Drawing and Erasing Lines

Recent dialogue on another blog, as well as some of my own musings, has made me want to begin to analyze the question, “What does it mean to be a Christian?” Another way of asking this is, “What is it that does or does not make one a Christian?” On the one hand, there is a traditional answer to this question, and on the other lies what I would categorize as two reactionary answers–reactionary both to tradition and to one another. I hesitate to call these trends either liberal or conservative because people often associate liberal or conservative theology with politics, but there are examples of churches where staunchly conservative political and economic views are accompanied by a (in other contexts) liberal answer to the question. My hope in this post is just to summarize what I see as what’s going on, and raise some questions about some of the dangers I see in the answers to the big question I posed above.

I’d like to preface this post by saying that the purpose of what I’m writing here is to ask some questions, not necessarily come down hard with answers. I don’t really think of myself as liberal, conservative, emergent, postmodern, reformed, Mennonite, Methodist, Catholic, Protestant, or any number of other labels. I genuinely think of myself as a Christian. Period. I don’t find much comfort in other terms because, other conflicts aside, they tend to carry assumptions with them, many of which wouldn’t apply to me anyway, but Christian is a word I’m comfortable with because it’s a word that needs re-claiming. It has been co-opted to mean a lot of things that I don’t think it really does, so I want to raise questions that might help us at the very least draw distinctions, things that set Christians apart. Lines sound daunting and exclusionary, so we generally shy away from that language (at least if you’re at all “progressive” these days), but at some level we have to have an idea of what does it mean to be a Christian, and as intolerant as it might sound, what a Christian is not. So, I hope this is useful.


Though it’s up for some measure of debate (and I’m knowingly simplifying here for the sake of brevity), tradition in the church has held that being a Christian means professing a belief in the creeds of the church (Nicene, Apostle’s), which includes the affirmation of the divinity of Jesus, his bodily resurrection from the dead, and the Virgin birth, among other beliefs. Even in church traditions where creeds are not recited or even regularly acknowledged, in baptism and/or upon membership in the church, something similar is asked of a person. Trusting in Jesus for salvation is another traditional tenet of Christianity, again typically referring to a belief that Jesus’ death on the cross saves an individual from sin and secures eternal life. At various times in history (and depending on particular traditions),  these beliefs have translated into particular practices, i.e. not consuming alcohol,  abstaining from sex until marriage, not fighting wars, visiting the sick and imprisoned, etc. The tension between belief and practice is always a source of debate in different parts of the church. Generally, the foregoing list is a pretty good description of what traditionally would be described as what it means to be a Christian. Obviously there is more that could be said, and obviously there is more to being a Christian than just what is said on paper, but for the sake of getting to the main points, I’ll move on.

Reaction 1

For better or worse, different branches of Christianity have seen traditional definitions of what it means to be a Christian as not enough. In some ways, the tension of right belief and right practice is the dividing line between the two directions the church has seemed to go. What people call conservative Christianity has become narrowly focused on preserving all the right beliefs, even though those beliefs are often particular interpretations of Scripture, mostly by Reformation interpreters but also more modern interpreters that result in misinformed (and irresponsible) readings of books like Revelation. Because of the high emphasis on a certain understanding of “conversion,” so-called conservative evangelicalism’s focus has been on enlarging the church in numbers, trying to get people to “believe the truth,” so to speak. Belief is what’s important, belief in a certain understanding of justification, grace, salvation, sanctification, atonement. Those heavy words are crucial, and often such churches have drawn dividing lines based on how one understands those particular words. If, for instance, justification is at all participatory, then we forsake the entire New Testament and therefore have missed out on what Jesus has done for us. Even if not always explicitly stated, “liberal” theologians and churches are distorting the gospel. The gospel is simple: Jesus died for you, there’s nothing you can do to earn heaven, believe that Jesus died for you and you’re good to go. Anything else (like justice, or caring for the poor) flows out of that, but is not essential to what it means to be a Christian, necessarily, because being a Christian is about salvation so you can spend eternity in heaven with Jesus when you die. Again, lines are drawn to make Christianity a pretty narrow thing, yet because so often it demands so little of a person’s life (other than assent to some truths and attendance at church and reading a Bible), and places high emphasis on reward (both now and future), it is enormously popular. Therefore we have huge mega-churches, and in many cases, it is this brand (or similar) that is exported abroad, where Christianity is growing rapidly. Though there is a spectrum of expressions of this reaction, I feel like in general terms, what I’ve said is pretty true.
Reaction 2
The other direction Christianity has seemed to turn (not that there are not other reactions, but these two get the most air time), is towards a higher emphasis on right practice–what it means to follow Jesus–and question some of the beliefs, both traditional and those of the so-called religious right. Here too is a spectrum of expressions, but some of the common ones are questions about liturgy and church structure, “institutional” church versus more “organic” church, church as community (and community as church), sacraments, experience of God instead of belief about God, high emphasis on Jesus’ life as paradigmatic. Social concerns are essential to what it means to be a follower of Jesus (even that expression “follower of Jesus” used often instead of “Christian” is a reaction against other understandings that understate the whole-life transformation that comes with being a Christian), and in certain churches/areas in this umbrella, social concerns are all that really matter. The Sheep and Goats passage is the quintessential story for many people–the standard of judgment is based on how we treated others. Many people/churches who fit this category are interested in blurring lines (or erasing) between Christianity and other religions, or at the very least, incorporating the good things that can be learned. Some on the spectrum would erase the lines completely and erase the necessity at all of particular beliefs for identifying as a Christian, and equate Jesus with Buddha as an influential spiritual teacher, for example. Another example of this, which doesn’t fit into some of the other characteristics I mentioned above, would be people like Joel Osteen, who erase the lines of Christianity completely but in a completely different manner, in more of a civil religion manner. In my opinion, Osteen is so far apart from other mega-churches that would fit more into the first heading that he is closer, fundamentally, to some more so-called liberal churches or universalist churches. This raises an interesting, and parallel, observation to what I mentioned above. These churches have a high emphasis on welcoming everyone and anyone (often discarding words like evangelism), finding common ground, and letting God meet people “where they are,” not necessarily calling people to particular beliefs or truths, and, not wanting to be “judgmental,” not necessarily calling them to “personal morality” life changes that are often the mark of so-called conservative churches (though Osteen is big on reward). [1] Heaven is about now, more than future if at all.
Since i’m already at 1400 words, I’ll only briefly mention some commonalities I see between the two, and save further analysis for a post in a couple days. One important commonality is that there is a broad range of beliefs and practices in each of the two “reactions” as I call them, which means that on the extremes/margins of each one moves further away from “traditional” understandings of Christianity (so, in Reaction 1, some churches draw lines so dark that they separate themselves from the larger church, such as Terry Jones’ church in Florida or churches that predict exact dates for the return of Christ. In Reaction 2, some Quaker meetings and other similar assemblies who shy away from even labeling themselves Christian at times would probably fit this description).
Another commonality is a general desire to influence/infiltrate secular institutions in order to promote either belief or practice. Some want a President/Congress to enforce things like prayer in school, teaching of “creationism” in classrooms, restriction of abortion, and conservative economics (I get to keep what I make, government can’t have it, even for programs of social uplift). Others want a President/Congress who enforces right practice–concern for the poor, peacemaking, favor the marginalized, health care. Both groups appeal to Christians like William Wilberforce as their model. Government can be good/redeemed if used for God’s purposes.

Though there may be other similarities, I will stop here. I have a lot of questions of both “reactions,” and think there are merits in both. There are also areas that it seems to me that neither one of these reactions seem to address. Though I made sweeping generalizations about many different churches above, I tried to be fair to what I think is going on.

The question I want to ask, and will come back to in a future post, is, How important is it to draw distinctions that mark off Christianity in some way? How we do it in a way that is mindful of the complexities of being welcoming/evangelistic? Are there particular practices or particular beliefs that we can say that if one holds to, they are not a Christian? If so, what are they? What things are so essential to what it means to be Christian that to deny them, in word or deed, means that one is not a Christian (this is not a judgmental question so much as a practical one–you don’t show up to a football game with a baseball bat and glove and claim to be the quarterback)? How do we respect the movement of the Holy Spirit in the fluid boundaries of Christianity without letting words like “Christian” become wrongfully co-opted or used? In sum, how (if we are) are we to uniquely identify as Christian?

I welcome any feedback to anything I’ve said above, and any answers to the questions I pose in anticipation of what I’ll say in a couple days. There’s much more that could be said about each of the two categories, but I will resist the temptation for now.

1. I use phrases like “so-called” to express my hesitance to describe people or churches as “liberal” or “conservative” because most people (myself included) don’t like to be pigeon-holed. The labels are often more harmful than good, but are helpful for clarification.



  1. Zack · September 18, 2010

    The only thing I believe is a DEFINITE requirement to be a “Christian” is belief in Jesus the Christ as the one and only way to God and Heaven. Once you get past that, there’s really too much opinion and not enough hard evidence here on Earth for it to be wise to make further distinctions, particularly if one should accidentally stray into the realm of judgement, which the Bible makes quite clear is an all-around no-no.

    That said, I fall into the group that would say that belief and trust in Jesus should result in a lifestyle change to be more like him. It’s an everyday thing, not just church on Sundays, and it does involve a personal relationship with God through prayer and Bible study.

    Rather than speak of the social aspects of conservative vs. liberal, I say “go with what the Bible says.” There are a LOT of views and practices in churches on both “sides” (so to speak) which don’t match up with God’s Word.

  2. brianjgorman · September 18, 2010

    Thanks for your input, Zack, though I think a lot of people would disagree with you if for no other reason than the fact that you reduce Christianity to one simple tenet. If there were to be just one tenet (not that I think there should be) by which we would say “this is what it means to be a Christian and if you don’t hold to it you’re not a Christian,” I’m not sure that would be the one.

    I’m not here trying to make a list of who’s in who’s out, but rather asking, what are the things (plural) that make Christianity Christianity?


  3. Zack · September 18, 2010

    I reduced it to the only tenent I can say with absolute certainty and 100% conviction is true. I have many other beliefs about what constitutes Christianity, but I hesatate to present them because they tend to anger people who disagree. Technically, my post included information that allows you know everything I believe about what does or does not make a Christian, without me having to spell out every little bit.

    Jesus said “they will know you are my disciples by the love you show one for another.” Clearly, this means that love is a key element of Christianity. You’re not going to convince me you’re very sincere if you go around hating ALL THE TIME. Now, everyone may fumble from time to time (I certainly do), but it’s important to be able to tell the difference.

    I would say that, assuming every religion had one trait that made it what it was, love would be the trait for Christianity. Note, however, that you should be able to love someone while still disagreeing with them.

  4. Brandon · September 19, 2010

    You’ve got some good and important distinctions in there, Brian, and have shown well the commonalities between groups that we conventionally keep at opposite poles.

    I think the question “what is it that marks one out as Christian” is good, but its simplicity collapses several questions into itself. Questions that are all good and important and worth asking distinctly from the others. Here’s a few:

    + In what way is a person “saved” or a “Christian” who is right with God but is not part of a gathered body?
    + What marks out the “doorway” to being a Christian, and what marks out the “walls” of that reality? (NT Wright asks similar questions in “Justification”)
    + What gets me saved? What marks out my being saved?
    + Can one who acts and lives on behalf of the kingdom of Jesus, but believes in saving grace through the Eucharist, be right with God? Must one believe in justification by faith to be justified by their faith?
    + What if I believe I’m right with God but I refuse to be part of a local expression of the family of God? At what point is that so deviating from the true story that it becomes another story entirely? (Brian McLaren defines heresy as a telling-of-the-story that is so fractured that it becomes another story entirely)
    + What if I give and receive love in the name of Jesus in a local body, confess an Nicene faith, follow Jesus’ Way with some trembling semblance, but rarely feel the presence of God and encounter God in prayer almost never? Does a persistent state of the “dark night of the soul” point to a deeper brokenness? What assures me that I am right with God and “Christian” in such a state?

