Rectifying the Name of Christianity

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John 3:1-17

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You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you have created all things, and by your will they have their being.

You are worthy, O Lamb, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed us for God from every tribe and language and nation; you have made us to be a kingdom and priests serving our God.

To the One who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever. Amen. – Revelation 4: 11, 5: 9b-11 (Common Worship)

 

You may be forgiven for flinching somewhat when you are told by friends what they have heard that “Christians” say, or hear about what “Christians” are doing on the evening news, or read about how “Christians” vote in your morning newspaper. You may be forgiven for that knot in your stomach when you hear that a seminary president has resigned in the wake of criticism for enabling sexual assault, sexual harassment, and domestic partner violence. You may be forgiven for wondering what what passes for Christianity these days has to do with Jesus of Nazareth.

How did we get here?

Well, consider for a moment all of those posters and t-shirts and bumper stickers and tattoos you have seen sporting merely eight characters: J – O – H – N – 3 – : – 1 – 6. What does that inscription even mean? For someone walking down the street, it is just a string of eight characters with no obvious meaning, but of course, being a good church goer, you know that it refers to the Bible, and therein to the Gospel according to St. John, the third chapter, and the sixteenth verse. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (NRSV) Well, now. Ain’t that nice. God loved the world. Everlasting life. Sounds pretty sweet. But what lies lurking beneath the surface, that is, what is being implied when the verse is foisted in the faces of the uninitiated, is not the promise of salvation but the threat of believe or perish. Rather than the grace of God, the verse is being used like an underhanded compliment to spread judgment and condemnation. What’s more, it is pretty obvious, even to the uninitiated, that this is precisely what is going on.

The name of Christianity is in a pretty sorry state in many quarters, not because people have not learned how wonderful Jesus is, but because they have learned just how horrible Christians can be. Can the name “Christian” be redeemed? I’m not sure, but perhaps it can be rectified. The project of rectifying names comes not from the first century of the common era in Palestine but from the fifth century before the common era in China. You may have pause to wonder whether an idea at such distance in time and space from Jesus, let alone from you and I, could possibly be relevant, but a very important dissertation set to be defended in August here at Boston University makes the case that the two need not necessarily be as far apart from one another intellectually as they are from some of their own neighbors in time and space.

I am grateful that my dear friend and colleague, Dr. Bin Song, Chapel Associate for the Confucian Association here at Marsh Chapel, is here to read from the Analects of Confucius this morning, in Chinese and English.

子路曰:「衛君待子而為政,子將奚先?」子曰:「必也正名乎!」子路曰:「有是哉,子之迂也!奚其正?」子曰:「野哉由也!君子於其所不知,蓋闕如也。名不正,則言不順;言不順,則事不成;事不成,則禮樂不興;禮樂不興,則刑罰不中;刑罰不中,則民無所措手足。故君子名之必可言也,言之必可行也。君子於其言,無所苟而已矣。」

Zilu asked, “If the Duke of Wei were to employ you to serve in the government of his state, what would be your first priority?” The Master answered, “It would, of course, be the rectification of names (zhengming 正名).” Zilu said, “Could you, Master, really be so far off the mark? Why worry about rectifying names?” The Master replied, “How boorish you are, Zilu! When it comes to matters that he does not understand, the gentleman should remain silent. If names are not rectified, speech will not accord with reality; when speech does not accord with reality, things will not be successfully accomplished. When things are not successfully accomplished, ritual practice and music will fail to flourish; when ritual and music fail to flourish, punishments and penalties will miss the mark. And when punishments and penalties miss the mark, the common people will be at a loss as to what to do with themselves. This is why the gentleman only applies names that can be properly spoken and assures that what he says can be properly put into action. The gentleman simply guards against arbitrariness in his speech. That is all there is to it.” (Confucius. Analects. trans. Edward Slingerland. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2003. 139).

Thank you, Dr. Song. Now, before you sit down, perhaps you could help me with something. I seem to have forgotten the name of the author of that very important dissertation about to be defended regarding doctrines of creation in Christianity and Confucianism. Do you recall who it is? Oh, that’s your dissertation? Well, this is awkward. Dear friends, please join me in congratulating Dr. Song on his tenure track appointment as Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Washington College in Maryland beginning in July.

