Monday, March 19, 2007

Christian or NeoChristian?

I read a variety of blogs on ScienceBlogs.com daily, and recently Rob Knop, one of the new members of the team, posted an explanation of why he is both a scientists and a Christian.

There's just one problem -- according to the beliefs Knop himself claims to hold, he isn't a Christian.

He goes on to say that he does not believe God to be the Creator of the universe, nor does he believe that Christ was bodily resurrected from the dead, nor does he believe that faith in Christ is necessary for redemption. To remove these core tenets of the Christian faith from the definition of "Christian" is to render the term meaningless. We already have words that mean "A nice person who behaves in what I consider a moral fashion", why is it necessary to so broaden the definition of "Christian" to mean the same thing? It's giving up a perfectly useful word and getting nothing in return.

C.S. Lewis addresses this point in "Mere Christianity" (I'm attempting to blog about my thoughts while reading it, but frankly I find the book so tedious and unpersuasive I haven't actually been able to bring myself to write anything much). I think Lewis is exactly right, however, about the danger posed by attempts to broaden the meaning of the term "Christian" too far (emphasis mine):

Far deeper objections may be felt-and have been expressed- against my use of the word Christian to mean one who accepts the common doctrines of Christianity. People ask: "Who are you, to lay down who is, and who is not a Christian?" or "May not many a man who cannot believe these doctrines be far more truly a Christian, far closer to the spirit of Christ, than some who do?" Now this objection is in one sense very right, very charitable, very spiritual, very sensitive. It has every amiable quality except that of being useful.


He goes on to compare this attempted broadening of the term to the way "Gentleman" became corrupted to the point of uselessness over the years. It once had a very concrete meaning:

The word gentleman originally meant something recognisable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone "a gentleman" you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact. If you said he was not "a gentleman" you were not insulting him, but giving information.


Eventually, however, people began using "gentleman" not as a statement of fact but a comment on the general moral character of a man, regardless of his status as a landowner. There's nothing wrong with inflating a word's scope, of course, but it does mean that at the end of the day, you've lost the ability to use the word in its original, more concrete sense. Worse, it essentially becomes a completely subjective way of referring to whether or not the speaker likes the subject in question or not:

They meant well. To be honourable and courteous and brave is of course a far better thing than to have a coat of arms. But it is not the same thing. Worse still, it is not a thing everyone will agree about. To call a man "a gentleman" in this new, refined sense, becomes, in fact, not a way of giving information about him, but a way of praising him: to deny that he is "a gentleman" becomes simply a way of insulting him. When a word ceases to be a term of description and becomes merely a term of praise, it no longer tells you facts about the object: it only tells you about the speaker's attitude to that object. (A "nice" meal only means a meal the speaker likes.)


This is exactly what is happening with Knop's description of himself as a "Christian" even though he rejects the core tenets of what has traditionally defined Christianity. This is not to say that Knop's not a delightful fellow who lives his life in accordance with the teachings of Christ as he sees them. Clearly, he does. But that no more makes him a Christian than the fact that someone acts gentlemanly means he owns land or has a coat of arms. The word becomes meaningless and useless, as Lewis describes:

A gentleman, once it has been spiritualised and refined out of its old coarse, objective sense, means hardly more than a man whom the speaker likes. As a result, gentleman is now a useless word. We had lots of terms of approval already, so it was not needed for that use; on the other hand if anyone (say, in a historical work) wants to use it in its old sense, he cannot do so without explanations. It has been spoiled for that purpose.


Now if once we allow people to start spiritualising and refining, or as they might say "deepening," the sense of the word Christian, it too will speedily become a useless word. In the first place, Christians themselves will never be able to apply it to anyone. It is not for us to say who, in the deepest sense, is or is not close to the spirit of Christ. We do not see into men's hearts. We cannot judge, and are indeed forbidden to judge.


It would be wicked arrogance for us to say that any man is, or is not, a Christian in this refined sense. And obviously a word which we can never apply is not going to be a very useful word. As for the unbelievers, they will no doubt cheerfully use the word in the refined sense. It will become in their mouths simply a term of praise. In calling anyone a Christian they will mean that they think him a good man. But that way of using the word will be no enrichment of the language, for we already have the word good. Meanwhile, the word Christian will have been spoiled for any really useful purpose it might have served ... When a man who accepts the Christian doctrine lives unworthily of it, it is much clearer to say he is a bad Christian than to say he is not a Christian.