  5. brianjgorman · September 19, 2010

    Well said, Brandon! Those are all questions on their own that are part of this as well. My big question is perhaps too simple–these help flesh out some of the complexities of trying to begin to answer it.

  6. Ethan · September 19, 2010

    I think it’s a great question to ask what makes and doesn’t make a person a Christian. This gets into the relative importance of different beliefs, distinctions between beliefs and the essence of truth, and many other topics mentioned in all these posts.

    Jesus did not seem too concerned about labels, but the reality of things – where people’s hearts were, and if they believed what he said about God. Of course the word “Christian” did not exist when he was around so he obviously had nothing to say on it, but it is interesting to look at all the things he says that DO define the type of people he wants – those that listen to him and believe he’s from god, who do his will, who love him, and others. It would be interesting to pull out all of these together.

    So a couple of questions I will add based on one or two of these examples. I have so many things to ask on all these topics, (like what to make of that small group of people who served in Jesus’ name but apparently never were his disciples and did not spend time with him when they could – I would sure spend time with Jesus if he were physically around! Yet he approves of them, and disapproves of many other people who do what look like great things in his name)

    In the famous John 3:16 passage, Jesus equates salvation to believing in him and believing in his name as God’s one and only son. After this, he gives a verdict – that light has come into the world, but people choose darkness because they don’t want their evil deeds to come into the light. This points toward a meaning that is more about evil, good, darkness, and light than about specific ideas other than that Jesus is truly representative of God’s character and message.

    Also, in John 14 Jesus says he is the way the truth and the life – no one comes to the Father but through Him. What of people like Gandhi who in their own tradition claim to find God, and then when they learn about Jesus they see the same core truth of sacrifical, nonviolent love – ahimsa – and conclude that both come from God? How, when Jesus had no interaction with people deep into Hinduism or Buddhism (for example), can people today be so sure he wouldn’t say something new, different, or qualified?

    What is the essence about himself and God that Jesus is communicating, and is that essence limited to a strict or literal interpreation of them, or is it possible that other religions (with discernment and understanding of course) can fit within that? If it’s not possible, what is inherently “wrong” or “different” about those other religions? Does it come down to their doctrines or dogmas, Christianity’s doctrines or dogmas, or something else? Christian monastics such as Thomas Merton who really know what they are talking about when it comes to their own religion have found deep connection and agreement on the things that really matter with monastics and others deep in some other religions. Merton even admitted feeling closer in his religion to someone like Thich Nhat Hahn than people in his own religion? What to make of books like Nhat Hahn’s “Living Buddha, Living Christ” that take a close look at both religions and their essence?

    Sometimes people claim the omniscience of Jesus to support the idea that his ideas exclude any presence of himself or his essence (i.e. God) in other religions, but it certainly seems that the bible wasn’t written with that omniscience and that Jesus didn’t care about knowing everything but rather loving everyone. Sometimes a pitfall of humanity is to value universal knowledge above universal love. This is not to be “soft” or “liberal” because true love DOES requires a lot of people (morality, sacrifice, etc.), and can also be divisive like Jesus said when his truth can bring not peace but a sword to the world.

    There was my large stream of consciousness on that!

  7. Chad Holtz · September 20, 2010

    Good post. I think this is an important discussion to keep before us.

    I recently wrote a post titled, “What do I have to believe to be a Christian” where in a turned that question around to an invitation, or, what do I GET to believe? You can read that here: http://chadholtz.net/2010/06/17/what-do-i-have-to-believe-to-be-a-christian/

    But I believe discussions like this generally tend to divulge into discussions about who is going to heaven vs. hell. Not surprisingly, the folks who seem to have this figured out about everyone always find themselves on the right side of that divide. I think a distinction needs to be made, because unfortunately in our culture when people hear “what does it mean to be a Christian” what they are really hearing is “what does a person going to heaven have to do/believe?”

    I think the question of who is going to heaven is moot, and largely settled (with our without our input). Yes, I believe Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, and I dont read that as exclusionary but as the great hope for all the world (including Ghandi). And so I have no problems saying the banquet is going to be a lot bigger than we Christians have historically given God credit for while at the same time defining here and now what it means to be a disciple of this Lord. It does have some form and shape, and it’s not for everyone. That is probably to be expected.

  8. brianjgorman · September 20, 2010

    Yes, Chad, unfortunately that is the prevailing translation of the question, “What does it mean to be a Christian?” I, too, am not terribly interested in the question of who “goes to heaven,” because, as you said, questions like that are decided without our input. Mike Morell posted a link this morning to some Brian McLaren interviews, and the last one touches on this topic as well: http://zoecarnate.wordpress.com/2010/09/17/four-from-mclaren/

    I think you make a good point that a lot of Jesus’ teachings are found/accepted by other religions, and that there are important points of connection between Christianity and other religions. At the same time, a Hindu is not a Christian, nor a Christian a Hindu, and I’m not sure anyone has to apologize for that. I don’t know if we have to try and make Buddha or Hinduism “fit” into Christianity, but it is helpful to ask what the points of connection tell us about our own uniqueness as Christians.

    • Ethan · September 22, 2010

      I am just wondering how much of the “what makes a Christian a Christian” question isn’t sort of doomed to fail to embrace the most important aspects of what Christianity or any other genuine religion is about – love.

      Is it enough to love Jesus and follow his commands (what he himself asked of people)? Does that make one a “Christian” in God’s eyes, and if people are doing that in other religions, are they then “Christians” in God’s eyes? If so, it is sort of weird because then one could be accurate in a way by calling someone like Gandhi a Christian. In Gandhi’s view, he wasn’t a Christian because he didn’t believe specifically in the Trinity, in the Virgin Birth, Jesus’ resurrection (probably – I don’t know on that one – there are similar ideas in Hinduism), and so forth. He also didn’t see Jesus reflected in the vast majority of Christianity, which is still a question that most of the Church cannot seem to address. Exceptions are Anabaptists, Mennonites, Brethren, Quakers, and probably others I don’t know about who in their official theology state that Jesus is the clearest interpretation of ALL scripture. So stuff in the OT that seems different than what Jesus said, did, or would/might say or do, do in fact fall short of the Truth – of the Nature of God. This is inherent in the belief that Jesus is the best revealer of God (asserted in scripture many times), and implies that there are flaws in the OT and that opens the possibility of flaws in other parts of the NT. Most Christian denominations cannot tolerate this because it breaks the tradition that the OT and NT are equally perfect, inspired, etc. I could go on about this topic for awhile!

      As to Paul’s quote that he should be pitied if Jesus weren’t bodily raised from the dead, I am not sure I would feel the same way (and that is just my opinion, that is for sure!) What Jesus revealed about God and God’s power is independent of whether or not he was raised from the dead, and Jesus himself also said that the Holy Spirit (the Counselor/Paraclete) would come to his followers once he died. He didn’t talk about the importance of his body coming back to life or him doing something up in heaven with God afterwards (other than coming back sometime). I believe more in the view that the disciples did experience a transformation sometime after Jesus’ death, and that this is the power of the resurrection and that all the theology about the resurrection – death’s sting being taken away, goodness winning over evil in the end, and so on – hold regardless of whether or not it was a true physical resurrection.

      It is interesting to me that concepts like resurrection and virgin births are found in many cultures & religions (not just a few like the biggest world religions now, but all sorts of religions in the past and beliefs of various small ancient cultures). Do all of these really happen to be false except for the similar stories in Christianity? Or are they all symbols pointing to truth and deeper concepts, not to be mistaken with historical truth?

      A common critique that is heard of people advocating a more “interspiritual” approach like Richard Rohr, Thomas Keating, Thomas Merton, Wayne Teasdale, and others is that they are simply sweeping differences under the rug, or that they are afraid to be politically incorrect. But in their view (if I can be so bold to speak for them) and certainly in my view, it is about really getting to the core truths of things and only brushing aside things that don’t truly matter, so people can focus on the things that do! All the deceit, lies, suffering, evil, spiritual poverty, etc. in the world are the things that need to be resisted – are the things that are truly politically *incorrect* to talk about and face. (Like the article on drone warfare you sent out). Sure, things like politics and doctrine are also politically incorrect but that might be because people are acting out of fear, or in reaction to how these ideas challenge their identity. That is still serious, but I think it is unfair to say that the interspiritual approach simply ignores differences or ignores difficult things. Done right, it actually seeks to learn about and face those differences, then put them in perspective.

      I know everyone participating in this probably disagrees with me, but this is where I’m at and as I go on believing these ideas I am testing them and seeing where God leads. With all my experiences, I am personally confident that this is more the truth than what my previous beliefs were, say 6 years ago when I first started asking these questions and met Trappist monks involved in interreligious dialog.

      Anyway, thanks for always being kind and considering what I have to say, Brian! That’s one of the many things I love about you!

    • Ethan · September 22, 2010

      Also, a couple of comments on Chad’s writings and Brian’s reply:

      1.) I am playing devil’s advocate here, just to be clear, but think it is also a serious question.

      Quoting Brian: “I, too, am not terribly interested in the question of who “goes to heaven,” because, as you said, questions like that are decided without our input.”

      I completely understand where you both are coming from in saying this, and I also agree. Jesus was not about judging people and it is totally screwed up when people focus on this in such a shallow and judgmental way as they usually do. On the other hand, Jesus *was* about opening the gates of the Kingdom to people and he *strongly* criticized those who claimed to be entering but weren’t letting others enter. Christianity *does* claim to provide the way to heaven – to union with God – so it seems unfair to completely sweep the question (or at least related questions and implications) under the rug. This is especially not something to be swept under the rug for people who are *not* Christians. To non-Christians, this is a big deal for sure. It is easy to say that God decides, but that is not a complete way to address the issue at hand in my view.

      2.) I really enjoyed Chad’s paper/talk “Can Conservatives follow Christ?” I would bring a different angle – is holding onto certain tenets of Christianity itself a conservative view that might be getting in the way of following Christ?

      The major difference I see is that the people we all think of when we say “conservative” are right-wing politics Christians. Viewed through Jesus’s teachings and example, many of their actions and beliefs are downright unloving and contradictory to Christ. You and Chad, on the other hand, really are loving and seeking to follow Christ, and not just what you want Christ to be. So even if I think your views on Christianity are a bit “conservative” in a way I think you are still rooted firmly in love, but feel that some of these “conservative” views may prevent you both from following Christ in small subtle ways – in creating barriers between people that I don’t think need to be there.

      Why, for example, is there not unity in the Big Tent Christianity thing? It is because some groups of Christians believe fundamentally different things (different interpretations) of Jesus, his teachings, and things about the bible. There is still a lot of overlap, but I really just don’t see someone like Pat Robertson really fitting in, even if he were permitted to *lead* like Chad suggested. His views are different enough, and I may be verging on judgment in saying this, but many of them are downright unloving and bigoted.

      Wow, I wrote a lot tonight! I hope you both do take the time to read it – I’m really curious what you both think!

    • Jonathan · September 26, 2010

      “a Hindu is not a Christian, nor a Christian a Hindu, and I’m not sure anyone has to apologize for that”

      Is it really decided that these are mutually exclusive categories in all cases? What if a person raised in Hinduism comes to believe in Jesus as savior and God, and accepts all of the core beliefs about Christ that have been spoken about here, but continues to practice some outer forms and cultural practices of Hinduism and continues to think of themselves as a “Hindu who follows Christ”? If there are Hindus having this same discussion about “what is the core essense of Hinduism” and some people happen to fulfill both the Christian and Hindu definitions, then can they be both?