The project of rectifying names begins with the assumption of a leader who has undergone an extensive program of moral self-cultivation. Such a leader would lead by moral force, that is, would have influence simply by virtue of the quality of their character, including at the level of influencing how their followers use language. Rectifying names is about making sure that language accords with reality, that words correspond with real objects, and that grammar articulates real relationships and distinctions. Of course, as we are learning in our time in real time, immorally self-cultivated leaders are quite capable of having precisely the opposite effect to disastrous social consequences.

For an example of rectifying names, we need turn nor further than right back to the Gospel according to St. John, the third chapter, the first through the fourteenth verses:

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I say to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. (NRSV)

Nicodemus is confused, and we can hardly blame him. As far as he can tell, birth is something that happens at the beginning of life, it occurs once, and it is a rather bloody affair of being forcibly ejected from the womb of one’s mother. Jesus is here rectifying the name “born” to refer not only to birth into this life but also to birth into eternal life, and this birth is by water and the Spirit from above. Unfortunately, this attempt at rectification largely fails. In point of fact, this is likely because Jesus violates two of the four maxims of conversational implicature identified by British philosopher of language H. Paul Grice as underlying conditions for successful communication. Jesus upholds the maxim of quality, speaking what he knows to be true, and the maxim of relevance, speaking to the topic at hand, but he violates the maxim of quantity by failing to provide as much information as needed for Nicodemus to understand, and the maxim of manner, which requires clarity, brevity, and orderliness while avoiding obscurity and ambiguity.

If anything, this excursus serves to demonstrate that rectifying the name of Christianity can be no small feat. The name of “Christian” for many refers not to the grace of God but to rank hypocrisy in service to the self-interests of its purveyors. Such hypocrisy is inevitable when so many Christians have shifted the reference of what they take to be ultimate from God to their own self-interests, which is precisely what Paul Tillich identified as idolatry: mistaking the finite for the infinite – the bible is mistaken for God, masculinity is mistaken for Christ-likeness, whiteness is mistaken for purity, the nation state is mistaken for the realm of God, and money is mistaken for salvation.

It is not the case that these idolatries are recent inventions among modern Christians. Many if not all of them have been lurking within Christianity virtually since the beginning. Much could be said detailing the histories of each of them, but for the moment let us focus on the last, the confusion of money for salvation. As another very important dissertation, recently defended at Harvard, points out, theology and economics have been intertwined in Christian theology all the way back to the writings of St. Paul, rendering the logic of salvation in financial terms.

I am grateful that my dear friend and colleague, the Rev. Dr. Jennifer Quigley, Chapel Associate for Vocational Discernment here at Marsh Chapel, is here to read an example of this from St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans, in Greek and English:

Ἄρα οὖν, ἀδελφοί, ὀφειλέται ἐσμὲν οὐ τῇ σαρκὶ τοῦ κατὰ σάρκα ζῆν, εἰ γὰρ κατὰ σάρκα ζῆτε, μέλλετε ἀποθνῄσκειν· εἰ δὲ πνεύματι τὰς πράξεις τοῦ σώματος θανατοῦτε, ζήσεσθε. ὅσοι γὰρ πνεύματι θεοῦ ἄγονται, οὗτοι υἱοὶ θεοῦ εἰσιν. οὐ γὰρ ἐλάβετε πνεῦμα δουλείας πάλιν εἰς φόβον ἀλλ’ ἐλάβετε πνεῦμα υἱοθεσίας ἐν ᾧ κράζομεν· αββα ὁ πατήρ. αὐτὸ τὸ πνεῦμα συμμαρτυρεῖ τῷ πνεύματι ἡμῶν ὅτι ἐσμὲν τέκνα θεοῦ. εἰ δὲ τέκνα, καὶ κληρονόμοι· κληρονόμοι μὲν θεοῦ, συγκληρονόμοι δὲ Χριστοῦ, εἴπερ συμπάσχομεν ἵνα καὶ συνδοξασθῶμεν.

