebuhr. here is the google books preview of her work. (Imnsho this is a must for any pastor's shelf.)

    Basically, she says that a culture doesn't have a "meaning." Rather, a culture is what happens when a group of people argue about the meanings of the symbols that are important to them. So, I would argue that Christians are those who engage (on some level) the primary symbol of Christianity: Jesus, or the Christ. This is obviously a non-judgmental, sociological approach.

  23. "Rather, a culture is what happens when a group of people argue about the meanings of the symbols that are important to them."

    That is very interesting. I am currently at a Presbyterian Multicultural Conference. It is very clear here that people who come from different places see reality in different ways, sometimes consciously but most of what people get from their culture is unconscious (example: in some parts of Chinese culture it is improper, even scandalous, for a younger person to look at an older person in the eyes. The proper place for the eyes to look is at the ground). Climate, location, history particularly of customs all play a part in culture. Another example: most Americans are ready to get business done when some from other cultures are only beginning the conversation because getting to know the other has to happen before (and is more important than) business. And in some cultures the idea that something has a fixed price would be entirely shocking. The bargaining is not only the proper method but a joy in and of itself.

    Maybe religious culture is different. Yet I also find that culture of origin also affects the way people see and express Christianity.

  24. RE: what you said about Augustine, I found Michael Parenti's views of him in his book "History as Mystery" a real eye-opener. I think you would enjoy that book.

  25. "He chose for religion to be a word game. Why?"

    No one's arguing about the definition of "foot" or "cat".

    The fact that people are discussing the word religion here pretty much answers your question, I'd say.

  26. I don't know if Wittgenstein chose for religion to be a language game or not. But I'd be surprised if he didn't.