On Christian Identity

Tony Sig
I suppose that for me, even if in a small and uncomplicated way, my search for understanding our identity as Christians started when I was in High School. My Church was squarely in the middle of three small towns, Monticello, Big Lake, and Becker. So it should come as no surprise that my Church contained people from those three towns, as well as others. By chance most of my friends in Youth Group were a year younger than me and did not attend school in Monticello where I did. Being the good young Christian that I was, I sought out other Christian friends at school because at the time I could only be friends with a non-Christian if I was trying to convert them. As it so happened, when I first started attending school, even before I had made close friends at church, I was sought out and befriended by members from the Youth Group out of the C.hristian M.issionay A.lliance church in town, it was just down the road from my church.

Old Timey Monticello, MN

Old Timey Monticello, MN

I vaguely remember being taught a resentment for some Catholics (by whom I do not recall), and a general distrust of those who did not speak in tongues, but I suppose that I had a fairly unique upbringing considering the Classical Pentecostal background from which I came. My father, always the simple and pious man that he is, even to this day, not being trained in Systematics did not make degrade other denominations. For him it was enough if they knew and sought the Spirit. I love him. Nonetheless, it was inescapable not to look down on others who did not experience the ecstasy to which I was accustomed. “Those gentiles without ‘tongues’ (or was it the Torah?), what do they know of God? Do they not read their Bibles? Again, I do not remember when or how these ideas crept into my head, but just watch the movie “Jesus Camp” to see how easy it can happen.
My friendship with the local CMA church blossomed all through my High School years. We would TP or fork each others yards; they once even hung a spare car door from one of the trees outside my house, where they got it I do not know. Despite the fact that I spent more time with my friends from Youth Group than with my CMA friends we still were close. I remember consoling them when their Youth Pastor had an emotional affair and was asked to leave the Church. I know that at least two of them are in ministry today.

All this is to say that it was not until my senior year or later that I looked back on my relationship with my friends and began to ask the question: “Does doctrine and/or experience matter?” This question was especially exasperated when I realized that these kids lived out their faith just as passionately as my friends and I did from the Assemblies Church. Most likely I still would have had questions about the Lutherans and Catholics in my town, but as I have come to better understand these sects, I am now more able to comprehend why they did not seem as ‘holy’ as me (at least as I defined holy) at the time. Eventually the great irony would come to me when I learned that the AG was born out of the CMA. Now that I am somewhat older, more experienced and more learned I find the question magnified. Considering there has always been doctrinal development, and considering the literally thousands of different Christian sects, all with degrees of variety, I wonder all the more, is there a nugget that is Christianity? Is there something that we all have in common and from which or toward which we might begin to come together? There is no question that our being apart harms us more than helps us. It damages our witness concerning God, it damages us when one outside considers the dogmatism of one group and rightfully points out that some other church down the road is not as harsh. Or from the other side, I read the comment of a confused lesbian from the AG who finds it disconcerting that she can just go down the road to a different church if she wanted to. Is it desirable or even possible to come together? What would be the benefits? The downsides? How does our exclusive claim of salvation as preached in our pulpits fair in a pluralistic Christianity? I know that I cannot even scratch the surface of these difficult questions. Still it is a topic that I feel compelled, even called to address.

Unity: Correct Belief, Correct Practice, common Tradition
However one throws the die, and however much different factions would beg to differ, Christianity cannot be reduced to any one of these three things: Correct Belief, Correct Practice, and common Tradition. Many circles tend to overemphasize Correct Belief. This would include even Roman Catholics and the Orthodox, although they never reduce the Faith only to this. This would at first seem to be quite an ‘enlightened’ form of our religion because it places little or no emphasis on ‘outward’ signs or actions, and so makes Christianity dependent on nothing but our ‘faith’ in God as properly discerned. This emphasis also seems at first glance to portray God in glowing terms as a God of ‘grace’ who is not interested in results because He knows that we could never live up to His demands. Most of us, having been raised in very ‘low’ Protestantism have reacted against this emphasis and now do not know what to believe, myself included. That is because the flaws in this system are raw and glaring after only a minor examination. The most obvious critique is that in none of our fellowships does everyone believe everything the same way (no Reed, not even the Orthodox). This is maybe one universal truth for all of Christianity throughout all of history.

