Two problems with Christian identity

A subcurrent of recent conversation here and elsewhere has been the question of Christian identity. I myself work within the Christian tradition, and not solely as an “internal critic” — as will be clear once my dissertation is published this fall, I do constructive work from within the tradition as well, and so Christian identity is something that I still in some sense claim. I am also cognizant of the fact that everyone has to have some point of identification or other and that a “view from nowhere” is impossible. Nevertheless, I think it is appropriate to outline two general problems that I have persistently found in the way people situate themselves in terms of their Christian identity, which I will discuss in terms of the two words “identity” and “Christian.”

Identity: Often one will find Christian identity put forward as a self-evident goal in itself. One should follow the tradition primarily because it’s tradition, for example, or follow a given structure of authority because it’s the most authentically Christian form of authority. I believe that members of all traditions should be able to give reasons for their loyalty to their tradition. In the modern West in particular, everyone has the option of disidentifying with their roots or (in the case of converts to Christianity) remaining in one’s irreligious state: why the reference to Christianity, then? What keeps you coming back? Why is Jesus, or Paul, or Augustine, or whoever an attractive figure to you? Obviously no one can completely account for their motives, etc., and at the end of the day, the answer is probably going to be “this is where life has taken me” — but too often, people claiming Christian identity will jump much too quickly to the fact that everyone has to have some identity (i.e., the postmodern “at least it’s an ethos” argument). This overdefensiveness is reminiscent of when a conversation partner jumps to accusing someone who disagrees with them too strongly of not being able to tolerate differing views, etc. — in both cases, the short circuit from questioning of one’s particular views to the idea of absolute intolerance springs from the sense that someone, by questioning too much or too insistently, is somehow trying to “deprive” one of one’s point of identiciation. It seems as though this is an inherent temptation of any identity whatsoever, but it might be especially bad among Christians, for reasons I will now discuss.

Christians: It seems to me that the feeling of being persecuted is almost inseparable from Christian identity — I know that I am guilty of indulging in a persecution complex, even though I hold Christian identity more loosely than others. The historical roots of this Christian persecution complex are obvious, but its continuation into eras where Christians are actually the most powerful group has been absolutely toxic. In particular, once Christians are in power, there is a tendency to view the very existence of any other power center or point of identification as persecution — the fake controversies over the use of the phrase “Happy Holidays,” though obviously mostly a media phenomenon, provide a particularly vivid illustration of this thought structure. In connection with this identity structure, I have very often encountered self-identified Christians who regard questions — even something like “what do you mean by that?” — as a kind of persecution, as though the very fact of having to provide reasons or explanation is an intolerable burden. Here the Christian persecution complex and the inherent structure of any “identity” work together to create an exaggerated defensiveness that is very difficult for many to get past and has brought more than one potentially interesting conversation to an end.

Now just to repeat, I think that identifying with the Christian tradition is a perfectly justifiable choice — I still do so to a large degree (probably more than most front-page contributors here), and I also think it’s justifiable to identify much more closely than I do. There is obviously much that is good, promising, or at least interesting in the Christian tradition, and much that is attractive about Christian forms of piety, and that’s even leaving aside the family connections and friendships that probably bind the majority of Christians to the tradition in the last analysis.

There are good and bad ways of carrying one’s Christian identity, however, and I believe that the historical legacy of Christianity’s persecution complex and of the general structure of identity claims combine to create at least one bad way that is distressingly common among laypeople and intellectual Christians alike. Perhaps if the theology blogosphere becomes more conscious of these temptations, fewer conversations will run aground in useless defensiveness.

42 thoughts on “Two problems with Christian identity

  1. I’ve often been a little bewildered by academics that obsess about identity, as if not having an identity was equivalent to not being able to prevent yourself from shooting people.

    The answer “this is where life has taken me” always begs the question though, because you can always then be asked the question “do you love your life?” The possibility of regret makes makes it unsatisfying.

    I should have liked to claim “because I believe it’s true” which makes for a much more interesting discussion than retelling my story (what is the sine qua non, what is true, what is truth-telling, etc.).

    I for one am tired of stories.

  2. I don’t by any means think we should jump directly to our stories — I was just throwing that out there as a kind of final tautological explanation. Giving actual reasons and arguments is the kind of behavior I’m trying to promote with this post.