      This is a real issue happening among Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and others all over the world. (It’s especially interesting in Islam, since the Gospels are already part of their scripture.) If a Muslim comes to believe in the foundational truths of who Jesus Christ was, but doesn’t reject the five pillars of Islam (none of which necessarily contradict belief in Christ for salvation, depending on how the believer understands them), then why can’t they be a Muslim follower of Jesus?

      This is not an issue that I have resolved in my own mind, but I think it’s a really important question. For a more detailed look, look up “Mission Frontiers” and “Insider Movements”, “Muslims who believe the Bible”, “A Movement for Christ within Islam”, or other similar keywords.

      • brianjgorman · September 26, 2010

        Hi Jonathan,
        Thanks for your input. What you’ve said is true, that many Muslims, etc. who become Christian still maintain many practices. It adds yet more complexity to the question, what does it mean to be a Christian (especially because many of those who become Christian still live in cultures where religion and culture are inseparable).

        But, remembering that Islam and Hinduism especially (and other religions as well) are cultural systems as well as religions, to say “I’m a Hindu Christian” is like saying “I’m an American Christian” more than it is like saying, “I’m a polytheistic Christian.”

        Yet, despite how an individual believer narrates his/her faith, Hinduism and Christianity are not the same–the nature of a polytheistic religion is fundamentally different than Christianity, not to mention that the caste cultural system directly contradicts Jesus’ message–so we have to be careful to allow religions to speak for themselves on what makes them distinct. It doesn’t have to inherently mean condemnation or judgment (though that is often what comes), but to say “Jesus is Lord” is to (at the very least) reject the primacy of other religious narratives.

        But this issue is also parallel to the connection of civil religion to Christianity here in the U.S. What elements of American culture/civil religion are fundamentally at odds with the gospel that if we don’t reject them, we give a lie to our allegiance to Christ? In some ways, those elements are harder for most U.S. Christians to name because they *seem* to have “Christian” origins, even while they may in reality be similar to, say, polytheism.

      • Jonathan · September 26, 2010

        I definitely agree with what you say about Hinduism and Islam being cultural systems as well as religions. And I think that is a large reason why in those societies, many consider Christianity or American Christianity to be a cultural system as well. That is what can make them reluctant to describe themselves as “Christians” (as Ethan mentioned, a word that was not part of Christ’s vocabulary), but sometimes more apt to describe themselves of followers of Christ.

        I also believe that “Hinduism and Christianity are not the same”. But many other things that are not the same – say, democracy and communism – can still both be believed by the same person. If Hindus define Hinduism in such a manner that doesn’t . Hinduism is certainly not necessarily polytheistic (there are many monotheistic and henotheistic Hindus), and many practicing Hindus and scholars state that the caste system is not an integral part of Hinduism. In fact, there is even less agreement on core beliefs in Hinduism than there is in Christianity. So if the Hindus themselves don’t force any beliefs that exclude a faithful following of Christ, then how are we defining Christianity to exclude them?

        It’s also interesting that you bring in the caste system as an objection. Opposition to that type of social distinction is certainly part of Christianity, but it isn’t one that anyone has yet mentioned as a fundamental belief, and if it was then many, many American Christians would be excluded on the grounds of racism, sexism, xenophobia, nativism, sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination, etc.

        Your last paragraph brings in a hugely important issue, and is the primary reason why people of many cultures find themselves unable to call themselves “Christian” while coming to a belief in and devotion to Christ as God. Unfortunately, I pay too much for my internet time, but that could be a huge discussion for another time.

      • brianjgorman · September 27, 2010

        Hi Jonathan,
        The points I raised (like polytheism and the caste system) were not so much to raise specific objections about Hinduism so much as point out some of the fundamental differences that mark it, And, while there may be a spectrum of beliefs about both of these aspects of Hinduism (and many others), they still remain aspects of Hinduism at large that are in conflict with Christianity.

        The point I made about the caste system being in opposition to Jesus is more to point out something specifically cultural/religious that is in conflict with Jesus; there are similar parallels in the United States and elsewhere. It doesn’t mean that those who are caught up in it are necessarily excluded, but that the system imposed (at least in part) by the religion, contradicts Jesus. In American civil religion, there are many similar systems that are in direct conflict to Jesus–this is one (of many) reasons the U.S. cannot rightfully be called a Christian country.

        While it hasn’t been said explicitly, I would be willing to add the *question,* “Is there a certain point at which willful and active oppression of others self-selects out of what it means to be Christian?”

  9. Ethan · September 22, 2010

    One quick point I forgot to make in the second paragraph when writing about “flaws” in the OT and/or NT.

    These flaws aren’t historical errors, or words that were changed over time, transcription errors, and so forth. Rather I see them as false views of humans that crept into scripture (in the writers themselves) based on things like nationalism, pride, phobias/unlove for foreigners, and so forth.

  10. Zack · September 22, 2010

    @Ethan: Wow, that was a lot to read! One part in particular caught my interest, for somewhat odd personal reasons:

    “It is interesting to me that concepts like resurrection and virgin births are found in many cultures & religions (not just a few like the biggest world religions now, but all sorts of religions in the past and beliefs of various small ancient cultures). Do all of these really happen to be false except for the similar stories in Christianity? Or are they all symbols pointing to truth and deeper concepts, not to be mistaken with historical truth?”

    This reminds me, believe it or not, of a conversation from the video game “Tomb Raider: Legends.” The characters found a carving in a hidden underground temple that basically described the story of King Arthur, but with a staff instead of a sword. Someone commented that there are many “myths” shared among different people groups, and mentioned the Great Flood as another example. Within the context of the game’s fictional story, the point appears to be that stories which exist in slightly altered versions among different cultures are, in fact, true (King Arthur included, which is why I emphasize that I’m not saying everything the game has to say is true).

    My point in bringing this up is the idea that stories handed down over time by different peoples may all have root in the same factual history. If this is the case, then all the other religions with similar stories about virgin births and resurrections could well be based on history as the Bible tells it. This insight, if true, actually don’t do anything to prove Christianity’s version as the correct one, but does suggest that they are all related for a reason. What I’m basically saying is that the other peoples’ versions of the story aren’t necessarily FALSE so much as filtered through their own culture, just like two versions of King Arthur’s tale would crop up if the English and some random African tribe wrote about it.

    Sorry if that’s confusing…it’s something I’ve actually given some thought since first playing the game a few years ago, but it’s difficult to explain.

  11. brianjgorman · September 22, 2010

    Hey Ethan,
    Thanks for continuing the conversation. I think there are several things at play in what you brought up. There’s a lot to respond to, so I’ll do my best and hope it matches up with what you brought up.

    Part of my reason for even raising this question (What does it mean to be a Christian) is precisely because I’m interested in hearing from people who both do and don’t think it so necessary to make clear distinctions. I imagine there IS a way to have the discussion, and even ultimately have distinctions that mark Christianity as unique, that incorporates love.

    As my post made indirect reference to (with the “traditional” understandings of what a Christian is), what it means to be a Christian can never be decided in a chronological vacuum: to claim Christ is to join in a community that spans 2000 years (not to mention the OT, which we count as our history as well). So in that sense, we are bound to those who came before us, even if our beliefs end up being radically different, not unlike the “reactions” I noted above. There might be (and this is something I may address more in my next post) a point at which a particular amount of deviation from the millennia-old community-norms sets one in a different community that can no longer truthfully be called Christian. It doesn’t a priori make it wrong, but just different.

    As to what you said about the Scriptures, I’m not sure I would agree with what you said “Jesus as interpreter of all Scripture” implies; it doesn’t imply that the OT is any less inspired, it just fundamentally changes the way we read it and apply it. Words like “perfect” or “flawed” don’t get us very far, mostly because they express a narrow understanding of what “inspired” means. The humanness of the writers that is evident is transcended by the movement of the Spirit, exhibiting God’s power–working through the lowly and weak to bring about what God desires.

    That Jesus didn’t say much about his own physical resurrection isn’t all that significant because the earliest Christians claim to have seen it happen and made (from their Jewish context) logical conclusions about the advent of the new age, which would ultimately end with the judgment and resurrection. Like I said above, to claim Christ is to join not only those first Christians, but the people of Israel who came before who (from their own Scriptures like Isaiah) believed in the coming new creation. So, new creation is fundamental to Christianity–that’s how the first Christians understood Jesus (NT scholar Richard Hays suggests that “new creation” is one of 3 main themes of the NT, along with community and cross). Therefore, to say that “loving and following Jesus” are all that it means to be a Christian is completely inaccurate.
    But that doesn’t mean that “loving and following Jesus” is wrong, nor does it inherently condemn such people. It might just mean that Christian is not the proper word for that way of living/believing (there are parallel examples of this in other religions, but it gets harder to name them because culture and religion are inseparable).Especially in our modern context, to read the Bible for “core truths,” has its advantages, but it discards the symbolic world that the Scriptures place all of history in, and which is fundamental to what it means to be Christian.

    Now, to your second comment (ha, I hope I did justice in my response to your first!):
    1. To be sure, the NT is not shy about two things that seem to be in tension: a) Jesus is how we know God, and how we are given the opportunity to spend eternity with God. and b) Those who claim to know what that will ultimately look like are in for a surprise (especially considering who are often the ones making that claim). But I actually think that this tension is just that, tension, that we are called to live with. One “reaction” emphasizes “A,” the other “reaction” emphasizes “B” (hence the “parallel observation” I made in my original post that both sets of people would like more folks in their company, just go about it differently). The only way to accept the tension simply as tension, I’d argue, is to also accept the worldview that Scripture embodies (one of looking toward Jesus for the new Creation–also called “Shalom”), which I mentioned in this comment above. If you don’t accept that worldview, then simply relieve the tension by choosing “A” or “B” depending on where you fall. But faithful reading of Scripture asks us to simply be okay with the tension without having to collapse neither an identity that professes Jesus alone, nor a humility that acknowledges that God welcomes who God pleases.

    2. I think your comment in response to Chad’s paper highlights the real problem with words like “conservative” and “liberal.” I think the reason why Pat Robertson would have trouble fitting in at Big Tent is because his eschatology is at odds with many of the people who went to Big Tent; in other words, he does not really embrace the new creation worldview that Scripture presents us with. In Matthew, Jesus says the eye is the lamp of the body, and if that the eye is unhealthy, the whole body is in darkness. I take that to mean that our lens for seeing the world affects everything else. Jesus asks us to put on kingdom lenses, which see the world not as ending in destruction but in glorious re-birth. Pat Robertson’s lens leads to hatred and bigotry. In truth, I would have trouble regarding Pat Robertson as a Christian. He co-opts the word to mean things I’d be ashamed of saying. That is not to say he is condemned to hell either–but in the same way I suggested above that some more modern views of Christianity might not be best described as Christian, Pat Robertson might fit there too.

    Hope that’s a worthwhile start to your many questions! Thanks for keeping things interesting!

  12. brianjgorman · September 22, 2010

    one more point for clarification–my comment about Pat Robertson isn’t meant to start a “who’s a Christian and who’s not” crusade. Rather, it’s to say that “they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

    Which, even that word love, I could probably write an equally long response thinking about what that word even means, but I’ll refrain. Suffice it to say that I don’t think a discussion (or even a conclusion) about what it means to be a Christian that is in some way delineating is inherently lacking in love.

    k, that’s what I’ve got for now!

    • Ethan · September 23, 2010

      I think we’re all on the same page here that we’re not trying to judge, say that anyone we think has wrong and even evil views isn’t capable of change, or anything like that. Jesus said a lot of harsh things, but it was done out of love and a passion for justice.

