Here’s something you should hear at church this Sunday: we are not the only Christians.
In a recent column for the ABP (Associated Baptist Press), David Gushee wrote an excellent article on the issue of Christianity vs Christianities. I think he makes an extraordinarily good point. Given the ways in which some Christians abuse the message of Christ (just think of the recent attempts to burn qu’rans as one example), it’s important for those of us who are trying to find a way to be Christ-followers in the 21st century to state clearly that there are different versions of Christianity out there.
I remember the first time it became crystal clear to me that there is no such thing as Christianity, but only competing Christianities. It was when I was working on my doctoral dissertation on Christians who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. During that time I attended a most remarkable conference in New York on hidden children of the Holocaust. This gathering brought together the now-grown adults who had hidden from the Nazis to survive. Some of these children were saved by Christian families.
The most memorable speaker for me was a hidden child, and now a sociologist, named Nechama Tec. A Polish Jew, she survived the war hiding with Christians. She was asked after her address whether it was Christianity that motivated her rescuers. Her unforgettable response went like this: “It wasn’t just any kind of Christianity that would motivate a rescuer. Only a certain kind of Christianity would lead someone to risk their lives for us.”
A certain kind of Christianity — the phrase stayed with me. It is enormously helpful. From hard experience, young Nechama Tec learned the difference between versions of Christianity that teach hatred of the religious/ethnic other and versions that teach sacrificial and inclusive love. Her very survival depended on being able to tell the difference between these competing Christianities and the people who embodied them.
….To say that there are competing versions of Christianity is not to say that any version is as good as any other one. Quite the contrary — the contest over which version of Christianity is truest to the intent of the God we have met in Jesus Christ is a matter of desperate importance. But because of the diversity of the biblical materials, because of the way Christian faith has been transmitted through various traditions, because we are all still sinners, and because we see through a glass darkly, Christians have always contested various versions of the faith. Traditionalist conservatives like to identify a pristine “faith once delivered to the saints,” and to plant their flag there. But despite heroic efforts to pin down the nature and content of that faith, its content was — and is, and ever shall be — contested.
He then goes further and makes a very important point:
Could it also be that there is no such thing as “Islam,” but only competing versions of Islam? Could it be that those who are casually declaring that al Qaeda’s Islam just is Islam are about as accurate as those who would say that Terry Jones’ Christianity just is Christianity? Could it be that we need a moratorium on people who know nothing about the competing Muslim traditions making blanket declarations about the eternal nature of that religion?
Great points all!
One thought on “Competing Christianities”
Good article. I guess though that I have always been afflicted by the need to defend the underdog when the current in crowd try to play the game of intellectually scorning them, and I notice the jibe Gushee aims at traditionalists. The point has to be made that the traditional streams have been around from anywhere between 200 to 2000 years, and the fad fellows come and go. That doesn’t mean that the newer groupings are automatically wrong (hey – they may be the next one to last 2000 years!) but it does mean that they need to build a basis of belief very carefully as the beliefs they attack have obviously stood the test of time. As I have debated with a cult in the Waverly area – the basis for a good faith is not a pride in proclaiming loudly why all the others are wrong – it should rather be in showing why the new faith is right. In fact negative theology is usually – in my book – a sign of a shaky faith.
So – instead of calling the Pope the beast, or the Archbishop of Cantebury the Anti-Pope, or scorning the baptists for their insistence on a Biblical truth, the new religions / alternative belief holders would be well advised to tell us why they are relevant, and real, rather than spend their time in trying to tear down others.