So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh – for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ – if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. (NRSV)

Thank you, Dr. Quigley. Now, before you sit down, perhaps you could help me with something. I seem to have forgotten the name of the author of that very important dissertation about theo-economics in St. Paul’s epistle to the Philippians. Do you recall who it is? Oh, that’s your dissertation? Well, this is awkward. (Is anyone else having déjà vu all over again?) Dear friends, please join me in congratulating Dr. Quigley on her graduation from Harvard Divinity School with the Doctor of Theology in New Testament and Early Christianity last week.

Some of you may be wondering how we got from there to the idolatrous hypocrisy that characterizes too much of Christianity today. Alas, it is really not that hard. Allow me to demonstrate. Hear then a proof that former U.S. President Jimmy Carter is in fact the savior of the world on the basis of the Gospel according to St. John, the third chapter, verses fifteen through seventeen:

‘And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’ (NRSV)

From here I take you to Valentine’s Day 2011, my first Valentine’s Day with Holly, to whom I have now been blissfully married for six years today. Happy anniversary, love. On that Valentine’s Day in 2011, I had planned a nice evening out, with dinner at a tapas restaurant followed by a screening of Casablanca at the Brattle Theater in Harvard Square. To this romantic plan, Holly appended a pre-dinner screening of a documentary film on the effort to eradicate Guinea Worm, a parasitic infection contracted by drinking contaminated water resulting in the growth of a worm, sometimes up to a meter long, in the lower extremities over the course of a year, which then emerge through a blister in the skin to deposit their larvae and begin the cycle all over again.

Now, in John 3: 15, Jesus prophesies that “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” He is referring here back to the Hebrew Scriptures, the book of Numbers, the 21st chapter, where the Israelites are wandering around the desert whining and so God sends a plague of fiery serpents to whip them into shape. Of course, they repent, so God tells Moses to put a serpent on a pole and whoever looks at the serpent on the pole would live. (Note here the similarity with the medical symbol of the Rod of Asclepius, a Greek deity of healing and medicine, which is a serpent wrapped around a pole). Guinea worm may well be the plague of fiery serpents described in Numbers. After all, when the worm emerges from the skin, it does so through a painful blister that sufferers describe as a burning sensation. Thus, on the basis of Jesus prophesy linking his own crucifixion to the plague of fiery serpents, and then his crucifixion to the salvation of the world in verse seventeen, clearly the salvation of the world consists in the eradication of guinea worm. Since there are still people in the world who suffer from guinea worm, clearly Jesus’ crucifixion was not as successful in accomplishing this goal as he had promised. However, due largely to the dedication and resourcefulness of the Carter Foundation, led by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, guinea worm cases are down to only thirty worldwide in 2017 from 3.5 million cases thirty years prior. Thus, once guinea worm is finally eradicated once and for all, Jimmy Carter will have saved the world.

See, you really can get the bible to say pretty much anything. I should note that Jimmy Carter himself would be horrified by this interpretation. If you don’t believe me, then you should attend bible study with him at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia before church some Sunday. Just be sure to get there early, very early, like, before 6:00a.m., if you want a seat.

This example also serves to make Confucius’ point that when names are not used in a way that accords with the contours of reality, “the common people will be at a loss as to what to do with themselves.” Indeed, what are we do with Christianity and those who call themselves Christians? Confucius prescribes exemplary moral leadership that does not succumb to the inevitable hypocrisy of idolatry but instead accords its own actions with what is real, and true, and good, that is, with God. Such leaders would be able to rectify the name of Christianity by influencing others to accord their actions with what is real, and true, and good.

But where are we to find such leaders? Right here! Marsh Chapel! You are such leaders. You have the ability to go out and in thought, word, and deed to rectify the name of Christianity. You are empowered by the Spirit to go forth and accord your actions with what is real, and true, and good, to inspire others to accord their actions with what is real, and true, and good, and to hold those in power to account when they lie, and cheat, and steal. To rectify the name of Christianity, go forth as good Confucians that you may resist hypocrisy and idolatry, that you may properly distinguish the finite from the infinite, and that you may lead with moral force. On this Trinity Sunday, bind unto yourselves the strong name of God who makes reality, Christ the norm of truth, and the Spirit that leads us into goodness. Amen.

-Brother Lawrence A. Whitney, LC†

University Chaplain for Community Life

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