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
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.
I have to say, I like heretic. etymologically, it comes from haireomai, to choose; and hairetikos means in classical Greek one who is able to choose. By the Roman period hairesis has come to be used of a philosophical school or sect... I don't think that philosophy should be willling to admit to the enforcement of orthodoxy. The idea of a heretic as a dissenter from orthodoxy comes later, and doesn't seem to me to have much meaning outside of a context of religions that have official dogma, e.g. Catholicism (is there an official Baptist dogma?). (Samuel Johnson actually defined heretic with specific reference to Catholicism, not to the Church of England).
Charlie, sometimes I think you read my mind. for as long as I can remember, I have been a questioner, a wonderer, though not until very recently, brave enough to call myself a non-believer. I dilly-dallied with “Christian agnostic.” Then one day, while trying to determine what I do believe, I suddenly became very clear on what I do not believe, which included all of the points you have outlined. The most difficult even to acknowledge centered on the the divinity of Christ and substitutionary atonement, the bedrock of Christianity as we know it today. How can one be a Christian and reject all the tenets of the faith? I like to go to church. I love sacred music as well as the old hymns, and I find solace in history, tradition and ritual. I have never heard the term “Jesusite” and had to look it up, but I’m not sure I like that, either. It seems to strip away anything that is not rational. I still believe there is some vague, amorphous “something,” even though I cannot identify it. So what does that make me?
My associate pastor recently described us as being "atheists with a church addiction." Which, may be more true than I care to admit. But the point is that there is a good reason to remain active in a spiritual community even when you have given up on supernatural theism and all non-rational magical thinking. I found this TED talk to, more or less, express my own views on this topic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Oe6HUgrRlQ&feature=share&fbclid=IwAR3CP-htaSuFUTJeFcUKI9U0lYE2XQQKF2jrmna02HSCu3nwQxaGWdSFDjA
This is great: "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"
There are a lot of us around!
The TED talk was terrific. Thanks for the link.
If the church's term "heretic" and the meaning the church gives it best describes where you are religiously I see no problem with using it of yourself. But to be fair: most people on whom the church slapped the designation "heretic" thought that the "orthodox position" of the church was the heretical view.
Re: How do I describe myself?
Thanks for another scholarly & educational discussion of who so many of us are becoming. As I read your essays and the comment of some of your readers, e.g. Roger & others, I witness how some have evolved during their adult life times. I see so much similarity in my life and in yours, Roger's, and other who have commented on your site.
I see many of us having been influenced by the Enlightenment beginning in Europe in the late 17th & early 18th centuries, and more recently by Humanism. I perceive that all enlightened humans evolve into Humanist, environmentalist, and perceptive in realizing the most worth while human efforts are directed toward the betterment of all humans. Every other human effort is merely fluff, e.g. entertainment or even worse, unethical.
Furthermore, our perception of human betterment evolves as we become more thoughtful, educated, and mature. I might suggest humans extend the subject of our efforts for betterment to all animal life that is developed to the point of emotions, e.g. mammals, etc. The Enlightenment has brought some to realize that harming humans or even emotional animals is inhumane and shows a lack of empathy.
Am I going too far with this?
Charlie, Roger, and other contributors are true educators of the highest order, and I viewed you as "Princes among men"!
I know that your two questions are rhetorical but here is a response anyway. 1. you ask: Can you be Christian and reject all tenets (beliefs?) of the faith? Practically speaking it would seem to be rather difficult, but if you re-defined the term "Christian" in your own mind it might become possible. So one might say: if that is Christian I am certainly not that, but if by Christian you mean....then yes I could use the term of myself. 2. You ask: What does your statement make you in today's religious climate? That is what I am waiting for you to tell me. I am of the opinion that we should tell others who/what we are rather than accepting their descriptions that miss the mark.
Long ago I recognized as a fellow traveler!
