Monday, 22 February 2016

On Judicially Applied Judgement

Pope Francis recently made headlines when he questioned the Christianity of US politician and presidential hopeful Donald Trump, as a result of things Trump has said, and some of his policies. 

The Pope is quoted as having said "A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not of building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel."  He qualified this a little; "I say only that this man is not Christian if he has said things like that. We must see if he said things in that way and I will give him the benefit of the doubt."

Unsurprisingly, Mr. Trump reacted angrily to this, and insisted that the Pope had no right or authority of whatsoever to question his faith, or that of anyone else.  Obviously, in America, and especially in certain parts of America, your spiritual credentials are vital if you wish to gain office.  Trump’s supporters and the Pope’s detractors, who are not necessarily the same people at all, have pointed out that the Vatican has walls of its own, but to be fair to Francis, these were built a long time ago, and proved very useful in keeping out rowdy German tourists back in the 16th century.

However, the question of how much, or indeed whether at all anyone is in a position to make statements regarding someone’s religion is one I’d like to consider.

It will shock you to learn that on one occasion, I agreed with Richard Dawkins.  No, really!  I said as much on Facebook, and people wondered whether I’d been hacked.  It was only once, on one issue, but it happened.  It was in the run-up to the 2011 census, and Professor Dawkins was trying to persuade people not to tick the ‘Christian’ box purely as a default, instead choosing ‘No Religion’.  Obviously he was pushing this for reasons of his own, in order to demonstrate with statistics that the UK is no longer a majority Christian country, but I agreed with him.  I see no value in saying you’re a Christian if you never attend Church, never pray, never read the Bible, and don’t hold the fundamental beliefs of Christianity.  It seems intellectually dishonest unless you preface it with some qualifier like ‘cultural’.

But then of course, the question is, as Donald Trump has said, who is it that gets to decide who is Christian and who is not?  I mean, obviously I could do it, but even then some people might disagree with me, purely out of contrariness.  What constitute the ‘fundamental beliefs’ that one must hold to count oneself a Christian?  Certainly there are plenty of more conservative Christians who’d say that my acceptance of homosexuality, in glib defiance of Leviticus, discounts me immediately.  I might think, as the Pope appears to do, that if you harden your heart and act in a way that is uncaring of the suffering of the poor, refugees and immigrants, and would rather shut out, judge and condemn than welcome and forgive, then you can hardly be a follower of Christ.

We cannot see into men’s souls, nor should we want to.  However, I am wary of the assertion that self-identification should be the final word.  ‘I self-identify as a Christian, therefore you have no right to tell me I’m not’.  You can self-identify as a giraffe if you like, but unless you’ve got a tail, fur covered in dark patches, a long neck and those odd little horns, you’re fooling no-one but yourself.  You can claim to be a botanist, but if you have never studied botany, never read any books on the subject, have no interest in botany and assert that botany is the academic study of doorknobs, I’ll be forced to disagree with your self-identification.

Christianity is a rather broader label than either botany or giraffedom.  Nonetheless, it is my opinion (I make no claim that it’s anything else) that there are surely a few core criteria.  My day job is in marketing, and within this subject is the idea that a product is merely a collection of benefits.  “People don’t buy quarter-inch drill bits,” a quote by a famous entrepreneur goes, “they buy quarter-inch holes”.  One doesn’t buy a car, the theory runs, one buys a means of travelling swiftly and comfortably from A to B.  Beyond this ‘Core Product’ though, you have the expected product (everything you’d expect a car to come with; seats, a steering wheel, doors, an engine, a dashboard), the augmented product (the nice things that most cars nowadays come with; radio, sunroof, air conditioning) and the potential product (anything that a car might conceivably have).

The thing is, you could have every single thing a luxury super-car could have; drinks cooler, hi-tech music system, Sat-nav, shoe-polisher, flux capacitor etc etc etc, but if you remove the engine, you suddenly don’t have a car at all.  You have removed the core benefit, and what you’re left with is a very expensive husk that defeats its own purpose.

You can have a complex, well-thought out theology with all sorts of philosophical bells, whistles and curlicues, but there are certain core beliefs, which ought to lead to certain core behaviours, without which your car lacks an engine, and it is my opinion that you cannot truly claim to be a Christian without them.

Of course, then you are in real danger of drifting into something I’ve written about before, which is the belief that a person cannot be a True Christian™ unless they share a certain set of political or other ideological beliefs.  It’s an insidious and easily fallen into trap, and one that I am constantly wary of stumbling into.

After all, do I have the right or the authority to point the finger of judgement and excommunication at some poor wretch who, no doubt through an honest misunderstanding, has come to an opinion other than mine?  Of course not, any more than they have towards me, but I can hold an opinion on the subject, as of course can they.  We cannot know what is in other people’s hearts, only what they say and do.  Should we judge them?  No, we should not, but it is inevitable that we will do so.  It’s human nature, just as long as we bear in mind that our judgements are merely our opinions, worth no more or less than theirs.  It is merely one of a great many questions that only one Person is in a position to answer, and until that time, the best we can do is debate in as courteous and friendly a manner as is possible.

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