Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Begone, heretic!

Joe Carter pretty much casts Obama out of the Christian faith.

It's always interesting, to me, the number of people who claim to devotion to a higher power and yet cast themselves as the arbiter of who, precisely, that higher power speaks to. I'm quite certain that a actual Christian theologian could go step by step through Joe Carter's faith and find heresies and sacrileges aplenty, depending on whose exact definition of Christianity we're talking about. I have no authority or right to comment on what's really Christian. But it is an obvious and banal historical fact that what, exactly, constitutes Christian faith is immensely complicated and incredibly divisive, and we have not exactly had any communication from a Christian God to tell us who's right. In the face of that confusion, that disagreement, I have a hard time understanding how people can be so quick to outcast various claimants to Christian faith.

Then again, there are very many things I don't quite understand about very many religious people, try as I might to be equitable and fair with them.

35 comments:

paul said...

Well ... I read that interview earlier today, and remembered thinking, "Wow, that's the most vague mushy liberal 'Christianity' I've seen in a while." (I'm an Eastern Orthodox Christian). Carter strips down Christianity to the absolute basics (the Nicene Creed, which 99% of Christians agree with), and even then, Obama falls way short. I actually recall having this unease, when Obama talked about --- a few months ago, I've of course forgotten exactly where/when, in the 20,000 election-related items I've read in the past 18 months --- talked about "Jesus," it sounded so creepy and vague, like it was almost entirely political calculation. In fact it's one of the only 'inauthentic' moments I've seen in Obama. My guess is that he's just very moderate/conservative in the sense of not really needing religion or not really seeing the point, and then his mother's secular humanism had a huge effect on him ...

But, as to your point; there are some very basic things that every Christian would hold, and to use language about Christ the way Obama uses it, well ... just let me refer you to your previous post about language. I feel like I want to say, if Obama is a Christian, then e.g. Hegel is a Christian (with the usual caveats about how we can't know the state of someone's soul, etc).

George Smiley said...

Prepare to face the wrath of the People's Front of Judea, Heretic!

Freddie said...

The importance of the Nicene Creed is the sort of thing that I have a hard time understanding, considering it was written some 300 years after the death of Jesus.

Moff said...

It's late and I just got home from seeing AC/DC rock the Garden and I'm a little drunk, but as a Christian, I tend to think that worrying about how good of a Christian someone else runs counter to the whole point.

But that's just me. Many folks seem deeply committed to the notion that Christianity is about maintaining some kind of standard, despite the abundant evidence to the contrary.

paul said...

Right ... I suppose I meant in the context of Carter's article, i.e. that's what he mentioned.

I think the point still applies, though; it's absolutely true that Christianity was (before the first Nicene council, and to the present day) is extremely diverse; and that at one point there were more Gnostics than Orthodox, etc. But this has to do with Obama, who is claiming to be a member of a relatively mainstream (apart from a few black liberation theology-ish sermons) Protestant church, and that his views don't align with 99% of Protestant theology. (Well, maybe 90% in the present day). One can of course still be a pre-Nicene-esque Gnostic, but Obama isn't even that, I guess, is the point; he holds an extremely wan and vague mushy "Jesus is the feeling that I get when I help people," or whatever, like New Age BS. Even putting aside the question of whether Carter or myself can say that this "isn't Christianity" in an absolute sense (I don't think either of us would actually say this), the general point that he was making is that Obama is claiming to be a Christian in some normal Nicene-creed-ish sense, but really it's not that.

Matoko said...

Doesn't being a Christian just mean one believes in Christ?

Moff said...

@matoko: Well, believing in him as not just a historical figure, but some kind of incarnation of God whose death and resurrection redeemed the world from sin. Participation in the sacraments of baptism and communion are typically considered more or less necessary to formalize one's Christianity, too.

But yeah, your basic point is correct.

Matoko said...

Then....technically Obama is a Christian...right?
All those other things, the Nicene creed, the trinity and the godhead and the resurrection...are sort of an optional superset....right?

Moff said...

@matoko: That's my understanding. Freddie puts it well in the post and in his comment.