  3. It isn’t as if the Christian tradition itself has passed over these issues–seemingly from the beginning until today (which is not to say uniformly) there has been recognized such a thing as a confession of faith.

    Now, what’s interesting about a confession is that the assertion of identity and the giving of reasons are collapsed within it–they are inseperable. So, “My father was a wandering Aramaean…” or, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me…” or “therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified….” all, in somewhat varying ways, identify the speaker with the content of the faith.

    It isn’t immediately clear what a reason behind that might look like–the reason really is the identity, because both are the crucified one (and therefore also the sense of persecution). But then, given this, it really isn’t clear either what any gradation of identification could be. Confession is made or it isn’t, my own anxiety regarding that confession notwithstanding.

  4. It doesn’t seem like you’re saying much more than that Christian identity has always included some kind of “content” in terms of beliefs or narrative traditions. I’m pretty sure that there’s never been any kind of point of identification with no “content,” though, so I guess I don’t know what you’re getting at or what you think you’re adding. Care to explain?

  5. And now I see that I’ve done that annoying thing where I respond to the first part of a comment and pass over the rest — your questioning of the possibility of “degrees” of identification seems pretty simplistic if you look at actual life experience. There are Christian groups where an “all or nothing” identification seems to be the norm, but we’re all familiar with the complex relationship that Catholics can have with their Catholic identity. The same is often the case with Jewish people (since you refer to Israelite professions of faith). Of course, there is usually some hard core group that wants to claim that the waverers have no right to the identity at all, but why should the most extreme either/or thinkers in an identity group get to set the terms?

  6. I don’t want to assume my post in relation to this post. However, I would want to clarify my own use of ‘persecution’ in that post. I have worked to discard particular modes of discourse to pursue active conversation here at this site. And so over at my site I vented a little and ‘cast off those fetters’. However, in the process I thought perhaps I began to see the value of this particular arena. I was accused of being a little crass in evoking martyrology in relation to AUFS but the intent of that allusion was to point to contexts in Christian expression in which ‘pious gestures’ counted for nothing (and so I jokingly called AUFS my persecutors). For the martyrs there was only the ‘bare’ witness of their life (insider modes were meaningless). In this I read a sort political expression that I thought actually came close to what I see happening here. So, in short, I took what was perhaps a rather far-fetched allusion that helped create a model to better understand and integrate the value of what I see here.
    In the end though the only comments I received were taking the piece a little too literally, and as such were read in the manner you describe as shutting down conversation. I can see that the imagery remains problematic but in many ways I still find an aspect of value in how to characteristic Christian expression in the public.

  7. I probably said this far too quickly the first time. My point was actually that the Christian notion of a confession of faith is designed to answer the sort of problem posed by your blog post.

    Of course there’s some content–but that would be the case with any identity at all. The issue is the specific nature of the confession. It doesn’t just say what I now identify myself as–it says that I was not this before, that God has intervened and made me now what I was not then.

    This can come in very brief form (“no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me”) or at much greater length (the Israelite summary of faith in Deuteronomy 26), but in either case the “actual reasons and arguments” are also the content of the new identity. The confession is, in this way, compelled by that identity–in order to say who I now am at all, I must also say what has happened (and vice versa). Jesus, Paul and Augustine needn’t be attractive in the least–the issue is that, whether I feel attracted to or repulsed by Jesus, he is who I now am because I have been crucified and raised with him.

    To ask for another reason behind this is to pretend that this is a decision that has been made on my part, as if one day I woke up out of my neutrality and, feeling somewhat Jesusy, decided to call myself by his title–“Christian.” But if it were a decision then it would not be something that has already happened to me, and so a false confession (therefore no identification at all). Likewise, I would think that a “confession” which refuses to say what has happened (and rather merely that “I am a Christian”) has all the hallmarks of a decision to identify, a state of affairs very likely to result in defensiveness.

    Now, if we’re talking about the sorts of terms of identity with gradation in them, that’s to be carefully distinguished from this kind of confession of faith. Complex Catholic (or Jewish) identity is due to a multiplicity of traditions, rules, doctrines and so on to which one might have widely varying relation. But the confession is a singular thing to which one’s relation is strictly affirmative or negative, and the categorical nature of the confession might then even relativize these other concerns about identity. So, I have been crucified with Christ or I haven’t–whether or not I find Joe Ratzinger’s musings on sex to my liking is a secondary (which is not to say inconsequential) matter.