  13. Ethan · September 23, 2010

    Thanks Brian! One thought on “what makes Christianity unique”. The distinction I’m trying to make is: of the things that make Christianity unique, which are necessary, good, or true? How do the distinctions or uniquenesses compare to the distinctions and uniquenesses between people within the same religion – say you and Chad – compare to these? Does it turn out that individuals all have such different ways of relating to and thinking about God that even within a cohesive set of beliefs within a certain religion (again you and Chad, as an example) still have a lot of differences (even though there are tons of similarities)? So I’m trying to get at the Truth of these differences – some differences you can say (perhaps) are wrong, others fit within variation that all people are bound to have, even within the same system.

    Responding to your quote: “What it means to be a Christian can never be decided in a chronological vacuum: to claim Christ is to join in a community that spans 2000 years (not to mention the OT, which we count as our history as well). So in that sense, we are bound to those who came before us, even if our beliefs end up being radically different”

    I disagree that to claim Christ is to join the 2000 year history and community of Christianity. Much of what passes as Christianity is not of Jesus – period. As institutional Christianity strayed from Jesus over time, *those* communities separated *themselves* from Jesus – I simply recognize that and so don’t claim to have communion with those groups. For instance, in the 2nd – 4th centuries there was quite a heated debate on the nature of Jesus. Fully God? Fully Human? Fully both? And even different interpretations within the “fully both” category. Does the Spirit come from Jesus or does the Spirit come from God? (This last one seems minor, but it influenced a certain phrase in one of the Creeds and people fought bitterly over it.) And so to “settle” these questions, rulers and leaders banished dissenting priests, priests holding the dominant position supported banishment/exile and even killing. So when key doctrines are decided using methods that go against everything Jesus stood for (“do not lord it over them, but be servants”) – why should one necessarily accept them? Why would one need to? Why does one need to join to that community that so blatantly ignored what Jesus was really about in order to answer a (still meaningful) question about him?

    You are also familiar with the so-called conversion of Constantine which started the Holy Roman Empire. I do not align myself with that community or part of Christian history either. I do feel communion with early Christianity, and with certain people throughout history who keep returning to the original message and inspiration of Jesus – St. Francis, as one example.

    Certainly Christians have some share in the OT history as you mentioned, yet Paul was clear that one need not be a Jew or follow Jewish laws to be a Christian. So if a Christian counts themselves as part of the OT history community, they would also have to note a radical and fundamental departure from what that original community stood for.

    I am curious about your next post where you will expand upon your earlier idea: “There might be (and this is something I may address more in my next post) a point at which a particular amount of deviation from the millennia-old community-norms sets one in a different community that can no longer truthfully be called Christian. It doesn’t a priori make it wrong, but just different.”

    A major point of mine is that even the community norms need to be evaluated in the light of Jesus because I’m not convinced he would approve of them all.

    Next point:
    Resurrection – I’m not trying to nit-pick, but be clear in what we say. None of the disciples claim to have seen Jesus in the process of resurrection. They claim to have seen him after the fact, in forms they could not recognize at first (road to Emmaus), a figure that could walk through walls, and in Paul’s case, in a vision. There is also the doubting Thomas story of him putting his hands in Jesus’ wounds. I think there are a couple of passages that mention that large groups saw Jesus, but it’s interesting that there are no stories about what he said or did. Seems like he would have some pretty important things to say if he bothered to show up in a big crowd after being resurrected. (this whole bit on resurrection is a different topic so I will put it aside)

    I maintain that loving and following Jesus is what *he* cared about, and not “being a Christian”. If loving and following Jesus is not what “being a Christian” is then I think there is a problem there. Some of the issue of us understanding each other is semantics/language, and how we view the logical unfolding of each of our beliefs. So when I say “following Jesus” that to me logically and spiritually means trying to understand, apply, and translate into today’s culture (if necessary) everything he taught, stood for, and revealed about God and the nature of things (reality, both “earthly” and “heavenly”). So following Jesus does include for me a vision of a new or reconciled creation to God. It does include that life and love overcome death (even though I don’t believe explicitly in a literal resurrection). I just don’t see this new creation as something that magically comes down from Heaven, like the New Jerusalem descending on earth in Revelation. Jesus’ work, the work of the spirit, is creating that new creation in each of us, and as that is reflected outwardly, the visible signs of the Kingdom become more apparent (even though it is always there even with all the crap in our world).

    New Tent Christianity and Pat Robertson: I agree with what you say here. I think his eschatology, though, can be seen to flow from an even more fundamental view of God and Jesus. God wants redemption and transformation out of love – the God Pat Robertson sees is vengeful, uses natural disasters to punish deviants, and so forth. This is a fundamental difference compared to Jesus’ teachings and the nature of God he reveals, not just an eschatalogical difference.

    On the words “perfect” and “flawed”. I do think it’s terribly important to use these words. I think they are even weaker than what Jesus used with the Pharisees who he called them white washed tombs, and told them to their face that they don’t even know this God they pretended so much to know. So he goes beyond flawed and could tell people – “you think you know God. You plain old don’t. If you knew God, you would have trusted the prophets, instead of killing them. You would be listening to me now.” Jesus (to me) clearly did, in fulfilling the OT, actually correct things that were bad and not of God in it – an eye for an eye (even if as I’ve often heard an eye for an eye was a less violent code than others used at the time), the injustice done to women through divorce, and not killing your enemies and loving them instead of killing them (to name 3). These teachings he corrected are in fact major components of the OT witness and teaching, even though there are occassionally parts that hint at something more along the lines of Jesus.

    It is interesting to me how modern Jewish people ignore (or otherwise explain away – I wonder how?) how violence is condoned in the OT. Not many people fear Jews today (compared to Islam) – and Islam’s texts have some very similar language condoning violence and that of course today is a *huge* topic of debate and fear.

    Ok, I’m done with that. Now, @Zack:
    I love it when things like games or TV shows give you ideas about spiritual things. Smallville does that for me – I’m such a nerd! I agree that in some cases, the fact that many cultures share similarities can suggest that a story (or its basis) is true. The Flood is a great example. Native Americans have a flood story, but it’s very different than the one with Noah and the Ark. Various Mesopotamian cultures, however, also have a flood story and these are *very* close to the biblical story. In fact, the flood story in the Epic of Gilgamesh has tons of not just similarities but exact matches, such as dimensions of a boat (which is not Noah’s Ark in that story). (The Epic of Gilgamesh also predates the OT) From this, I find it more likely that there was a great flood in the Mesopotamia region which flooded the world *as they knew it* but which certainly did not flood the *entire earth*. All the cultures in that area then interpret the flood through their religion and beliefs. I feel one of the most important ways that the biblical version is different is that God promised never to do anything like that (the flood) again. The story came after the fact of the flood, so the story was more like “Ok, this horrible thing happened and it was to punish evil people in the past. But we don’t need to worry because we trust that God is good and won’t do anything like this again.” Whereas other cultures see a different view of God (or multiple warring gods, etc.) who have a different nature. This is an example of what I mean when I assert that a story points to a truth but is not necessarily historical truth itself. Noah and the Ark in the way I suggest above shows that God does not want to do that to people, and that is the core truth and what that means about the nature of God. (Jesus also confirms that accidents that happen aren’t the will of God or punishment for sin, they are just things that happen – like the building that collapsed and killed several people – Jesus said that had nothing to do with sin.) So I don’t believe that God caused that Flood in any supernatural or physical way (or that the Flood was actually “His Will”). God does not work that way. However, that is how the people who wrote the story interpreted it. They thought that the flood got rid of wicked people from the past – that is how they rationalized it so they could come to terms with the fact that such a flood could happen. Hope that makes some sense. I’d be curious to hear any questions or comments you have!

    • Ethan · September 23, 2010

      I’m currently writing a book about these kinds of topics, so I really enjoy having a way to put some of my ideas out there and get feedback!

    • Ethan · September 23, 2010

      Zack – I don’t know if you’re in Washington, DC or not – but the American Indian Museum downtown has an interesting exhibit on various creation and flood stories within several different American Indian tribes. That was fascinating to me.

  14. brianjgorman · September 23, 2010

    Hey Ethan!
    There’s so much to respond to, that I’ll think I’ll hold off until I write another post. I just respond briefly to a couple things.

    “If loving and following Jesus is not what “being a Christian” is then I think there is a problem there. ”

    What I meant to say before was that loving and following Jesus (again, semantics/definitions here are slightly a problem as you said) is not *all* there is that makes one a Christian. Paul made clear that some Jewish *customs* were not required to this new way, but all of what Paul said/did was out of a certain understanding of God, that by acknowledging Christ as Lord, both Jews and Gentiles affirmed, and that understanding of God is consistent (in Paul’s view) with the God of Israel. Too, being a Christian has always meant joining a with a local, worshiping community, where Scripture is read and interpreted (Stanley Haurwas says Scripture can only be interpreted in community, and we learn to read Scripture from the saints who came before). Removed from such a community, is it possible to call oneself a Christian?
    Becoming a Christian is joining an historical community as well–one that does span 2000 years. Certainly not everything that’s been labeled Christian is necessarily so, but a checkered family history is still family history (just ask the Israelites about that). Certain parts of history we wish were not there, and it’s obvious that the church got majorly derailed through Constantine’s “conversion”and hasn’t recovered fully since. Even despite that, there have been, as you pointed out, pockets and bright spots that have popped up, like weeds, to the point that we can see a continuous community of Christians. We do, like it or not, acquire that family history when we bear the name of Christian–it is at least one motivation for an endeavor that helps future generations of Christians have less to be ashamed about in their family history.

  15. Zack · September 23, 2010

    @Ethan: I think it’s dangerous to take on a stance that directly contradicts what the Bible says, bearing in mind that I’m coming from a straight-up “God-breathed Scriptures” point of view. As such, I do firmly believe that God did purposely CAUSE the Flood, just as the Bible says. I also do NOT believe that it puts any sort of strain on our understanding of God as an unchagable entity to say this is true. He’s always been a just God who, no matter how much He loves us, must punish sin.

    If you consider the lifespans of humans at the time, people had more than enough time to get just as deranged as much of modern society is, if not more so. You could take on the viewpoint that the Flood was a psudo-apocalypse of a sort, if that makes any sense. Wipe out those beyond hope and try again. There’s not enough historical record to disprove this theory, at the very least. We can only guess at just how screwed up the people offed in the Flood really were.

  16. Ethan · September 23, 2010

    Hey Zack! A few points – You think what I’m saying directly contradicts the Bible because your parents (and church, or whoever) taught you that that story was literal, someone taught them that, and so on. That chain doesn’t necessarily go all the way back to the beginning of the story! I once spoke to a rabbi about this and she told me that most Jewish people throughout history have not taken the stories in Genesis to be literal truth. St. Augustine in the 4th century warned people not to insist on the literal truth of the creation stories because it jeopardizes the credibility of Christianity. You can find this paper online…


    Here’s just a general quote that can pertain to something like the Flood or strict, literal Creationism:

    “In matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision, even in such as we may find treated in Holy Scripture, different Interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such a case, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture.”
    (St. Augustine)

    Also, here’s this one:
    “Reckless and incompetent expounders of holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although “they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.”

    This last sentence strikes home to me because I’ve heard people babble on about what an amazing “scientific” document the bible is, when it’s obviously not a scientific text book, nor was it intended to be one!

    The Flood certainly is “an obscure matter far beyond our vision” (quoting the first sentence from the first paragraph of Augustine) – and science (genetics, specifically) can without any doubt confirm that the vast majority of humans (not to mention animals) did not die as recently as 6,000 years ago. This would leave a huge, detectable pattern in people’s genetics today, showing that people were far more related to each other than would be expected assuming no great flood. If you want to read a book on genetics that is easy to understand and very interesting (and doesn’t even go into topics about religion), check out Wells’ “The Journey of Man”

    I am not trying to be mean, but this is really one of those topics that non-Christians rightly either laugh at or are terribly frustrated by Christians who insist on the literalness of the Flood or Creation.

