Are the Differences Between the Christianities Insignificant?

Here at John Loftus' blog Debunking Christianity it's been emphasized many times by blog post authors and commenters alike that there exists no such thing as a Christianity, there being instead many Christianities. In fact there are so many Christianities with so many differences between them that the word "Christian" is useless, even for the purposes of rough outline, as a guide to what someone self-identifying as Christian thinks or believes about their own religion. This includes what they believe about gods, heaven, hell, the Bible, prayer, and miracles. In response Christians have maintained that of course there is variation in belief among the various Christian groups, but the differences are insignificant, subtle alternative interpretations. In this post I'm going to share with you an essay from Harry T. Cook which demonstrates that the differences between those calling themselves Christian are anything but insignificant.

The blurb from his website says:
Harry T. Cook is an Episcopal priest, journalist, author and peace-and-justice activist. His area of research is biblical studies, especially 1st Century Greek texts.

He is a noted preacher and public lecturer, and his writings are published in books, newspapers and other journals. Each week, he publishes a topical essay. To receive these by e-mail, add your name to the mailing list below.

Nothing in that to distinguish Harry from any run-of-the-mill Christian cleric, but use the essay to judge for yourself whether Harry effectively distances himself from the Christian clerical herd. As you take in Harry's words ask yourself how any Christian can be honest and still claim that the differences between Christian groups are insignificant.

Atheism in America
By Harry T. Cook 5/4/12

Recently a United Methodist minister in Florida named Teresa MacBain "came out," as it was said, confessing she had discovered over time that she is, after all, an atheist. The audience before which she bared the soul she probably doesn't believe in was on its feet in a hot second, roaring in lusty cheers at her evident emancipation.

I can think of nothing more effective than working in a congregation to turn a clergy person into an atheist -- or simply to drink. You're lucky if the atheism does it first.

It depends on whether one is consulting a dictionary or a lexicon in determining what exactly being an "atheist" means. The dictionary, tracking usage, will tell you that an "atheist" is one who denies the existence of any deity. The lexicon says merely that an "atheist" is an "a-theist," i.e. "not a theist." There's a big difference.

I should very much like to know whether MacBain is a dictionary atheist or a lexicon a-theist, or if she even has that worked out yet.

I publish not only these essays on Fridays but also a weekly exegetical (look it up) analysis of biblical passages that will be heard in many churches on the following Sunday. The series is intended for working clergy who may not have the time, resources or inclination to conduct the research necessary to make adequately intelligent comment upon the bible readings. Mirabile dictu, non-clergy readers outnumber the clergy on the subscription list.

My point in telling you this is that I hear from many of the clergy who read my weekly publication. They express thanks for my non-ideological analyses and for allowing the passage in question speak for itself without trying to torture it into conformity with a catechetical precept. These clergy are a-theists in that they have found it impossible finally to credit the church's official theistic formularies.

A number of clergy readers who have done the research and the thinking for many years have come to see that the church's insistence on a seriously outmoded theism is a sure path to intellectual bankruptcy.

"Theism" is that philosophy of religion that posits the existence of a living deity, however unavailable to sensory apprehension, which is supposed to be responsible for the creation of the universe and of all that is proper to it. This deity is said by theists not only to be open to communication with human beings but desiring, even demanding, of it. Prayer is the medium through which such communication is to be effected.

Through prayer, the theist believes that he can bargain with the imagined deity to alter natural outcomes, providing such prayer is sufficiently intense and sincere. He believes that "God answers prayer." That is the point at which some intellectually honest clergy, in whose company I am presuming MacBain to be, just have to stop and think.

Such clergy wrestle with biblical texts and the ideas that flow from them and sooner or often later awaken to the absurdity of it all. They realize that they are not theists. Some of them evidently decide the only alternative is to embrace dictionary atheism that they seem to take as utter and purposeful denial of the existence of the god on which their particular religion or denomination has based its creed.

I do not know if MacBain is at that point. My guess is that, rather than a dictionary atheist, she is a lexicon a-theist -- more properly an agnostic. She clearly came at one point to see that theism is dead. It does not compute in and therefore cannot compete with a world now understood in light of the observations of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Freud and Einstein.

I wish MacBain had not joined forces with the professional atheists who are as blockheaded as those who persist in the advocacy and practice of theism. Like her, I preached to Methodists for a brief time many years ago, and whether or not they knew it, they were not on the receiving end of theistic doctrine. They were listening to an agnostic speaking, one who did not insist on the revealed truth of the impossible-to-know.

Much later, after the appearance of my first book, Christianity Beyond Creeds, I was confronted by a member of my congregation thus: "So, you don't believe God exists?" My answer was, "No. I don't know enough to believe such a thing." His rejoinder: "Then you believe there is a god?" My comeback: "I don't know enough to say that there is or that there isn't. So I concentrate on what I know and continue to push out the boundaries of my ignorance into knowledge and from there, when possible, to belief."

That, of course, makes me a dictionary agnostic: "One who is not committed to the existence or the non-existence of God or a god." (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed., p. 23, column 2). The word "agnostic" in its non-religious, lexicon state means merely "one who acknowledges not knowing."

Agnosticism should only enter the bloodstream of every institutional religion, beginning with Roman Catholicism whose corporate leaders falsely and egregiously claim to possess the revelation of all relevant truth -- especially about human sexuality and reproduction freedom. Agnosticism should only cool the fevered minds of Islamic jihadists and ultra-Orthodox Jews and of homophobic Anglicans and other Protestants bent on either conversion or damnation of gay and lesbian persons.

Teresa MacBain has taken a good first step. Now one hopes she will not substitute doctrinaire dictionary atheism for doctrinaire Methodism, whatever that might be. There's stuff we just don't know -- or at least not yet.

Agnostically yours,

Harry Cook

© Copyright 2012, Harry T. Cook. All rights reserved. This article may not be used or reproduced without proper credit.
Can a Christian be honest while saying the differences between the Christianities are insignificant?

Russ Rogers