Sunday, April 28, 2019

Am Too, Are Not

On the whole I'm fond of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, despite her lapses, for who among us is perfect?  And I realize that she probably had little choice but to slap back at Kellyanne Conway for this attempted slur:

But still, public disputes about who's a good Christian and who isn't discredit everyone involved.  (Which applies also to Pete Buttigieg.)  It's like public squabbling over dick size.  A politician's religious affiliation or lack of it is not a qualification for office. The Constitution (Article 6, par. 3) explicitly rules out religious tests, and while that's not binding on voters, we should be able to balance personal creed with political judgment.  "Should" is the catch, of course; "should" and a transit pass will get you on the bus.

One of the very few matters on which I (an atheist, remember) agree with C. S. Lewis was his refusal in Mere Christianity to define "Christian" in any but a very formal sense, "to mean one who accepts the common doctrines of Christianity" (xii).  (It's almost a behaviorist definition.)  He didn't do this because he didn't think that heartfelt faith was important, but because:
It is not for us to say who, in the deepest sense, is or is not close to the spirit of Christ. We do not see into men’s hearts. We cannot judge, and are indeed forbidden to judge. It would be wicked arrogance for us to say that any man is, or is not, a Christian in this refined sense. And obviously a word which we can never apply is not going to be a very useful word. As for the unbelievers, they will no doubt cheerfully use the word in the refined sense. It will become in their mouths simply a term of praise. In calling anyone a Christian they will mean that they think him a good man. But that way of using the word will be no enrichment of the language, for we already have the word good. Meanwhile, the word Christian will have been spoiled for any really useful purpose it might have served. 

We must therefore stick to the original, obvious meaning. The name Christians was first given at Antioch (Acts 11:26) to ‘the disciples’, to those who accepted the teaching of the apostles. There is no question of its being restricted to those who profited by that teaching as much as they should have. There is no question of its being extended to those who in some refined, spiritual, inward fashion were ‘far closer to the spirit of Christ’ than the less satisfactory of the disciples. The point is not a theological or moral one. It is only a question of using words so that we can all understand what is being said. When a man who accepts the Christian doctrine lives unworthily of it, it is much clearer to say he is a bad Christian than to say he is not a Christian [xiv].
This is worth quoting at length because of that dig at unbelievers who will, Lewis believed, "cheerfully" use "Christian" as a compliment, to mean a good person.  I'm one unbeliever who won't. For one thing, I don't think "Christian" has any moral content. (The same applies to "atheist.")  For another, as an atheist, I'm not interested in judging who's a real Christian and who isn't.  If someone "identifies as" a Christian, to use the current buzzword, I'm not going to tell them they aren't.  But many believers and unbelievers still do, and Lewis here shows why they shouldn't.

Someone else had a good take on the proper response to personal attacks, namely C. P. Snow in a postscript to his book The Two Cultures:
However, the problem of behaviour in these circumstances is very easily solved. Let us imagine that I am called, in print, a kleptomaniac necrophilist (I have selected with some care two allegations which have not, so far as I know, been made). I have exactly two courses of action. The first, and the one which in general I should choose to follow, is to do precisely nothing. The second is, if the nuisance becomes intolerable, to sue. There is one course of action which no one can expect of a sane man: that is, solemnly to argue the points, to produce certificates from Saks and Harrods to say he has never, to the best of their belief, stolen a single article, to obtain testimonials signed by sixteen Fellows of the Royal Society, the Head of the Civil Service, a Lord Justice of Appeal and the Secretary of the M.C.C., testifying that they have known him for half a lifetime, and that even after a convivial evening they have not once seen him lurking in the vicinity of a tomb.

Such a reply is not on. It puts one in the same psychological compartment as one’s traducer. That is a condition from which one has a right to be excused.
But then, as self-admitted, card-carrying Christians, Ocasio-Cortez and Buttigieg predictably will see their claim to good standing, indeed to goodness (though there is none good but God, as somebody declared), on the line.  In the US, it's only what their fans will expect, since they no less than their opponents put a high premium on religious affiliation and proving their superior spiritual discernment.  That, as Lewis and Snow both said in their different ways, is not on.  It would be nice if Americans paid more attention to matters of more importance, but we're not likely to change overall in the foreseeable future.