    Also, many Christians don’t even recognize that there are two different creation stories in Genesis. In one, (the 7 Day story) the sun is created, the planets, the sky, etc. etc. and humans are last (on day 6). In the Adam and Eve story, Adam is there before plants and animals are made. Then God creates them, and as God does that he has Adam name them. Compare Genesis 1:11 and Genesis 2:5 (plus a few verses after each of them)

    If we were not conditioned to believe that these stories are literal by *people* (as opposed to scripture which doesn’t directly tell us) we would have no particular reason or even *need* for them to be literal. Their message would be understood to be important, not the story. If you do a little research into oral traditions, almost all cultures have tons of stories that are ridiculous if taken literally but teach important, or even holy (as considered by the culture) lessons.

  17. Chad Holtz · September 24, 2010

    Brian, et al.

    Great conversation. I just wanted to drop a line to say I’ve been following (even if scanning) the convo with each new comment. Sadly, I don’t have the time to fully engage like I normally do (Ethan, talk about some comments!!) But for what it’s worth – hey 🙂


  18. Zack · September 24, 2010

    @Ethan: You’ve gotten to the point where I can’t continue debating on anything but sheer stubbernness, which would be naught but a waste of everyone’s time. Only thing I can comment on is the “two creation stories” thing: I’m well aware that it goes over the event twice, but I always saw it more like the second time went back a bit to dive into more detail. It definitely doesn’t say that God made Adam BEFORE the animals, merely that Adam named them. There could easily be a bunch of unnamed animals waiting around for Adam.

  19. Ethan · September 25, 2010

    @ Zack: lol, thanks for holding back on the stubbornness!! I’m curious to learn more where you’re coming from, if you found anything I said particularly interesting or worthy of thought, and so on. So far does it mostly come down to the fact that you are not willing to question Scripture?

    As for the Genesis question, let me quote it.

    Genesis 2 (verses indicated)
    4 This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created. When the LORD God made the earth and the heavens- 5 and no shrub of the field had yet appeared on the earth [b] and no plant of the field had yet sprung up, for the LORD God had not sent rain on the earth [c] and there was no man to work the ground, 6 but streams [d] came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground- 7 the LORD God formed the man [e] from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

    This clearly says there were no plants and animals when when Adam was created.


    18 The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” 19 Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20 So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds of the air and all the beasts of the field. But for Adam [h] no suitable helper was found.

    This says that Adam needed a helper, so God created the animals, and Adam named them, but none were good helpers. Then Eve was created.

    So it does give different orders of events, which if taken literally (with Genesis 1) contradict one another.

    @ Chad – thanks for following all this. If you don’t have time to respond to everything, perhaps you can weigh in on this quickly. To my understanding, seminaries of mainline denominations (methodist, presbyterian, etc.) routinely teach that some biblical stories are just that -stories, but with a divine message. Or, that the writers had “creative license” in what they wrote. So when the writers of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John have different orders of events in Jesus’ life it doesn’t mean that they are lying or disagreeing with each other, they feel free to shape the chronology in a way that emphasizes their particular message they want to give about Christ, based on their audience or otherwise. Also, it’s my understanding that most seminaries (excepting the Moody Bible Institute or other fundamentalist ones) also teach that the crux of theological research and scholarship shows that the gospels were most likely not written by the actual disciples Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John – and that similarly, some of the epistles were not actually written by Paul but probably someone in a future community trying to adhere to him.

    Somehow, learning things like this doesn’t seem to filter down to the common person, who when they first hear this may have a great deal of discomfort. That is only because we have been taught otherwise for a long time.

    Now back to the main topic of this original post. I think all this does matter because it is related to the question of “what makes a Christian a Christian”? There are many Christians whose claims about matters above are firm doctrine or dogma and are required for belief. Many of the problems with these things are apparent to outsiders, and so it muddles what Christianity is supposed to be about.

  20. Zack · September 26, 2010

    Okay, so some of the wording is a bit odd. The way I see it, though, that hardly matters. The Bible makes it clear that it is the inspired Word of God. The fact that we don’t understand 100% of it could be said to be reasonably expected, as we don’t understand 100% of anything spiritually related while still living on Earth. Questioning the truth of trivial points (or even non-trivial) could only detract from the act of faith. I don’t see as it makes any sense at all to profess faith in God based on the bible and yet refuse to believe that everything it says is true. You can work to understand it better, but coming from the assumption that it contradicts itself is a questionable way to go about it.

    • Ethan · September 26, 2010

      Zack, I only mean that it contradicts itself if taken literally, not that it contradicts itself in what is truly important.

      To me, questioning does not detract from my faith, but adds to it because it makes me think more, pray more, and try to understand spiritual truths more and more!

    • Jonathan · September 26, 2010

      “The Bible makes it clear that it is the inspired Word of God. ”

      I strongly disagree with that. Nothing in the Bible is self-referential to the Bible as we know it today. The Bible wasn’t even put together until hundreds of years after most of the books were written, and decades after the last books were written. If any single book of the Bible claims to have been directly breathed by God, that cannot immediately be extrapolated to all the other books, many of which were not even written when that quote was made. For instance, when Paul wrote to Timothy, there is nothing that indicates that he knew that letter would later become part of “the Bible”, or that other letters such as Jude, 2 Peter, or even the gospel of John would ever be written, much less be lumped along with his letters, the other gospels, and Hebrew scripture as part of a unified “Bible”.

  21. Chad Holtz · September 26, 2010

    I can’t speak for what other seminaries are teaching – I can only share from my own experience at Duke.

    I’m not sure I would say it quite the way you have framed it (the way the Bible is taught). It’s not as easy as simply saying “Duke teaches X about this or Y about that.” There is no “line,” so to speak, that profs must toe, or some statement about the Bible that must be signed off on which then gets force fed to everyone else (liberal, conservative or otherwise).

    What I can say is that when I got here I was surprised to find that the issues you speak of are not issues at all here. Those are secondary (or tertiary) issues that serve only to detract from what the word of God really is. Who really cares who wrote this or that? We have no way of proving definitively any of that anyways so it’s rather pointless to take a stand on any one shore.

    We got the Bible we got. Period. As we are fond of saying at Duke, the Bible is only authoritative in so far as we are “performing the text.” Furthermore, the Bible is rich in story – narrative – meant to shape our imaginations and thus our way of being in the world, in community, and ultimately God’s relation to us. To quote Barth (who is one of my favorites), The Bible…

    ‎”It is not the right human thoughts about God which form the content of the Bible, but the right divine thoughts about men. The Bible tells us not how we should talk with God but what he says to us; not how we find the way to him, but how he has sought and found the way to us.”

    If interested, there is an essay I wrote on my blog about how Scripture is authoritative, or ought to be. That is probably a good insight into Duke theology, as well: http://chadholtz.net/2009/02/09/how-is-scripture-authoritative/

    • Ethan · October 1, 2010

      Chad, I didn’t mean to imply that Duke might have a theological line that everyone might have to toe. But I also couldn’t imagine that some of the ways of trying to understand the bible that I was alluding to *wouldn’t* be taught and appreciated by at least some professors there.

      I completely agree that questions of who wrote what book of the bible and so forth aren’t all that important, especially compared to the main thrust of the bible. That said, people who *aren’t* open to those types of ideas or ways of trying to understand the bible are probably the people who need to be reminded about this. Sometimes they overreact when such topics are brought up because they feel it is threatening their understanding of scripture or even their faith. Certainly that has to be taken seriously and be taken into consideration with love and gentleness when bringing up something challenging like that.

      On the other hand, I do think questions like the ones I brought up are *extremely* important in that they are related to very urgent (for many people) questions of how to interpret the bible. I think it can matter to someone like a gay Christian if parts of the NT that are very negative toward homosexuality really were written by Paul or not, and if we have a good understanding of homosexuality at that period of time (i.e. was what was being written about about actually equivalent to today’s case of homosexual folks in committed relationships?) – and even if it *was* Paul that wrote it, is it possible that he could be wrong? Is it possible that human weaknesses, prejudice, and cultural norms of 2,000 years ago crept into the NT a little (not a ton, but just a little)? Enough to make a huge difference for certain people, though? . These sorts of questions seem to me to be less likely to be considered by people who aren’t even willing to admit that Matthew did not write the book of Matthew, for instance. There may certainly be exceptions, but on the whole I think what I am saying holds true.

      I even have personal experience with this topic. I lived in an intentional community, and after about a year and a half there, my girlfriend and I felt it was the right point in our relationship to start spending the night at each other’s houses. I definitely didn’t handle it perfectly, but certainly the community acted with a level of anger, malice, and righteous questioning of my faith that was inappropriate and contrary to love. I calmly tried to have a real discussion on it, pointing out things like differences in culture, how do we know that the things that were written about this topic really pertain to the present when marriage now happens so much later than in Jewish culture (child marriages), that sometimes beginning to explore sexuality can be healthy and actually prevents greater temptations, and so forth.

      Anyway, thanks for your involvement in your post. I started reading your article on authority and am finding it very thought provoking. I will share comments and questions on it later!

  22. Chad Holtz · September 26, 2010

    While the Bible may claim to be the inspired word of God we need to be careful before we attach OUR definitions of what that inspiration MUST look like. What does it mean that the the story of God’s redemptive plan for all of creation is fragmented, contradicts itself in many spots (it does), is multi-vocal (it is), and doesn’t shy away from its warts? If we are going to understand how God “inspires” something we must take the Bible as it is, not how we wish it would be.

    A great book on this matter is Peter Enns’ “Inspiration and Incarnation” where he argues in the same way Jesus is fully divine and human, so too are the Scriptures (fully divine and fully human) We often forget the human part.

  23. David Alexander · October 3, 2010

    Hello, Brian and Ethan and all,

    responding to Ethan’s invitation I read through the conversation you all were having and though I would comment on a few things, mainly reacting to some things Ethan wrote. I find myself largely in agreement with Brian as far as I understand your perspective, though I think that say St. Patrick of Ireland for instance might seem like a monstrous beast to you both because for him the lines are much more a long the lines of the New Testament, so radical as to be a new birth, and you would be alienated by his language about hell and the desserts of sin.

    Ethan: “Is it enough to love Jesus and follow his commands (what he himself asked of people)?”

    I think there is a fundamentally different approach underlying what you convey and what I understand about the gospel. I do not pretend to know who ultimately will be saved but the teaching of Jesus and the New Testament as a whole is clear. There is no one righteous, no not one. If one breaks one of the commands of the Law he is guilty of breaking all. I hope to see Ghandi in heaven but I don’t expect to see him there because of his own righteousness. In fact the real Ghandi of real flesh and blood history, not the manipulable Ghandi of legend, had his young, married female relatives do a holy strip tease in front of him. How are we to square that with the faithful, holy One? But Ghandi nevertheless was a great man and reflects many aspects of Christ. But why should God settle for imperfection. If God has mercy on Ghandi it is not because Ghandi deserved it. The real Ghandi of history also said he did not think he would use the same tactics of nonviolence satyigrapha (I am probably spelling that wrong) against Hitler. Could it be that Ghandi’s political success was only possible because of the seeds sown by Christians, though he discounts them, in recent history, which left the ghost of a conscience in the British Empire vulnerable to pangs of conscience. Not long before Ghandi, William Wilberforce had led the British Empire to abolish the slave trade and had handpicked the successor who went on to have them abolish slavery in the entire empire. That they still had colonies and that they still subjected the populations to indignities (as well as improving their lives- the views of the colonial legacy are often mixed among many former colonies because there are obvious great gains that they learned from the British, etc.) It seems more than likely to me that the conscience of the British people, having proved responsive and capable of reform not long before on key aspects would be in a state of perhaps unusual sensitiveness to confrontation about its remaining contradictions and injustices on this score. It is worth noting that Ghandi’s boycott of British cotton impoverished the spinners of British cotton though they could hardly be considered as the authors of British imperialism, but nevertheless the British poor folk affected by the boycott resonated with Ghandi’s stance. (Reinhold Niebhur, originally a pacifist, has a very interesting analysis of Ghandi in Moral Man and Immoral Society). The whole point of this is that I sense in your stance, Ethan, a general propensity to leap out of the skin and out of history which is reflected not only in your view of Christian history but also perhaps in your view of historical figures like Ghandi.

