Wednesday, June 08, 2005

"Christian" now a slur

"Christian" has long been a term used as much for its connotative value as for its denotative value. In contrast to its denotative value as an adjective specifying a commitment to Christ or adherence to a certain body of beliefs, "Christian" has often been used for its courtesy connotations. To be a "good Christian" meant being an upright citizen of regular habits in good standing in the community. In this respect it served, much like "gentleman," as a term used for its courtesy value, rather than its original etymological denotation as a member of the land-owning gentry class. Today, however, the term "Christian" is used, in many circles, for its connotative value as a slur. To call a person a "Christian," for some folks, is to deride the person as a provincial ignoramus, a knuckle-dragging mouth-breathing antedeluvian troglodyte.

Thus Howard Dean said in San Francisco this week that Republicans "all behave the same, and all look the same. ... It's pretty much a white Christian party." (Source: Wednesday, June 8, 2005)

Never mind that more American blacks voted Republican in the last election than ever before in US history. Never mind that the majority of Americans in American history, whatever their color or ethnicity, have been Christian. Just as the term "Fundamentalist," which at one time referred to those who subscribed to a Presbyterian statement of key tenets of the Christian Faith (The Fundamentals, 1909), has now come to be used pejoratively against practically anyone who resists the "march of progress" toward a completely secularized and de-Christianized society based on Western bourgeois consumerist values and relativism, so now with the term "Christian." To call a person a "Christian" in this way is like calling a person a "nigger."

No wonder C.S. Lewis, after his inaugural address at Cambridge, in which he had referred to himself as a member of a dying species he called "old western man," joined with his students in referring to themselves as "dinos" -- that is "dinosaurs," who no longer find themselves at home in the contemporary world. But of course that was some sixty or seventy years ago.

One thinks, too, in this connection of Herman Hesse's description of a similar figure in his novel, Steppenwolf:
These horrors [of the Middle Ages] were really nonexistent. A man of the Middle Ages would detest the whole mode of our present-day life as something far more than horrible, far more than barbarous. Every age, every culture, every custom and tradition has its own character, its own weakness and its own strength, its beauties and ugliness; accepts certain sufferings as matters of course, puts up patiently with certain evils. Human life is reduced to real suffering, to hell, only when two ages, two cultures and religions overlap. A man of the Classical Age who had to live in medieval times would suffocate miserably just as a savage does in the midst of our civilization. Now there are times when a whole generation is caught in this way between two ages, two modes of life, with the consequence that it loses all power to understand itself and has no standard, no security, no simple acquiescence. Naturally, everyone does not feel this equally strongly. A nature such as Nietzsche's had to suffer our present ills more than a generation in advance. What he had to go through alone and misunderstood, thousands suffer today.
Harold Berman, former Professor at Harvard Law School, used to describe the problem as one of "post-westernism." The term sounds like a confusion of temporal and geographical categories until one understands his conviction that Catholic Christendom lies at the heart of the Western identity. The "West" in "Western Civilization" is not primarily a geographical term, but a cultural one. A text in Western civilization may begin with the Mesopotamians or Egyptians and include the Greeks, Romans, as well as a passing reference to the Hebrews. But none of those people identified itself as "Western." That designation awaited the medieval synthesis of Catholic Europe. Forgetfulness of this is forgetfulness of our Western identity. Which brings us to where we are today: oblivion.

That "Christian" is now used as a slur signals the vast distance we have traversed from a medieval Christendom in which theology was the "Queen of the Sciences" to the contemporary world in which theology is hardly recognized as having a rightful place among the liberal arts. To be Western once meant to be Christian. In our contemporary secularized milieu, however, as Wolfhard Pannenberg once observed,
even an elementary knowledge of Christianity -- its history, teachings, sacred texts, and formative figures -- dwindles. It is no longer a matter of rejecting Christian teachings; large numbers of people have not the vaguest knowledge of what those teachings are. This is a remarkable development when one considers how foundational Christianity is to the entire story of Western culture. The more widespread the ignorance of Christianity, the greater the prejudice against Christianity. (Source: First Things, Fall 2001, p. 59)

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