Thursday, April 14, 2011

No true Scotsman

Today's readings for Holy Communion from the RCL are here


    white fog
      pecks chip wrap

I'm sure you've all had the experience of coming across a word or phrase for the first time & then suddenly encountering it again and again in rapid succession. For me, the most recent experience of that is the expression 'No true Scotsman.' As I understand it, it was coined by 'Antony Flew' in his atheist days, primarily as a way of denying Christians a get out clause in relation to those members of the faith who do not act according to its tenets (& posthumous apologies to him if I've got this wrong).

It can be an exasperating, indeed infuriating, counter-argument to have thrown in your face. It's a bit like what Jesus has been saying to those listening to him in our Gospel readings over the last few days, only in reverse. They tell him they are children of Abraham; he tells them that if they were true children of Abraham they would believe in him. By the end of it all they want to stone him.

It's a tempting defence to use though. When we hear about something terrible that someone who claims to be a Christian has done, something that no one who follows the tenets of Christianity should do, there is the temptation to say that it is something that no true Christian would do. But the truth is that there are many, many Christians who are far from perfect in their following of the faith - indeed, there are probably no Christians who have got it all right. Which shouldn't come as a surprise - we are a faith that accepts that even the best of us is a sinner. In fact, looking to the lives of the saints, it's almost a truism that the better one becomes in ones holy living, the more one recognises how imperfect one is.

We all wish no true Christian would have a hand or part in the terrible things that happen in the world. Like Flew's imaginary Scotsman who, reading about the crimes of a countryman declares that these are things that no true Scotsman would do, we wish to cast outside the fold those who fall short of the standards we have set. But to do that would be to have everyone outside the fold and no one within, because the hard truth is that we all fall short.

And perhaps it is for the best that we recognise that. That we are all sinners, struggling to lead our lives the way that Jesus calls us to, and failing badly at it everyday. Because there is a danger in thinking of ourselves as 'true Christians' and others as the sinners who are not. The danger is that we will be so pleased that someone else is making a worse job of it than we are (by our reckoning) that we forget about our own failings and our own need for forgiveness and Grace. For there are no true Christians, not in any ultimate sense - but there are many poor sinners, struggling to make their way nearer and nearer to what it might mean to be one. And it is a struggle that lasts all life long.

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