If someone does not believe the basic doctrines of Christian theology, then they shouldn't be called a Christian no matter how much they admire Christ's philosophy or example. Doing so destroys the utility of the term in return, literally, for no gain whatsoever in information. We'd be throwing away a perfectly good word that can be used factually for a nebulous word that's entirely subjective and free of any content beyond "I think he's a nice person".

I believe we need a different term for people like Knop, who follow what they perceive as Christ's moral example and personal philosophy, but who do not hold one or more of the key tenets of Christianity. I would propose the term "NeoChristian"; it honors the person's belief that he or she is a follower of Christ, but also acknowledges that they reject what is commonly considered orthodox Christianity. Using this term also allows "Christian" to retain its utility as an objective indicator of a factual condition (i.e. "This person holds at least these beliefs").

Of course people differ in what they think those basic orthodox Christian tenets are, but I think historically it's fair to say that the Nicene Creed pretty much sets the standard. Namely:
  • Belief that there is only one true God, and that this God is the creator of the universe and all within it;

  • Jesus Christ is the only son of this God, divine in His essence, of one substance with the Father even though he was a mortal as well;

  • Jesus was bodily resurrected on the third day after His death and will come again to judge us;

  • Belief in the Holy Ghost


So here's my proposed definition of "NeoChristian":

A philosophy based on attempting to emulate and live by the moral example set by Jesus Christ while simultaneously rejecting one or more of the orthodox Christian tenets as laid out in the Nicene Creed of 325 AD.


I realize most people will consider this a pedantic and boring treatment of something that's basically just semantics, but I feel it's important to keep language precise and useful. I think it's confusing and inaccurate for people like Knop to appropriate the traditional use of the word "Christian" to describe themselves just because there hasn't been a common word to describe what they are. I don't know if "NeoChristian" will catch on or not, but we've got to have some kind of term that means the same thing and is acceptable to most everyone. Otherwise we're going to use a perfectly useful word, and have nothing in return.

And yes, I realize some will find the fact that an atheist is addressing the topic as somehow incongruous, but that's exactly why I find it relevant and important. "Atheist" has a very specific meaning -- someone who has no belief in a god -- but it's slowly getting conflated with all sorts of irrelevant connotations. You already see it in the way some theists discuss atheists, it's essentially becoming synonymous with "a very bad, wicked, amoral person" and that's clearly inaccurate. Knop's attempting the same thing, only in a positive direction, trying to equate "Christian" with "a good, moral, upstanding, nice person" and that's just as silly. "Christian" and "atheist" should remain discrete, value-neutral terms that have objective meanings, and not simply ways of saying how you feel about the person in question. If "Christian" is to retain any value as a discrete term, then Rob Knop is not a Christian and it's misleading to label him as one.

7 comments:

GeoPoet said...

Excellent point Jeff, and I could not agree with you more on the importance of meanings of words. However, "neo" implies a new Christian or a new type of Christian which may also miss the mark. I tried looking up some prefixes and the only ones that come close without casting some type of judgement on it are "quasi" (partly), "nomen" (name only) or go to a suffix.

Keep reading Lewis and follow the logic to the end; many scientists have found it only too pursuasive (e.g., Francis Collins). When science is inconclusive (and this is only one sliver of reality), then other evidence must be considered, especially the clues inside ourselves. Even then, at the end of all the evidence, the truly objective person will come to the point that there is simply no way to "prove" God doesn't exist. It is thus a choice, using our sense of reason, intellect and will - the essence of faith - which is propelled toward higher truths by what we call revelation (e.g., God revealed in Christ). When you finish reading Lewis, read the Gospel of John and see if it all comes together.

Jeff Hebert said...

It is thus a choice, using our sense of reason, intellect and will - the essence of faith - which is propelled toward higher truths by what we call revelation (e.g., God revealed in Christ). When you finish reading Lewis, read the Gospel of John and see if it all comes together.

So if it's a choice, it seems reasonable that some people will choose to believe the alternative, that just as there is no way to prove there is no God, there's no way to prove there IS one either. Given a rather startling lack of evidence, I don't think it's unreasonable for those people (me included) to come to the conclusion that He doesn't exist, at least not in the manner that Christianity would have us believe.

