Saturday, November 21, 2009

Did Christianity Cause the Collapse?

I read the title of Hanna Rosin's piece in the Atlantic, and was immediately annoyed. "That's like asking of Islam caused 9/11!" I said to myself.

But wait, we asked that question a lot, didn't we? And many thought "yes" even if they didn't articulate that explicitly. Which brings up the question, "What is 'Christianity'? What is 'Islam'?" Or, put differently, "Who is a 'Christian'? Who is a 'Muslim'?" How you answer that question (either one) determines what you'll think about whether those religions caused recent events.

One possible answer to "Who is a ______": "Whoever I think is one!" This had disastrous consequences for an Coptic Christian, from Egypt, who was shot by some idiot here in the US, because said idiot thought the guy was a Muslim and therefore affiliated with whatever group flew airplanes into the World Trade Center.

Of course, there are people who think everyone from North America is a Christian. Britney Spears, Hugh Hefner (if anyone remembers him anymore), those pro wrestlers on WWF, and Carrie Prejean -- all Christians, right? Oh, and Adolf Hitler was a Christian too, right?

Is a "real" Christian one who does what Jesus taught, and a "real" Muslim one who does what Muhammad taught? What documents are used to determine what these prophets said, and who gets to decide? For Jesus, is it the four gospels? For Muhammad, is it the Qur'an only, or is some Hadith (which?) included?

Let me short-circuit the next thing: there is nobody that follows all Jesus said: Love your enemies, turn the other cheek, sell your possessions and give to the poor. Some do some of that more than others, but nobody does it all.

Here's another alternative: we could say "A Christian is anyone who says they're one." and the same for Muslims, Jews, etc. But that brings some disagreement into the mix. There are some Christians who would claim that <some_unfavored_person> isn't one, because of this or that. Again, same for Muslims, Jews, etc. OK, so here's one answer to Ms. Rosin:

If by "Christianity" you mean "what Jesus taught" then the answer is "Absolutely not!" Jesus said his kingdom isn't of this world. There's no record that he ever owned any property. When people asked him about paying taxes, he even borrowed a coin to make his point. He had, by his own account "no place to lay his head."

But if "Christianity" means "whatever was taught in any building labeled 'church' by someone with the title 'pastor'," then sure it caused the crash. It also caused the Jonestown massacre, the Branch Davidian disaster, and all kinds of other awful stuff. That definition of Christianity isn't too different from what some people in the Muslim world call Christianity -- viz., anything coming out of North America.

But let's see if I can clarify that a bit.

To answer “Did Christianity cause...” we need to know...

... what's uniquely Christian. In other words, if the crash resulted from some teaching X, then it only makes sense to blame the crash on Christianity if:
  • X is taught by Christians and not by others; and further if
  • X is a significant contributor or a deciding factor in the crash's occurrence.
So it seems to me that to answer Ms. Rosin's question we have to decide what's uniquely Christian -- i.e., stuff typically taught by pastors in churches but not taught much outside of churches by people who aren't pastors. I just made this definition up, but in a pluralistic society I think it may be a helpful way to talk about what's unique to Christianity as practiced in the US, but without getting into theology, hermeneutics, the authorship of Mark 16, or other rather esoteric issues. Here are a few things with my shot as to whether they're unique to Christianity:
  • You can and should be rich: NO
    • It's taught a lot outside churches
    • Though it's taught in some churches, it's not something that a majority of churches would agree with
  • You can have your sins forgiven through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ: YES
    • Taught in most churches, not taught much outside churches
  • You should handle poisonous snakes and drink poison: NO
    • Though not taught much (if at all) outside churches...
    • it's not taught much in churches outside a very small subset in a certain geographical area (see Salvation on Sand Mountain)
  • You should give money to the poor: NO by this definition
    • Taught both inside and outside the church: it's taught in Mosques/Masjids and synagogues as well as by some non-religious non-profits.
      (Side note: according to this article by Jonathan Haidt, religious people tend give more money -- and blood -- than secular folks do.)
  • It's OK to lie, kill, steal from people outside your group: NO
    • Taught by a minority of churches but not by most.
    • Taught by organizations outside the church.
  • God is holy, and man is not: NO by this definition
    • Taught by churches, but...
    • ALSO taught in other religious traditions, notably Islam and Judaism
    In other words we could say this is part of Christianity but it's not uniquely Christian.

So here's my final answer: No, nothing caused the crash that's uniquely taught by Christianity. Greed is taught in many places outside the church, and is not universally or generally taught inside the church.

I'd say that rather the crash was brought about by greed. Subprime loans, the excesses of the credit default swap market, the stock bubble -- all those things were only symptoms; the real cause was greed. My opinion.

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