Friday, January 17, 2014

A Point of Agreement between Evangelicals and Pagans: Solving a Shared Semantic Issue



Evangelicals are not Pagans. Pagans are not Evangelicals. But not all evangelicals are Evangelicals. Nor are all pagans Pagans. And it’s very important that we understand why. And I have a suggestion for what we might do about it.
Please, read on.
My Tribe, Love It or Not
It’s not so much that I don’t like being called an Evangelical. The term, theologically-speaking, accurately describes me. What I find objectionable is the wide-ranging roster of persons, positions, and practices that are also called Evangelical.
In the past I have proposed a more specific term, “Exegetical,” meaning those who seek to correctly understand and apply the teachings of the Holy Bible to their beliefs and behaviors. Walter Kaiser, in The Promise Plan of God, suggests “Epangelical,” to emphasize the plot-thread of God’s promised redemption, beginning in the third chapter of scripture and concluding at the end of the final Revelation. (Thus, “Epangelical” since epangelia is the Greek word for “promise.”) But both these concepts are comprised by “Evangelical,” despite its continued hijacking by the professionally religious, the consuming minimalists, nominal secularists, political power-brokers, and hate-mongering hypocrites. (For a broader take on this issue, Dr. Sam Tsang’s Engage the Pews blog includes a post, “Evangelicalism does NOT define Christianity!” You can find it here: http://engagethepews.wordpress.com/2014/01/15/evangelicalism-does-not-define-christianity/)
The Problem of “Pagans”
What primarily brought this to mind, though, is a discussion elsewhere of a term that is experiencing exactly the opposite semantic phenomenon: “pagan.” Dr, Paul Louis Metzger regularly applies the term in its generic sense to mean “unchristian or non-Christian,” or more specifically “non-Abrahamic religious or spiritual traditions,” as in an addendum to his recent post “How Does the Pagan Play ‘Rent’ Bear Witness to Christ?” at his Uncommon God; Common Good blog (found here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/uncommongodcommongood/2014/01/how-does-the-pagan-play-rent-bear-witness-to-christ/). 
The semantic range of “pagan” certainly includes some specific beliefs and practices among some specific types of religious structures and systems that choose to call themselves “Pagan,” with the capitalization apparently implying an intent to trademark. If I may, though: Pagans™—you might want to become Pagans®, but only if you intend to pursue infringement claims, of course.
The Semantic Solution
But, all humor aside, I do sympathize with the difficulties of communication when terms are either broadened to be co-opted and thus corrupted by others (as I believe happens when those who use religious terms and affiliations, like “Evangelical,” as a means to bully, oppress, and exploit others) or, as seems to be the case with Pagans, terms are narrowed to refer exclusively to only some portion of its former semantic range.
To illustrate these phenomena: Some differentiate between Evangelical and Christian, overlapping only slightly, and specifying their definitions almost to the point that the two terms are mutually exclusive (as in “You can be a Christian, but not an Evangelical; or an Evangelical, but not a Christian.”) I used to differentiate between “heathen” and “pagan,” with the former term comprising all non-Christians and the latter denoting those who specifically adhere to one of the multitudes of non-Christian religious systems of belief and/or behavior. (Thus “all pagans are heathen, but not all heathen are pagans.”) Where both kinds of semantic confusion occur, with a growing roster of religious terms being affected, what options might there be? (An allusion to New Wine requiring New Wineskins here is almost irresistible. To understand why, feel free to visit Dr. Metzger’s work at this site: http://new-wineskins.org/. But we’re being serious now.)
I’ve written previously (http://deathpastor.blogspot.com/2013/07/marriage-marriage-and-why-difference-is.html) on Dr. Colin Gunton’s recommendation of semantic specialization in which “the capacity of language increases by a process of de-synonymy; that is, the process whereby two words which are in the beginning synonymous take on different shades of meaning, and are so able to perform different functions.” And the idea certainly applies here that, rather than seeking to narrow an existing term to exclude elements of its former semantic range, other words which have held virtually the same meaning could be used to specify the new, narrower range one intends to denote.
But I am suggesting another approach.
The Personal Paradigm
What purpose do our labels fulfill (whether Evangelical, Pagan, Buddhist, or Atheist; Liberal or Conservative; or even designations within the ever-growing list of initials of LGBTQIA, etc.)? I see three functions.
(1) Where our labels are specific and accurate, they categorize us for more rapid discrimination, either positively or negatives. (e.g., “I am a theologically conservative, Evangelical, non-dispensational, relatively Arminian and moderately Charismatic pastor, chaplain, counselor, and seminary professor. Want to hang out? Or not?”)
(2) Where they present a façade behind which we conceal our unique beliefs and behaviors, they help us to categorize others by their reaction to the stereotype we project. (“I’m a ‘born-again Christian.’ Want to make something of it?!”)
And (3) where they are intentionally nebulous, vaguely representing something that may or may not communicate our authentic belief and behavior, they afford us a plausible deniability, allowing us to sidestep criticism by deftly shifting our position within (or even outside) the semantic range we’ve chosen. (“Yes, I’m an Evangelical, but not that kind of Evangelical. I’d still like you to like me.”)
So, here’s my suggestion. Let’s drop the labels. Let’s not defend the territory of our semantic range-wars. Let’s address the substance instead. Let’s talk about what you and I believe, and what you and I do about those beliefs.
But let’s also accept that the result may be that we are forced to admit how much we agree on, and then we’d be compelled to try to figure out why. I think the commonality at the foundation of all of our differentiation might surprise, or even dismay us.
From one human™ to another, thanks for reading this far.

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