What’s said, what’s heard

Have had an interesting discussion over email recently about anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism in Christian theology, with a scholar who’s spent much longer studying both than I have. The issue came up about a book that analysed numerous examples of anti-Judaism in Christian thought and described it as a “heresy”. My correspondent, who is not a Christian theologian, wasn’t happy with this description.

I could see where the description came from, and could see why it caused concern, and this relates to something I’ve been thinking about on and off lately – the problems that arise when normative and descriptive statements about religious traditions enter the same space.

In this example: I can imagine a Christian theologian teaching Christians about anti-Judaism, and feeling s/he had to make it very clear that this was a heresy – meaning something that Christians should not do/accept if they want to go on calling themselves Christians. That would, arguably, be a reasonable and responsible thing to do. But then I can imagine someone in the audience thinking “but isn’t s/he just trying to let Christianity off the hook here by denying that anti-Jewish thought is ‘really’ Christian, and hence pretending that anti-Judaism isn’t really a problem in Christianity?” The criticism would not be pertinent within a context in which everyone accepted that they were arguing about normative claims.

But we often, especially when we step gingerly into the public arena – but even when we do interdisciplinary work – find ourselves in a context in which normative arguments about religious traditions are not heard as such; so claims directed primarily at fellow-Christians (eg) about “what we should be about, but often aren’t”, or even “what I want rather controversially to suggest we might be about” are heard as implausible and/or frankly arrogant descriptions of “what we are about, all the time”.

And of course it’s complex, because a normative claim about “Christianity” does involve a lot of description; such claims are defended through appeals to scripture and tradition, and in some cases to various kinds of observational data.It is not straightforward, though it’s possible, to explain how the evidence for the claim “offering hospitality to strangers is a core Christian practice” that should be offered, say, in a book on theological ethics is and is not similar to the evidence for & against the same claim that might be offered, say, in a report on contemporary British attitudes to refugees and asylum seekers.

It’s not a problem with all “theology in the public square” of course; it’s primarily a problem with theology that talks about religion as well as talking about God. (I think it comes up with the Bible as well – a statement that’s in fact a proposal for how the Bible should be interpreted by Christians in a particular context, gets treated and/or attacked as a general description of “what’s in the Bible”).

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