What Would Yoda Do?
Some time ago I wrote an article for this blog discussing my take on the issue of who, “really”, is a Christian. This comes up when you are told, as we all have been at one time or another, that you never really were a Christian in the first place – because if you de-convert, it somehow proves the alleged falseness or insincerity of your prior belief.
My basic argument was that there is no answer to the question. The reason is that “Christian” is an arbitrary human group designation that is used with different (implicit) definitions by different groups. Since none of those groups has accepted authority to establish a (or the) correct definition, and since “Christian” does not (as we used to believe) refer to anything divine or supernatural, it follows that there can be no final, ultimate, “correct” definition. There is no right answer to whether “I was a Christian” is true or not, independent of context and a pre-chosen definition.
I still think my answer is substantially correct. But its not exactly punchy. It takes a bit of explaining, and that won’t always do in the heat of an argument. When faced with confrontation and criticism from friends, former friends, and others who challenge us, it helps to have an answer at the ready that doesn’t depend on delving into philosophical issues of “natural kinds” vs “nominal kinds”. I wanted something more memorable – compact & colorful, more visual and less abstract.
So after continuing to chew on this, I think I’ve come up with one. So, let me share it here and you all can tell me what you think.
Here’s the setting: you are telling a friend, coworker, or stranger on the web that you used to be a Christian, but you deconverted. She scoffingly replies that that means you never were one in the first place; true Christians remain faithful and never leave. (Or, as a variant, as was said to me once, that you cannot lose your salvation, so you are still a Christian whether you think you are or not.)
I think I will call this Kenobi’s Fallacy. Here goes:
Imagine that you once believed yourself to be a Jedi. I mean, seriously. You really, truly, honestly, in your heart of hearts believed in the Force, and that you, as a Jedi, were studying to master it. You dedicated many years of your life to this with the singular passion of a Sith. Then, gradually, after many years of often painful reflection and study, you came to lose your belief. You came to realize that there really was no Force, and there never had been. You used to feel so sure – you once believed you felt it, flowing through you, controlling your actions but also obeying your commands – but now, you realize you were mistaken.
It was a very wrenching process for you. You dedicated your life to this craft, and now, sadly, you see that Han was right: there really is no substitute for a good blaster at your side.
Now, though, your former Master comes to you, and says: You never really were a Jedi in the first place.
I feel I hardly need to explain any more. Do you see the silliness in having a debate with this person about whether you “really” were a Jedi? Now that you have de-converted, you can see that the word “Jedi” doesn’t refer to anything except this: people who believe themselves to be masters of the Force. It has no supernatural, extradimensional, mystical (or whatever) aspects to it at all.
Of course, your former master believes it does refer to something. He thinks it refers to “someone who actually is a master of the Force”, just like you used to. But from where you sit now, it cannot mean that – or, rather, it could, but if so then no one is a Jedi, because there is no such thing as the Force. And since it would seem weird, and needlessly confusing, to claim there were no Jedi when the whole galaxy was full of people running around claiming to be Jedi, it makes much more sense to retain the term but change its referent.
But how can you answer this person, who says that you never really were a Jedi – in his sense of the term Jedi… i.e., master of a real, literal Force? By arguing that yes, you “really” were? No, that’s not true – you don’t believe that. There is no Force. But its also not strictly accurate that you “really” weren’t a Jedi either, in his sense of the term Jedi, because that still implies there is an actual Force to be a master of. And that’s the point: it cannot be answered whether someone has satisfied his definition of “Jedi” or not, because it assumes a nonexistent entity. His criterion for what qualifies as a Jedi is nonsensical.
So, back to this galaxy, the analog is clear: when someone uses the word “Christian” to mean something like “one whose soul has been saved by Jesus” , it becomes absurd to argue whether or not you ever “really” met that criteria. The only criteria that can really mean anything has to do with mundane and arbitrary group membership, membership that is not based on anything external, in any precise way. “Christian” can only mean something like “one who considers herslef to be a follower of Jesus.” “Christian”, thus, is actually more like “soccer fan.” There’s no real right answer as to whether someone is or not.
What I think I like about this analogy – if it holds – is that, in actual use (and I haven’t beta tested it), I don’t think you would need to explain as much as I did here. Just replying to your critic, “That’s kind of like if, say, you used to think you were a Jedi, but now you don’t, and then I came to you and said ‘you never really were a Jedi’”, and let the implications slowly sink in, would probably be enough.
And if you like, you could reshape this analogy into anything you like: you used to think you were a wizard. Or a dragonrider. Or a unicorn-tamer. Or a Romulan spy.
So ,what do you think of my analogy, my fellow Padawans? Useful it is, hmm?
Entry filed under: Richard.