Thursday, July 26, 2012

Christian, Not Christo-Centric

Back from Annual Session and I have a lot to think and write about in the coming weeks.   I want to start with something of a personal concern.  It is a fairly small thing, but it challenges my peace because it is symptomatic of one of the reasons our Society has reached its current, much reduced condition.

A Friend, a good friend, referred to me as "Christo-centric" at Annual Session.  She meant nothing negative by it and surely did not know that to call a Christian Quaker Christo-centric was similar to calling a Sunni Muslim a Shia, although the differences between those two groups is far less than that between Christo-centric and Christian Friends.

There are many fine explanations of what Christo-centric Christianity is about and the Google machine can give more subtle distinctions than I can in my summary to draw the contrast.  Christo-centrism is a Protestant notion that moves the "person" of Christ to the center of religious practice (or makes it the main notion of belief) but only in certain offices.  Given the uncertain state of our pre-destined souls, Christ is the only agent who can punch our ticket for the afterlife and so that is where the Christo-centric are led to concentrate, to the diminution if not exclusion of all others of its offices.

Christo-centric theology goes beyond that, at least among those concerned with nuances, but on the steeet tends to keep Christian minds pre-occupied with "everlasting life" and sends the message that they have been given a pass on righteousness in the here and now.  Can't help ourselves, you know, the Powers run the world.  Sermon on the Mount is a great set if ideals but, really, the best we can do is "believe" in Christ (that is, affirm one set or another of "orthodox" notional propositions about "his" nature, character and the "work he did" for us while walking around among us).  If we accept the validity of those propositions we can be saved.

A faith and practice quite different was opened to Fox and Friends.   Sure, they affirmed an afterlife, but they believed that living in the Kingdom of God, here and now, would take care of whatever lay beyond the grave.  Christ, The Light, was to be "believed in," but that meant actually doing what Christ told us to do, what the Light showed us we needed to grow out of, in this life.   The Powers were to be confronted and redeemed by living as guided, and their experience was that this guidance pulled them closer and closer to living lives exemplified by the Sermon on the Mount, more and more described by the Fruits of the Spirit.  Friends of the Lamb's War generation rejected the institutions and doctrines of Christo-centric Protestantism--explicitly.  They set out to confront the Powers (including the church), to redeem them.  And it cost them.

The fact that 300+ years later there are many Christo-centric, Protestant Friends, so many, in fact, that most Friends don't know there is a difference between their faith and practice and that of Fox, can be explained.  First, that founding generation was comprised of people brought up as Protestants so that many of those notions came into the Society with them and were never completely eradicated in them.    They left marks that could be used later (by Friend Gurney, for example) to legitimize their later amplification.  Second,  the relentless heat brought on Friends by the hostile Protestant establishment finally, in succeeding generations, caused Friends to at least  appear to pull back to the mainstream as they retreated into Quietism behind their hedge.   Much of the effort of second and third generations of Friends (Barclay and Penn, for example) was aimed at showing that Quakers were harmless, not so different, and hammering out "compromises" that obscured distinctions and gave the establishment the satisfaction of believing that Friends conformed to their notional norms.  "Affirming" rather and "swearing" did not confront the idea that there could be two standards of truth and that one had some latitude to lie if one was not "on record" as telling the truth.

I am among the Friends who have found themselves brought to that faith and practice, not to "Christo-centric" or "Christ centered" belief.  I am not preoccupied with heaven and "believing"  but with hearing and obeying, living in the Kingdom of God on earth (although I more often call that "living in the Life").  I do what I can and hope/expect to be able to do better in the future, as what I have done in the past has enabled me to do better, now, than I did then.

That this confusion exists about the difference, or that there is little awareness that there is a difference, is due to the gradual invasion, growth  and legitimization of the Protestant faith and practice among us which, culminating in the 19th Century in the United States, keeps many Friends in the dark today.

The suffering and hardships endured during the decades of persecution of Friends by the Protestant establishment of its day was not some kind of tragic misunderstanding.   That establishment understood with clarity the threat the Quaker faith and practice posed to the Power they called a church and the wages they received by serving that Power.  They set out to destroy that faith and practice and, looking around, it's apparent they have almost succeeded.  But, as it is written, the darkness cannot comprehend (eclipse) the Light.

Some interesting Quaker process questions came to the fore during the business plenaries at Annual Session and I'll be addressing that next time.


leftistquaker said...

I have a different take on the distinction as a former Christian. Every member of any church can be generically called a Christian. Within "liberal" Quakerdom, it's meant to identify Christians as a subset of a diverse community. Why not simply "Christian"? In part it is aimed at expressing the sense of non-Christian liberal Friends that the Christians among us are different from the wider genre. It is therefore somewhat of a toothless usage, though it expresses a discomfort with generic Christianity.