A figure in early Christianity said, sadly with all seriousness, that Orthodoxy is that which has been believed by all, in all places, for all time. What a ridiculous statement indeed.

Even such foundational ideas as the Trinity and shape of the Canon have not been commonly understood for all of our history, and so Right Belief cannot stand by itself, not just because it is a narrow ideal, but because it is absolutely unattainable. Dogma also tends to be broadened out too far so that every minor belief is required of Christians in order to maintain good standing in the community, and even to be assured eternal salvation. For instance the nature and purpose of the Eucharist tend to be a litmus test in some communities, with ‘Scriptural Inerrency’ being one in others.

An overwhelming emphasis on Right Belief also tends to be shallow in that it often de-emphasizes the role of Right Practice so as to maintain a fierce emphasis on the ‘grace’ of God. Right Practice becomes an add-on to the Christian life, something that is ideal, but as long as one feels guilty for not putting the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ values into practice, guilt is usually enough to assuage the actual action. Or just as bad, Orthopraxy becomes only a tool in the hand of Evangelism, something used to manipulate people into ‘accepting Jesus as their Savior.’ In these type of circumstances Orthopraxy is usually a salve, an act of charity which rarely achieves what one might call ‘Justice’. It is not interested in challenging ‘politics’ and making things right, but mostly in setting up ministries that are like balm on a wound, when in this age of the Spirit we should be healing the wound. Not that these are bad things by any means, but the aggressive pursuit of Justice is generally left up to governments to deal with. It is because of this that Evangelicals are chastised as hypocritical. Church History and the role of Tradition also tend to be neglected when Orthodoxy is overemphasized.

Tradition played a zero role in my Christian upbringing. The closest that we got to Church History was reading the book of Acts. Even there it was read in a ‘biblical’ way which tended to overspiritualize things and undervalue the book as history. It was more of ‘proof’ that everybody should be speaking in tongues. Even in those Protestant churches where history is taught it used only to legitimize the need for the Protestant Reformation, usually chastising and blaming ‘Catholics’ for the period of Church History after Acts until Luther. It has no normative use for modern Church decisions, and the idea of it being ‘authoritative’ is rejected as Reformers are only interested in the Bible. This is so laughable because the doctrinal decisions of the Reformers are viewed as the only ‘Orthodox’ way to read the Bible and so even in churches that are supposedly ‘Bible’ only churches, tradition plays a severe and choking authoritative role, preventing fresh readings of Scripture and sweeping under the rug the fact that Tradition played and plays an important, yes authoritative role in their Ecclesial and dogmatic decisions. History in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox church is given a high place and is authoritative not only for ethical and hermeneutical decisions but also can be used for doctrine. But because their authority is tied into history they tend to paint a rosy and tainted view of history. The sins of Popes are smoothed over or not even talked about, the variety in tradition is downplayed; the Orthodox draw a firm line between east and west even before there was a division (and so reject ‘western’ influence even when there is nothing particularly unorthodox about it) and Catholics manipulate history to show that everyone else wrong and the reinforce the belief that even the Eastern Church ‘broke’ with the Catholics and so unification means being re-as simulated into the Roman church, which is still viewed as the one true Church. While the Orthodox claim every father as uniquely their own.

An emphasis on Orthopraxy is also narrow and–more than any other form of overemphasis–is the one that tends to be the least ‘Christian.’

Emphasis on Orthopraxy truly began to bloom via the Anabaptists after the Protestant Reformation. It is true that there were many saints before the Reformation who were outstanding examples of Christ-like behavior, but they never would have undervalued the role of Orthodoxy, mostly being good ‘catholics’. Seeing that violence was not limited to Protestant-Catholic fights, but also eventually even Protestant-Protestant fights, Anabaptists had a core of beliefs but practiced radical egalitarianism and held most things in common. This led to them being persecuted even by Protestants and eventually they were ejected from Europe and their home base became Pennsylvania. This overemphasis too has many things which at first seem to give the appearance of greatness but upon closer examination is shown to be lacking. It would seem to say, “See how we don’t fight over doctrine and how we live a ‘Christian’ life?” It also tends to paint God as a God who cares less about what his children believe (who can be expected to believe everything completely?) and more about them getting along and being compassionate. Indeed, if there was an error to make as far as overemphasis this is the one that I would tend to error towards. But upon closer examination this too is shown as shallow and unable to answer fully God’s call. For one, the Anabaptists and other such groups have separated themselves off from society. Their isolation leaves them unable to influence the direction of the rest of their Christian sisters and brothers and, as with an Orthodoxic overemphasis it is unable to move toward real global justice or what we might call the re-creation of the world. Within its own community it may be able to attain something like it, and this is also preferable to nothing at all, but because of it’s isolation, Orthopraxic Christians tend to be unable to address society and it’s faults. To put it another way it has no prophetic voice.