Thanks Charlie, a very good read. I am still moving along in my spiritual life and as I continue to read and listen to scholars I learn new things. At present if someone asked me what kind of belief I have I just say, "Something like a Progressive Christian and follower of the Historical Jesus" And that seems good for now. Cheers
One piece that seems to be missing from this discussion is emotion. Folks tend to substantially differ from one another with regard to need for security. All of the "fundamentals" to which your article refers contribute to a type of security blanket, emotional comfort. There's no "reason" to make it an issue of argument in the Christian community - the Jesus tent is a huge one where all "enemies" are loved. I think what we each need to do is not engage in conflict over how the "larger narrative" should read, but instead select a domain which interested Jesus, say, for example, the redistribution of wealth, and pursue it with urgency and goal oriented passion.
Good Morning Jim,
I can only say thank you for the compliment.
Would you say a few more words about "emotional" animals? Name a few and tell us what "emotional" means. Is there a body of literature on the subject?
Thanks for commenting, Al.
Could you tell me how you define "progressive Christian"? I have observed there are a lot of definitions out there.
Re: Feb. 18 questions about emotional (non-human) animals
A vast array of information about emotions in animals is available on the internet, i.e. Google, Wikipedia, Psychology Today, etc. By emotions, I mean a brain created thought response from both internal & external stimuli, e.g. feeling fearful when danger is sensed/perceived. Ten's of emotions have been identified in humans from scientific research in human Psychology, e.g. see internet.
Among the more obvious evidence in higher level animals are similar brain physical and response characteristics between animals & humans; evolution of animals & humans, and most obvious, simple observation of animal reactions to external stimuli.
I am anxiously awaiting an anticipated discussion from your question about the definition of a progressive Christian, and hopefully contrasted with conservative Christian. It seems obvious the two exists and like in most characteristics of the universe, across a wide spectrum.
I find a variety of mythologies of a different age or those practiced today called “religion,” worthy of study in a literary and cultural sense. As far as” faith” (trust) in the literal veracity of any of them, I see no value.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Good Morning Roger,
It was an interesting TED talk; thanks for sharing.
I agree that there is good reason to remain active in a religious community and here was my attempt to say why I am still involved with Southern Baptists:
I believe you are suggesting that there are certain (many?) mammals in the animal kingdom whose brains are similar to the human brain in that they sense emotion (love, hate, fear, compassion, etc.). And while you did not state it outright it would be an ethical wrong for us to mistreat, be cruel toward, eat, or otherwise dismiss them as "things" rather than value them as perhaps "cousins" related to human beings in a distant way perhaps but as related none the less. That being the case humans should be as scandalized by our treatment of, for example, pigs (I am told that they are very smart animals) as we are about human mistreatment of other humans, and that such things as ham, bacon, pigs feet, etc. should not be eaten because of the distant relationship between humans and pigs.
Have I understood you correctly?
"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?"
Finding "other" ways to describe myself? Well- everyone else is doing that very thing when it comes to gender anyway. Are you binary or non-binary? What are you pronouns? My son is 16 and he is apprehensive to use the words "he" or "she" in certain circles because you have to ask permission to use those pronouns these days. I guess describing oneself is not as simple as it used to be but I'll give it a shot.
It depends on how much past I share with someone. If it's an old friend of family member, I allow them to think whatever they want so as not to create waves. It's easier to just say I'm a Christian and go along with everyone else. But when I meet new people, I am more free and open with my opinions and I make it clear that I have unorthodox beliefs that would not be accepted among most traditional believers. I am surprised at many people I meet who are in the same boat as me. I wonder if it has something to do with getting away from our familiar environments where we feel pressured to keep up appearances. I have to say, it surprises me how anti-Catholic many of my friends and family are. I didn't realize it until my son began attending a Catholic high school.
I do find that most people do not pay attention to how one describes oneself- they view me through their screen of judgments and opinions regardless of what I say. People don't listen to me- they listen to their thoughts about me. They view me through their filters of past conditioning. I meet very few open minded individuals. Whatever label you give yourself- you lose your identity in the process because people respond to the label and dismiss anything you say if it contradicts their judgments about that label.
