Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Exclusivism and the Holy Catholic* Christian Church

*Another word that needs to be excised and replaced in the creeds. The baggage that term carries is totally unacceptable. Yet we continue to drag it along without a thought.

Dear Theologians, especially Anne GG and Cate, who asked,

This is going to be long. I will have to break it into at least two parts. I want to try and work this through (for myself) carefully. I'm hoping you will help me with this and not rigidly quote me on any of this. I don't want to be heretical for heretical sake.

Eric Hoffer says, "To know a person's religion we need not listen to his profession of faith but just find his brand of intolerance." (I unfurled this quote yesterday from the code of the local paper's Celebrity Cipher, but it does speak to the subject.) Exclusivism of faith is the up side of intolerance. It comes from, I believe, the depths of our desire to get it right. We, humans (some of us anyway), spend our lives trying to nail down what we believe. We check our beliefs for errors, systematize, categorize, make application, and then stand guard. We, from whatever denominational or religious perch we sit, hawk-eye everyone else, either kindly or viciously, but knowingly.

It's not just Christians who do this, though this is certainly where I come from. I loved the quote I read on msnbc.msn.com the other day when the folks of Turkey were up in arms about the comments of the Pope. "Anyone who describes Islam as a religion as intolerant encourages violence," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam said. One would have to smile, if the implications weren't so virulent.

But I'm not worried about others. I'm worried about me and whether my own tendencies to exclusivism actually would brand a true Christ follower or not. I think there are a variety of concerns that we need to think about.

1) Has God assigned us the task of making sure everyone is "thinking straight and the same?"
2) Is faith primarily content based?
3) Is faith a goal or an end in and of itself or is it a means to achieving something, i.e. "Salvation, eternal life, heaven, etc."

Possibly if we answer the third question, the first two will fall away. However, I think this is how we wind our way to the issue of exclusivism, at least I do. I look at life and other people and discern reason in terms of relationship. A really good thinker would be much more sterile in their approach. But for me, I'm brought to thought via example. So here are examples that have brought me to crisis of thought. I have a non-Christian friend, (spell that Muslim). She lives like me. Her moral and spiritual concerns are very close to mine, closer than many of my Christian friends. She even uses a wonderful term to draw us together. She says that we are "people of the book." I love that. On top of that, as stated above, I have Christian friends who are very dissimilar to me. Their moral reflections are quite different from mine, some stretching in one direction, some the polar opposite. Both types of people are equally sincere in their basic spiritual concerns.

(Margaret GG would approach this more simply. She thinks the answer is more obvious, and, perhaps, that one need not intellectualize so. But I do that, so let's continue.)

What does this mean, I say in my shriveled little heart? I feel like I am an employee of the mail office who was given two stamps, years ago, to mark packages. One says, "Forward to St. Peter, signature required," the other says, "Go to Hell." But I've gone postal. The packages in front of me are piling up and all I can do is take turns hitting myself on the forehead, first with one stamp and then the other.

Well, I haven't done anything but present an introduction to this subject. So what! This is my blog. Anyone who criticizes me for going on too long encourages violence! But you, too, can say whatever you want and I will probably not delete, excepting spam.



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Anonymous said...

Betsy, first, I should say you're wonderful, delightful, and insightful writer. I'm sure that I'll have that image of you stamping your forehead in my head for years to come, and not just because it's funny, but because it captures everything you're saying so well.

Anyway, I don't have a lot to add except that a friend (Schwitters) and I were talking yesterday about what I think might be a similar issue: the term "testimony." I was saying that I didn't really like it, because it so often implies (for me, though he helped me with this) that a person will be telling about how everything was bad and then angels come down and everything was perfect after that. (I don't want to suggest that people don't come to Christ in that way sometimes, but I think often these stories are exaggerated for dramatic purposes...) Anyway, I suggested that I prefer the term "faith journey" (in fact, I'd never heard the term testimony until I met some people in college; the church I grew up in always called it this) because it allows for a discussion of the ineveitable (sp?) ups and downs that come with having faith.

I'm not sure where I'm going now with this, and, in fact, I'm not sure anymore what it has to do with your post. Oh well. Here it is anyway. Also, is that sneaky spam above? They're awful vague about why they're interested, other than to tell us where the might have been heading...

