How I Can Be a Christian

Origen of Alexandria

Origen of Alexandria (source: wikisource.org)

How can you be a Christian?  How can you be a pastor?

I suppose, as a socially progressive, academic clergyperson who lives in the Deep South, it is hardly surprising that I get asked these questions…a lot.  When someone learns that I teach that the Christian Scriptures are a collection of documents written and edited over centuries, and that those writers and editors were influenced by political and social forces as well as theological ones, they are often surprised to learn that I read the Bible and pray every day – even while knowing that not everything contained therein actually happened.  When they learn that I have a long history of advocating for same-sex marriage and reproductive freedom (including access to abortion) they are surprised to learn that I also believe and preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The question comes from both sides.  Christian fundamentalists (or “evangelicals” as they prefer to be called to avoid confusion with people who hold identical social beliefs but attribute them to a different collection of scriptures) often believe that their interpretation of Christianity is the only authentic one.  For them, failing to hold to the beliefs they impose on the tradition is a rejection of the tradition as a whole.

Interestingly, non-Christians seem to be under the same impression.  Presumably their understanding of what Christians believe is based upon the portrayal of Christians on TV and in movies, and upon the representation of Christians on the news.  From that limited perspective, Christians are people who cling to a quaint, “traditional” understanding of society and a “literal” interpretation of the Bible.

So, from the perspective of the left and the right, those of us who take a more thoughtful, historically-conscious approach to our faith must not be “real” Christians.  Here are some reasons why that view is short-sighted:

1. Fundamentalists aren’t really that “Fundamental”

Fundamentalists of every stripe like to portray themselves as biblical literalists who cling to the “timeless” truths of their tradition.  This is very far from true.  The beliefs and  practices of twenty-first century evangelicals would be viewed as permissive and libertine by their nineteenth-century predecessors, and would be almost unrecognizable from the perspective of the Early Church.  Since most people lack the historical perspective to recognize any changes that go back more than a century, modern evangelicals get away with calling themselves “traditionalists” when it’s really just that their innovations are slightly less recent than those of “progressives.”

They also are no more “literal” in their treatment of the Christian Scriptures than anyone else.  I have already dealt with that here, here, and here.  I do not feel the need to rehash all of those points in this essay, so I will limit myself to the observation that fundamentalists only treat texts literally when it supports their social agenda.  Those texts that run contrary to that agenda, or which undermine their claims about the Bible’s divine authorship or historical accuracy, are interpreted allegorically – often with astonishingly convoluted logic.

Consequently, I see no reason that non-fundamentalists should be held to a standard that the fundamentalists themselves do not keep.  Perhaps if fundamentalist Christians become pacifists who hold no property, fast multiple times a week, gather to stand for worship services that last an entire day, and require years of study before a person can become a convert – then I might find their argument more compelling.

2. Knowledge Moves Forward

The reality of the history of Christianity, however, is that beliefs about doctrine, Scripture, worship, and the nature of Christian obligation change dramatically from century to century.  Every religious tradition does this.  If they did not, those traditions would quickly fade into irrelevance.

Studying the evolution of those changes, and the process that produced the Christian Scriptures, often poses a dilemma for young seminary students.  They essentially have three choices.  They can reject what they learn in seminary, and persist in a more simple understanding of the faith.  They can reject Christianity, believing that if the understanding of Christianity they had in Sunday School is not true, they cannot be Christians any more.  Or, they can find a way to participate in the tradition that is honest about biblical and historical scholarship.

I have chosen the latter option.  In every area of knowledge, our understanding of how to interpret observable phenomena changes as new information emerges.  We do not consider physicians “liberals” or “heretics” because they do not think a fever comes from an imbalance of the “humours of the body” or because they do not treat it with bleeding.  Nor do we claim that fevers did not exist in the eighteenth century because physicians of that era described them imprecisely and did not understand their cause.

The practice and study of faith should not be exempt from this process.  The Bible is the record of several generations’ encounters with the presence of God.  Those encounters were interpreted through their cultural beliefs, political concerns, prejudices, and superstitions.  Subsequent generations then re-interpreted those writings through the lenses of their own assumptions and limitations, as our generation does as well.  Being honest about that reality does not minimize or contradict the reality of those original encounters with God.  Nor does it impugn the honesty and sincerity of the faith journey of subsequent generations.

3.  Accountability

So should we just believe whatever we want and call ourselves “Christians?”  Nothing could be farther from my point.  To continue the example above, if a physician said, “Well, if fevers aren’t caused by a humour imbalance then I might as well believe they are caused by aliens” one would question the legitimacy of their medical training.  Likewise, recognizing that biblical and theological scholarship calls into question the assumptions of past generations does not mean that we should all run willy-nilly into whatever theological trend or ludicrous spiritualism seems appealing.

