or, Whose orthodoxy is the right one?
There’s been a lot of talk recently about whether Islamic State militants are truly Islamic. They of course claim to be the true representatives of Islam, but mainstream Muslims argue that I.S. absolutely do not represent them.
With Christianity also, mainstream and progressive believers often feel that what we see as the true Christian message is being hi-jacked by the fundamentalists and fanatics with their homophobic, racist, sexist or anti-science agendas.
But how do we know that our version rather than the extremists’ is actually the right one? Is it even possible to define what is and isn’t genuinely and authentically Christian?
Religion – monolithic or messy?
Recently I was at an interfaith gathering in Croydon, designed to promote harmony and understanding between different religions. Ironically, I ended up drawn into a fruitless conversation with a militant anti-theist.
This good fellow had, he maintained, studied the history and scriptures of all the major religions, and could authoritatively pronounce that they were all fundamentally and historically brutal, bloody and bad.
What struck me was his utter conviction that he as a self-proclaimed atheist academic knew the reality of my faith better than I did. And the more I said ‘but I don’t recognise what you’re describing as my religion’, the more he assured me that his was the reality, and mine was mistaken.
Interestingly, this approach mirrors that of the religious fundamentalists, insisting that only their version is true and all others false.
I’ve encountered before the anti-theist insistence that each religion is a homogeneous and monolithic entity. If some Christians once fought the Crusades or conducted the Spanish Inquisition, then that’s the reality of what Christianity is. If some churches have used the Bible to justify homophobia or apartheid, then that’s what the Bible says and what the church is.
But this just isn’t my experience of the confusingly complex, diverse and often conflicting set of people, beliefs and practices which make up my own or any community of faith.
Re-defining Christianity to suit ourselves?
I can see it from the anti-theist’s perspective. It must be very annoying when they’ve chucked at us all the awfulness that’s been done or daftness that’s been believed in the name of Christianity, and we just say ‘oh, that’s not our kind of Christianity – we would never condone that.’ We can’t always just disclaim all responsibility for our co-religionists’ views and actions. But neither do we have to accept as ‘Christian’ everything that’s ever been taught or done under the guise of Christian orthodoxy.
It also seems obvious to an outsider that there should be a single officially-designated, objectively-definable version of Christianity, which we have to agree to and abide by or else not call ourselves Christian. We can’t just re-define Christianity to suit our preferences and leave out the unpalatable or embarrassing bits – that’s not cricket!
Well, I do accept that it’s mighty inconvenient, inconsiderate and unfair for there not to be a correct version of Christianity that others can hold us to and beat us up with. But the trouble is, there just isn’t – at least not that anyone can agree on.
Whose orthodoxy is right?
Many have of course tried to define an absolutely orthodox, standard, authorised version, but they generally disagree – hence the estimated 40,000+ Christian denominations. And a similar principle holds for Islam, and Hinduism, and Buddhism, and pretty much all the other faiths.
For sure, there are some historical creeds and catechisms and a few core beliefs that give a broad, general outline, some basic common ground. But within and around that there are almost as many variations of Christian belief and practice as there are individual Christians. And there are almost as many interpretations of the Bible as there are people who read it. One believer’s creed is another believer’s heresy.
And that’s just the thing with religion – however much some parts of the official churches try to control and define it, it’s an inherently diverse and evolving phenomenon, not a uniform or static one. And I for one am very glad of that.
Ultimately, I’m not sure that an absolutely orthodox set of beliefs and practices could ever be possible to determine, nor that it would be of that much benefit if we could. But that’s for next time…