Being cut off from the Christian community at large these groups also have a single minded and unhistorical understanding of who Jesus is, who God is, and what is expected of us as believers. As with ‘Liberal Protestantism’ many of these groups view Jesus as a sort of Buddha, giving a list of how to live and achieve eternal life. And it should be said that even these groups have an ‘Orthodox’ core and far more so than the other Christian groups they are unable to deal with diversity of opinion. Members that are not willing to accept the core of the group are generally kicked out.

Another Orthopraxic group (sort of) within Christianity is “Liberal Protestantism.” I use this term not derogatorily, but to indicate the sub group in question. Because of their extreme skepticism concerning the ‘historicity’ of our salvific history they tend to reduce Christianity to living out Jesus teachings (teachings which according to them Jesus did not even say!). They use Church history to reinforce this belief manipulating it to say that when Orthodoxy is given precedence violence is soon to ensue. The reason that this is the least ‘Christian’ of the overemphasis is that, as already stated, Jesus is sucked out of his historical context, indeed who He really was, and is turned into a moral teacher with nothing of value to say apart from how to act. This tends to be an insult to our Jewish history as well as to our Christian history. It takes Christian and Jewish elements and creates a spare religion out of parts. This group tends to be well-to-do white western males and they are unable to interact with others whose opinions differ from them. They even tend to run the error of the fundamentalists replacing actual actions of justice with right beliefs about justice. It borders on idolatry because it takes the bits they like from our scriptures and histories and pretends like they perfected them. Because they are skeptical about ‘revelation’ they belittle the God from whom our testimony says these ‘moral’ rules came from.

As a first step towards unity I would propose a recognition that in order to maintain that which is truly Christian we must recognize that we have a common scripture, common tradition, and a complex canonizing process. That is to say we have access to the same books (even if not all of the books are the same as far as ‘cannon’), we all should have equal access to our history, not allowing any one group to claim any part of it only for themselves, and we should recognize that our doctrines and emphasis’ have changed over time and it is this traditioning process, utilizing these three facets, that is itself uniquely Christian.

Advertisements

6 Comments

  1. Reed –
    can we find a way to move this under Tony’s authorship? I had logged in under my name and he must not have re logged under his own when he wrote this.

    Reply

  2. I really enjoyed this essay, both when you read it to us a few weeks ago and rereading it now. There is a wide breadth of topics it touches on but for now I just have two thoughts.

    On finding “the nugget” of Christianity
    I am afraid that the question of right belief vs. right practice might be limiting when discussing Ecumenical unity. As far as I can tell, part of what makes Christianity unique is the inseparability of orthodoxy and orthopraxis. (By this I mean in comparison to an Eastern or tribal religion that might allow wider freedoms for systematic belief as long as a member’s praxis lines up with cultural norms.)

    For the Christian, a person with right belief will inevitably behave according to certain actions which are the rightful expression of that belief. Likewise, people do not act in a way that they consider “right” unless there is some underlying “right” belief motivating them. I don’t disagree that overemphasis in orthodoxy and orthopraxis is a major cause of division in the Church, but I think you can find examples of overemphasis of both right belief and right practice in all Christian traditions–often in the same people!

    on the first step
    Your first step is a good one but recognition of common roots alone isn’t enough–it’s too obvious, every overemphasizer already agrees to that.

    You need to convince people of the value of Christian unity. It’s only after you’ve established its worth that you can begin to address the issues of overemphasis.

