Rarely does anyone question the call for a Christian to be radical. When radical is associated with Muslims it is a different impulse. We must ask, “How has our imagination been conditioned?”
Several months ago I presented my friend Greg with an idea and an opportunity, “Consider writing a series of guest posts on logical fallacies.” Greg brings a unique combination to my request. He is a former pastor, current religion reporter of more than twenty years, and is a college instructor in, among other things, logic and English 2. Second year English is often about writing and argumentation.
There is no better time for pastors, or anyone for that matter, to be familiar with or reminded of the informal and formal logical fallacies. Here is his first installment.
Setting the Stage
This post will be much more sensible if you simply read Todd’s post here first, but in case you haven’t the time or patience to read two posts, here’s a quick gist. I did a presentation on the history, theology and politics of Islam, including a discussion about Daesh (ISIS), at Todd’s church in January. As part of the evening’s events, I answered a question about my increased fear given Islam’s inroads to the U.S. Specifically, a woman asked me how much additional fear I had.
Borrowing an idea from Professor Alan Wolfe’s remarkable book The Transformation of American Religion, I said, “None.” Wolfe does not address the Islamization of America in his book; rather, he addresses the Americanization of all religions that make our shores and are summarily pressed into conformity with America’s real religious ideals: individualism and consumerism. Given that reality—as I agree with him completely—I have no fear of a “radicalized” Islam in America.
(I am not a fool. I’m aware of what happened in California, but I’m equally aware of what happens in this country every day: people are killed. And in schools around this country, students and staff wait to find out which school will be next. Please note here that the conservative media and churches around the country don’t wring their hands over radical anti-education bigots who are destroying our country. Rather, they accept the violence as part of the American experience, and, frankly, we should probably be unsurprised that a nation that has exported violence so many times would find it part of the grammar of their domestic lives as well.)
In response to Todd’s post, a Mr. Cleveland offered four lines of commentary without appropriate context. I don’t know Mr. Cleveland, and the context criticism is an observation about how words actually work. Here are the four lines:
How much can you tell about Christianity by observing a nominal Christian?
How much can you tell about Christianity by observing a radical Christian?
How much can you tell about Islam by observing a nominal Muslim?
How much can you tell about Islam by observing a radical Muslim?
Since we’re talking about logical fallacies in these posts, let’s name this one first: equivocation. Literally, the word means “having the same name” or “to call by the same name.” The meaning is implied in the etymology, which is not as common an occurrence as you would suppose. If something is called by the same name, and since this is an informal logical fallacy, we need to infer that two things that are not the same are being called by the same name. More informally, equivocation uses the same word in different contexts but either trades on the different meanings or ignores the different meanings. Mr. Cleveland offered a textbook example.
Let’s ignore the idea of nominal anything, as it’s utterly useless for determining what a thing is. Again, we have a word that means “in name,” so what we actually mean by “nominal Christian,” is someone who is Christian in name only (CINO). That means we can know nothing about what a Christian actually is from this person since she is a non-Christian, nor can we infer anything about Muslims from Mr. Cleveland’s MINO.
The real equivocation in his post is based on the dual meaning of “radical,” and that dual meaning is dependent on what we call a subtext. In this case, it’s a prejudicial subtext. When Mr. Cleveland says “radical Christian,” we have been conditioned to think about the Apostle Pauls and Mother Teresas of the world—for a more contemporary example, imagine the Christians around the world who have been imprisoned for refusing to renounce their faith or practice it in secret. (That is the nature of a subtext; it extends the meaning of a word into concrete examples, much like saying “bird” summons up an image of a bird of some variety, usually based on common examples in your own context. In Oklahoma, that would be sparrows, pigeons, hawks, robins, etc. In Guatemala, I suspect the examples would be radically different.)
However, when we hear “radical Muslim,” we are not inclined to imagine a Muslim who feeds the poor at great sacrifice or makes the Hajj (pilgrimage) every year. Indeed, we are conditioned to imagine one who acts violently, either toward the innocent or as “insurgents” resisting the democratization of their homeland. (Note here how the proliferation of –ization words in English actually obscures what is being said. That’s obfuscation, so not an appropriate topic for this post.)
If a radical Christian is one who practices their actual faith with great zeal, why can this not be true of a radical Muslim? The characterization relies on the subtext to supply the meaning to “radical,” and the equivocation hides an unstated bias: Islam at its core is violent, and Christianity at its core is not.