By Thomas Whitley
There is no such thing as Christianity. Let me repeat myself so you know I really meant to say it: There is no such thing as Christianity.
What we have instead are reifications and definitions. As with all definitions, the various definitions offered of “Christian,” “Christianity” and the like are exercises in limitation. That is, they necessarily draw boundaries to say what the thing is and what the thing is not.
The recent “Duck Dynasty” controversy has only made this truth more clear. Those in support of Phil Robertson have made claims that his expression is the “true” expression of Christianity because he simply shared the message of the Bible. Robertson is being lauded as a “hero” and as a good, Bible-believing Christian. Those who think that comparing homosexuality to bestiality is bad are “a bunch of anti-Christian, bigots” and “intolerant leftwing bullies.”
Many Christians who are opposed to Robertson’s views on homosexuality have argued that “true Christians” follow Jesus’ teachings on social justice and offer the reminder that we have no traditions of Jesus saying anything about homosexuality.
The argument goes back and forth, and the shouting just gets louder. But homosexuality is simply the latest site of contestation over the identity “Christian” in this country. Each side — or, more realistically, every side, since there are countless “sides” — though, has failed to see that they are fighting over who gets to offer a normative definition of “Christianity.”
These definitions are always self-serving. I have never seen a definition offered that left its proponents on the outside looking in. In other words, the fight is necessarily contrastive, it necessarily pits “us” against “them.”
The end goal is not truth or piety; it is power. “We” are the “true Christians,” while “they” are “backsliders” or “idolaters” or “non-Christians.” “We” possess the “truth,” while they are only ever characterized by “falsehood.”
This is far from new. Paul fought fiercely against the Jerusalem Church in the 1st century to define the terms under which Gentiles could enter into the fold. The Jerusalem Church and other “Judaizers” held that Gentiles needed to be circumcised and follow the whole Jewish law (i.e. become Jewish) before they could be a member of The Way.
Paul held that circumcision was not necessary for Gentiles because of the promised made to Abraham in Genesis 12 and 15. We can fast forward a few years to the promulgation of the words “heresy” and “heretic” in the writings of Irenaeus and Epiphanius. They both engaged in projects to identify and define the “heretics.” The underlying struggle was again one of definitions and power.
The same can be seen in the numerous theological controversies in the 4th and 5th centuries. Was Jesus fully God? Fully human? Both? Is there such a thing as the Trinity? If so, what is its nature? History teaches us that ultimately these decisions were made on the basis of who had the power. The views of those with the power and resources (e.g. access to the emperor, control of trade routes, etc.) won the day. Many will see this as a cynical look at the history of Christianity. Others will see it as heresy and blasphemy. And that’s okay.
My point is simply this: from the beginning, this movement that many today call Christianity and that many of its earliest adherents appear to have called The Way has been characterized by struggles over who gets to determine what is “right” and what is “wrong,” what is “true” and what is “false,” what is “orthodox” and what is “heresy,” what is “Christian” and what is not.
And nothing has changed. While the battle lines have shifted some and the sites of contestation have moved, we are still fighting the same war. Everyone still believes and argues that it is their definition that is right while every other definition is wrong. And, as has been true throughout history, it is those with the power and the resources that are controlling the conversation.
All we have are definitions and reifications. There is no such thing as Christianity.
This commentary appeared previously in the ABPnews blog.