So Charlie- if one attends a Christian church, why would it be necessary to describe oneself any other way than Christian? It's just a label- it really doesn't mean anything. Personal beliefs are often used to divide and conquer- so why bring them up? I agree with this quote from A Course in Miracles: "Your understanding is not an important contribution to the truth." Or in this case, I'd say one's beliefs are not an important contribution to the truth. Truth is something you realize within yourself, and your recognize it subjectively. Your blog deals with facts about the Bible- not with truth. Truth is personal. In other words, there's a difference between facts and truth. Giving yourself a label tells someone a fact about yourself but reveals nothing to them about the truth of who you are. Does that make sense?
Many thanks! Elizabeth
Good Morning Elizabeth,
Thanks for weighing in, It will only be necessary to define yourself when others start calling you names with which you disagree. I have never had a problem in the church I attend. But I once had a problem with a person of a church of like faith and order. I wrote about it in the blog: Wry thoughts about religion: April 26, 2018: "apostates and heretics." It was at that point that I had to accept his term for me or to describe myself. I have had similar experiences in the past.
Re: Ethical treatment of animals, Feb. 19
Your Feb. 19 reply to my comment about the ethical treatment of animals indicate your have understood my basic premise about human ethical treatment of sentient animals, i.e. those that have feelings/emotions. I hesitate to entirely endorse your last sentence in your Feb. 17 comments: "That being the case, humans should be scandalized...........should not be eaten because of the direct relationship between humans and pigs."
I would rather say ethical and enlightened humans are becoming more empathetic about the cruel treatment of sentient animals since they experience similar/same emotions as humans, e.g. fear, anxiety, pain, hunger, discomfort, etc. Cruel and unsympathetic treatment of sentient animals without regard to their feelings/emotions is similar to doing so to humans who experience only the mental/emotional level of sentient animals. This judgement may seem baseless to one who is ignorant of the emotional/mental level of some sentient animals. A curious person seeking enlightenment might google animal intelligence.
Furthermore, I also hesitate to endorse your term "should not" in this case of human treatment of sentient animals. I would rather say: enlightened humans are sympathetic to all sentient creatures.
Thanks you for your interest in understanding my initial comments about enlightened humans.
Good Morning Jim,
Why would being "sympathetic to sentient creatures" not include the decision not to eat them? Or put another way: Why would one who empathizes/sympathizes with sentient creatures eat them, knowing that they feel as humans do in a similar situations?
It would seem that acknowledging certain animals to be sentient, would remove them from the food chain. In other words sentient mammals deserve the same considerations we extend to sentient humans. Or to put the issue crassly: What difference does it make how we treat sentient mammals if at the end of the day they are served up on the dining table in a brown gravy?
Re. Sentient beings: the current issue of The Atlantic addresses animal consciousness in "A Journey into the Animal Mind." One of the philosophers cited suggests that consciousness might be a fundamental feature of the universe.
Re. What do I call myself: “Shakespeare’s “A Rose by any other name would smell as sweet...” implies that what we call something doesn’t alter its essential properties. On the other hand, if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, etc. What if it doesn’t walk or quack like a duck, but still claims to be a duck? I think if we choose to identify ourselves as members of a communal group, there’s more involved than what we choose to call ourselves. I think of myself as “Christian,” and I base that on practice, not belief, but i don’t know that other Christians would recognize me as such.
I hope you did not witness the House hearing on M. Cohen's testimony! It has broken my heart, and I find myself unable to recover from the anger and hopelessness I find in the American Republican Party and the wealthiest Americans! Perhaps this note is merely an attempt for emotional relief to say these things to one whom I respect....even grown to love. No need to publish.
One of your students,
Good Morning Jim,
I did watch a bit of the proceedings and share your consternation over the "grilling" Mr. Cohen received. We may be watching the early stages of the demise of the two party system, which does not bode well for the country.
Take a look at the attached notes on Harris' book. "The Moral Landscape". I have not yet read it, but Harris' effort to bring Science into the realm of moral landscape interest me greatly. I feel my religion is Science.
I must read this book!
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