A conversation between Carmen Fowler LaBerge and Debbie Berkley, Ph.D.
Carmen: Debbie, you’re a linguist, help me understand something. In the discussions at the General Assembly meeting of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in Detroit there was objection to using the term “non-Christian” during discussion and debate about the denomination’s “Interreligious Stance.” The word “non-Christian” was ultimately edited out of the document approved by the assembly because, it was argued, to refer to someone as “non-Christian” in some way lessened the humanity of the people to whom the term was applied.
Let’s talk about the word “Christian” and the word “non-Christian” from a linguistic perspective.
Debbie: The people arguing against the application of the term non-Christian to people who are professing to believe in something other than Christianity are using the term “Christian” as a fundamental term that accords humanity, in some sense, to a person. This reveals a cultural bias in these people that they may not even realize they possess. This is particularly interesting since these are likely the same people who would be advocating for equal status among religions in the world, and who would never consciously say that Christianity is better than any other religion. But those advocating that all religions are equal are definitely not OK with the term “non-Christian.”
Carmen: Agreed, to say that non-Christian is pejorative and somehow suggests someone is less human is not at all what the joyful proclamation of the good news of the Gospel of Jesus is all about. The assumption being made here may be as much about the view of evangelism as the way people who are not Christians feel about being referred to as non-Christian. I am not Muslim and to be described as non-Muslim does not offend me. I am not many things and being described in the negative helps others understand me, it does diminish who I am.
Debbie: In linguistics there’s a concept called “markedness.” Linguists are aware that language very often divides words, phrases, and ideas into unmarked and marked classes. The unmarked ones are the ones that are basic, normal, and familiar; the marked ones are the ones that are different, unusual, or irregular. For example, words without prefixes, such as happy, are unmarked; words with prefixes, such as unhappy, are marked. Or you can have semantic markedness: normal, typical birds, such as a sparrow, are unmarked; unusual birds, such as ostriches, are marked.
Carmen: You lost me on semantic markedness but I think I get the idea of sorting words and ideas into marked and unmarked classes. What is marked and what is unmarked depends heavily on the context and the culture.
Debbie: Right, it appears to me that for the people who object to the term “non-Christian”, subconsciously, the term “Christian” is unmarked. It is the basic way for a person to be. But the term “non-Christian” is marked, and it means the person labeled with it isn’t really one of the gang (of humanity.) They don’t want anyone to be left out of the group, because they are all about one big happy family, so they can’t bear to label anyone in a marked way.
Carmen: So, there’s a chance that what we’re really talking about is not an interreligious stance but a non-religious stance – a theology that says being a Christian or not being a Christian is irrelevant. Everyone has their sincerely held beliefs and to suggest that one religion is actually True and One Lord, namely Jesus is the One Way to salvation … well that’s Christian exceptionalism and we can’t have that.
Debbie: It would be interesting to know how people of other faiths actually felt about all this. I wonder if the offense being alleged by Presbyterians is imagined or if there is any actual offense to person who is not a Christian in being called “non-Christian.”
Carmen: If we’re genuinely talking about interreligious dialogue, then are we not talking about engaging with people of faith who do not share our understanding of nor faith in Jesus Christ? Certainly when engaging individually or with one differentiated group at a time, direct reference to their particular faith is the appropriate way to go, but when you’re talking about every person and every group that is not Christian, how is categorizing that as non-Christian an express offense?
The interreligious stance of the PCUSA might be easier for all to understand if the denomination were somewhat less ashamed of the Gospel that is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. But that implies conversion from a life that is presently non-Christian, a term now disavowed by the PCUSA.
Your thoughts? Comment here or on Twitter @preslayman #markedChristian
Deborah Milam Berkley has been a pastor’s wife for 39 years, a Ph.D. in linguistics from Northwestern University, worked as a linguist at Microsoft for 11 years, and is now serving as the administrator for Music and Worship at Bellevue Presbyterian Church (WA).