Friday, February 15, 2019

How do I describe myself?

How do I describe myself if I come to regard aspects of the fundamentals of the Christian faith inherited from the orthodoxy of the fourth and fifth centuries as mythical constructs defying reason? Those fundamentals of faith, as formulated by Christian conservatism in the twentieth century, are belief in the:

  • Inerrancy of the Bible
  • Literal nature of the biblical accounts—the miracles of Jesus and the Genesis account of creation
  • Virgin Birth of Christ
  • Bodily resurrection and the physical return of Christ
  • Substitutionary atonement of Christ on the Cross (i.e., Jesus died for me)

On the other hand, one may still share many other ethical and religious concepts from the Christian tradition. Nevertheless, questioning any of these particular “fundamentals” is certain to compromise one’s relationship with traditional Christianity in the twenty-first century in one way or another.

            The church through the years has evolved certain terms for those it regards as being outside the household of faith. In antiquity orthodox Christianity regarded those outside the church as pagans; that is, they were non-believers or “civilians” who had “not enlisted through baptism as soldiers of Christ against the powers of Satan” (Fox, Pagans and Christians, 30-31). Today a pagan is thought to be one who has little or no religion or an irreligious or hedonistic person, neither of which may fairly describe you.

            Another term used by the church through the years is heretic. The term describes someone who holds a religious opinion contrary to church dogma, or who dissents from some accepted belief or doctrine (see Hedrick, “Heretics and Apostates,” Wry Thoughts about Religion, 4/26/2018). So a heretic might be regarded as an errant member of the faith community, who nevertheless still identifies with the faith community, but whose views are rejected by the faith community.

            Another term used by the church to describe those outside the household of faith is apostate. An apostate is one who has renounced a particular religious faith (Hedrick, “Heretics and Apostates”). Hence apostates by their own deliberate decision are no longer members of the household of faith; they have completely given up the faith.

            The question is: should one simply accept any of these church terms as a self designation, or should one find other ways to describe oneself if one questions the “fundamentals” of the faith? There are other terms that one might use without becoming too specific: for example, free thinker, seeker, atheist, agnostic, etc. These terms might even be used of oneself even while participating in a Christian community of faith, if the community is tolerant of diversity to some extent.

            What later became Christianity in the fourth and fifth centuries was in earlier centuries a “big tent religion,” meaning that in earlier centuries it was characterized by diverse views and theologies. There was no successful standardization of the faith until the fourth and fifth centuries, when it became Christianity. Jesus, to judge by the early Christian gospels, was not a Christian and hence did not share the so-called fundamentals of the faith drafted by conservative Christianity in the twentieth century. Jesus was a Judean man whose religion must be understood in contrast to the Judean temple cult of the first third of the first century. It was only later in the faith of the Church that he was made into a dying and rising God.

            The temptation for many is to react negatively against the church, when they discover its “feet of clay,” but the truth is that most of us reared in the twentieth and now twenty-first centuries in America have learned religion either directly or indirectly through the cultural influence of the church. We are, therefore, in a distant sense “Christians” by cultural tradition. And, truth be told, we still find some redeeming social and religious value in the Christian Church when considering all its manifestations and history.

            In describing oneself one should not hesitate to draw upon one’s roots in the traditional church if some aspect of church history, faith, and ethics allows an accurate statement of where one is religiously. For example, I might call myself Baptist by conscience, Jesusite1 by religious tradition, critic of religious convention by training, skeptic by confession, humanist by disposition, reason’s servant by profession.2 How would you describe yourself?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Compare the designation “Jesuit,” (i.e., one who is a member of the Society of Jesus in the Catholic tradition).
2See Hedrick, “Who am I,” Wry Thoughts about Religion, 6/26/13.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Mr. Trump's Wall

               This essay appeared on the Opinion Page of the Springfield News-Leader on February 8, 2019

I seldom stray into politics but it seems clear to me that walls have held a fascination for some recent poets and presidents—or perhaps it was simply the situation in which each found himself that raised an interest in walls. Everyone of a certain age will recall the Berlin Wall that separated East Berlin from West Berlin from 1961 to 1989. Berlin was in what was then East Germany controlled by Russia after WWII. The Russians built the wall to isolate the French, British, and American sectors of West Berlin. The wall made it an island of Western culture and democracy in the midst of Eastern totalitarianism. The allies supplied the citizens of West Berlin through an airlift running around the clock. The Russian purpose in building the wall was to force the allies out of Berlin, but it also stopped the free exchange of ideas and passage between East and West Berlin. In 1987 a Republican President, Ronald Reagan, delivered a speech at the Brandenburg Gate near Checkpoint Charlie in the American Sector; it contained this famous line: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Mr. Reagan, apparently, saw the Berlin wall as highly effective, but ideologically negative. Two years later the citizens of Berlin, both East and West, tore it down. In this case, to quote a line from Robert Frost: “Good Fences did not make good neighbors”—which begs the question do good fences ever make good neighbors?

            Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall,” begins this way:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.*

The poet, at that time, was a farmer in New England and every spring he and his neighbor walked the stone wall separating their properties in order to mend it. Frost doesn’t see a need to have a wall because his neighbor’s land is “all pine” and his is “apple orchard” and he opines “My apple trees will never get across/and eat the cones under his pines,” but his neighbor rather stodgily replies “good fences make good neighbors.” Frost, exasperated, wants to get his neighbor to think about the function of the wall: “Why do [walls] make good neighbors? Isn’t it/Where there are cows? But here there are no cows./Before I built a wall I’d like to know/What I was walling in or walling out,/And to whom I was like to give offense.” But his neighbor woodenly says it again: “Good fences make good neighbors.” Mr. Frost, apparently, regarded his shared wall as unnecessary, while his neighbor regarded it as an ideological necessity.

What about Mr. Trump’s wall? He regards it as absolutely necessary for he finds an immigration crisis on our admittedly porous southern border, which is aggravated by illegal drugs pouring in from Mexican cartels. In his view only a wall can effectively resolve the crisis. There is no denying the problems on our southern border, but closing off the border with Mexico with a wall will send an inflammatory symbolical signal to the world exactly opposite to that of the Statue of Liberty on our eastern shore. The Liberty statue once symbolized new beginnings for white Europeans in the 1800s and later. On its base one finds these words: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore…” The signal that Mr. Trump’s southern border wall will project to the world is otherwise, however. It will say: Stay away we don’t want you brown-skinned people here. Over time his wall will come to symbolize intolerance, bigotry, and racism. Eventually it will take its place among some of the darkest moments in the history of our democratic republic: the internment of Japanese-American citizens and Alaska natives during WWII, and the internment of American Indians during the 1800s. Ms. Pelosi may not be far wrong when she calls Mr. Trump’s wall “immoral.” At least it must be admitted that Mr. Trump’s wall does not seem inspired by the better angels of our nature.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*Edward C. Latham, ed., The Poetry of Robert Frost (New York: Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1967), 33-34.