“Nominally” Religious

Since this is going to be a discussion, feel I need to define the word “nominal” as I generally use it when thinking or talking about religion.

“Nominally” can certainly mean “in name only.” The “only” there is important and turns the word into perjorative. But generally when I use the term, especially when I am actually thinking about things, I do not include the “only” on the end and intend the term quite neutrally. I suppose I could say something like “self-described” but that never seems to flow well, and seems somewhat perjorative as well.
What I am really trying to say when I use something like the phrase, “nominal Christian,” is not that I suspect they are not, but rather that I cannot be positive that they are. The problem, as you might suspect, is partly the person under discussion (whether real or theorectical) and partly the definition of what a Christian is.

Starting with the second part, it is somewhat easy to identify the extreme cases. I think that most folks would agree that, say, Saint Francis of Assisi and Mother Theresa were certainly followers of Christ, and therefore Christians, while Madelyn Murry-O’Hare, the famous atheist was not. When you get in between though, things get sticky and vary from group to group. As a Catholic I was occaisionally identified as “not really a Christian” because I did not “accept Jesus as my personal saviour.” On the other hand I have met a couple of Bible thumping fire breathers that seemed so full of anger and hatred that I could not in any way consider them Christian. So, it seems to me that the criteria for “Christian” seems to vary a bit from church to church and person to person, but that does not stop people from identifying themselves as Christian (or not). But of course, God must know who the “Christians” are and are not, but will only sort things out on judgement day, at least according to the common teachings of the church.

Even when a suitable defintion is found, it has to be said that much of what it means to be a Christian is internal. It is clearly not just good works or loving your neighbor, virtually all religious and ethical systems preach that. It also involves some measure of faith and intention for a person to truly be a Christian.

And frankly without knowing a person very, very well it is difficult to gauge the degree to which a person is an actual follower of Christ (whatever that means exactly) and their sincerity in doing so.

So for the purposes of discussion, I often refer to someone as a “nominal” Christian.  I mean by that that they have in some way publically declared themselves Christian, either by simply going to church regularly, having been baptised or raised in a faith or by actually proclaiming it themselves. But as we all know, such public actions do not necessarily indicate anything about the person’s inner life and so on.

So for me, other than a few exceptionally well known spiritual figures and a few close friends, every one else is a “nominal” Christian. They certainly look like a Christian, but I have no way of knowing if they walk and quack like one.



Filed under Christianity, Philosophy & Religion, Religion

6 responses to ““Nominally” Religious

  1. Personally I have always considered ‘nominal Christians’ or ‘nominal’ anything as a sort of cultural phenomenon. In America (the United States slightly moreso than Canada), ‘Christianity’ is the defunct religion (ie. the reason every American President has to at least pay lip service to faith in Jesus). The same goes for many other countries with other religions, it is just harder to conceptualize ‘nominal Buddhists’ for people who do not have regular contact with Buddhists (or those of Asian descent in North America who would definitely select the ‘Buddhist’ box on a survey but do not actually practice the ‘religion’ of Buddhism).

    I disagree with you, however, that fire breathing ‘fundies’ should be considered ‘nominal Christians’. What is important about studying religion or religious adherents is not so much how they act or the accuracy of their beliefs, but the motives or the perception that adherent has about their relation to their religion. Many fire-breathing, bible-thumping ‘fundies’ may be full of hate, contempt, and condemnation – which may not seem very ‘Christian’ to you or me – but they view their daily life as being completely integrated with their religion. ‘Nominal’ adherents can compartmentalize their daily life from their religious life – they might go to church on Christmas Day and maybe even Easter, but that is the extent of their Christianity.

  2. I agree with you in spirit 🙂 but this is why I wanted to define the word slightly differently here. Yes a person who does not live his/her religion would have to be considered a “nominal” whatever they claim to be. But for my purposes here, more directly calling such a person a “hypocrite” or a somewhat gentler word (which I agree “nominal” would normally fit the bill) is what I would try to do.

    I would like to use “nominal” in a purely non-judgemental way. To use your analogy, whatever box you would check on the form makes you a “nominal” whatever. At least to me, because for the most part I can only see what “box you check” I can’t see into your heart.