    You point to a generalized “love”, a transreligious love, and say that the details don’t matter but that raises the question why call yourself a Christian then? Why if a general, free floating love is the highest identify in such a concentrated way with only one particular avenue of the expression of that love? Doesn’t that imply an unnecessarily divisive principle in identifying with one particular tradition rather than just with love? Why not call yourself a love-ite or something along that lines? I prefer to be called a Christian not only because of my desire to imitate what I see as good in the life of Jesus, which I can only begin to assume to know based on my measure of confidence in the Biblical witness, but also because I believe that in the real flesh and blood life, death and resurrection of Christ is embodied the highest and ultimate, so that there is not a detail and history detached principle of love above him. You stress the Lordship of Christ in a way when you speak of doing what he says and in so far as you try to live it in your life but you downplay his Saviorhood.

    Both you and Brian appear to adopt the stance of Stanley Hauerwas and his revered mentor regarding “Constantinianism” but this appears to me also to be largely ahistorically rooted as well. Protestantism and its derivatives seem chronically beset by issues with history. Did you know for instance that the pope basically excommunicated a Roman emperor ninety years after Constantine’s reign, refusing to allow him the sacraments until he repented for a slaughter in Thessalonica? This does not fit well with a view of a compromised church since Constantine. The truth seems to be much more one of a back and forth tension through the years between the religious leaders and the political leaders and sometimes a wedding of the two, not always in a non-salutary way. (Ghandi and Wilberforce’s use of politics are examples of salutary uses of political power, it seems to me).

    You regard Jesus Christ and St. Francis as radical breaks, Jesus from the Old Testament and St. Francis from the Catholic church, but this ignores or condescends toward their own views of themselves in relation to the Old Testament and to the Catholic church. And that the Catholic church accepted St. Francis and his new order is a sign of the on-going spiritual vitality of the church and a sign that St. Francis was a fruit of the mysterium corpus and not some transhistorical anomaly outside of and split from it.

    I thought that Ethan’s point here was astute and good. Brian, you seemed to downplay this too much and Ethan brought that out. “On the other hand, Jesus *was* about opening the gates of the Kingdom to people and he *strongly* criticized those who claimed to be entering but weren’t letting others enter. Christianity *does* claim to provide the way to heaven – to union with God – so it seems unfair to completely sweep the question (or at least related questions and implications) under the rug. This is especially not something to be swept under the rug for people who are *not* Christians. To non-Christians, this is a big deal for sure. It is easy to say that God decides, but that is not a complete way to address the issue at hand in my view. “

    I thought this point was weak, however, Ethan: “Seems like he would have some pretty important things to say if he bothered to show up in a big crowd after being resurrected. (this whole bit on resurrection is a different topic so I will put it aside)”. I think it is weak because it is an argument from absence, the weakest kind of argument. In fact Jesus is reported as saying some vital things such as in his personal encounter with Peter but the main point one simply might conclude is that he manifested his resurrection life in clarity to his disciples as the first fruits and firstborn so that they might testify to that one supreme confirmation of his overwhelming message which was about who he was and who God was and was not divorcable as well into an essence from the historical sequence of events in his life which demonstrated and enacted God’s mercy and sealed the authority of all he had said and done in the Father’s name. It was not until the Pentecost, after the witness to his Resurrection, that the Holy Spirit fell on the disciples as well. I do not think one can do without the Resurrection and have the Holy Spirit.

    One claimed that you made, Ethan, that I found rather at odds with what is knowable about Jesus is that we ought to emphasize what Jesus emphasized and do what he did, implying that he did not emphasize above all his identity. But I cannot think of more emphatic statements of Christ’s emphasis than those he made about himself. And these are not just isolated and small but pervade the entire Biblical witness about Christ.

    In what way are you confronted by what is in Scripture? In speaking about symbol are you doing so in such a way as to release an inexhaustible principle of equivocation that allows you to endlessly fit the Scriptures to your changing judgments and moods? If you can name no point of external authority for you is this then a religion of man and not a religion of God? Jesus says, “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life…”( a pitfall you clearly have not fallen into) “…These are the Scriptures that testify about me yet you refuse to come to me to have life…” ( you would not say that the Old Testament Scriptures testify about Jesus, would you?) “……How can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God?” (You praise Ghandi and accept praise, perhaps, for the good that you do, but when are you ever confronted by the God that is wholly other? How can one claim to follow Jesus and be schooled by him if “Jesus” is just an endlessly malleable construct? How can one please the real God if it is all at one’s arbitration what that God is? Perhaps I am being unjust to you on this point. I struggle to discern the coherence of your view on this point. At what point do you stop judging what God must be and allow the God who is to judge you?)

    One last point. Ethan, you talked about myth and the value of symbol and I do not wish to downplay the value of this point. There is certainly good truths that can be discerned both in myth and in works of fiction, etc. There is value as well in discerning the symbolic in Scripture. But one need not reject the general facticity and reliableness of the Scriptures to acknowledge this element in Scriptures. I cite C.S. Lewis on this point, not because I think you regard him as an authority but because he is an example of one who combines the two. Lewis was finally converted to Christianity after a conversation with J.R.R. Tolkein in which Tolkein drove home to him the point that in Christ all that is best, all that is noble and good in the myths is combined in one person and Jesus Christ is the true myth. Lewis never gave up this point. He wrote of the importance of being mythopathic. But that does not necessarily equate to a rejection of the essential reliability of the Gospel witnesses. Minor differences as well in the Gospel narratives do not really cast doubt on the essential verity of the gospel account just as minor discrepancies in testimonies given to police often need not negate the formation of a valid and reliable picture of what happened overall.

    In all this, please forgive me if I have written to any of you too harshly or conveyed to you anything other than love.

  24. brianjgorman · October 4, 2010

    Hey All (and david, thanks for joining in the conversation!),
    I’ve posted my further thoughts: https://brianjgorman.wordpress.com/2010/10/02/cross-community-new-creation/

    Sorry it’s taken so long, but I’ve really enjoyed all of you who’ve posted on this entry…feel free to keep at it!

  25. Ethan · October 10, 2010

    Brian – glad to hear your new post is up. I will leave comments sometime soon-ish!

    David – we have a long history of dialog that is not very fruitful (we disagree on a lot of things, and I often feel you do not understand my viewpoints and project your views and interpretations of liberalism onto them). But, I will respond. Each section will correspond to one of your paragraphs, with the St. Patrick one being first, “I think there is a fundamental difference” being second and so on.

    1 – St. Patrick
    Try me. I really don’t have enough info to tell if you are right or not.

    2 – “I think there is a fundamentally different approach”

    a. Have you read Gandhi’s autobiography? He is very aware of his sin, even calls it that, and looks to God for mercy and forgiveness. It seems perhaps foolish to me that you are writing so much about him when you have read so few works by he himself and those who were close to him. It is like non-Christians criticizing Christianity when they haven’t even read about Jesus!

    b. Gandhi and the Holy Strip Tease. Certainly very strange and troubling. Many of his followers and coworkers had issues with that. It appears, however, that he did remain abstinent (even in his marital relations) as of age 36, which is before his weird tests of his self-control started. Read the wikipedia section on Bramacharya in Gandhi’s entry. This puts in some key context. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mohandas_Karamchand_Gandhi.

    c. MLK Jr. in all likelihood had at least one affair. Does this cancel out everything he did and stood for? I say “likely” because he wasn’t caught in the act on tape or anything like that, but there are many sources that deal with this subject. See http://marriage.about.com/od/politics/p/martincoretta.htm. The “Bearing the Cross” source seems to quote him directly talking about an affair. I am not saying I’m absolutely right or absolutely certain, but for our levels of knowledge, it points heavily in the direction that he did. As I point out in the point below, you need some fact checking on Ghandhi.

    d.) Ghandhi and advice on nonviolence with Hitler. You seem to be wrong on this count. The following is all a quote from Wikipedia (which is referenced with real sources):

    In accordance with these views, in 1940, when invasion of the British Isles by Nazi Germany looked imminent, Gandhi offered the following advice to the British people (Non-Violence in Peace and War):[57]
    “I would like you to lay down the arms you have as being useless for saving you or humanity. You will invite Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini to take what they want of the countries you call your possessions…If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourselves, man, woman, and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them.”
    In a post-war interview in 1946, he offered a view at an even further extreme:
    “Hitler,” Gandhi said, “killed five million Jews. It is the greatest crime of our time. But the Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife. They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs… It would have aroused the world and the people of Germany… As it is they succumbed anyway in their millions.”[58]
    However, Gandhi realised that this level of nonviolence required incredible faith and courage, which he believed everyone did not possess. He therefore advised that everyone need not keep to nonviolence, especially if it were used as a cover for cowardice:
    “Gandhi guarded against attracting to his satyagraha movement those who feared to take up arms or felt themselves incapable of resistance. ‘I do believe,’ he wrote, ‘that where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.'”[59]
    “At every meeting I repeated the warning that unless they felt that in non-violence they had come into possession of a force infinitely superior to the one they had and in the use of which they were adept, they should have nothing to do with non-violence and resume the arms they possessed before. It must never be said of the Khudai Khidmatgars that once so brave, they had become or been made cowards under Badshah Khan’s influence. Their bravery consisted not in being good marksmen but in defying death and being ever ready to bare their breasts to the bullets.”[60]
    Gandhi also came under some political fire for his criticism of those who attempted to achieve independence through more violent means. According to a report in the Frontline magazine, he did plead several times for the commutation of the death sentence of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev including a personal visit on 19 March 1931 and in a letter to the Viceroy on the day of their execution, pleading fervently for the commutation.[61]

    e.) You get into some weird paradoxes when you ask if what Gandhi did was only possible because of the seeds of conscience in Christians. What does it mean in the first place that the British East India Company, with Britian being a “Christian nation” so exploited the Indian people? Is it really fair to belittle what Gandhi did (at least that sounds like what you’re trying to do) by saying it was only b/c the (hypocritcal by their actions) British have a conscience because they are Christian? Do only Christians have a conscience? Are only Christians (who aren’t even unanimous on the topic) open to nonviolence, or affected by people nonviolently suffering against oppression? Paul says “do no harm” and “it is not possible to do good by doing evil”. If the British empire did help some people while selflishly extracting resources from India, does that make it right? Would Jesus not condemn them? Even the famous mobs (Al Capone era) in the U.S. had charities and soup kitchens to help the poor, and as a result they were popular with the poor. The Taliban provides many people in Afghanistan food and education, as long as families send their students to receive a Taliban education! Just because someone does some good, doesn’t mean that overall they are doing good when they are doing evil in secret.

    f.) I take exception to what you say “The whole point of this is that I sense in your stance, Ethan, a general propensity to leap out of the skin and out of history which is reflected not only in your view of Christian history but also perhaps in your view of historical figures like Ghandi.” That is something to say from someone who has key facts wrong!

    g.) British cotton – I do not know if his boycott “impoverished” British cotton spinners. I do not know the details of this, but certainly Britian was and is a much more prosperous country than India, and Brits had many more opportunities to find other means and other markets. Maybe it was foolish for the British cotton industry to expand so much based on their trade with India, especially when it was an unequal partnership to begin with. People take risks when they do business, so although I have sympathy for anyone affected by a bad economy, a boycott, etc., I think this takes a back seat to the other issues we are discussing. India was being economically exploited by Britian – it is not fair to critique India for fighting this nonviolently.

    h.) Constantianism: Please do tell me what is wrong with my view of Christian history and the idea behind Constaninianism? Isn’t one of the very ideas behind the New Monasticism movement that when Christianity became an Empire, monasticism started as a protest against that, and a way to renew and live out Christianity? The Benedictines and Trappists might not even be around today if it weren’t for that. (there will be more on this later, as I see in final edits)

    Paragraph 3 – “You point to a generalized love”

    You raise some pertinent questions that definitely pertain to my life! When many feel my beliefs put me outside of the Christian faith, and when I see that so much of Christianity goes against love and what Jesus taught, I do wonder whether or not to call myself a Christian. When I do, it certainly means something different than many would take it to mean. Yes, I do think that love transcends religion. Religion is man-made, God is not. All religions are influenced by people and are not perfect. The Bible must be understood and interpreted. People make rules and creeds, not God, and so on. I do attribute perfection to Jesus. I do believe that he is an authentic witness to God’s nature and character, especially revealing that in a practical and consistent way that was not done in the OT. I do think that Christianity has a lot of the modern-day equivalent of Phariseeism in it, and that it is divisive. God is love, and that to me is the highest principal. It is not free-floating, liberal, or “soft” because I believe that love is what Jesus reveals it to be in all his teachings and parables about the Kingdom, and so on. We have a different view of Jesus’ Saviorhood. I think that his love and the transformation of the Spirit bring about salvation, one that is not just private but also has the potential to bring about God’s Kingdom on earth, like we pray in the “Our Father”. This is why he is the Savior, b/c if people really surrendered to him and what he stood for, mankind would be saved – and in a lot of practical ways the world would be a drastically different place.

