Thursday, December 27, 2007

The definition of "Christian"

One of the sites I regularly check in on is, a thoughtful, ecumenical clearinghouse about world religion. The group that maintains the site is based in Canada, is made up of lay people of various faith traditions, and as inclusive as you could ever get. Although you can find whatever information you're seeking on religion, from abortion debates to Christmas wars, you'll also find a plethora of musings, ramblings and essays, mostly reader-donated, on almost every topic, on all sides of the political/religious spectrum.

I visited yesterday and an essay caught my eye: People who disagree with our definition of "Christian." An excerpt from the site:

Common negative comments we have received about our definition of Christian:

bulletYou have no academic qualifications to make definitions: Ours is a multi-faith group consisting of an Agnostic, Atheist, Christian, Wiccan and Zen Buddhist. None have a theological degree or diploma from a Bible college. We consider this an asset, because such an education would bias us in favor of one wing of Christianity, and against other wings. We look upon ourselves as reporters, not theologians. We feel that we have done a competent job in collecting a broad range of definitions created by others.
bulletWhy not use the Bible's definition of "Christian?" The Bible is not clear on what a Christian is. Its text is ambiguous. If it were clear, then there would be a single, universally accepted definition in use among all Christian denominations. We have collected over 40 conflicting definitions.
bulletWhy not use God's definition of "Christian?" We could have the theists in our group attempt to pray to God to determine his definition. But we conducted a pilot study on assessing the will of God through prayer and found that it seems to be hopeless. Again, if people could assess the will of God through prayer, then there would be a single universally accepted definition of "Christian" among all Christian denominations. If prayer worked in this way, there would have been no schisms in Christendom over theology.
bulletYour definition is wrong because it includes denomination XXXXX which is not Christian: This is one of the most common types of Emails that we receive, where "XXXXX" is most commonly Roman Catholic, Mormon, Jehovah's Witnesses, United Church, and Progressive Christianity. The problem here is that if you went to a member of one of these groups, you would probably find that they regard themselves as Christians -- perhaps the only true Christians. They might well regard the letter writer as a non-Christian, sub-Christian. or quasi-Christian.
bulletIf you are getting lots of Emails about your definition of "Christian" perhaps you are wrong: As we indicated above, we have over 40 definitions of "Christian" in this section. They are all different. There is no right definition. So one can expect that no matter what definition we choose, most of our site visitors will disagree with it.
bullet"Christian" means something; your definition doesn't mean anything: The term means a lot of different things to different people. There is no universally accepted definition. There is probably no definition that the majority of people who consider themselves to be Christians would accept.
bulletYou are arrogant to suggest that your definition is authoritative: We do not consider that our definition is authoritative. We merely consider it to be one of many available definitions -- the one that we chose for our web site.

Coupled with the fact that I just read a chapter in one of my theology books for the upcoming semester (Constructive Theology: A Contemporary Approach to Classical Themes by Serena Jones and Paul Lakeland, editors) about Church, this essay made me ponder how "church" and "Christian" are defined, and whether we can actually have a unifying definition. Certainly, in the denomination to which I currently belong, there is no hard and fast definition for either, no dogma, no doctrine. Our pastor, during the last collection drive, gave a rather stirring sermon about how he considered our church to be a "Micah 6" church, i.e. 6:8 -- "He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God." Like a mobius strip, the action informs the faith that informs the action that informs the faith and so on. It's all very blurry and unformed, but then it's better that way, lest we forget any part of that prophetic trifecta. In any case, there are people in the congregation who believe in the classical themes of salvation and individual grace, and there are heathens like me who are there for the wine shots. No, seriously, there are heathens like me who would prefer to put the classical theologies on hold for the time being until all the harm they've created are righted. So what unites us as church? What makes us Christian? defines Christian thusly:
We define "Christian" as including any individual or group who devoutly, thoughtfully, seriously, and prayerfully regards themselves to be Christian.