Daniel Wilcox said...

Hi Timothy,

Intriguing post, most of which I have experienced in my own life in relationship to Christ and God.

But aren't words so often slippery semantics?

I would reverse your terms, saying that "Christian Friend" is the Protestant designation, while being "Christocentric" gets beyond organized religion and its abstract doctrines, and focuses on living in Christ now.

Of course, easier said than done. We humans love to talk, more than walk:-)

In the Light,
Daniel Wilcox

Tmothy Travis said...

Hi, David Christo-centric is actually an established and recognized label for a specific Christian hermeneutic that I define simplistically in the blog post. I am among those who do not value that (or any other, for that matter) approach to interpreting scripture. Friends who have adopted "Christo-centric" as a cool sounding way to differentiate Friends who are Christian from those who are not Christian don't understand, as I say, that they are redefining some of us without understanding they are creating a barrier to their understanding of who we are and lumping us with people whose faith and practice is radically different than ours. Christo-centric doesn't get beyond organized religion--it very specifically represents an approach of some domains of organized religion. "Christian Friend" accurately differentiates between the faith and practice of the original, traditional Christian Quaker faith and practice and that of Protestants--who use the Christo-centric hermeneutic-- within the Society. There are real differences and in not understanding what those are many Friends are unable to hear our testimony--they assume we are about getting people to affirm and validate Protestant notions.

Tmothy Travis said...

Hello, Leftist Quaker

Why not just Christian? Because it invites people to paint others with broad brushes. I don't want to be defined by whatever take someone has on such a non-specific label. Christian needs an adjective to dispel the vagueness and ambiguity it carries around.

People should be treated as what they are rather than what people project onto them.

Listening to atheists and most non-Christians I encounter (even in the Society of Friends) I get the impression that every Christian is a "fundamentalist" Protestant. I am tired of that. Asking not to be called Christo-centric (or an Evangelical) at least starts a conversation.

(let me stick in here that I don't care if other people are Christo-centric or Evangelical--I just don't want to be categorized as such, myself.)

It's why anymore if asked whether I am a Christian I ask what is meant by "Christian." When I get an answer I can almost always say "I'm not that," and a conversation can begin.

I like that. But, then, I am the only person I know who is glad to see Jehova's Witnesses at my front door.

Hystery said...

This is very interesting to me. My own use of the term Christocentric comes out of an interfaith perspective and a background in post-Christian research. In that context, "Christocentric" is akin to "Eurocentric". Just as a European might not be Eurocentric, neither is a Christian necessarily christocentric. Within this context, christocentrism is not indicative merely of centrality of Christ in one's theology or practice, but also in the belief that all other beliefs are to be understood relative to Christianity. This is particularly problematic in interfaith settings, as one can imagine. So this is not a word that has happy feelings attached to it for me. If I heard the word within a Quaker setting, I would have immediately assumed a level of hostility or resentment directed against the Christians in the room which may or may not be justified given that people often know very little about each other and make grand assumptions about others' words and meanings. I think your approach to engaging people in conversation about what we mean by the word "Christian" is important.

leftistquaker said...

Tim, I'd suggest that within Protestant theology, "christo-centric" doesn't mean what you say it does. For example, John Howard Yoder, noted Mennonite pacifist theologian, distinguished his ethical pacifist views from the mainline just war view by saying his ethic was "christocentric" whereas the Just War theory was actually pagan in origin. In other words, Christo-centric denotes an even more specific focus on Jesus's teachings versus the "sacrificial atonement" theology of mainstream Christianity. This atonement theology makes use of social norms that make Christ's sacrifice into a transaction or debt-payment, rather than a victory over evil.

However, most non-Christian Quakers are ignorant of this distinction. So, their usage of "christo-centric" is more about contrasting your Christianity from that of the mainstream Christian world.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Timothy, for pointing to this valuable distinction. As you say, certain Protestant notions found their way into Quakerism, and I am sometimes amazed to find even Conservative Friends who are more evangelical in their Christianity than they realize. All because we don't call things by their right names.

I wonder if you would be interested in my essay "Why I Call Myself a Christian"? I approach some of the same issues from a different direction. I find myself feeling a need to expand further on each of the points in this essay, but it is not without merit. I'd be interested in your comments.

Anonymous said...

Did I forget to give the link? I think so. Here it is:

Cherie said...

I enjoyed this post. For the last few years, I've been identifying myself as simply "Quaker" rather than Christian because I don't want to be seen as someone with evangelical beliefs. Then I'm asked about quakerism and then I can explain that there are Quakers who have strayed from the original. I hope you don't mind I'm linking to this post.