  8. Really, the idea that Christians would be able to identify with persecution after the last 1800 years of history is a long shot, to say the least. The idea of being persecuted giving somehow a sense of identity is, in my view, a sure trip to self-righteous behaviour.

    I could dig some sense of challenging the status-quo as a part of a productive identity (an identity that doesn’t want to conserve itself but that creates new identities, and that embraces these new identities), but persecution?

  9. “So the only real reason you could offer in conversation with others is “this is what has happened to me”?”

    What’s wrong with this, as a reason? Sometimes passive happenings are termini of inferential chains, as in perception. (“I saw a red balloon” can give my reason for believing there’s a red balloon, but I can’t give any reason for my having seen a red balloon. Because there wasn’t any reason for it. I was just there, and I saw it, and I can’t unsee it.)

    And the religious case is clearly modeled on the perceptual: the chain of explanations gives out with “and this is the state I found myself being in”.

    (Of course, if my story bottoms out in “This is what I saw”, then you can call me blind. But I’m not at fault if I can do very little to convince you that I was not blind at the time, unless you can provide some very pressing reasons for thinking that I was. My reasoning remains good even if I can’t establish all of the claims I want to establish to the satisfaction of all hearers. For if they would accept certain claims I regard as unproblematically promotable without reasons being given for them, then the rest would’ve followed.)

    If Jesus asked you to follow him, then that seems to me as good a reason as could be hoped for.

    “Really, the idea that Christians would be able to identify with persecution after the last 1800 years of history is a long shot, to say the least.”

    Unless you’re from anabaptist stock. Or you were in China during WWII. Or both, as was the case with my great-grandparents. etc. etc. It’s never actually that far from memory; it’s not like it was just Rome that persecuted people.

  10. Addition: Rereading the post again, it occurs to me that it’s interesting to note that trying to stop a chain of reasoning by an argument that “one has to stop somewhere” is very different from actually hitting a place where reason-giving ends. If I want to say “I saw a red balloon”, then there’s no reason for me to further add “And after all I have to stop giving reasons eventually”. Eventuality doesn’t enter into it; perceptual reports just aren’t the sort of thing you’re supposed to be able to justify. What you’ve seen is not your responsibility. Pleading that one has to stop somewhere, so one might as well stop *here*, is not a thing that makes sense unless one hasn’t hit a natural stopping-point. (Sometimes this is fine — conversations can’t last forever. But it’s clearly possible to end them abruptly.)

    The “at least it’s an ethos”-style thinking Kotsko mentions is certainly a real thing that happens, and I think it’s interesting to think about why people have recourse to it rather than trying to end the game of reason-giving by stating things in the quasi-perceptual manner I mentioned in my previous comment. I suspect that they are (at least dimly) aware that they’re *supposed* to be able to say something like “I know that my redeemer liveth, for Christ hath died for me” at some point, and they know that this is a conversation-stopper (because this sort of “knowledge” isn’t the sort of thing one gets from having good reasons to reason from, but just from having something *happen* to you, like Saul on the road to Damascus). But they don’t want to make that sort of claim, or don’t feel entitled to it — maybe they feel awkward talking about it in public, maybe they aren’t sure themselves, maybe they really don’t know any such thing but merely wish that they did — and so they try to end the game of reason-giving some other way. (This seems to me at least a little like the Unhappy Self-Consciousness in Hegel’s PhG: I know that there’s a man reconciled to God, and that I’m supposed to identify with that man, and that some people identify with that man, but I don’t identify with that man, and I don’t think I can identify myself other than by identifying with that man, and so I can neither identify myself nor not, and am unhappy.)

  11. It seems to me a simple clarification may be helpful given some of the comments. Adam, I take you to be referring to ‘persecution complex’ (I’m persecuted for not laughing at dirty jokes at work) as opposed to persecution (my/our existence poses an rational/irrational threat to those in power and I suffer for it)

  12. “So the only real reason you could offer in conversation with others is “this is what has happened to me”?”

    Every reason I could offer would simply be an elaboration of this. So yes, though of course that elaboration could go on indefinitely (but still without adding any other reason).

