October 15, 2010

"Extremist" is a Theological Category

American culture seems to be most interested in who God isn’t. Many hold that claims made about God put him in a box and because we really can’t know anything about him (so they say) we should avoid claiming any knowledge of or about him. Of course, that argument works for less than 10 seconds because to say we can’t know anything about God requires some knowledge of God—and that is where such claims reduce to silliness.

On The View yesterday, America’s love affair with religious pluralism took the conversation in a direction that deserves further reflection. During the show, Joy Behar and Whoopie Goldberg took issue with Fox’s Bill O’Reilly, stomping off the stage in protest after he explained that 70% of Americans are against the building of the Mosque near Ground Zero because it was Muslims who attacked America on 9/11/2001. In all the clamor, O’Reilly defended his statement with a follow-up rhetorical question, “were they not Muslim?” On his own show last evening, however, he capitulated and said that he assumed the ladies on The View would get that he was referring to the Muslim terrorists who are also extremists, but Muslim nonetheless.

If you ever watch The O’Reilly Factor and have a basic knowledge of Christianity, you probably know that Bill O’Reilly is not a theologian. He proved this recently as he defended Christians in an interview with Bill Maher. O’Reilly explained to Maher that Christians don’t really believe that the story of Noah and the flood is to be taken literally but that Christians still deserve to be heard. This is just one of many uncomfortable moments in the interview that reduced it to the status of train wreck. Certainly the world of politics can not avoid the world of religious ideas, but I would highly recommend that O’Reilly remove himself from theological dialogue at this point…or get a tutor.

But that leads me to this important point. O’Reilly is only one of many engaging in theological dialogue, pretty much unbeknownst to them. Here is what’s going on: the term “extremist” as is being applied Muslims is a theological category. Obviously it is being utilized for political purposes, but it is being used with overtly theological intentions. To say that an individual or a group has gone beyond the doctrines of a particular religion in belief or action—the definition of religious extremism—is to also claim to know something about the content of that religion. In other words, one would have to have detailed knowledge of a religion in order to know what to exclude from its teachings. But this certainly is not the situation of many who make use of the term, for they often do not understand the religion of which they are speaking. But apparently the exclusion of the term “extremist” is tantamount to hate speech.

Some Christians have made use of the category “extremist” because it creates some separation between themselves and those who profess Christianity but do really stupid things. Westboro Baptist Church comes to mind. Are these people Christian extremists? I believe my understanding of Christian theology allows me to make use of the term (as most of you who reading this post) but at the same time, we would have to agree that there’s nothing Christian about certain behaviors and to apply the term “extremist” is to do a disservice to the term “Christian.” As theologians, I believe we need to eliminate the use of the term “extremist” so we can see things for what they really are. But politicians and pundits will continue to engage the use of this word for their own political gain, but a theological category it certainly is.

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