HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

December 24, 2007
From Liberty Street

The Nature of a Word

John Turner


Since I write this on the eve of the most celebrated Christian holiday, I feel constrained to say something about "Christianity." There was a time, and not many years ago, when I thought the genuine core of Christianity could be recognized by any sensible person and used to rate the various religions and cults which operate in its name.

And what did I think this real "Christianity" was? There's the problem. I hadn't thought about it hard enough to be able to define it with any degree of precision. I suppose I had in mind an attempt -- regardless of belief about various supernatural matters -- to live, as closely as the world would allow, in line with the principles of the Sermon on the Mount.

Doubtless I was too much under the influence -- without even knowing it -- of the Platonic concept that the cosmos is composed of idea, model, and simulacrum, and that good thought is a process of getting the three straightened out. With respect to Christianity, this meant that that there was the idea which offered the reality of Christianity. There were models which consisted of genuine and faithful attempts to approach the idea. And, then, there were simulacra which tried use the name of Christianity for their own purposes.

And how was one to get a sense of the idea? The first task, I assumed, was to read the Gospels honestly. I realized these documents couldn't be taken as accurate historical accounts. But that didn't matter much to me and I couldn't grasp why it mattered to anybody else. Historical or not, they presented a figure who by living in a certain manner, rose above ordinary life in some respect and, and, thereby, offered a truth beyond ordinary truth. That truth was Christianity, and anything else which sought to claim the name was simply an encrustation.

It wasn't an altogether stupid notion, but it left a lot of questions unanswered -- questions of translation, exegesis ( critical explanation), interpretation, selection of the canon, and ultimately of authority.  I gradually came to see that these questions were so numerous, and so perplexing, that no single, solid definition of Christianity could emerge. I also began to realize that each of the definitions which claimed to be the real thing were so impregnated by cultural tastes the latter were actually the core of the belief system being proposed. Consequently, there was not a single Christianity. There are many Christianities, and they are so different from one another it becomes impossible to argue that they are all varieties of the same thing.

Reluctantly, I had to give up the idea of genuine Christianity, at least as a concept humans are capable of defining. Still, I've been able to hold onto to a certain element of Christian meaning.  I now have the relationship with Christianity that Socrates had with justice. He never was able to say, precisely, what it was but he never had any doubt about what it was not.  He knew injustice when he saw it, and he hated it.

We have reached a strangely ironical situation with respect to Christianity in the United States. Those who most volubly proclaim their Christianity in the political arena appeal to the most un-Christian element of the population. Last week in the Washington Post, in a column titled "Hard-liners for Jesus," Harold Meyerson spoke of "the mountain of moral and mortal hypocrisy that is our Christianized Republican Party." When he calls Republicans "Christian" he is, of course, referring to a simulacrum of the most deceptive nature. I won't go quite so far as to say that no Republican can be a Christian, but it is true that Republicanism demands a strong component of un-Christian values. It is not Christian to support the death penalty. It is not Christian to resort readily to war. It is not Christian to hate strangers. It is not Christian to want to punish people who have sought refuge from poverty in the United States. It is not Christian to seek to make wealthy people ever richer at the expense of those who have little.

I am seldom asked if I am a Christian and whenever I am I try to say something innocuous. But in my mind I reflect that I'm Christian enough to know what Christianity is not.  At the moment that's good enough for me. And in that spirit, I wish you a merry Christmas.


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