    But more to the point, this is precisely the reason offered throughout the New Testament. Nothing else is given, and by NT logic, anything else said would mislead. So Paul in 1 Cor. 2–“I was determined to know nothing among you but Christ, and him crucified,” or the blind man in John 9.

    If this is the identity claimed, then of course there will be identification with the persecuted, but there should also be serious caution in how it is spoken of. This can be invoked prematurely or unfairly, used manipulatively, etc., but if the baseline point of identification is with the one crucified by the world, then there will arise some expectation of suffering (which still needn’t take the form of clear “persecution for Christianity.”) And if membership in this crucified one also entails identification with all others who claim the same, then as long as persecution remains in this world, one could expect the identification to be that much stronger. So it isn’t incidental that I am familiar with people who have endured terrible persecution in Pakistan, China, North Korea and other places. It’s a very far-off thing until you know someone who has serious continuing health problems from the beatings he’s taken–but because it’s so close, it would be repugnant to breezily equate that suffering with negative response to a blog post.

  13. What I’m talking about is the tendency of privileged Christians to believe that they are directly the people being persecuted (usually through a perceived sleight or questioning of their supremacy), rather than identifying with those who are actually disadvantaged — indeed, often their own unjustified feeling of persecution blinds them to real-world problems, including even persecution of fellow Christians in other countries. You have a very elegant way of talking about the identification with the persecuted, but it’s extremely, extremely easy to lose the nuance and simply identify oneself as the oppressed (regardless of what’s actually going on in the real world) — and indeed it seems to be an inherent temptation of Christian identity.

    On another note, I still can’t help but feel that you’re putting forward a “conversion experience” that has not historically been normative for anything like the majority of Christians. Are people who are claiming anything other than the radical (tautological) identification you are talking about actually claiming identification with Christ at all, in your opinion? If not, then it seems to me that you’re putting forward a really elegantly stated version of evangelical prejudice against insincere Catholics.

  14. Might matters of Christian identity differ markedly from interest in identity more generally? This post does not seem to differentiate between Christian identity and other social, cultural, and philosophical identities. Identity claims are often (always?) socially divisive. I am a grad student, I am ethnically Mennonite: these labels carve out a social space in which I belong and in which others necessarily don’t. I have always hesitated to call myself a Christian, despite what seems to me the inescapable Lordship of Christ, because I don’t believe Christian identity should operate in a similar fashion. It shouldn’t set me apart from humanity, but should in fact wed me to all parts of humanity. Being a Christian should challenge my comfortable identity claims (you know, that whole “neither Jew nor Greek” bit).

    Moreover, Christian identity is in some sense never wholly accomplished, whatever confession of faith one might make, but is that not one of its necessary features? We seek to become human as Christ became human, including his doubt (hmm… I may have made a Trinitarian error there), lament and cries of forsakenness on the cross.

  15. Julia, The kinds of things you are talking about are among those that I find promising in the Christian tradition. However, it seems hard to deny that, for practical purposes, Christian identity is an identity like many others — as you seem to be acknowledging through your reluctance to claim it. I don’t think that was the intent of either Jesus or Paul, but that is how it has played out historically in most cases (interpreting “neither Jew nor Greek” with an implicit “but rather Christian”).

  16. Another point that Julia’s comment kind of brings up — one problem in discussing Christianity is the need to distinguish between normative Christianity (what Christianity should ideally be) and actual existing Christianity.

    One thing I’ve been trying to think through lately is how the betrayals of actual existing Christianity might be natural (not inevitable, but at least understandable) outgrowths of normative Christianity. For instance, in my post on apostolic succession, I put forward a theory that the self-founding personal authority of Christ lay at the root of apostolic succession (which I don’t view as normative for Christianity and do regard as something of a betrayal).

    It’s already difficult to keep normative and actual existing Christianity clear, and even more so when we’re looking for what might have made the various “betrayals” of the ideal seem like plausible routes to go. In fact, the problem of keeping all that straight is probably leading to misunderstanding in these threads in many cases. I don’t know if that confusion is totally avoidable, though, at least until we come up with a perfect ideal version of Christianity that doesn’t get distorted in any way when put in practice.