I've read most of Lewis at this point and most of the Bible, including John. I find them completely unconvincing. In the first place, I see no evidence that the natural world is only "one sliver of reality". This is simply another way of shoving God into the gaps of our understanding. "The God of the Gaps" has had to retreat from every refuge he's been crammed into so far, it doesn't seem like much of a stretch to bet that's going to keep on happening. I haven't seen any questions that religion is capable of answering that can't be answered without recourse to the divinity we find in the Bible. Certainly not any more so than the Hindu gods, or the Mormons, or Allah, or any other faith that bases its support on a revealed holy book of some sort.

Adam H said...

"The God of the Gaps"

damn, that's good. many have been saying it's natural for people to assign spiritual explanations for things that we don't have a rational one for yet, but i haven't found a good catch phrase for it yet. hhhmm...

Geopoet said...

There appears to be within the science community a gross misconception that religion is nothing more than superstitions regarding the physical world that science is steadily chipping away at. While this is an outmoded and simplistic concept, it has apparently been somewhat effective for the nonreligious argument. Your example of the "God of the Gaps" (which came out of the ID debate) echoes this this erroneous argument and creates an either/or argument that is false from its very inception. The "cramming" view you refer to is caused by religous literalists clashing with hard science. Each camp argue needlessly from extremes, as I've repeated many times. For many watching it, it seems so black and white because it has been presented that way, and that's a shame because it misdirects the actual debate.

What one is basically buying into with this position is that the only truths are those that can be proven with science (scientism), a theory that cannot even be proven, and will never be proven. From our beginnings as humans, most would say there's entire realities that are not within the scientifically provable realm but are true nontheless, as we've discussed. For example, love that extends beyond pheromones or reproduction or altruism (just tell Annie - sorry honey, I'm leavin cause there's nothin in it for my species or me), awe that has no explanation, on and on and on. Can science fully explain why there is a desire to know the meaning of life, to express music or art when it has no real function, or even come close to satisfying any of the universal metaphysical callings of a higher being? Contrary to you, all my scientific training is useless in this endeavor and I believe none of these questions can be answered fully without searching out the divine. We thus differ in this regard.

That being said, certainly reasonable people can look at all the same evidence and not believe. You may thus read the gospels and lives of the witnesses, lack of contrary evidence, and still not believe because you choose to not believe. Despite the evidence of a real Christ, real healings, real teachings, a real resurrection and ongoing miracles, still not believe. CS Lewis points out what seems so obvious to most, but you remain unconvinced - that is your choice, and understandable if your basic tenant is that ther must be hard evidence handed to you, here, now. I can't argue with what you might need to be convinced though, any more than you could convince me of the contrary. And I also know that the more one orbits in certain circles, the more entrenched one becomes.

Yet consider this - you agree there's some scientific ideas that are more right than others, but cannot agree that Christianity could be more true than what some deluded guy in a cave makes up. I've got science books that are more right than others, but I cannot have a holy book that's more right than another. I do not know why this doesn't seem irrational to you. Some things are more true than others, period.

Part of this blog's interest in how two different people can see things completely differently. You're the artist and I'm the scientist and we look at the opposite's fields so differently. You look to science as the sole arbiter of truth and deny that the metaphysical expressions of art, experience and conciousness also offer a glimpse of other truths and realities. Yet you are the artist. As a scientist, I know and use its limits and see these other expressions (including my own experiences) as evidence of a God. We thus gaze across these fences into each other's yards and see what the other does not. Interesting.

Perhaps the only thing we can agree on is that there is no scientific proof EITHER WAY and that one can choose to believe or not believe for their own reasons and still be considered entirely reasonable and rational. Perhaps we can also agree then that growth as a human being means we always keep the doors open to new ideas and ways of looking at the world.

Jeff Hebert said...

Shorter GeoPoet: "I'm right and you're wrong, but I'm willing to overlook it" :-) Which honestly is one of the greatest things ever, I sincerely appreciate it.

You make some good points in your post. I hadn't thought about how strange it is that you, a scientist, are the religious one and I, the artist, am the non-religious one. We're an odd pair, that's for sure. And your ultimate paragraph is spot on, I couldn't agree more. Naturally, though, there are some aspects that I think you're misstating.

There appears to be within the science community a gross misconception that religion is nothing more than superstitions regarding the physical world that science is steadily chipping away at.

