In the modern classic Christmas movie National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) puts so many lights on his house that when he throws the switch, the whole city must move to nuclear override. As he basks in the blaze of his exterior illumination, his crotchety father-in-law (E.G. Marshall) observes that the little lights are not twinkling as they should be.
Don't you just hate it when you are all caught up in your own magnificence and someone comes along and points out a flaw? Don't you hate it even more when that somebody is someone you don't like, an outsider, an enemy?
In 1927, Bertrand Russell delivered a lecture to the National Secular Society titled, "Why I AmNot a Christian." As any good philosopher would do, he begins by defining his terms and immediately stumbles upon a difficulty. What is a Christian? Take a look at his own words. Boldface has been added.
Perhaps it would be as well, first of all, to try to make out what one means by the word Christian. It is used these days in a very loose sense by a great many people. Some people mean no more by it than a person who attempts to live a good life. In that sense I suppose there would be Christians in all sects and creeds; but I do not think that that is the proper sense of the word, if only because it would imply that all the people who are not Christians -- all the Buddhists, Confucians, Mohammedans, and so on -- are not trying to live a good life. I do not mean by a Christian any person who tries to live decently according to his lights. I think that you must have a certain amount of definite belief before you have a right to call yourself a Christian. The word does not have quite such a full-blooded meaning now as it had in the times of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. In those days, if a man said that he was a Christian it was known what he meant. You accepted a whole collection of creeds which were set out with great precision, and every single syllable of those creeds you believed with the whole strength of your convictions.
Nowadays it is not quite that. We have to be a little more vague in our meaning of Christianity. I think, however, that there are two different items which are quite essential to anybody calling himself a Christian. The first is one of a dogmatic nature -- namely, that you must believe in God and immortality. If you do not believe in those two things, I do not think that you can properly call yourself a Christian. Then, further than that, as the name implies, you must have some kind of belief about Christ. The Mohammedans, for instance, also believe in God and in immortality, and yet they would not call themselves Christians. I think you must have at the very lowest the belief that Christ was, if not divine, at least the best and wisest of men. If you are not going to believe that much about Christ, I do not think you have any right to call yourself a Christian.
Poor Bertrand would be positively perplexed nearly ninety years after his talk to see just how loose the word "Christian" has become. In his opening paragraph, I agree with him completely. First of all, there must be certain non-negotiable aspects to being a Christian. A pop star who does nothing more than wear cross-shaped jewelry does not meet the standard. Oh, I know, people will say that I am judging here. Okay, let us not think of any particular pop star. Instead, let us acknowledge that the wearing of a cross necklace in and of itself does not make a person a Christian. Russell is right that one must have some kind of belief about God and Christ. We will set aside for the moment what those beliefs should consist of.
What embarrassed me, as I am sure his father-in-law's remark embarrassed Clark Griswold, was this atheist philosopher's plain pointing out that there was once a time when people knew what it meant to be a Christian, that the definition of a Christian was "full blooded," and that such a time is no more. It is embarrassing, illogical, and just plain wrong that this is no longer the case. Of course, Russell points to the times of Augustine and Aquinas, times before the Reformation and the Enlightenment. In the early 21st century, we are now faced with runaway fission, a nuclear reaction gone horribly wrong. Christians fight against killing babies in the womb as other Christians fight for a woman's right to murder. Christians teach how to live morally with regard to sexuality even while ordaining those openly practice sodomy. Some Christians embrace ecumenism while other Christians burn the Koran.
"Oh, but those people are not Christians," you say. Which ones? The ones who support abortion or those who are opposed to ordaining homosexuals? "Well, those are tricky," you say. "I was talking about the Westboro Baptist nut jobs who want to burn the Koran." Sorry, but it is not so easy as that. Who is to say that the Westboro folks are not Christian? If we say they are not by reason of appealing to the Bible, that argument will quickly fall apart, for even they use the Bible to support their actions, and clearly biblical warrant is used on both sides of abortion and homosexuality debates, to name only two. If we say they are not by reason of tradition, we are met with the legitimate question, "Whose tradition?" A similar response is made to claims of authority.
Richard John Neuhaus wrote (I cannot remember where, although I think he may have been quoting Carl Piepkorn), that every Protestant should ask himself each day, "Why am I not Catholic?" Neuhaus himself reached the day when he no longer had a good answer and was received into the Church. Yes, there are many pressing issues Christians are called to address. We must work against poverty. We must teach all that Jesus commanded and baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirity, per His command. We must visit those in prison and tend to the sick. We must also tend to the earthen vessel in which we have this treasure, for as more and more cracks develop, we run the very real risk of losing countless people who see nothing but a great spillage running out onto the ground.
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