  17. You’re right about that temptation–I think it comes through familiarity with the historical and biblical tradition of persecution combined with distance from real, contemporary suffering. It’s actual suffering that provides the nuance.

    Certainly no prejudice against Catholics was intended (nor any particular leaning toward evangelicals)–I’m neither. I don’t mean a “conversion experience” in the usual way that’s talked about, though I don’t exclude that, either. This is a confession of faith I’m talking about, and thus it deals with something that is as a rule available only to faith and not to sight. Or, to put it quite differently, it is a confession that my life is now found not in myself but in Jesus the crucified, and consequently can only be identified in him, rather than in my own history. Nothing stands prior to this faith, this attachment–this is why we call it justification by faith “alone.” So if looking only at the experience I have in myself (that is, not in faith) I may well see nothing and feel that nothing much has happened. The confession of faith finds its reason in the object of that faith.

    I admit I express this perhaps more bluntly than many Christians, but I would insist that this is in fact the basic mechanic of Christian confession. Whether or not someone can (or even would) say it like I have isn’t all that important. Rather, I’d say that anyone who believes the word of forgiveness that is spoken in Jesus has undergone this and will in some fashion confess it. A sticky relationship to the complexities of one’s faith tradition (and I wholeheartedly claim that for myself) isn’t really the issue.

  18. I found Julia’s point really interesting: positing a Christian identity does necessarily place yourself for good and ill: on the one hand, you give up on easy evasions (because you don’t want to be tarred with the same brush, or allow yourself to be defined by others); on the other, your identity and its coherence may be sold back to you or used as an element of identity politics. So I think it’s an important question what you do with your identity: insist on it, desire it, or allow it to be vulnerable or destroyed.

    I think this solves some of Adam Morton’s problems, which disallows future assessment. Yes, I came to the study of Augustine because I did not think that many people could be deceived concerning his importance. But it was only once I’d read his scepticism of self in the Confessions and his optimistic practice of self in the City of God that I decided I needed to study him further. And then I had to assess those things.

    Yes, these assessments are based in and refer to my everyday and my past. But that is not why I choose to embrace them. In fact, specific examination of that past will make me less likely to embrace that examination because although I love my past life, I do not wish the future to resemble it.

  19. Adam (Kotsko), your question is right on. When we use the word “Christian”, are we speaking of normative Christianity or Christianity as it is actually practiced? As someone in the “Thought” side of a divided Religious Studies department, this question comes up regularly, and it is in some sense one of discipline. Clearly, social scientists are interested in the latter and philosophers/theologians are in some measure interested in the former (although, depending on one’s understanding of the formation of Christian truth – I’m thinking here again of Mennonite traditions – church practice may itself determine normativity). Although the study of the “actual” practice has its place, I am troubled by the ascendancy of the social scientific paradigm in the realm of the confessional. I have led adult Sunday School discussions on questions of Christian ecology in which all the responses began with “well… Christians have all sorts of different beliefs about ecology…”. The social scientific approach to religion (which all too often becomes the lowest-common-denominator approach to religion) avoids the risk of confessional claims.

    This is all to say that I think it’s important and appropriately dangerous to use “Christian” as a normative word.

    But maybe I don’t mean normative after all. Might our speech about what is Christian operate differently altogether? Speech need not either describe or prescribe. Both seem to presuppose its representative nature: speech is posterior to an existing or ideal state of affairs. Can we really describe an “ideal” Christianity that we might then betray? I like the idea that speech might be considered a creative act in and of itself and that our discussions about what is Christian strive for fecundity rather than accurate representation of an actual or ideal state.

  20. And apparently I started commenting right on time, right before you called out the lurkers.
    Take this as some assurance that not all women are scared by this “Men Talking Important Things” vibe… though that’s definitely present!

  21. I like the idea that speech might be considered a creative act in and of itself and that our discussions about what is Christian strive for fecundity rather than accurate representation of an actual or ideal state.

    This is really great.

  22. Andy–
    Disallows future assessment regarding what specifically? I only mean to exclude assessment of the one whose coming determines everything (and so couldn’t possibly be assessed, but assesses me). Or rather, I mean to point out that faith does not assess him in this way–he did once subject himself to our assessment, but it isn’t like we should count that as an achievement on our part.