Now, that said, having slept and sobered up and actually gone to read the Joe Carter piece, I can see Carter's point. Obama is giving a lot of wishy-washy answers on points that are generally universal among Christian denominations. (I don't really know why he brings the Apostle's and Nicene creeds into it; it dilutes the argument.) "A bridge between God and man" is a nice way of dodging the question of Christ's divinity—to many Christians, I'm sure it sounds like Obama is trying to have his cake and eat it, too, by citing the centrality of Christ to his faith but at the same time not scaring secular humanists by saying he believes there's a magic old man in the sky. (Also, for the record, the Nicene Creed was at the center of a major debate in Christianity's early years over Christ's precise nature. That it won and was adopted is not necessarily convincing evidence, again, as Freddie says, that God thinks it's right.)

His answer about sin doesn't really pass theological muster either, IMHO; it probably should be defined as "being out of alignment with God's values," even if God's and Obama's values happen to be the same. This is a complex point, but Obama's answer does smack a bit of moral relativism.

And the bit about Hell and Heaven is complicated, too. I also have a lot of trouble believing so much of the world could be damned, but the Christians who do believe it have plenty of support for that belief. But again, what is Obama going to say without alienating so much of his base? More to the point, there are plenty of Christians who agree with him that God wouldn't do that, and the fact that the fundamentalists say those other Christians are wrong doesn't actually make them so.

Anyway, the whole thing is just another example of how both the mass media and its* most public practicers mishandle a subject as nuanced as Christian theology. And in any case, while we're free in this country to ask whatever questions we want of our leaders, this shit really shouldn't be relevant. Obama's Christianity, however he practices it, ought to have no direct bearing on his role as president.

*Christianity's

Moff said...

@moff: That was a bit convoluted, but the point is: Carter's points make some sense, but they're irrelevant. And Obama's wishy-washiness makes sense too, since he's a politician who was running for president.

rusty said...

the Nicene Creed, which 99% of Christians agree with

This phrase is funny. I'd say 49.5% of that 99% would claim that the Nicene Creed is a non-starter for them in defining their Christian faith.

The Nicene Creed is incredibly divisive, and the Apostle's Creed isn't much better. It drives people away from the Church, or any church. When they return, almost all of the returnees dive into the Gospels and other books of the New Testament to reach a definition of Christianity. Why use a definition devised by a bunch of 4th century bishops when you can go directly to the source?

rusty said...

Correction on the above point...

I should have said "go closer to the source." The Gospels and books of the New Testament were not authored by Jesus nor even first hand witnesses of Jesus.

What the Creeds are are distillations of interpretations of scripture. As such, I find them less useful.

PoliticallySpeaking said...

OK - so some rules some guys came up with 330+ years after Jesus of Nazareth died are what Carter is basing his definition of "Christian" on? Boy, am I glad the Constitution is harder to change than getting a bunch of good-ol-boys together to define "christianity". Were these the same guys who decided that Mary (not the Mary that was Jesus' mother) was a prostitute, even though there's not a word of that in the New Testament?

Interesting.

Folks like Carter worry me. They create their own definitions, based on picking and choosing their source material, then decide who fits that perverted definition. Kind of like the "What defines a patriot" bullcookies W and his gang have pushed on us over the past 7+ years.

Anonymous said...

Look, let's just cut to the chase. The label of 'Christian' can't just be self-adhered. If we allow that, then people might use the label for nefarious reasons -- like duping people out of money or votes. So what we need is a kind of tribunal or regulatory agency which determines whether someone is or is not a Christian. And there should also be penalties for passing yourself off as a Christian, like there are for passing yourself off as a doctor. Death by stoning would be good. In any case, somebody has to be in charge of making sure that all Christians meet a minimal level of competency, not just in their knowledge of Christianity, but in their behavior. Which of course means we need some way to follow Christians around and see what they're actually doing day-to-day, in order to make sure they didn't simply bone up on a test or learn a few catchphrases and such. Being a Christian is a serious business, and we can't let just anyone call themselves a Christian when it doesn't serve our political interests.

Tom B said...

