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Monday, January 23, 2012

Zombies of Christianity

The "Walking Dead" of Christian Discussions

For those who are not familiar with the usage of the term "zombie" when talking about topics in Christianity: Everyone knows that much diversity exists within Christianity related to our doctrines. This is where all of the different denominations come from and even smaller divisions within them. Many of the doctrines are hotly debated with no progress towards agreement. Many of the members of such discussions on the internet (especially) tend to hold their position without critically examining it or alternatives. The discussions tend to be just a reiteration of the same arguments and accusations without any actual thought. The discussions and debates never "die", not because good arguments are actually being recognized and addressed with counter-arguments being addressed following, but because people hold their hands over their ears and just repeat their points. The person mindlessly wonders around and goes into action anytime they see someone that they disagree with. There is rarely any progress in understanding for either member of the discussion- the result is typically the same as if the discussion never took place. Both the person and the topic are considered "zombies". Its a playful (though, oddly accurate) term that is used mainly because of its cultural popularity and ability to convey a specific mental image for what we're describing. Zombies remind me of people who simply like to just offer opinions, but without backing them up or defending their positions.

Now, I have had many discussions with those in the Church who disagree with me on a particular doctrine. We offer arguments and counter-arguments. We make strides to understand the other's view properly (avoiding strawmen) and learn to articulate our own views in more nuanced ways, so the other can understand our view better. Our discussions continue, but not because we are mindlessly repeating our points, but because our points are being engaged by our "opponent". Points are reiterated only at appropriate times and never so often that they lose their thrust. Our points are respected and addressed; that engagement forces our minds to work harder to maintain a specific position, and in some cases we (or they) may be persuaded to the other position, or just to the point of realizing that our (or their) position is not the only orthodox view. Both of these results bring about more civilized discussion and gracious disagreement. Even though the topic continues to be discussed, and the people discussing are eager to discuss it, neither are considered "zombies" because of the progress that is made as a result of having the discussion. That progress would not be present if the discussion had never taken place. The people in these discussions do not merely offer opinions, they make truth-claims and offer a defense of their claims.

A Zombie Was I

I have to admit that when I was younger, I was a zombie. Everything in the first paragraph described me. But then, I was challenged to a point that I could no longer cover my ears. What was challenged? One belief that I thought was necessary to be believed in order to be a Christian. Anytime I heard something that seemed to contradict that belief, I pounced. The problem was that even though I could defend the "truth" of the belief (I've since changed my belief), I could not defend the idea that it was essential for Christianity. Talk about deflating my blown-up ego! What this forced me to do was to examine what I believed is essential for a Christian to believe and what is not essential for a Christian to believe. There are so many topics that the discussions will never die because we have not first discussed the "essential" doctrine that one side believes is at stake. In some cases, we don't even know, ourselves, what "essential" doctrine we believe is being threatened. Every person has a list of what they believe is essential for Christianity, and many of the "zombie" topics are based on differences in this list. Not only do we need to identify what items are on our list, but we need to identify what is on the list for those with whom we disagree.

Some people (who claim to be Christians and who do not) want to remove from and add to our lists. As a defender of the Christian faith (and one who wishes to continue discussing the truth of my specific views within Christianity), I need to be able to defend my positions- why I have a specific "controversial" item in the list, or why I do not include another item in my list. In other words, I need to know specifically what I am defending and why I am defending it. If I know what and why, I can better formulate how.

Identifying Heretics

As I mentioned above, I have changed my view on a topic that has reached "zombie" status among many Christians. As one who is still seeking God and still wanting to learn more about Him, my highest desire is to know when I believe something that is not true, and especially when I believe something that violates the truths of Christianity. Because of that, if I hold a belief that is heretical, I want to know, so I can adjust or abandon it. In so many of these "zombie" discussions, the people accuse the other side of violating an essential doctrine. By doing this, the implication is that the other side is being "heretical". Though many refuse to use the word "heretic" (because its politically incorrect) to describe the other side, the other side knows that is what is being insinuated, and they react (appropriately or inappropriately) to that understanding.

Personal Attacks

Too many people are so sensitive to being called "heretics" these days (why it is considered politically incorrect), that it has become an emotional and personal attack, which is not a logical way to argue. People are rightly concerned, though, with the accusation because the implications of such an accusation is that everything the person says or does is evil. If such an implication is accepted, it can have huge consequences, especially regarding others' willingness to fellowship with them or support their efforts to expand the Kingdom. But the implication is what is normally reacted to, not the accusation itself. If someone wants to even insinuate that another holds a heretical belief, that claim needs to be defended. Likewise, we need to be allowed to defend against the claim.

The Danger of Assumptions

Most people have had experiences with making assumptions when they should not have done so. Those who have can testify to the traditional claim of what "assuming does" (if you're easily offended, don't bother looking it up). It is extremely important in these discussions that we not assume what is in the list of what a person believes is essential. My favorite phrase that betrays an assumption is "...obviously violates..." To add insult to injury ("heretic"), those who use similar phrases are accusing the other person of knowingly spreading false doctrine (being a "false prophet"). There is another level of "sinfulness" that is insinuated with the accusation that someone KNOWS that they are a heretic and is purposefully spreading false doctrine. How gracious do we look when we falsely accuse someone of something with such implications?