T. Azimuth Schwitters said...

wow, that's totally spam - and poorly written. as per being the other person talking in conversely's re-imagined conversation, i thought i should chip in on at least that issue (although i'm still working on a more direct response to your post, brd): although i also share some reservations about where testimonies often go (and, as conversely said, their implicit suggestion that 'everything was gravy' after conversion), i, who had not heard the term 'faith journey' until yesterday, take some exception to that term - to refer to the entire religious experience of an individual as a 'faith journey' implies two dubious things to me: one, that ups and downs are not anything to be concerned about, in that they both constitute aspects of the 'larger journey,' and two (this is much more troubling to me), that the 'faith journey' is something an individual begins at an unspecified point in their past and continues forward from indefinitely. i see this as deeply problematic because it deemphasizes the move to christianity or the acceptance of christ - which does exist as the pivotal moment in the christian walk. i in no way want to spark a predestination debate here, but i do believe there is a moment of salvation - and i worry that the term 'faith journey' cheapens that moment by focusing instead on all that happens AFTER, thus necessarily compromising - and, i would argue, narcissizing - an individual's conversion and acceptance of christ.

okay, that's long winded and, as i read over it again, a bit hostile, but i want to add that i don't intend it to be - and i also want to insist that i don't see this as a binary debate - please do not read this post as espousing fanaticism in any respect. however, i do think these differences, although seemingly very subtle, can shape others' views on christianity and, especially, conversion dramatically.

as always, thank you for the space and time, brd.

brd said...

Conversely, thank you. You are so kind in your words.

C & Switters, I like both the terms testimony and faith journey. I also like witness, and when I hear it, I hear the voices of an African American choir rocking out the words, "My soul is a witness, my soul is a witness." But I have left behind the implications of the words testimony and witness that bring to mind, door to door visitation or beach evangelism. I haven't left behind verbal interaction on spiritual topics or hearty attributions to divine resource as the occasion warrants.

S, you have touched on topics I need to address in part II of my Exclusivism series. What does it mean to be converted or born again, both very interesting terms. The first term carries with it the idea of a turning or establishment of a direction or posture toward Christ. And both terms, I think, embrace more than a moment in time (though I see the existential moment as very important) but also movement, animation, and the initiation of narrative.

Thanks for all of the wonderful thoughts.

Anne G G said...

I agree so much with Conversely, in that it is wonderful and delightful (and scary) to imagine you stamping your own forehead with the St. Peter's/Go To Hell stamps. I fear (and yes, I'm saying what you think I'm saying) that threw out my Go To Hell stamp in a fit of anger about five years ago, and, well, they took out the trash quite a while back. I may be in trouble with the big post office in the sky later, but I can't help it now. What's done is done, and now I'm just stamping everyone "St Peter, St Peter, St Peter" and hoping the receptionist signs without looking.

Is MargaretGG who I think she is? What a clever little code.

I watched the documentary Hell House recently, and I think it articulated, or simply showcased, what i'd been thinking for a while, that a religion that emphasizes exclusion too strongly can become a religion of death -- a religion obsessed with death, obsessed with other people's deaths, where the primary goal of evangelism is to first convince you that you are on fire, and then teach you how to put yourself out.

On the other hand, a religion with no insistence on a set of truths has no power, as far as I can see (referencing my conversation with RupeGG [eh?]). So that makes it tough -- where's that balance between the two things, and what are the critical truths?

brd said...

In regard to critical truths, may I request that you fulfill your promise Anne GG to post some Creedal advice.
And I wish that I could interrupt RupeGG from his studies long enough to get him to post his insights here, but. . .

I'll have to try and get hold of your "Hell House" documentary. You have quoted it twice to me. Perhaps I need it.

We are talking about such deep subjects. We've got epistomology, soteriology, hamartiology, and plain old logic running around here.

Here's another deep thought: I bet the sparrow looks at the parrot and thinks, yes, you can talk, but LISTEN TO YOURSELF!

Anne G G said...

Please see my entry in Creedal advice. You'll see as you read that I've clearly cheated, but I've given the best thorough response I can devise right now.

Love, D.

Cate said...

Well, I'm already uncomfortable with this discussion. It has already moved to a point of exclusion. It does not seem as if it is possible to engage in dialogue on spiritual issues without this happening.

brd said...

But we must try, mustn't we? I know that I'm often afraid to:
1) bring up spiritual topics with people who may think differently than me, or
2) hide my true feelings and thoughts and hold back from true dialog.

Neither of these things serve the goal of learning and growing very well. You are one of the best people in the world, for me, because you don't allow me to be shallow in my thinking.

Cate said...