Baker Academic

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Christianity: outmoded and conceptually misleading.... but inevitable

This post relates to my latest book Near Christianity. Specifically, it ties to the interplay between the ideas of "belief and belonging." But I'll leave it to you to decide how it relates.

I was listening to an interview by Eugene Peterson tonight via the podcast, On Being. He's somebody who almost always sees the world differently than I do. He tends to zig wherever I'm accustomed to zagging. But I've always admired him. Even when I disagree with him, I do so hoping that he's right and I'm wrong. And I am usually challenged enough that I keep coming back for more. Also I love listening to octogenarians. All of the bullshit has been cast off and the remaining ideas remain because they are worth something. I've transcribed part of this interview because I want to use it in a class that I'm teaching (about the way ancient minds thought "religiously"). But I include it here for an altogether different reason.

[disclaimer: I've cleaned up a bit of the dialogue here. It is not word-for-word.]

Peterson: People ask “how do you mature a spiritual life” ….Eliminate the word “spiritual.” It’s your life you mature, not part of your life. 
Interviewer: The word “spiritual”—much more than when you first became a pastor—it’s everywhere now. I want to know how you hear that. What do you think about it? 
Peterson: Oh, I think it’s cheap. You’re taking a something and putting a name on it “spiritual,” which means it’s defined. The whole world is spiritual. And the word spirit is wind, its breath. Well, people are breathing all over the place; they’re all spiritual beings. But if you have a name for it, you can compartmentalize it. And that just wreaks havoc with the whole thing. And that’s why I don’t like the word. Because it’s too easy to say, “He’s such a spiritual person. She’s such a spiritual person.” Well, nonsense! You are too. If Church…if done well, there is no spirituality that you can define. 
Interviewer: Because it’s in everything you do? 
Peterson: That’s right. 
. . . .
Interviewer: You’re 83…. This last exchange just pointed out the complexity of dealing with words even though they are so precious. And I just wonder if other words—even the word “God” become too small after 83 pondering, after grappling with the immensity of who God might be.
Peterson: They do become too small.
Interviewer: Does the word “God” feel too small to you at this point?
Peterson: Yeah.
Interviewer: What do you do about that?
Peterson: I’m pretty much very circumspect about using it.
Interviewer: What about the word “Christianity”?
Peterson: Oh, that’s even worse. . . . the people who use the word “Christianity” mostly are thinking of an institution, uh, and that’s hard to get rid of. You know, most of us have negative experiences of the Church: certain churches, experiences we’ve had. So why don’t we just eliminate the word? Of course, that’s hard for me who is part of so-called Christianity.
Interviewer: exactly. I mean, you’re life and your writing is passionately interwoven with this—this enterprise, this aspiration of Church.

Peterson: That’s true.

Eugene Peterson, it seems, has gotten circumspect about godtalk. The words normally used for God conceal and mislead rather than reveal and convey. While I'm not nearly as cautious with my words as he (he's a poet after all), I think I know what he means. Perhaps the word "God" should always be footnoted with the old A.A. caveat: " we understood him." Or better: "God, as we understood it." Or as some of our Jewish friends render it, HaShem.

But what hit me hardest about this section was it's concluding resignation. Peterson suggests that the word "Christianity" is even worse. Too many negative associations with the institution. Too small a word for the life and lives it intends to label. "So why don't we just eliminate the word?" he asks. Well, it's not so easy. However outmoded, however conceptually misleading, "Christianity" is inevitable. It is inevitable because it is interwoven with too many of us. We know the word is fraught with problems. Maybe it's even a misnomer. But it is a misnomer built into us.

So part of the business of Christianity is the constant attempt to redefine ourselves and to communicate this redefinition to those who have misunderstood us. Because the words we've chosen were never adequate enough to reveal and convey. Inevitably, we will just keep failing. We're sort of stuck with the misnomer.


  1. "So part of the business of Christianity is the constant attempt to redefine ourselves and to communicate this redefinition to those who have misunderstood us."

    Definition, comparison, communication... This sounds exceedingly similar to the psychological processes of identity formation; be it individual or social (and indeed, both).
    Perhaps it is part of the 'business of Christianity' because it is part of the business of being human?

    1. Chris, thanks. Yes, nothing I'm observing here is unique to the Christian experience. But I'm not sure that I'm willing to see the problem of (re)defining or (re)naming Christianity to be reduced to generalization.

    2. I agree, its not merely generalisation. But seeing the base processes underlying the foreground application helps to differentiate the mechanisms at play, and determine what may be effective and ineffective.

  2. Shouldn't we conform our selves to God as revealed through Jesus of Nazareth and his resurrection instead of redefining God and Christianity? When someone asks me who I am to define Christianity I say "I don't. Jesus, his apostles, and the prophets do that."