Joe Carter is an arrogant prick who is only out to trap Obama with the same kind of smug hypocirsy one finds in the Gospels where the Pharisees look to trap Jesus. Look, dude, Obama's not a theologian. In fact, most Christians are going to struggle with these big questions of faith. That's OK. You should hear what some of my students come up with. But that's because it's tough to formulate an answer about Jesus' identity. Just ask Athanasius or Cyril. Jesus is personally divine, yes, but in many ways he certainly "bridges" the gap, as Anselm might put it, preciesly because he is both human and divine. Only the God-Man can do it. Jesus is both brother and redeemer because he knows us well and is completely one with us. So, leave Obama alone, fool. You're only looking to trip him up on a topic that has stymied the church for centuries. If you think you can easily explain the concept of a two natured, single personed being, like us in all things but sin, yet one with the Father, though at the same time completly human, best of luck! You will inevitably fail.

JordanT said...

I'm not sure how saying that Jesus is a bridge between God and Man isn't just the basic metaphor for what Jesus is. Who doesn't remember the canyon metaphor that separates God and Man and Jesus is the only way to "cross" that canyon? I've seen that metaphor used in a lot of churches to try to describe Jesus.

Second, on sin Obama is also basically correct. You act the way you do based on your faith, not because of any reward or punishment.

Third on hell/heaven, none of us know what's going to happen. Do we ascend immediately into heaven? Is there a period of time where you can redeem yourself and avoid hell? Is hell only reserved for those that explicitly rejected Christ? The only way to know what's going to happen, would be to die or to know God's mind. For the first, you can't share the knowledge and the second is impossible.

Traveling Mom said...

I went to a small southern Baptist womens college and in our comparative religions class we had a guest lecture from a Priest. The lecture was all about using logic to get all the Baptists to admit that they were sinning and damned for not being Catholic. It was about 15 years ago- but from what I remember he started with the Nicene, asking "Do you believe in this", yes they did. So then you have to believe (here is the part I don't remember) that because it was written at that same time as the Nicene- so if one is wrong so is the other- eventually getting to the part where Jesus gave the "keys" (stewardship) of the church to Peter the first pope- and since Jesus is divine he knows everything future and past so the path of the church is as God intended so if you don't believe in Catholicism then you are admitting you don't believe Jesus is divine- which means you are not a true Christian- ego- no one is a true Christian but Catholics.
His point was that defining faith is an arbitrary conclusion we all make because faith means believing without proof so no one is "right" but God and so true faith requires humility because without proof we are all just making our best guess. Sounds like Joe Carter could use a dump truck full of humility.

Anonymous said...

@ Anonymous

Wow. No one was expecting the Spanish Inquisition.

furpurrson said...

And who made Joe Carter the arbiter of the President-elect's beliefs, anyway?

I have a big problem with religious arrogance, whether it comes from the Vatican, professional theologians, mega-church pastors, or intellectual laypeople. I don't think any of us has any right to judge the validity of Mr. Obama's beliefs.

Jason C said...

@tom b

Amen brother! Heartily agree with your post.

Joe's article/post was incredibly pharisaical (which is to say, intellectually dishonest).

Look, going back to Obama's original interview, I for one know that I give very different-sounding answers to religious questions when I'm (a) at church and (b) in a secular/skeptical setting. It's not that my beliefs vary - just the expression of them. I'm free with the orthodox religious vocabulary at church, where I know that such expressions are readily understood and accepted without much need for argument or dispute as to their meaning.

However, among the non-believing, the skeptical, and the merely secular, I use a different set of terms, and different way of speaking. It's the difference between an insider, and an outsider looking in. You use the language that your interlocutor can relate to - an impartial, even dispassionate expression, to separate the ideas of religion from your feelings about those ideas.

JonF said...

Re: But, as to your point; there are some very basic things that every Christian would hold, and to use language about Christ the way Obama uses it, well ...

Anyone who says, sincerely, "Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior" (the ancient "ICHTHYS" formula) is a Christian. They may of course be heterodox or even outright heretical, but they have acknowledged the one essential truth that sets Christianity apart from other faiths. The Arians were Christians after all-- they were just heretical Christians, and as an Orthodox Christian I would probably describe a fair amount of American Protestantism as heretical if pressed on the matter.
But we also need to remmeber that politicians must represent all the people and we arent electing them be national bishops or to teach theology. I don't think you can't find a president whose religious pronouncements weren't full of mushy, squishy feel-good Civil Religion type utterances. Certainly George Bush's few essays at theological wisdom should have left any serious student of the subject cringing. So let's cut Obama some slack here and not act like a bunch of latter-day Pharisees whose mission in life is to judge everyone else.