    If speech is a creative act in itself (I like this very much) then it seems to me “Christianity” isn’t exactly the subject–rather, the creative Word himself is what is spoken. The goal would not be to speak of Christianity, normatively or descriptively, but to speak Christ and expect him to determine what is Christian (or even, to determine Christians).

  23. Speech ís a creative act in and of itself. I can see Christ for many is an inspiration but insofar Christianity presuposses Christ as a necessity in this creativity then this still is quite normative.

  24. I was referring to the idea that the only explanation we can make of our belief is our own biography. We need to be able to assess our biography, and so that can’t be the last word on why we believe.

    Regarding non-descriptive Christian speech, I imagine you could come up with a lot of ways of speaking Christian theology without worrying about the truth of what you say. It’s really difficult to move beyond both description and prescription and keep grammatical. I guess enthusing (“like” buttons!) might be an example.

    I’ve always been a little disappointed with translations of “hallelujah” as “you must all praise Yah!”

  25. “The goal would not be to speak of Christianity, normatively or descriptively, but to speak Christ and expect him to determine what is Christian (or even, to determine Christians).”

    Well put, Adam M. This is exactly what I was getting at in my original comment: “Christian” is not an identity marker like “woman” or “Greek”, for we cannot claim it in the same way.

    Adam K, one can by all means find Christ productive of thought, but I think one of the reasons Christ *is* so productive for thought is the claim of his particularity and exceptionality. It’s an interesting case. Many things are productive of thought, but not as many things are productive of thought because of their potentially revelatory nature! In that sense, to find Christ compelling means that we won’t suddenly *not* find Christ compelling anymore: if the question of Lordship precipitates Christ’s fecundity, then Christ will never fail to be fecund… if that makes any sense. We will necessarily never move beyond the matter of Christ.

    To return to the intent of the post, I would prefer if writers (of all stripes) were much less concerned with situating themselves vis-a-vis “Christianity” and much more concerned with writing well. It seems to me you (Adam K) would too. One’s writing will demonstrate one’s questions and commitments. Perhaps then, to conclude my original comment, we will stop imagining “Christian” as just another box you can tick on a government survey or on-line dating website. Perhaps we may also stop hiding behind the word “Christian” as if it will explain everything and thus protect us from conversations we don’t want to have or thoughts we don’t want to think.

  26. It’s really difficult to move beyond both description and prescription and keep grammatical. I guess enthusing (“like” buttons!) might be an example.

    Well, what about formulations like, “Your sins are forgiven”? In a way you could call it descriptive, but not really–it’s intended to actually offer forgiveness. So the truth of it would depend on…whether sins are in fact forgiven?

    But then, a good part of Christian preaching can look like this–even when grammatically descriptive or prescriptive, the intent isn’t quite to do either, but in some sense to “do Christ” to the hearer.

    Regarding Christian defensiveness– my own experience in denominational/confessional politics leads me to believe that a lot of writers are very worried (sometimes with real cause) what others will think of them based on their writing. Ticking the “Christian” box repeatedly is, in some circles, a habit born out of protecting one’s career/community standing from charges of heterodoxy or weak faith. Sucks for the quality of blogging, though.

  27. I wonder if another sub-theme lurking in all this is around the metaphysics of presence. We learn growing up that no one really knows us. We’ve learned in the linguistic turn that meaning will in some ways continue to be deferred and so we live in the midst of mediating and being mediated. We preface our work by stating our concerns regarding how others are positioned but our real concern is that we ourselves are not positioned. And so the kid on the school-yard learns wit or strength. The Christian academic learns biblical languages or patristics. And the savyest (sp?) theologian learns some variant of deconstruction so that there will always be a way out from being positioned (or whatever else keeps them one step ahead). I read this thread and think, ‘Holy shit these guys are smart, if I can’t understand them then I have to either reject them or think of some way of keeping them from re-positioning my current thinking.” (which is of course part of what this post is about!) The end result of this approach is isolation and division. I used the first person plural in all this and will retract it if necessary but in as much as a Christian persecution complex seems easily demonstrable I would also assert that this defensive/offensive posturing pervades all these sorts of discussions (definitely including this comment and commenter).
    I have liked some of where the latter part of this conversation has gone around Christ speaking and ever-renewing identity and to this I would add the necessity of the Gospel of the Beloved in which the deferral of presence (and identity) is rendered like the heavens when God breaks our cycle and calls out, “You are my child, who I love, in you I am well pleased.” I think there is something to the trinitarian movement of identity that is depicted in that icon that can annul a persecution complex and humble the need to keep from being positioned.
    Can any of us claim that we are not highly motivated about keeping our ‘identity’ from being positioned? And yet Christ, our main interlocutor here, did not expend much energy in keeping his identity from being positioned (though he may not have acted in accordance to that positioning) but understood that ultimately wisdom would be proven right by her children. One aspect of this discussion needs to recognize that the particularity of Christ was also set within and contextualized by his being positioned. It was his manner of being positioned that seems in part to have been what set him apart. Of course if we look to the resurrection then we come across a body that defies being positioned, defies being grasped, remains unstable. Well, I suppose that definitely makes me wonder whether we are able to practice resurrection . . .