Through seminary training and graduate school, the ordination process, and continuing, prayerful study of both scholarship and Scripture, I hold myself accountable to the history of the tradition and the perspective of my colleagues.  This is an important element to Christian practice – it is not an expression of individual belief.  Christianity is about living in community.  Recognizing that the history of the tradition reveals drastic sea changes in belief does not mean abandoning accountability to the community that is rooted in that history.

4. Comfort with Ambiguity

Yet, as we have discussed, very few of the members of that community agree on everything.  Even limiting the boundaries to mainline Christianity, there is considerable diversity in belief and practice.  The obvious reality is that we cannot all be right, and – based on the long history of changes in Christian assumptions about “incontrovertible” truths, the Church has likely been wrong more often than it has been right.  An honest assessment of the truth of the Christian tradition means comfort with ambiguity; far fewer truths are as certain as we would like them to be.  Christianity is about a journey toward truth, not an affirmation of it.

5. Reality

Finally, I am a Christian pastor because – for me – the Christian tradition helps me understand the world as I have experienced it, and because Christian worship draws me closer to the metaphysical world I have glimpsed from afar.  There have been times when the presence of God has been a real and sustaining force in my life.  Prayer has brought me peace and focus, and I believe – along with Martha Berry and my Great Grandmother – that “Prayer Changes Things.”

I would not presume to claim that Christianity fully encompasses the depth and complexity of a transcendent God, but it draws me closer to that God whom my own experiences have convinced me is real.

Concluding Thoughts

A famous seventeenth-century quote by Rupertus Meldenius, but often attributed to St. Augustine, can be translated: “In essentials, unity; in uncertain things, liberty; and in all things charity.”  This logic is at the heart of why I am comfortable as a Christian and a member of the clergy.  Our essentials come from the broad consensus of the tradition, yet an honest appraisal of the history of Christianity reveals that – beyond those essentials – there is far more uncertainty than some might wish or claim.  Ultimately, if the gospel is to be “good news,” we must seek it – charitably – together as a shared question, not a settled answer, and my life is the richer for that journey.

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What Do Christians Believe? A Response

Orthodox Icon of Pentecost (Wikipedia)

Orthodox Icon of Pentecost (Wikipedia)


This piece ran as a letter to the editor on the Religion Dispatches site.

My friend Dr. Gary Laderman led us into the Triduum by asking “What do ‘The Christians’ Believe?”  His thoughtful essay led to the inescapable conclusion that one cannot define a common “Christian” view on any controversial social, ethical, political, or moral topic.  Whatever the issue – slavery, polygamy, homosexuality, abortion, feminism, pacifism, genocide, ethnocentrism, kosher food laws, Sabbath observance – there is no definitive Christian position on any of them.  Our Scriptures were written and edited by too many people.  Our tradition spans too many cultural sea changes.  Our constituency is simply too broad.

That is a hell of a point to make right before Maundy Thursday.  If being a Christian is not, inherently, about believing the things that the media and televangelists claim we believe, then what is it about?  Why do we bother?  What does a Christian believe?

Some might argue that we should return to the good old days, when Christians were untroubled by the moral relativism of postmodern ideas and pluralistic friendships.  Unfortunately, even if we were to turn the clock all the way back to first-century Jerusalem we find, as Acts 15 reminds us, that even the Apostles who knew Jesus personally were divided on how Christians should behave.  This diversity of opinion continued into the fourth century, when the leaders of the Church gathered together to clarify what Christians actually believed.

Those meetings ultimately produced three documents that remain the only consensus writings on Christian identity.  Two of them – the Apostles’ Creed, and the Nicene Creed – provided the theological logic that guided the selection of the writings for the third:  the Bible.  It is worth noting that, in a time of profound Christian diversity, leaders from Christian communities from around the known world did not include a single social, ethical, or moral issue in either creed.  In addition, they were comfortable including in the canon of Scripture writings that offered a wide variety of ethical perspectives.  When the early Christians got together and described the consensus of their beliefs, they did not talk about social issues.

So what, then, does it mean to be a Christian?  In the hopes of standing in the tradition of the early Church, and limiting myself to where there is actual Christian consensus, my own answer follows the logic of the Apostle’s Creed…

“I believe in God…”

Christians are people who believe in a divine reality, one beyond the material world perceived by our five senses.  We believe that there is more to life than what we can control or understand.  We believe that there is something beyond our comprehension, and that “something” is conscious, vital, wise, and loving in a way that is not limited by space or time.  While Christians might have different perspectives on the value of the experiences and content of the material world, we are united in our belief that there is more.

“I believe in Jesus Christ…”

As Christians, we do not simply believe in a distant and untouchable divine presence.  We also believe in “incarnation.”  We believe that in some inexplicable way almighty and perfect God took on human form and stepped into all of the messiness of human experience.  As Jesus, God healed us, taught us, comforted us, and fed us.  To be a Christian is to believe, not only in the unique incarnation of Jesus – but also to have faith in the possibility of incarnation itself.  Christians believe, even when all appearances are to the contrary, that God is present with us.  We believe that, no matter how different the divine reality is from the world in which we live, God is able to reach into our lives and touch us.