and I would have to say, I can go along with that. As a hapa (and if you don't know what that term means, go here. See, you learned something!) I'm all about self-identification, especially when other people are trying to decide your identity for you. Even though I often teeter on the brink of declaring that Jesus was a nice mythic figure, someone akin to "that guy," you know, the one that everyone seems to know but no one has ever met (Jesus as Ferris Bueller? "My best friend's sister's boyfriend's brother's girlfriend heard from this guy who knows this kid who's going with the girl who saw Jesus cast out demons at 31 Flavors last night.") In the end, historical Jesus studies and what they can and can't prove (which is a lot) aside, what makes me a Christian isn't my belief in Jesus or Christ or Jesus Christ, but my trust and faith in both the gospel that he preached and the legacy of that gospel that was left behind after his death. That essentially boils down to love of God and love of neighbor. So yea, I guess I would devoutly, thoughtfully, seriously and prayerfully consider myself a Christian. Your defintion may differ, and that's perfectly OK. Just try to use your own words when you come up with your definition.

As for what makes up Church, I'll leave you with the definition I came up with for my theological reflection from my BorderLinks trip, when in October, me and eight other seminarians went to the Méxican-U.S. border to learn about immigration:
Everyone we met on the border, from migrants to those in solidarity with them, had compassion for someone else as they crossed boundaries. They suffer with one another and trust in that act to enact a vision of a new life, or a new “kin-dom.” And in their acts, Jesus is there.

These groups doing the work that is inspired by the message of, the blessing by and trust in Jesus are the church, regardless of denomination, creed or belief. The church cannot be limited by walls or denominational ties any more than God or Christ can be limited by labels. To be church is to be inspired by compassion and lovingkindness to move away from structures of power and privilege, and into the heart of those who cry for justice. Churches must humble themselves to cross boundaries, especially the ones separating them from other groups who work for the good of others. Above all, it must follow the message and example of both Jesus and the apostle Paul, who preached the good news of radical inclusiveness to all who had once been excluded or cast away. It must be guided by the love in which it may trust as it comes to new understandings of itself and the world around it.

The church is a powerful force in the world, and the only one, I believe, that is able to walk across borders in order to effect changes that will bring about peace for everyone. What denomination or shape that church takes is not nearly as important as the relationship between everyone within it, on all sides of the ever-changing, ever-crossed borders. The work we saw being done in Tucson and México was done between different peoples of varying faith traditions –– and no faith tradition at all. To follow the words of Jesus in Matt 25:40, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me,” does not require a structure or even a dogma, but only open hearts and willing hands. A church that is willing to sacrifice as much as women or men risking their lives in the desert or their dignities in cities where they are a stranger is one that can follow Jesus’ call.


Erudite Redneck said...

Good stuff. I'm pretty clsoe to your own self-definition. But I have lingering ideas that prop my notions of christology up quite a bit higher than yours, I'll bet.

Once in one of the SS classes at church, when everyone had gone around and given mini-testimonies as to what they beleved, one of the oldest ladies in the room said that unlike many if not most of her fellow church members, she believed fully in the literal-physical Resurrection, the Virgin Birth, the full equality of Jesus of Nazareth with the God of the Universe, etc., etc.

One of the freer thinkers in the group said to her, "So why do you come to church here, knowing that so many of us do not believe literally in some much of what you believe?"

And the little lady said: "Well, because I was here first."

It was great! We all loved it, and loved her for being so straightforward. She said she's been a member since the 1950s. :-)

Geoffrey Kruse-Safford said...

Great stuff. Now, if you go to some sites, and try to talk about this kind of stuff, they will call you a false teacher, un-Christian, even passive/aggressive. Somehow, refusing to hold a monopoly on the term "Christian" is a sign of weakness; refusing to assert that absolute Truth of one's statements about faith, and admitting that most of what passes for theology and doctrine, no matter how important, and finely tuned, is probably wrong is passive/aggressive behavior. Even asserting, as I have on any number of occasions, that Truth is an empty word, signifying nothing at all, comes under attack. I want to have a serious discussion on pomo Christianity, and I get called, essentially, a heretic. And worse.

This is why I am glad you are here.

drlobojo said...

I would take exception to the RT.O definition in this vein. There are people C.E./B.C.E. who have never heard the words Christian or Jesus who would qualify in every respect as Christians in many of the definitions. A devout Taoist with faith in the Way as an example comes closer in many respects than most "Sourthern" Baptist I have known.

So what is in a Word or Name, magic maybe. A rose by any other.....etc.