    Unfortunately “nominal” (or some other word or phrase to indicate what a person considers themselves) now has to be used in discussing Christianity as it is practiced, at least here in the USA. Because unfortunately, Christians have become fond of pointing at each other and implying that the others are not REALLY Christians. If I were to describe the fundamentalists as you have (and I have many times!) I am often told (correctly in my view) “They are not really Christians.” But we have to face the fact that they think they are and are sure that they are in their own minds.

    I also remember the day in college where a friend of mine asked me if I “was a Christian.” I smiled and said, “yes, I am a Catholic.” A stern look came across her face and she asked even more forcefully, “No, are you a Christian??” So I asked her to define what a “Christian” was and she said “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal saviour?” I had never heard that phrase before that moment. I had never thought that being a follower of Christ meant such a thing, so I said, “No.”

    But the point is, I do not want to judge who the “real” and “less real” Christians are here, so if it seems that someone would “check the box” marked Christian, then that is what I will call them.

    And this notion of a non-value judging “nominal” is somewhat important when discussing Christian theology. Many Christians truly hold to a “faith alone” belief. Church attendance is just as irrelevant to know who truly holds the faith for them as it would be to someone like Mother Theresa.

  3. I definitely agree with your attempt at re-asserting the language, except that it does create a sort of double standard. I often say that I do not think that ‘fundies’ like Bush or even James Dobson are ‘real Christians’. Yet, who am I really to say? I do not want to believe in a ‘good cop, bad cop’ God as you put it in a different response, but in all honesty my limited knowledge as a human being cannot really know. In the end, ‘nominalism’ will always present a case of apathy rather than a case of correct practice or belief. Someone like Bush is more than likely a ‘nominal’ Christian because it helps him gain power and justify his right-wing political policies. Someone like Dobson, however, has a deep conviction about his beliefs, be them true to the original Gospel of Christ or not. The problem with any Christian interpretation of the Bible is that they view it as a homogenuous text with one underlying message and every verse is not only true and right, but divinely inspired and inerrent. The fact of the matter is that the Bible is a series of corrupted document and the selected books were a result of political maneuvering by 2nd and 3rd century Bishops and Elders (eventually solidifying in the 4th century Christian Roman empire – of course, all this you know).

    Basically, I do not think nominalism and hypocrisy are the same. Nominalism allows for someone to say they are something without actually doing anything about it, whereas hypocrisy allows someone to say they are something and actually believe they are doing that (along with something that others may think are contradicting that claim). Maybe the question is, as a human being is it possible not to be a hypocrite? Is hypocrisy not just a result of failure to meet one’s own expectations?

  4. I would hate to play semantic games with someone who I so obviously have such large areas of complete agreement with. 🙂 But let me just say that I do not see a real distinction between your definitions of “hypocrisy” and “nominal.” In everday speech, I would in fact use the two terms almost interchangeably, and I think you might as well.

    But as I have said, since in some way I am discussing the thoughts and behaviors of a large group of people, I need some way of generalizing at least a little. If I can only discuss the “real, true” Christianity (that is the one that **I** want it to be 🙂 ) then there can be no larger discussion.

    It would also be useless (I think) to go down the sort of road you have suggested (along with Wills and McClaren and others) to suggest that “Christians” have veered away from Jesus’s “original message” if you have no nonjudgemental way of referring to that group. Especially since they themselves do not see things in this way. Judgement closes doors, not opens them, as Jesus well understood. On the other hand, where an individual is clearly a hypocrite (and you have stated some wonderful examples), calling a spade a spade is a legitimate course.

    So, I tried to redefine a word for the sake of this discussion. Not a perfect solution, but I could not think of another word in its stead. If you have any suggestions, I am all ears. 🙂

    Thanks again very much for contributing to the discussion!

  5. I *heart* semantics, but I see your point and where you are going. Sometimes the best form of flattery is nit-picking 🙂 Keep up the good work.

  6. Next time hit me hard on a BIG issue 🙂 That is where I need it most. 🙂

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