I really appreciate Tony Jones posting my question for his Questions That Haunt series. I am really looking forward to his response. Before he responds, though, I thought I would try to organize some of where I’m coming from, largely informed by the comments that have resulted from his post.
I have been thinking about these kinds of question for at least the past couple of years:
Who has the right to call him or herself a Christian? Who qualifies and who doesn’t? Who’s in and who’s out? Who gets to decide?
I’ve written about this several times, and I’ve tried to interact on a few different blogs about it. I’m honestly not looking for the – or even an – “answer.” I really like how Brian McLaren uses the phrase “question & response” rather than “question & answer.” He responded to my question as well a couple of months ago. More than anything, I think this dialogue is worth the time and effort. I, for one, think at least a few of us will come through it more willing to include a lot more people in our own understanding of who “qualifies” as a Christian.
Something that got me thinking about this initially was when Anne Rice came out and said she could no longer self-identify as a Christian. In response, Doug Pagitt said that no one has a monopoly on Christianity. I can’t remember all the details of what he said, but, for some reason, that stuck with me.
THE DECIDERS AND DEFINERS
One problem here is that there are loud voices that seek to speak for everyone who self-identifies in a certain way. For example, there are huge differences between what the Pope says about Roman Catholicism and what your average Catholic believes and does. The same goes for someone like Al Mohler with evangelicals, or the elders of the Mormon church. One way to respond to this is to simply accept whatever these loud voices Decide and Define for anyone who wants to use a word. Another approach is to push back, and find ways to redefine those words in light of new or much more complex questions.
I really have no interest in defending or redefining the words catholic, orthodox or evangelical. I will leave that to many others. But, one word that I do want to keep taking a closer look at is the word Christian. I don’t want to solely take a genealogical look at it, but rather seek to rediscover the original impetus of what the word is “getting at,” and consider its potential use(s) in our current cultural situation.
I think the popular uses of the word Christian fall into at least three primary categories in our culture: Evangelical Christian, Orthodox Christian and (just plain) Christian. I think part of the problem is that many people use these categories without distinction – especially those who think that the category that they self-identify with is the “right” one, the only “true” one.
This is a word that I used to try to defend, but, at this point, I’m prepared to let Al Mohler and his buddies have it. Maybe it used to be a much more inclusive term, but today it just seems to be a synonym for fundamentalist. People like Roger Olson are trying really hard to recover/redeem the word, but I wonder if that’s just completely futile.
One point here is that it seems most evangelicals think that they are the only true Christians. All you have to do is spend a few minutes on a popular evangelical website or blog, or listen to one of their sermons, to pick up on this. The Catholics are wrong, the liberals are wrong, the emergent church is wrong, and on and on. It almost seems that to be an evangelical today primarily means to not be some other group (kind of like how Protestant used to mean “not Catholic”).
I probably shouldn’t defend myself here, but I’m not trying to demonize every single person who self-identifies as an evangelical. I’ve written about what my problems with evangelicalism are many times before, and I no longer have the patience to do so again. If there weren’t so many of them, my preference would be to ignore most of what they say as entirely unhelpful. But, yes, they are people worthy of dignity and respect as people.
A similar problem, though, happens with many more progressive, non-evangelical Christians, where they seem to equate Christianity with Orthodox Christianity. I pointed this out in response to John Fea’s interesting and important book. This is also just happened on the Daily Show. Maybe this is the more common misuse of the word, and false equation, in our culture.
I have proposed that a belief-focused Christianity is actually at odds with what I think Christianity should become. This is part of the reason why I have rejected orthodoxy. I don’t think it primarily matters what the content of ones beliefs are; what’s more important is how we hold on to those beliefs, and what kind of person they shape us into (but, I think if most orthodox Christians were able to be honest, they don’t actually believe a lot of the things that they’re supposed to, most of the time).
I’ve put what I think is the most broad category last. This is the only category that I want to, in a sense, own.
For a long time, I came up with many reasons to not call myself a Christian. But, through a lot of reading and discussing with many different people, I realized that no matter how hard I try, I cannot deny this aspect of my identity.
In addition to falsely equating sub-groups within the larger group of Christians, I have come across at least two commonly accepted definitions of Christian recently:
- A Christian is anyone who is actively involved in a specifically Christian church (if you’re not involved, then you’re not a Christian).
- A Christian is anyone who mentally assents to the propositional statements contained in the Creed(s) (if you don’t sign on, you’re not a Christian).
I don’t buy either of these definitions, even though they are probably more common than my own.
So, here is what I think it means to be (which seems to be more of a process of becoming) a Christian (as a noun):
A Christian is any person who commits him or herself to the Way of the Christ, the Way of Love, i.e. the overall trajectory of (rather than the particular actions or “ethical principles” of) the Jesus that we have approximate access to through the New Testament gospel stories, and chooses to self-identify in this way.
I also think the word can and should be used to describe other people’s actions (as an adjective). Of course, there is a range of actions that could be considered more or less Christian. I don’t think anyone knows where to draw those lines. As an extreme example, most of us would agree that Gandhi was more Christian than Hitler.
And a final note: I don’t think it’s any individual’s job to Decide for someone if he or she is “allowed” to call him or herself a Christian. We might perceive their way of life as completely contrary to the Way of the Christ, but we don’t and can’t know for sure. We might reasonably find their claim to seem ridiculous, but I want to defend their “right” to make that claim. This has really bothered me about some of Tony’s posts about Mormons. We can say “Mormon orthodoxy says ____ which is at odds with Christian orthodoxy” but I don’t think we can make the claim that “no Mormon can call him or herself a Christian.”
I could be totally wrong about all of this. Maybe the word is too far gone, and we should move on. Maybe we should let the orthodox have it. At this point, though, I’m not convinced.