Avoid Assumptions, Encourage Discussion

Obviously, we do not want to be correctly accused of making false assumptions, yet we want to be able to identify when someone is wrong (heretical). The way that we do that is to first define a key term. We must understand that a "heretic" is simply someone who denies an essential doctrine of Christianity. Then we need to identify what essential doctrine is being denied. In order to make sure that we do not make an assumption of what one holds to be essential (or not), we need to discuss the possible essentials by asking these two questions: Does the other person believe that the doctrine I believe is violated is actually essential for Christianity; and does the other person believe that the doctrine is actually violated by their belief? Obviously, agreement on the answers to these questions will not determine if, in fact, someone is heretical, but it will make us more cautious about calling someone a heretic (or even insinuating it) or accepting just any belief.

Defending The Status of "Essential" Doctrines

When someone implies that my belief has violated an essential doctrine of Christianity (thus my being a "heretic"), I try to get out of them what, exactly, my particular belief has violated. If they are willing to engage (and not just cover their ears and repeat their point), and if we identify the essential belief they believe to be violated, we discuss it. There are two possibilities (that are not necessarily mutually exclusive) for continuing the discussion: First, if I believe that it is not an essential doctrine, I defend why I believe that it is not, and I ask them to defend why they believe that it is (I might change my mind). Our discussion must take place at this foundational level before we can expect any progress on the belief originally being debated. If, in fact, the belief is not essential, then it doesn't really matter if someone holds it or not, or any other belief that is based on its truth or falsehood. But in order to determine if a belief is essential, both sides must present their arguments (for their view and against the other view), and those arguments need to be engaged. We also need to make sure that we are not emotionally attached to the idea of a certain doctrine being essential. If it is demonstrated that it is not, then we need to be humble enough to acknowledge that fact and remove it from our list of essential doctrines. Likewise, if we don't believe a doctrine to be essential, but it is demonstrated that it is, then we can't be so emotionally attached to that idea that we can't accept it (by adding it to our list of essential doctrines) and move on to the next step in the discussion.

Not only does this step help us identify if a person's worldview is within the realm of Christianity, it also helps us keep the proper threshold of entrance into Christianity for the non-believer. We don't want to require that someone believes a certain doctrine (that they just can't accept for one reason or another) before they can enter the Kingdom of God (too many essentials), if in fact, it is not an essential belief to be saved. Yet, we don't want to open the door so wide (too few essentials) that doctrines that contradict what we know is essential are acceptable also.

Defending The Violation of or Compatibility with Essential Doctrines

Second, if I agree that a doctrine IS an essential one, the other side must show how my belief necessarily violates the essential belief, while I must show how my belief does not necessarily violate the essential belief. It is very important that we recognize the qualifier I used here: "necessarily". There are some beliefs that have the potential to violate (if articulated a certain way- some nuances may actually violate, while others may not). It is up to the other person to defend the idea that the originally debated belief as a whole (regardless of nuance) contradicts an essential doctrine, while all I have to show is that there is a nuance that is compatible with the doctrine but does not violate another essential doctrine.

"The devil is in the details"- nuances. A view can be made completely compatible via nuances; it can also be found inconsistent with another essential doctrine via nuances. Being able to nuance our view helps us to identify where our views need adjustment and where others may not quite understand our view. Understanding the nuances of another's view helps us to know the weaknesses of their view and to know what is appropriate to be challenged and what is not- one of the key characteristics of a zombie is that the person continues to bring up the same challenge even though it has been addressed, even by the same people.

There is a danger in dealing with nuances. We must be careful to not be coming up with ad hoc explanations (explanations not thought all the way through). If we keep presenting nuances to maintain our position, and they keep getting logically shot down, then we might need to consider that we have an emotional commitment to an idea that needs to be changed. For those concerned with how such a concession might affect an entire worldview, see my post "The Power of the Cumulative Case".

For The Sake of Discussion

In reality, we may not be able to reach an agreement regarding the status of a specific doctrine as being essential, but does this mean that no progress can be made? Even if we don't agree that a particular doctrine is essential, we can still discuss whether or not the questionable belief violates the doctrine. If it can be shown that it does not violate the doctrine, then there is no real need to worry about if that doctrine is essential or not (in the context of the specific discussion- it may be extremely important in other discussions). Even if we don't agree that the doctrine that is claimed to be violated is essential, we can still discuss if it is actually violated. But, if we agree that it does violate the doctrine, then we are forced back to debating if the doctrine is essential or not.

From The Outside, Looking In

One of the major complaints I hear about Christianity is that Christians rarely agree on what is "true Christianity". The inevitable question that arises is "if you guys can't agree, how am I supposed to know what specifics are right, if Christianity is even right in general?" After addressing the fact that all worldviews have those who disagree (this is the nature of the lack of omniscience), I find out that that is not the actual complaint. The actual complaint has to do with how we treat those with whom we disagree. If we act like zombies, we are being anti-intellectual, disrespectful, and unloving- all things that the world knows that Jesus taught against. However, if we actually take the time and patience to discover and discuss the foundations of disagreements, our debates will be seen as being conducted at the highest levels of intelligence, respect, and love. That is the testimony that we should have. People have many reasons to reject a worldview, but let's not allow this to be one of the reasons they reject Christianity.

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