Fuzzy Around the Edges


Someone wrote a letter to the San Francisco Chronicle the other day, weighing in on the subject of Madonna's interest in the Kabalah, which has sparked some controversy in Jewish circles. Declaring that an earlier letter writer's defense of Madonna's "immersion in Judaism" was "patently offensive", this individuals insists that

Judaism isn't an a la carte menu of options. There's an entire body of beliefs, principles and rituals that Jews adhere to. You can't embrace only one aspect and proclaim yourself an "ambassador of Judaism." Shame on Ms. Diamond for letting her sense of celebrity cloud her judgment.
Not being Jewish, I am certainly not an expert on what makes one a Jew. But in general, I think I can safely say that the "all or nothing" argument advanced by that letter writer has been heard all too often before in Christian circles, so there is a very familiar ring about what he was saying. The idea that a given religion is a package that you must either accept as a whole or else reject entirely is often touted by the defenders of the faith who are insistent on maintaining its purity. This seems to be a universal effort by those who would try to put a wall around their religion, regardless of what the faith happens to be; but I would argue that the wall is an illusion.

The history of religion has shown how illusory these walls really are. Religions have throughout history been marked by diversity, by evolution, by splits. This is true of Buddhism, for example--consider the example of Theravada Buddhism versus Mahayana. Mahayana Buddhism in turn has evolved into various sects, including Tibetan, Zen, and Jodo Shinshu Buddhism. Islam has Shiites and Sunnis. Christianity, of course, has been marked by endless divisions that we are all too aware of. The list goes on. Judaism itself, the mother faith of Christianity, was the product of an evolutionary process in which the "essentials" proved to be a moving target, as demonstrated by a cursory examination of the Bible. Yahweh changed from being seen as a tribal deity to a universal God of all humankind. The idea of an afterlife developed late in pre-Christian Judaism. And so on. And during Jesus's time, Judaism was wracked by an explosion of sects and cults--think of the Essenes, the Zealots, and the followers of John the Baptist to name just three.

Many in the Christian faith would try to argue that, despite the various differences that now exist within the Christian faith communities, there exist certain essentials that act as the determining factors of what makes one a Christian. You can disagree on minor details, according to this viewpoint, but the essentials are unassailable. If you subscribe to those essentials, then you are a Christian. If you don't, then you aren't a Christian. All we need to do is figure out what those essentials are. Simple task, right?

Well, maybe not. I was thinking of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's concept of the language game to illustrate why it isn't so simple, so I did a little internet research. Lo and behold, I found a book that Google has scanned into its web site, titled The Philosophy of Religious Language: Sign, Symbol, and Story, by Dan Stiver. I found a passage that summarizes Wittgenstein's ideas on this subject so well that I want to cite it here:
Wittgenstein used the metaphor of a game to warn against attempts to define the meanings of words too precisely. Contrary to such attempts inspired in part by his own earlier work, he suggested that we can hardly find a common or precise definition of the word "game". Think of the various kinds of games: baseball, football, card games, games with teams, games between only two people, solitaire games, and noncompetitive games. There is not a common essence; rather, there are overlapping characteristics between the games at one end of a spectrum to another. An analogy, Wittgenstein suggested, is the way the strands of a rope combine to form a sturdy rope, but the strands at one end do not reach to the other. He also compared the similarity to "family resemblance", that is to say the way in which members of a family resemble one another but not necessarily in any one particular trait. (p. 65).
I would argue that the so-called "essentials" of the Christian faith are like those strands in Wittgenstein's rope; and thus I believe it is a fruitless endeavor to try to reduce Christianity to a single set of "essentials". The strands of the Christian rope do not reach from end to end; any single strand or even set of strands is intertwined with further strands, which in turn are intertwined with additional strands. But no individual strand is the rope itself. Using another one of Wittgenstein's analogies, Christianity is like a family, with its various elements bearing family resemblances to other elements of the faith, but it is not always the same trait in every case.

I might define what is essential about my faith--the strands that I claim as my own. But is it useful or even legitimate to define who else is and who is not a Christian? Are religious boundaries as discrete as some would believe, or are they fuzzy around the edges? Trying to build a wall around Christianity is, I believe, a vain exercise. I would even go further and suggest that erecting walls is often more about the exercise of power and gate keeping than it is about distilling the truth of Jesus's life and message--which my faith regards as at least in part a celebration of God's extravagant welcome. Defining these walls allows those who are "in" to decide who is welcomed into the community and who is not. But even aside from the philosophical problem of defining Christian essentials, I also believe that Jesus did not erect walls--he broke them down.


Heather said...

I always find it interesting that the essentials of Christianity never seem to include loving one's neighbor as one's self, or loving the enemy. The essentials seem to take the "easy" way out, and just focus on beliefs.

Mystical Seeker said...

Heather, I agree. Affirming certain dogmatic beliefs is easier than actually following the example that Jesus lived and taught, which is fraught with risks and dangers.