“…[Jesus] was crucified, died, and was buried…”

For Christians, believing in the incarnation means also confronting the reality of the cross.  God in human form, despite power and wisdom beyond our comprehension, did not wipe out disease.  God did not overthrow oppressive empires.  God did not create a new, Christian empire (although many lesser leaders attempted to make that claim).  Having lived among us and walked beside us, God surrendered to the forces of greed, selfishness, and power.  God was tortured by them, and eventually God died at their hand.

Surprisingly, Christians do not have a consensus as to why.  By privileging certain biblical passages over others, Christians have offered a variety of explanations:  Jesus was a ransom, Jesus was a sacrifice, Jesus was an example, and Jesus’ death reconnected creation to the Creator – just to name a few.  No single explanation is normative or even completely satisfactory.  Where Christians agree, however, is in the inevitability of Jesus’ murder.  For whatever reason, the incarnation of almighty God leads inexorably to God’s death – at the combined hands of a self-serving empire, a cruel bureaucracy, and an ignorant crowd.

This gives Christians a rather odd perspective on suffering, grief, loss, and failure.  If God, who created the world in the first place, can experience these things – then they are not the ultimate defeat they can sometimes appear to be.  If the collision of what is true, good and perfect with what is venal, debased and selfish can lead to a painful defeat even for Jesus, then when we experience those same things in our own lives we are not truly defeated. Christians believe that sometimes, perhaps often, choosing what is truly good and noble means utter failure in the eyes of a world which limits itself to honoring the shallow gain of material wealth.

“On the third day he rose again…”

Ultimately, those apparent failures are vindicated.  Christians believe that death itself, the fear of which looms over nearly all human endeavors, is neither an ending nor a defeat.  In the days of the early Church the first “witnesses” to Christianity were those who staked their lives on that claim, and as a consequence the Greek word for witness (/martyr/) became synonymous with choosing death over infidelity.  At the close of the Easter Vigil, Christians around the world will share in their hope by standing before the mystery of an empty tomb and we will feast together, trusting that Jesus’ encounter with death means that someday all graves will be empty.  Christians believe that death is itself defeated.

“and [Jesus] will come again to judge…”

Christians believe that the choices we make, our actions and our omissions, matter.  As Dr. Laderman has rightly pointed out, we do not agree on which choices we should make or how we should act.  We are united, however, in our common effort to work to make choices whose long-term consequences lead us closer to the person and example of Jesus.  Young seminary students are often discouraged to learn, on studying the Scriptures and Church history more closely, how little clarity there is on the specifics of what we should and should not do.  It is impossible for Christians to be defined by being completely correct about what is right and what is wrong.  Instead, we are defined by our desire to try.

“I believe…in the communion of saints…”

Christians believe that we make those efforts as part of a community.  We are accountable to each other, and to the long history of those who have gone before – from Moses to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Christianity is not a faith of or for individuals.  It is a single body formed by the concerted efforts those who (guided by God as the Holy Spirit) seek meaning in the teaching, life, and death of Jesus.  To be “Christian” is to trust that humanity is greater than the sum of our individual abilities and limitations.  Christians value and nurture community.

“Amen.”

This leaves a lot of things out, and those seeking clear guidance as to what “Christians” believe on controversial issues are likely to be disappointed.  Those who make a living off of claiming Christian consensus where there is none are likely to be livid (if they even bothered to read all the way through).  On the other hand, those who fear that – because their own views have differed from the popular Christian stereotype – they are not “real” Christians, they should take hope!

Perhaps more importantly, those from other traditions and those who claim no tradition at all, should likewise be encouraged.  There is much common ground here.  Although this specific combination of beliefs is uniquely Christian, there are many areas of commonality with widely-held views.  Most of us believe that there is more to life than what we can see and touch.  Most of us believe that what we do matters, and that fighting against evil systems and greedy desires is worthwhile even when we pay a price.  Most of us, when push comes to shove, harbor at least a suspicion that death is not final.  Through this lens, Christianity looks familiar to all who have asked these kinds of questions.

Which allows us to return to Dr. Laderman’s question original query. “What do Christians really Believe?” If we limit ourselves to widely-held stereotypes, the answer seems filled with cognitive dissonance.  On the other hand, if we allow his response to help us brush away all the detritus of easy caricatures and selfish political agendas, we can then answer honestly.  When we do, we can preserve a voice that is uniquely Christian, and we can allow that voice to speak in a way that is neither shrill nor strident.  Instead, the Christian voice becomes one that can sing in harmony with the rest of us, the rest of humanity, as we all seek to find hope in the darkness of empty tombs.

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