Tony said...

So Obama believes in God but not necessarily in the divinity of Jesus? Did we just elect the first Jewish president?

Tim said...

Obama is an Emersonian.

Anonymous said...

Christian = fix yourself, love everybody. If you love yourself, fix everybody, well that = BS.

Michael said...

That this is even an issue bolsters my feeling that when religion and politics mix both become poisoned. Being agnostic, maybe I'm biased but it blows my mind that this matters to people when we are at war in two countries and in a major financial crisis. I mean really? Really??

Anonymous said...

Paul,

99% of Christians agree with the Nicene Creed? Really? Which Christians do you mean?

I live in the "Bible Belt,"
attended a fundamentalist church most of my early life, graduated from a fundamentalist Christian high school, college, and graduate school (not a religion major).

I can guarantee you that I am the only person I know who even knows what the Nicene Creed is. However, the tenets of the "creed" are derived from Catholicism. Fundamentalists have no use for, or interest in, papal edicts. (Ask Ms. Palin.)

ly_yng said...

So let me get this straight: we're already turned Obama into our political savior - we need to turn him into the next Martin Luther as well?

I'm an atheist, and I very much like Obama's brand of Christianity - I'd love to see it spread and become the mainstream (if it isn't already). I sort of reject the whole "soul" concept, so I primarily like to see religion used as an instrument to bring about productive social behavior. Obama is certainly of that ilk.

nerdoff said...

I hope Obama's faith is phony. I couldn't respect him if I thought he actually believed Christ was the son of God. Only a simple minded fool could believe such a fantasy.

Anonymous said...

I rather doubt most self-described Christians believe wholeheartedly in the Nicene Creed, phrase for phrase. I think it's questionable whether a majority even know what the Nicene Creed is. Terrible to hypothesize without the data I know, but I suspect Obama's words about hell reflect the mainstream opinion of a sizeable majority of self-described Christians. It all sounds quite mainstream to me, really.

Anonymous said...

Boy, I sure look forward to the day we can actually elect a non-Christian, rendering this sort of nonsense moot. Is it possible? A Buddhist or Muslim or Hindu? Or how about an...atheist, gasp! Oh, never mind...

Lindsey said...

Is Obama an "orthodox" Christian...probably not. Could a man, a black man at that, get elected parsing those theological beliefs in public? Hell no. That's what is disgusting.

Anonymous said...

Joe Carter doesn't present any evidence that Obama contradicted the Nicene Creed. Ok, so Obama called Jesus the "bridge" between God and man. How is that a denial of Christ's divinity? Christians in fact believe what Obama said here. Ok, so Obama doubts that dying unbaptized is a guarantee of eternal damnation. Ever heard of the doctrine of implicit baptism of desire? Well maybe Mr. Carter doesn't believe in it, but lots of orthodox Christians do. If the notion were so heretical, you'd think that a rulebook as exacting as the "Catechism of Catholic Church" would say so. But you won't find any denials of it there, and for good reason: lots of good Catholics (and lots of other good Christians) don't think you have to be baptized to go to heaven. And as to Obama's profession of ignorance about the nature of the afterlife, he's in the company, at least, of St. Paul(1 Corinthians 13:9-12). I'm in favor of enforcing some standards on the meanings of words like "Christian," but Carter's way out of line here.

paul said...

I'm guessing this thread is dead by now, but why not; yes, far less than 99% of Christians believe in the Nicene Creed. But 99% of Christians believe in some or most of the propositions in the creed, which is (vaguely) what I was thinking of when I wrote that.

Anderson said...

"saying that Jesus is a bridge between God and Man"

The word "pontifex" comes to mind here.

Reading the notorious interview, I myself get the sense that religious belief, vs. good works, is not a big part of Obama's life.

That aligns him with 75% of the people who attend Christian churches.

Jason said...

If anybody is interested in a Baha'i's view on the nature and reture of Christ, follow the URL.

http://emmanuel9.blogspot.com/2008/04/biblical-case-for-bahaullah.html