What not to do when clarifying an association

One big problem I notice frequently with people is that people want to take grammatical rules of word structure and universalize them. When we see an ending on a word, we know what that ending means from other words, and we attempt to apply the meaning to the word in question. This isn’t a bad idea, but it can backfire.

Case in point, from comments left on Ed Brayton’s blog:

“It seems to me that a minimum requirement for Christianity is a belief in the divinity of Christ.”

Why: is the minimum requirement for being a Kantian a belief in the divinity of Kant?

I say: let people define themselves as Christians as they please as long as they explain what they mean by that.

The major qualm I have with this is linguistic: Calling oneself a Christian is relevantly different from calling oneself a Kantian. There is perhaps a sense in which they are similar, a sense of agreement in values and ideas (i.e. a Christian agrees with the values Christ set up, and a Kantian agrees with the ethical system that Kant proposed). But there is a level above this in which Christian entails quite a bit more than just agreement in this fashion. Christianity is not just an association with ideas; it is also generally an affiliation with a set of core beliefs. Although there are some widely contended beliefs within theological circles, the divinity of Christ is not generally disputed by those who are affiliated with Christianity (the religion that is based upon the teachings and work of Christ and his apostles).

The context of the comment is in talking about whether or not certain Founding Fathers (Jefferson is here the specific one in question) could rightly be called Christians, deists, or some other term (‘theistic rationalist’ is one suggested). The comment being responded to here asserts that Jefferson denied the divinity of Christ and that therefore he cannot be truly thought to be Christian in the normal context. I agree. The commenter above seems to be arguing by analogy that the “-ian” affix does not indicate such a belief, but that certainly misses the point: even if the affix doesn’t entail the belief, the association indicated by the term does in this case. And even if one rejected that point, it still wouldn’t be true that Jefferson could be called a Christian by this sentiment because Jefferson (to my knowledge) never called himself a Christian under any definition and in many cases disassociated himself from Christians.

I will say one thing in some agreement: There are plenty of affixes using to make an associative noun like this, e.g. -ian, -ist, and there really isn’t any rhyme or reason to their use except for personal preference. There is perhaps a tendency toward -ian for associations with people, e.g. Aristotelian, and -ist for general ideas, e.g. transcendentalist, but this is neither hard nor fast. I find that people want to have those sorts of rules – indeed, I desire them myself as well from time to time – but there simply isn’t any prescriptive way of using them. So one might use “Christian” to describe one’s agreement with Jesus’ social and ethical mandates toward others while denying his divinity, miracles, etc., but using that definition in the public sphere is largely problematic because Christian means something different. Those wishing to make such a connection would do well to heed this warning.

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2 Responses to What not to do when clarifying an association

  1. King of Ireland says:

    Why even use the word Chrisitan anymore? This whole debate on Ed’s site is fascinating and yet ridiculous at times. The main thing that gets rigidulous is the use of broad labels. I have pointed it out several times and then be dumbfounded by my own hypocrisy minutes later. I am trying to lie by the standard of, “Examine everything and hold onto what it good.” I find myself agreeing more with Ed on many things than with follow Evangelical believers. Even that term bothers me. We all get lumped in with the Dobson crowd no matter what we do it seems like.

  2. Brody says:

    Well, the term Christian is useful in a lot of ways, so abandoning it for some other term (which Christians have done in some parts of the world, like India) may be a needless endeavor in the end. Labels are tricky, and quite a few people don’t understand that they generally only have limited usefulness. In this way, the usefulness of the label ‘Christian’ is to denote assent to a number of core beliefs; this is how most people understand the term, I think, and that common understanding makes the label useful. If someone wants to redefine what the term means, then I have no problem with that as long as it is used in a limited sense, such as arguing a specific point. The problem is that redefinitions like that are often used to equivocate. Calling Jefferson a Christian, for instance, would be useful in propagating the argument that most or all of the Founding Fathers were Christians, but unfortunately, that means that (if true) they were not Christians in the generally accepted view of the term.

    By the way, I agree that Ed’s positions on a lot of things are fairly reasonable. The best thing to do is to fight labels that don’t fit when they get attached to you.

    Thanks for stopping by, KoI; good to see you over this way.

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