  28. Adam, I’m sure you not only can but do but then we are full circle on this because ‘what is specifically Christian about it’.

    I mean, sure, it’s about Christ but then again I could talk on him like that (and I’m decidedly not Christian, at least not if you want the term to have a more-than-coincidental historic content).

    See, it’s not like I want to make people feel uneasy but it is something I want to understand: I guess one would want a term like ‘Christian’ to come out as (somehow) ‘more’ than a term like ‘Ghandian’ (if it would exist). I want to understand because I think it would add value if there were such things as ‘Christian’ inspiration that at the same time have historic elements, without producing group inclusion – and therefore exclusion.

  29. There needs to be a lot of careful descriptive work alongside bold prescriptive ventures. Making a cut too deeply between the two modes of speaking/writing (and other ancillary modes of speaking/writing—like the performative bit that Adam M. brought up) is ultimately impoverishing.

    People for whom “Christian Identity” is an entity unproblematically singular and smooth in texture (especially when any querying of this identity raises “persecution” flags) are often very well served by encounters with the staggering diversity of beliefs, practices, and attitudes that Christians have taken on a subject. Julia gave ecology as an example above. It is the case that a lowest-common-denominator sort of discussion where all the manifold versions of “Christian ecology” (a term necessarily loose) are put on the table does not usually generate much visible momentum beyond a “gee whiz.” For many people the discussion may produce nothing more. But for some it can shake loose the notion that “Christian identity” is wedded to one single life configuration–e.g. one particular understanding of stewardship or dominion.

    But more than that, descriptive projects (particularly when they takes a historical turn and goes back to “really strange” Christian identities), can also provide leverage and material for constructive projects that reconfigure “Christian identity” in a way that was otherwise unforseeable with the conceptual resources ready-at-hand. The discipline necessary to really follow through a careful descriptive project often provides the raw material for a genuinely insightful constructive maneuver.

    And some, though clearly not all, of those constructive moves may actually be worth taking a normative stand on—with all requisite boldness. Occasionally, whether in other’s work or our own, real wisdom appears, and it needs to be promoted, adopted, and valued.

    That fragile moment where speech is a creative act in and of itself (where it starts to do things worth doing), is not other than describing and prescribing, but the point where rigor, sensitivity, and dexterity are perceptible (and persuasive) in both description and prescription.

  30. I think Freire’s approach to this kind of descriptive problem is useful: decades before What is Philosophy? he posited that a main objective in dialogue is to collectively re-name the world. That re-naming is the action of dialogue. The great thing about this is that it’s revolutionary and theoretically robust because words that everyone agrees on do actually necessarily mean something. They’re not just a suggestion.

    I don’t think dividing utterances into their locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary forces really solves anything: it’s still difficult to find another way of speaking that excludes ought/is.

  31. I don’t think dividing utterances into their locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary forces really solves anything: it’s still difficult to find another way of speaking that excludes ought/is.

    I don’t think such a division is particularly helpful, either. It’s at best rather crude. But I think if we pay attention to what we actually do with our language, we’ll find it fine grained enough that we don’t have to worry about these categories. After all, how much similarity is there really among different instances of what we might be tempted to call “description”?

    In my world, I find the basic categories of speech to be: 1)things I say to annoy my wife, 2)theological musings, 3)comments about what I want to eat. I suppose I could try to put everything else in terms of those, but that would be ridiculous.

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