    Paragraph 4 – “Both you and Brian…”

    I do believe that there is a back and forth in the level of corruption of the church and in particular instances throughout history. I do think that the church did substantially and in a way permanently remove itself from Jesus’ injunction that “You shall not lord it over them, like the Gentile leaders do.” Constantiniasm is merely a very profound shift and poignant example to point to, not an all-encompassing one time event, although I do see it as a very major event. Does it not mean something if Constantine’s conversion was only to try to unite his empire under a common religion for purposes of consolidating his rule, not because he actually wanted to follow Jesus and believed in him? Certainly there is no real debate over this fact. If you do doubt it, just do some research!

    Paragraph 5 – “You regard Jesus Christ…”

    St. Francis was a radical break. He disagreed with the Catholic Church on key issues, one of them being nonviolence. I have heard it phrased that he was content to keep doing the things he was doing if the church wasn’t going to interfere. Just because it did not interfere and accepted him in word if not in practice does not mean that the Catholic Church truly accepted his views. What he taught was different than what the Church taught. I know many people who are Catholics and have extremely significant spiritual vitality that I look up to and admire, but most of these people (there are exceptions, but few) do not believe the Church is infallible and do disagree significantly with it on a host of topics. I’m not saying all Catholics are not following Christ, but I think the Church Leadership as a whole is pretty significantly deviant, and the bible says that leaders are held to a higher standard.

    Read about another difference of St. Francis here:

    I quote one paragraph from this link here: (from Benedictines involved in interreligious dialog)

    Here St. Francis of Assisi enlightens our path. His biographer, Thomas of Celano, sites the practice of the Poverello to treat sacred texts with great respect, even those from secular authors. A brother asked him one day why he so carefully collected the writings even of the pagans, where the Name of the Savior was not present. He answered: “My son, it is because we find in them the letters that spell out the glorious Name of Our Lord God. All that is good in these writings belongs neither to the pagans nor to anyone else, but to God alone, from whom we receive every good.”(7) A particular good does not belong to us. We do not possess the truth. Then we can “rejoice in the truth”(8) that we find in others and purify ourselves of an exaggerated attachment to our truths of the faith.
    (Francis’ text ends at the 7…the rest is from the Benedictine author writing the paper)

    Paragraph 6 – “I thought that Ethan’s…”

    What do you make of Romans 3 where Paul says that some Gentiles have the Law written on their hearts, and are saved without knowing God explicitly? The bible makes it clear that it is the Spirit that writes God’s love on/into peoples’ hearts.

    Paragraph 7&8 “One claim that you made…” combined with “In what way are you confronted…” (I am treating these paragraphs together)

    I don’t see what you mean here. Obviously I am deeply wrestling and impacted by what Scripture says. Because I understand it differently than you doesn’t mean that I am not doing these things. Am I just making up stuff about symbol, or is there real value in this, and historical learning about the gospel, such as that which leads NT Wright to think that Jesus’ Second Coming is not literal but simply reflects 1st Century thought about Jesus being glorified? (This is from the book you gave to Jim Carpenter). Many of the verses you quote above are what Jesus said to the Pharisees who had a closed interpretation and who were missing the spirit and real truth of what he was saying: mercy, justice, love. Jesus himself says these things about mercy, justice, and love. In an attitude of love and respect, I daresay that these verses may apply to you more than to me!

    Paragraph 9 – “One last point…”

    I agree that in Jesus is all that is best, all that is noble and good, and that Jesus is the true myth. That is what I am trying to say! I believe the gospel is essentially reliable, I just think that the assumptions and humanity that are a part of them, written 2000 years ago, are not taken into account by many Christians today!


    I also ask for forgiveness if I have been too harsh or unloving.

    I will reply to Brian’s new post when I make the time!

  26. David Alexander · October 14, 2010


    first I want to affirm your sincere focus on love and I want to declare that if you feel in your conscience that our discussions are unfruitful you need not feel in any way duty bound to continue. I also want to make clear what I meant when I wrote, “Jesus says, “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life…”( a pitfall you clearly have not fallen into) …”

    because it seems you may have misconstrued my aside as evidenced when you wrote: Obviously I am deeply wrestling and impacted by what Scripture says. Because I understand it differently than you doesn’t mean that I am not doing these things.

    I simply meant that you do not study the Old Testament because you think that you possess eternal life by it, a point I thought it safe to assume we agreed on. I was not saying that you do not diligently study the Scriptures. This was an aside that apparently drew fire. Another is an aside I made about Ghandi. You rightly pointed out that it was inaccurate. In fact the source which I drew from is rather reliable ,quotes from Ghandi in a book compiled by his friend C.F. Andrews, and trenchantly analyzed by one of the greatest religious thinkers of the last century, Reinhold Niebuhr but I misconstrued when it treated Ghandi’s support of “the War” and his subsequent statements which appear for all the world like rationalizations- it was not talking about WWII which had not occurred yet when the book was first published. In any case I am mired in a discussion about Ghandi when it was not intended as the major thrust of my reply, though that is fine if you do wish to discuss him. I do not wish this to degenerate into a self-defense, or to make you feel attacked. You seem to take my criticisms as attacks which I can understand to an extent but I must assert that when I asked you what is I think my biggest question to you in Paragraph 3 I may rightly claim that it is in a spirit of love and respect and that I do not mean it as an attack. I am still not discerning in what you say the full manner of your exegesis and my questions in that sense are honestly put. In any case, we are men and a little jockeying is not a bad thing I think. Oh for a little raucous debate! I wanted to write the above because in formulating responses to you I was getting rather long winded about peripheral issues, and degenerating into a self-defense. I would like to respond only partially here and answer some of the omitted points at a later time, God-willing. (By the way, I think your neat divisions in your response rather nifty.) Okay, here are some thoughts I wrote in response:

    d.) Ghandhi and advice on nonviolence with Hitler. You seem to be wrong on this count.

    I have read a book setting forth the teachings of Ghandi, in his own
    words, divided into various categories, as well as other articles and biographies of his life, mostly adulatory. My purpose in writing about
    Ghandi was not to denigrate him, but to denigrate the making of him
    into a myth to be used against the reality based distinctness of good doctrine. The making of a myth is accomplished only by a blurring of reality. It strikes me that many of the founders of world religions had a personal morality that fell beneath that of the common level of those in their own geographic regions. I am against lieing in religion and it is a marked tendency in much religion. (I think of the Pharisee as saying “Watch only your doctrine”, in distinction to Paul’s “Watch your life and doctrine closely..”, and the liberal and/or Sadduccee saying “Watch only your life”). I acknowledged Ghandi’s greatness in my first reply and I meant it, (though I agree with Jesus’ words that no one is good but God, so Ghandi doesn’t make the cut- so maybe that is a rather mitigated greatness) and more so the greatness of God in His Providence in using Ghandi. I also acknowledge the greatness of MLK, despite his having had an orgy with four women the night before his assassination, but more so I acknowledge the greatness of God’s Providence in using MLK, and likewise I acknowledge the greatness of the Old Testament, but more so God’s providence as narrated in the Old Testament. The gory details of the OT, etc. I do not think are real threats to a Christian life built on the Rock. Ghandi’s claim that he would have accepted Jesus but for British Christians is often taken, to good effect as a remonstrance against the sinful behavior of Christians, and the innocence of Ghandi’s assertion is assumed and perhaps I am irked unduly by having heard this too many times. But I am not at sure that Ghandi’s assertion was entirely innocent. Ghandi’s writings evidence deep influence by the teachings of Jesus as recorded in the New Testament. You attest too
    that Ghandi confessed frankly struggles with sin and I don’t deny it. Believe it or not, I revere Ghandi, though I am not a pacifist. Nor do I claim greater success than him in my struggles. Far from it. But he chose a different way to deal with them than the open arms of Christ reaching to him in the gospel. Who am I to judge Ghandi in any ultimate sense? Ultimately it may be he who is in heaven and I who am in hell (unless only those who believe in hell go to hell as some seem to believe.) I do not deny the possibility from what I understand from Scripture, though I do deny that it will be any other way than through the blood of Christ that Ghandi will be in heaven. Why should God allow anything impure in heaven, and yet no one is good but God? But I do know that in the New Testament Jesus radically rejects the sufficiency of what we admire as good works (which is a whole different level than merely siding with the oppressed, with the Indians against the British, for example) and when he is called merely a good teacher he rejects the underlying judgment that all that matters is that people love him and obey him when he says no one is good but God. He rejects that it does not matter what people think of him, how people define him, what their doctrine of him is. If it is true that no one is good but God as Jesus claims then to say that all that matters is that we love Jesus and obey his commands is to say that it does not matter that we are not good. But of course it does matter. I think what the Ghandi myth usage implies is that our goodness is enough, a view which characterizes Jesus as too radical. It is not enough, though he values and loves it when people like you and Ghandi strive to do the good. He weeps when the wise young ruler turns away. It is not enough that he be cherished as a good teacher and obeyed. He wants his followers to know him. Ghandi as a symbol for the sufficiency of work and an identity of self as loving is a false myth. That is my main point about him. The same can be said I think about the use of Albert Schweitzer, and probably innumerous others throughout history.