Perhaps that's because for the last several hundred years science has been steadily chipping away at the superstitions religion had advanced as explanations for the physical world :-) Seriously, that doesn't mean science is all there ever is or can be. It just means that people who hold that view aren't totally irrational. They've got some justification for being suspicious of the truth claims of religion given how wrong it's been about a great number of topics. It also doesn't mean they're right, of course.

I basically look at the universe as consisting of two things: The natural world, and everything else.

Up until the last 500 years or so, religion claimed complete authority on both of those realms. Since then, however, we've discovered the best tool ever developed, hands down, for figuring out what's going on in the natural world -- methodological naturalism. Science.

Every time science and religion have clashed over an objectively verifiable phenomenon, science has won. Every time. Zeus didn't hurl thunderbolts, hurricanes aren't the wrath of an angry god, the universe isn't 6,000 years old, on and on and on.

That naturally has led a great many people to question just how authoritative religion is on its supposed area of expertise -- when someone who holds themselves up as an authority on two subjects proves themselves utterly unreliable in one of them, I don't think it's unreasonable to start questioning how reliable they are on the other.

Can science fully explain why there is a desire to know the meaning of life, to express music or art when it has no real function, or even come close to satisfying any of the universal metaphysical callings of a higher being?

On most of those the answer is no. At least, not yet. For now they reside firmly in the "everything else" category.

And yet, over the last 500 years we've discovered an immense number of subjects that we thought were in the supernatural category were, in fact, part of the natural world after all. Disease, weather, seasons, the movement of the stars, on and on and on.

That gives me confidence -- not absolute faith, not unwavering knowledge, just confidence -- that those subjects we currently see as unfathomable will, one day, be fathomed. And if they're not, I'm more comfortable living with an honest "We don't know" than a subjective "This is THE TRUTH" from an institution that has proven not only unreliable in the past, but downright deceitful. I'll take a humble admission of ignorance over a self-righteous assertion of absolute certainty every day of the week.

The implication you're making is that science -- or, more properly, metaphysical naturalism as opposed to science's methodological naturalism -- is incapable of ever giving satisfactory answers to those questions not just to you, but to anyone. Clearly that's not the case, because millions of atheists and freethinkers throughout history have lived fulfilled, satisfied, happy lives without recourse to the divine.

But those answers aren't fulfilling to everyone, and I'm cool with that. You found your happiness in Catholicism, and I'm happy for you that you've found it. Your answers don't satisfy me, and mine don't satisfy you, and that's all right. The important thing is that we each have found a way to achieve fulfillment. Just because you're in love with your wife and I am not doesn't mean that your love is invalid or doesn't exist -- I just don't happen to share in it.

Yet consider this - you agree there's some scientific ideas that are more right than others, but cannot agree that Christianity could be more true than what some deluded guy in a cave makes up. I've got science books that are more right than others, but I cannot have a holy book that's more right than another. I do not know why this doesn't seem irrational to you. Some things are more true than others, period.

Yes, that's true, but the thing about science is, you can tell when one thing is more true than another. At least eventually. That's how Hindus and Christians can both agree on the best value for the speed of light. There's an answer that can be derived objectively. Not so with faith or religion. Since it's a fundamentally subjective endeavor, there's no way at all to judge the relative merits of one over the other. There's no way to get to the "one true answer" that everyone can agree on because it's not an objective thing. Is it more true that Jennifer Aniston is prettier than Courtney Cox? Is it more true that the United States is "better" than Canada? Is it more true that blue is a better color than red? Those are subjective realities and thus the question of relative "trueness" is ultimately unknowable.

The point is not that one religion is more true than another. The point is that there's no objective way to tell. If there were, we'd all agree on what it was, just like Hindus and Muslims and Christians and atheists all agree on what the speed of light is.

As the historian Stephen Henry Roberts once said: "I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."

Perhaps the only thing we can agree on is that there is no scientific proof EITHER WAY and that one can choose to believe or not believe for their own reasons and still be considered entirely reasonable and rational. Perhaps we can also agree then that growth as a human being means we always keep the doors open to new ideas and ways of looking at the world.

I couldn't agree with that more (except for your insistence on using the phrase "scientific proof" -- there's no such thing. There's scientific EVIDENCE, but proof is left to mathematics. All scientific knowledge is contingent, and must be constantly reexamined in the light of new data).