    Reply

  3. I just have a quick comment since all involved in this post understand where I am on this issue. I fail to see, after hearing this argument the second time, what the real value is in finding “Christian Unity”. I understand the practical issues surrounding working together and removing bias and bigotry which is so anti-christian. However, these issues are much broader than simply Christian understanding. It is nice to look at these groups and believe that a uniting action would somehow strengthen them. The reality, however, is that these groups are no more the same than Christians and Jews. Liberal Protestant Christians, as you pointed out, are not even the same religion as their conservative counterparts. I believe that this ideal of Christian unity is misconceived. We may unite in some form of respect for each other, but the reality is that when disected there is very little if anything that truly unifies these factions. If this conversation is about respect of other beliefs then I agree, but I do not believe that this should be limited simply to those who claim the communal title of Christian. Anything beyond this is a fool hardy endeavor.

    Reply

  4. Reed

    I feel that you are teasing out something that may have not been present in the essay but can be inferred easily. That is, I never put orthodoxy VS orthopraxy. What I did do is comment that often there is an overemphasis that does pit one against another because although the acting person certainly believes correct beliefs are essential, by the lived reality of the person they demonstrate that one or the other is less important, and visa versa.

    So when a Liberal has an Ecumenical conversation with any Christian with a core of doctrines they appeal to a shared morality as the step forward at the expense of doctrinal unity. In fact this is the great failure of the so called Ecumenical Movement and why it has been continually arrested in the past decades. The conversation was being advanced by liberals who tended to marginalize systems of others.

    My way forward is actually very close to what was described in that book on Orthodoxy that you lent me where ‘Tradition and the Bible’ was discussed. It was the traditioning process, incorporating the development of the Bible into Tradition that was so interesting and what really got me excited. It is something similar that I am proposing, that our systems have come about by the same process of Spirit-led-traditioning and so this way forward would be a more wholistic approach to coming together.

    Frankly at some point I would like to develop this as I feel the one way to start coming together is the one way that most people will not take. That is union with God and each other via the Eucharist. Recognizing the ‘image’ of God in each other.

    Both you and Jeremy seem to believe that I need to demonstrate the desireability of unity. I will think on that and write on it coming up.

    And Jeremy I would disagree with you that we are different religions. Perhaps between us and some ‘liberals’ but the worldwide majority teach that God is revealed in the Old Testament, in and by Jesus, that Jesus was raised in the flesh, and that the Spirit is present in His people working toward the completion of God’s goal. I wonder if there is a use attempting to reconcile ‘free will’ etc… But I do not believe these to be different religions.

    Reply

  5. Tony, I don’t think Orthodoxy exists in conflict with Orthopraxy and I don’t believe you do either. My point was merely that it’s possible to identify elements of overemphasis on right belief or right practice in any Christian tradition. An Evangelical touting conversion experience/saved by grace dogma might possibly be guilty of both. Likewise a Roman Catholic preaching the salvific necessity of infant baptism runs the same risk.

    Regardless, I think it’s insignificant. I think we agree but are viewing the issue through different lenses.

    I am more interested by what Jeremy brings up. Obviously, total ecumenism between Christian movements will always be impossible. No matter what strides you make in mutual understanding, there will always be Puritan-esque fundamentalists who decry any high church tradition as demonically ritualistic or “saved by works” heresy. And there will always be those from both Eastern and Roman traditions that will refuse to recognize anyone else who is outside “the true church.” (In this sense, I think Jeremy is right, these two groups of people are from very different religions.)

    But for most the issue wont be convincing them that Christians have a shared heritage or that Jesus has some sort of redemptive purpose for their life. What will be difficult is convincing them that they should attempt to create some sort of unity because of it. Liberal protestants have their social goals, conservative protestants have their evangelization goals. Too much effort into a partnership between the two sides would likely be seen as a distraction to both.

    Reply

  6. I think that you both are assuming too much out of what I am saying. It seems to me that you are suggesting that what I mean by ‘unity’ is a complete and total unity of governments and dogma’s. That is not what I mean. That is as you have said, unattainable. I am going to mull over some ideas and I will write another post on the desireability of unity. If there is one thing I am sure of is that the largest hurdle to a sort of unity is not theological, while total unhindered diversity is not tolerable the vast majority of Christian groups allow for a reasonable diversity in theological beliefs. In my opinion it is ecclesiology that divides us the most, and frankly should be the easiest to overcome.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s