Because my ongoing exchange with columnist Bill Cummings about the nature of Christianity threatens to become tedious, this will be, I venture to hope, my last comment on the subject. But his Dec. 6 column, "David Mann's ideal Christian" (bit.ly/1S0SBwW), and Phil Brown's Dec. 13 tirade, "Who is to decide who is Christian or not?" (bit.ly/1PJnbcX), both deserve responses. But because space prohibits both and because the latter is the more pointed and straightforward of the two, I will confine myself mostly to it.
It would be far preferable if all critics actually read what they criticize before criticizing it, but that appears barely to have happened in Brown's case. He calls my conclusion that Cummings is not a Christian "something there is neither evidence nor reason to conclude." This is puzzling because, in my column, I provided my evidence and reasoning in enough detail that it had to be published in two parts over two days (bit.ly/1NZAoK5 and bit.ly/1OxJXPV). Dispute it if you choose, refute it if you can, but don't pretend it doesn't exist.
Some of what he says few could disagree with. He describes the salutary effects of churches on young people in inculcating positive values and keeping them off the streets. But then he denounces "ill-conceived attacks on the attendees' character as does Mann regarding Cummings," which is entirely a figment of Brown's imagination. Far from attacking Cummings' character, I said that "Of course none of this (that I wrote) makes him a bad person (he actually seems to be quite a good person)" and that "He may ... seek to live by (Jesus') words." Cummings' character is not in question and is not the issue.
Moreover, there is no logical reason to regard the terms "not a Christian" or "anti-Christian," as I used them, as attacks on anyone's character or anything else. My column was not an argument in favor of Christianity, an enterprise that would have been far beyond its scope; its focus was much narrower. I used the terms "not a Christian" and "anti-Christian" simply as neutral statements of fact. That he implies that anyone who is not a Christian thereby automatically suffers from bad character says more about Brown than he perhaps intended and is troubling in someone who served for many years as a Bibb County Superior Court judge. Were Jews who came before his court, for example, subjected to disparate justice because he believes they have lesser character than Christians? Let us fervently hope not.
Brown asks "What beliefs are required by Jesus in order for one to be a Christian anyway?" and apparently gives the astonishing answer that belief simply has nothing to do with Christianity, it being entirely a matter of conduct. "Jesus said we will know them by their fruit," he tells us — twice. But that doesn't mean Jesus meant for this to be the only criterion of being a Christian. Many atheists, agnostics, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and so on lead exemplary lives. Does Brown take the absurd position that this makes them Christians?
Brown asks "Who has set belief in Jesus' divinity as a test for being a Christian?" and tells us — three times — that "Jesus never claimed to be divine." How then does he deal with John 10:30? Or Matthew 16:16-20? Or John 14:6? Or Mark 14:61-62? Or Luke 4:41? Or John 8:58? Or Matthew 11:27? Or John 11:4, among others? Probably by saying that these are inauthentic verses that were added later and corrupted the original message. But given their presence in our Bible today, if he is going to contend that divinity "was a non-issue for Jesus," the burden of evidence is on him to show that this is so. Surely a judge should know something about burdens of evidence.
Brown writes as if, rhetorically speaking, I waylaid Cummings in a dark alley. But I did not start this conversation. That anyone might think so is probably largely because of a headline I didn't write. Cummings and his critics have been going back and forth for years, reaching a culmination of sorts in October with a letter headlined "Telegraph's anti-Christian columnist," which he then laughed off ("The anti-Christian columnist," Oct. 18). On the column I submitted in response, my proposed headline was "Sorry, Dr. Cummings, but you ARE anti-Christian," with the emphasized word reflecting that this was simply the latest installment in an ongoing conversation. But an editor lowercased the "are," which altered the meaning to make it sound as if I was gratuitously making the "anti-Christian" assertion rather than responding to something already being discussed.
My original "open letter" (Oct. 4, bit.ly/1mC048k) was a challenge to Cummings to pursue certain implications of what he has written and address what I see as a profound contradiction in his view of the universe, namely regarding objective truth. (Unfortunately he didn't do this.) And my "anti-Christian" column, while written in the third person rather than the second like the "open letter," could be regarded as an implicit challenge to refute me if I was wrong. But surely Cummings, who holds a degree in philosophy and three advanced degrees in theology, who taught in three Catholic institutions of higher learning and who actually lived in the Vatican for two years while studying under the pope himself, is a "big boy" intellectually speaking and up to the challenge of discussing religion with someone who holds no advanced degree in anything. Indeed, he has called in the past for "honest debate and sincere objections," and I responded to that call. My columns, whether accurate or mistaken, were reasoned argument and not personal attacks, and I believe Cummings understands the difference even if some others do not.
Meanwhile, a most unusual and surprising thing has happened, which could turn this whole conversation on its head. In "David Mann's ideal Christian," Cummings brings up the Nicene Creed (which I never even mentioned) and straightforwardly acknowledges that, when it comes to being a Christian based on it, "I probably come close to flunking." But he also says something amazing. "I much prefer the Apostles' Creed," he writes. And the Apostles' Creed begins with the words "I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord" — clearly a declaration of the divinity of Jesus! And so, if he is saying he believes the Apostles' Creed, he is saying he believes in the divinity of Jesus. Could it be that, after all these words, Cummings turns out to be a Christian after all?
David Mann is a freelance writer based in Macon.