    The point about Ghandi’s position on Hitler was an aside and is not central to my point and was made in support of a point in any case that you acknowledge. Nevertheless, it was based on a reliable source, though I misconstrued which war Ghandi supported. It is based on quotes from Ghandi in a book by Ghandi’s friend C.F. Andrews, and the reported context of the quotes by Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the most trenchant American religious thinkers in modern history in his Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932): (p. P. 242-3; 246-247). It is worth noting here that immediately after Niebuhr’s sections dealing with Ghandi’s nonviolent teachings in a very measured way, he discusses nonviolent resistance in relation to the emancipation of the “Negro” and commends it as the greatest hope for the Negro. It is worth mentioning that Martin Luther King Jr. referred more often to the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr on himself than he did to Ghandi’s influence and that he quoted him in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Some of the quotes of Ghandi: “So long as I love under a system of government based upon force and voluntarily partook of the many facilities and privileges it created for me, I was bound to help that government to the extent of my ability when it was engaged in war…My position regarding that government is totally different today and hence I should not voluntarily participate in its wars” (pg. 238 of C.F. Andrews, Mahatma Ghandi’s Ideas, p. 238.) Niebuhr writes, “…while justifying his support of England during the War, he declared: “Non-violence works in a most mysterious manner. Often man’s actions defy analysis in terms of nonviolence; equally often his actions may bear the appearance of violence when he is absolutely non-violent in the highest sense of the term, and is subsequently found to be so. All that I can claim for my conduct is that I was, in that instance cited, actuated in the interest of non-violence. There was no thought of sordid national or other interests.” Niebuhr writes following the quote, “What Mr. Ghandi is really saying in these words is that even violence is justified if it proceeds from perfect moral goodwill.” That quote probably doesn’t give an adequate picture of Niebuhr’s analysis which is in one of the most important works on pacifism and social justice in the 20th century and which is hardly to be neglected by any serious proponent of pacifism today, especially Americans. Niebuhr did not end up a pacifist as is evidenced in this book, but he migrated from pacifism. The most intelligent pacifists it is to be presumed will know how to answer his arguments.

    e.) First, I do not believe in Christian nation-states and never speak of Christian nations. I found it bemusing to hear the title Letter to a Christian Nation. There is the case of people groups the majority of whom call themselves Christians such as Assyrians and the British at least at the time before and leading up to Ghandi’s age. But ethnic identity as a Christian does not often equate to being a Christian in the New Testament sense or in any commonsense sense. I do however believe in a kind of corporate conscience of people groups and I think it matters for instance to the present conscience of the United States that its leaders turned a blind eye to Rwanda, and that its leaders supported the Iraq War and torture, and that the current popular president opposed almost solitarily the Born Alive Infant’s Protection Act, etc. I think these have bearing on more than just the individual and just as there are acts which harden the conscience of a people, there can also be revivals and restorations among a people that soften the conscience and lead to repentance and reform from corporate sins, whether the population is substantially Christian or not. Someone who helped me to think about this more was Thomas Merton in his writing about race relations in the USA and how the fate and conscience of blacks and whites in America is tied together in a specific historically conditioned way. The key idea is that history matters. From what I have read, the British at the time of Ghandi were a long way down the road of secularism. But the children of Christian believers who have lived according to Christian teachings are often not as likely to wander far from their parents’ way of life, at least in a few generations, and are likely to still have a kind of attraction and corporate memory of the way of life that they embraced even if the doctrine and beliefs have been gutted and all that remains is the outer shell.

    Jesus came full of grace and that is his posture toward the living to which he beckons but he certainly would condemn false gold and if that is all the British were, there go the British. He would also condemn Ghandi if taken on his own merits though Ghandi for the most part reminds us of the good. But I smell what seems to me something fishy in a black and white approach to the British and Ghandi and the Indians. The two were more intwined than that. For instance, Ghandi’s success was not entirely his own but also the success of some of the well disposed British leaders working in consort with him. History seems to have been more complex than the mythic like story I am most familiar with about Ghandi.

    h.) Constantianism: I am simply saying that the view of Constantianism seems to have little to do with the reality of the Middle Ages. The language of Empire is mythic and that is about the weakest point in the “marks of the New Monasticism” and it is constructed on ignorance of the Middle Ages. Where is this monolithic, draconian power stretching from the age of Constantine to the present? It is an imaginary construct by those who imagine that to be a Christian we must always avoid political responsibility and the weight of dealing with reality in this important dimension. The Body of Christ in time is not realistically defined as lethally compromised by capitulation to secular power. A good history of the Middle Ages such as Religion and the Rise of Western Culture by Christopher Dawson shows that on the contrary Christian history in the Middle Ages consisted of a continuous succcession of dynamic missionary movements, about one in every century, many times with missionary successes being subsequently swallowed up by barbarian invasions but not before a new missionary movement had gone out from the place where Christianity had put down roots before being swept away. Other times conquerors were converted by their Christian subjects. I suspect that ideas like Constantinianism simply become place holders for prejudices, excuses for not bothering to actually learn history. Much of Protestant thought, and also secular thought, on this score is characterized by a kind of uninformed bigotry or at best a complacency with a loop out of history at various beginning points, some at the time of the primitive church, some at Augustine, some prior to Christianity, and a loop back starting with Martin Luther or the Anabaptists or the Renaissance, etc. Or just hopskotching from epiphany points without any discernable continuity in history, without any plan of God discernably unfolding in time.

  27. David Alexander · October 17, 2010

    Ethan, here is some further response to other points you made in your response:

    Paragraph 6- I believe you are referring to Romans 2:14 when you talk about Gentiles who do not have the law. I think you are incorrect in thinking it says that these Gentiles are saved, taken in the larger context of the argument. In 3:20 he says, “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.” 2:14 certainly does not mean that the Gentiles with the law written on their heart are without sin, as it says that sometimes their thoughts accuse them. No doubt sometimes the accusations are right. God’s embrace of the finite and specific in the gospel of Jesus Christ is not captured adequately in talking about it as merely symbol. Though symbol is part of human understanding and is embraced in the Bible it does not constitute the whole. This embrace of the finite and specific is indeed divisive but it is a legimate divisiveness, and in Christ is the true Rock of unity, not in a symbolic extrapolation. Jesus is perfect because what he taught was not from man but from God.

    Paragraph 7& 8- N. T. Wright does not deny the second coming in the sense that he affirms Jesus’ ressurected body will be at the center of the new earthand that all wil be changed.. I think most,  orthodox Christians especially, have not imagined that heaven is somewhere out there in the cosmos like a planet though they know well the spatio-temporal descriptions of Jesus ascension and return. A.T. Robinson in his book Honest to God made a big deal about the unscientific nature of these images but it seems to method imputation of an over literalist definition of the second coming to tradional belief is overextended. I think N. T. Wright is asserting this in refuting the thesis of Albert Schweitzer and others who contended that Jesus was mistaken about the Second Coming. He is saying rather they are mistaken about early Christian belief by taking an overliteralist assumption of what the early Christians meant.   

    • Ethan · October 20, 2010


      I’m sorry you felt much of what I wrote was attacking you. I want to assure you that I was not, and that any sort of attitude going along with attacking was not present in me when writing. That said, I would definitely say that I was frustrated by the large number of asides and factual inconsistencies. It is easy to get caught up in asides, and then it is even more frustrating when those have significant factual errors.

      I understand what you are saying about Gandhi as a false myth of not needing God – or relying on human strength alone. I do think, however, that Gandhi would emphatically (very much so) affirm the need for God, forgiveness, and redemption. That was my only point. It sounded to me that merely mentioning Gandhi meant that forgiveness wasn’t necessary.

      Gandhi’s views on cooperating with the government did change over time. That was one thing that puzzled me at first as I read his autobiography. He was committed to ahimsa but would support his government in war. Granted, once it was as a paramedic unit, equally serving the injured on both sides. He did, however, change his views over time. In fact, in the front cover of his books (at least the ones I have) he wrote that his views changed over time, as they would for anyone who is growing and testing their views against reality especially in the level of struggles he was. He said in the case of differences in his belief, it’s always safest to go with his latest beliefs. (All that was a paraphrase)

      Constantiniasm – I understand that you take this to be a sweeping, overexaggerated view of the Church in the middle ages. I mentioned before that I do agree that the faithfulness of the church ebbs and flows. But in general it cannot be argued that the church did not wield great worldly power during this time, and in addition to good things it did, wielded this power in a very worldly way.

      The main thing that I did not understand and definitely did feel I needed to defend myself on wasn’t your quote about eternal life from the Old Testament but rather that entire paragraph about letting God judge me instead of me judge God. I think we view these things very differently. I do not see myself judging God but as truly trying to understand God, to continually be knocking on the door, searching and knocking at the door of jesus.

      For reference, this was the paragraph. If you really mean that, I will strongly disagree – but you are entitled to your opinion. Whether you were too harsh or not is for your conscience!

      In what way are you confronted by what is in Scripture? In speaking about symbol are you doing so in such a way as to release an inexhaustible principle of equivocation that allows you to endlessly fit the Scriptures to your changing judgments and moods? If you can name no point of external authority for you is this then a religion of man and not a religion of God? Jesus says, “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life…”( a pitfall you clearly have not fallen into) “…These are the Scriptures that testify about me yet you refuse to come to me to have life…” ( you would not say that the Old Testament Scriptures testify about Jesus, would you?) “……How can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God?” (You praise Ghandi and accept praise, perhaps, for the good that you do, but when are you ever confronted by the God that is wholly other? How can one claim to follow Jesus and be schooled by him if “Jesus” is just an endlessly malleable construct? How can one please the real God if it is all at one’s arbitration what that God is? Perhaps I am being unjust to you on this point. I struggle to discern the coherence of your view on this point. At what point do you stop judging what God must be and allow the God who is to judge you?)

      The last thing, and most on-topic is the Blood of Jesus. I see this as a dogma that has lost much of its true spirit and meaning. Someone like Gandhi threw himself at the mercy of God (based on his own writings) but yes, he did not believe specifically in the Atonement by Blood on the Cross. Neither do I. That seems like a major difference in our thoughts and views.

      What say you – shall we close this dialog (after you respond of course…I’m not taking away your ability for a final response). I need to get my thoughts together for the new post!


  28. Jonathan · October 22, 2010

    ” I also acknowledge the greatness of MLK, despite his having had an orgy with four women the night before his assassination”

    I’m pretty certain that’s a false accusation. I’ve heard reported that he may have had an affair the night before the assassination, possibly even with two different women (in different places, at different times, not as some sort of orgy), but to claim that someone had a four-women orgy without having a LOT of certainly in that accusation smacks of sensationalism and slander.

  29. Ken Howard · October 25, 2010

    Hi Brian,
    I appreciate your comments on zoencarnate, and also here.
    If you want to look further into what’s in Paradoxy, you can check out the website and/or facebook page for the book:

    Website: listed above
    FB page: http://www.facebook.com/practicingparadoxy


  30. Pingback: On Not Voting « Restoring Shalom
  31. David Alexander · November 14, 2010

    I must apologize for the inaccuracy of my quoting of my source on MLK as well. It is also from a reliable source as was the point about Ghandi but I represented it inaccurately. It is from an essay by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, a civil rights leader who worked with MLK and who publically denied the accusations against him until he dealt with the evidence. My inaccuracy was that he wrote MLK threw himself into a night of sex with three women in the same night. I shouldn’t have said four women and I shouldn’t have said orgy. In any case I am not trying to slander MLK who I still regard with respect and believe God used and have no reason not to regard as an elder brother that was nevertheless tragically flawed. I do think it is a vice on my part to have spoken carelessly and not to have gone back and checked my sources for greater accuracy on those two matters and that as a reflection on my integrity it detracts from the thrust of my statements. Nevertheless, I do stand by the paragraph you quoted Ethan and sense the same issue in your treatment of the blood of Christ in your talking about it as a symbol whose efficacy or use has warn off rather than addressing it as a matter of truth or falsity. It seems to me that your use of the concept of symbol threatens to swallow up the question of truth altogether and that at least I can have the integrity to refuse in contrast to my lack of integrity on the points mentioned. Please do not think that I have been offended or feel attacked by you and know that I bear you no grudge. I agree to not pursue discussion with you further in this thread unless you should choose to.  

  32. David Alexander · November 14, 2010

    To Jonathan, here is the source I mentioned, an excellent essay by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus on Martin Luther King Jr., a fruit of his friendship, colabor, extensive reading and interaction on the topic, and a lifetime of reflection on the Civil Rights movement. There is a section specifically toward the end where he discusses the looseness about women of MLK and some of the other leaders. I think he does so tactfully, truthfully, and with true sorrow and no animus toward MLK and it strikes me as a very reliable account in my opinion:

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