Monday, October 28, 2013

A rose by any other Name

If this is not a rose, email me and tell me what it is, please.
This story was told to me and others on Saturday:

A self-declared atheist was so enamoured with the peace and justice emphasis of some Mennonites that he began hanging around with them, participating in their activities and discussions, etc. At some time—while discussing this, that and the other—a partner in the conversation said, “You're a Christian, aren't you.” The atheist was indignant: “By no means; I'm an atheist, I believe in no God.” Troubled by this confusion, he began to read in a Bible that had been gathering dust on his bookshelf. What he read there filled him with consternation.

“Oh s**t!” the story has him saying. “I AM a Christian.”

Like most stories, the interpretation of this one belongs to the one hearing it. I heard it in a church, told to my fellow Mennonites so I pretty much know what interpretation was intended: the word of God is not bound by the strictures we place upon it. At least I think I know this. As I get older I'm finding that what I once considered ordinary concepts are muddier—rather than clearer—than they used to be. Go figure.

If I were to retell the story, it would be with the intention of illustrating that categorical thinking is rote thinking. When we declare someone to be “a Christian,” for instance, it's pretty much impossible to know what the declarer is saying unless you know where he's coming from. For a certain member of my family, it means the person in question is a “born again” person, a category that includes members of churches for whom “born again” is the essential, fundamental marker, and excluding all members of churches for whom it's not and, of course, all agnostics, atheists, materialists, secularists and any of the vast number of “ists” we talk about. (For a more refined definition of the “born again” Christian, a browse through the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada Statement of Fundamental andEssential Truths will help.)

There are signs that we are all becoming less “categorical” in our thinking as time goes by. The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, for instance, includes 30 or so member groups and although it enunciates a common creed which most could probably assent to (in part, if not entirely), it's almost certain that if they were to begin a debate on the details of this common creed, their cooperation on mutually-held concerns would end. Such is the nature of linking faith to Creeds that seek to set in stone (or, at least, on paper) “what we believe.” As is, they are able to speak with one voice on many issues. Rote thinking has been set aside for that purpose.

So could even an atheist be a Mennonite or a Baptist, a Pentecostal or a Catholic? What if he attended worship, learned the songs, participated in the activities but continued to insist that he didn't believe Jesus was God, but rather a very good prophet worthy of our loyalty and the best pattern for living? Given that, would it come to him one day that, “Oh s**t, I actually AM a Christian?”

(Conversely, I imagine there's a “Christian” out there somewhere who picked up Christopher Hitchens God is not Great and said after reading Chapter 15, Religion as an Original Sin . . .

“. . . Oh s**t, I AM an atheist!”)

A rose isn't described by its name; call it pigweed if you like, its brilliant colour and pleasing aroma won't change. I think there's a famous quote that makes that point. By a guy named Shakespeare, if I'm not mistaken. Through the mouth of Juliet, I seem to remember.

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