I'd say that in my humble opinion (and for what it's worth, being the callow whippersnapper I am) that's the wisest thing I have seen you write to date, and it gives me great hope that even though you think you're right, you're willing to live in a world peacefully and happily with people who disagree. I've learned a lot from talking with and listening to Young Earth Creationists, Catholics, atheists, and spiritualists, and reading about Mormons and Hindus and Buddhists. When you don't have the answers, the most fascinating thing of all is hearing the guesses of other people. It's really neat stuff. I don't begrudge anyone the happiness they've found -- I'm glad when people are fulfilled and joyful and I'm perfectly content to let them go on believing what they like.

That won't stop me from arguing about it, of course, because that's part of the fun of living and trying to figure out our path. Just like arguing about which college basketball team is better -- it doesn't really have an answer or a way to definitively settle it, but it's still fun to talk about.

GeoPoet said...

Shorter Nerd: Call us even I suppose.

People must really think we're strange because we do find this discussion/arguing fun. So here's some additional feedback.

I think you are using modern terms to understand the ancient mind and creating a dualism here that comes across as an attempt to make religion look outdated. To the ancients, myth was an effective means of explaining man's circular relation to the world and to God. It cannot be castigated for their explainations of the unknown at the time for they really cared less about hard facts than what it all might mean. They were not so linear in thinking like we are today and were much more into using saga and experience to reveal deeper truths. In other words, neither then, now or in the future could science "replace" religion any more than a test tube could replace romance or a narcotic wipe out laughter. You thus see an attrition where none exists except for those on either end of the science vs superstition extremes. Your comments also imply antagonism toward an "institution" which, while understandable, often gets in the way of unbiased thinking. I see science and faith coming together to show us an even greater truth and yes, I do see Catholicism and pure scientists now leading the way in that endeavor.

Certainty - wouldn't we all like to have it. No doubt, religous truths are less proveable than physical science, at least for now. Yet, even there we can use reason to "winnow" it down, starting with the more direct contradictions, then moving down. First write off the astrologers, alchemists, magicians and cargo-cult scientists as well as the biblical literalists for whom science has shown they are objectively wrong. Next the obsolete cults like those who were based on a belief the world was supposed to end a hundred years ago or those who say the 12 tribes of Israel came to America and had a massive battle that any archaeologist would laugh at. Next write off the empiricists, idealists and eclectics for whom social workers and psychologists show have a skewed sense of reality, then move into the philosophies of historicism or modernism and other forms of subjectivism that deny anything is true at all, until you reach the bizarre extremes of nihilism, existentiallism and anarchism.

With this extension the line of truth gets less and less clear, but it begins with some objective truths that are reasonable and accepted. There is then no reason to doubt that (I have confidence) that objective truth extends into the hazier areas and that there is some ultimate true answer. The fact that we all cannot agree on it right now has nothing to do with the matter, as much as we all wished it were so. This should not dissuade us in the least.

Good example is love - your love for your wife is subjective and there is no way everyone would agree, based on watching you, that you in fact do love her. No one could give you "one true answer" to why you love. Yet it doesn't change the fact that you believe you love her and have faith in the relationship and take a very unscientific and subjective sense of worth out of the experience of the relationship. In other words, there is no requirement that an idea must be proven and objective to be true. And religion is simply an outward expression of pure love from a Creator.

I think another key issue that we both agree on is that nobody wants somebody to violate their right and freedom to believe or not believe in peace; but realize that the scientific atheists are just as guilty as the jihadists in doing just that. They are not so willing to be open or accepting and it is these that harm both science and religion.

Jeff Hebert said...

I think another key issue that we both agree on is that nobody wants somebody to violate their right and freedom to believe or not believe in peace; but realize that the scientific atheists are just as guilty as the jihadists in doing just that.

Change that to "some militant scientific atheists" and I think we can call us agreed. Just like only a small percentage of Muslims are radical Islamists, only a (very very very very very) small percentage of atheists want to actively eliminate all religion. Like any devout theist, most atheists of course believe their answers are "the best" but that's a far cry from wanting to stop anyone else from being able to practice their own beliefs. I would wager that the two you're thinking of are Dawkins and Harris, but neither of them advocate that extreme at all. They do believe that forcing children to identify themselves as a particular religion before they're of an age of reason is abusive, but they also support freedom of religion and conscience as bedrock core values.