I’ve been mulling over Friend Peter Bishop’s blog post on returning from Kenya, describing the difference between his experience of Christianity there and here, and his struggle with the latter. In the comments to that post he wrote: “I am grateful for the privilege of worshiping with Christian Quakers...But every so often I just want to say to them all, "Would you please go and talk to each other and reach an agreement on what you mean by 'Christian'? Come back and tell me when you've decided, and then I'll tell you whether I think I can be one."
I laughed, but I stopped to think about it too. I don’t feel it’s my place to define what Christianity is in any global way; I am weary with the disputes this occasions. On the other hand, I think I do need to know, and to be able to articulate, what I mean when I say that I am a Christian.
When I say I am Christian I mean that I have encountered God, God who made us, God beyond us in light undimmed by our darkness, God who suffers and dies in and with us and who offers healing and redemption, God who challenges and inspires; and that I have come to know that God is at the root of all of us, that we are inseparable from one another and from God; and that I am trying to live in accordance with this truth, with God’s help. This attempt is the work of a lifetime. Most basically, it requires faithfulness (keeping an inner quiet in which I can hear God, and living obedient to what I hear), solidarity (remembering that we are members one of another, living in a way that helps and does not hinder my brothers and sisters, not trying self-righteously to separate myself from them, praying for them), and integrity (being honest, consistent and whole, so that I am able to enter into relationship with God and with others). In this sense, when I say that I am Christian I am naming the root and center of my life.
There are at least two difficulties with this statement. One is that I so often fail (sometimes willfully) to actually live in accordance with what I have known. Perhaps it would be truer to say that I mean to be a Christian.
The other difficulty is that when I say “I am a Christian” some people hear this, not as a statement of relationship with God, but as a way of differentiating myself from other God-followers. What I’ve said above is, for me, the heart of Christianity, but I think it’s not (or not mostly) exclusively Christian; I can imagine that someone else might sum up a somewhat similar encounter with God, and a somewhat similar set of commitments, by saying “I am a Jew (Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist....)”. I don’t believe that God is found only in one human tradition. But as a human, finite and particular, I need to be rooted and grounded in a particular tradition.
I was born into the Christian tradition—into a family and a series of worship communities grounded in the Bible and the stories that follow from it. My mother always made time for worship with me and with my brother; she had the Bible in her bones, and she passed that on to us. So it was Christian stories, songs, prayers that first encouraged me to listen for God, and that gave me words and images to describe and embody my encounters with God. When I encountered the God who suffers with us, the name I had for that face of God was Christ, and the stories of the life and work and death and resurrection of Jesus were clearly related to what I had experienced. When I became conscious of the longing for God that longing gave life to, and was given shape by, the words “O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” Likewise the basic commitments arising from the encounter with God answered to words I already knew---“Seek ye first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness”; “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself”; “Pray without ceasing”; “Be not afraid”; “We are members one of another”; “Render unto no man evil for evil, but overcome evil with good” ; “Thou shalt not profit from thy neighbor’s blood”; “As you did it unto one of the least of these my brothers, you have done it unto me”; “Do not listen to the Word only, and so deceive yourselves; do what it says”; and so on.
I have also read holy writings from other traditions, and shared prayer and discussion and work with members of different faith communities, and I have found wisdom and help and good company there. But there I feel free to take whatever parts are clear and helpful to me and let the rest go. When I encounter Bible passages that trouble me I feel more need to remember them and wrestle with them. Sometimes I discover that I’m uncomfortable because I’m being asked to do something that I agree I should do, but I don’t really want to. Sometimes a passage doesn’t make sense to me because I haven’t grown into it yet. (Certain of Paul’s writings about grace, and the impossibility of being saved by our own righteousness, used to strike me as a cop-out, an excuse for not doing justice and practicing mercy; after repeated experience of the ways in which I fall short as I strive for justice and mercy, those passages strike me as helpful and true.) Sometimes I figure that a particular passage isn’t relevant to me now(like the regulations concerning mildew) or that I don’t need to understand it (like the predictions about the end of the world.) Sometimes what I read just seems wrong to me, and I have to sit with that.
This increased sense of accountability to and for Christianity is more evident and difficult when it comes to the historical and current Christian community. I am aware of great evil, and also a lot of petty malfeasance, that has been wrought in the name of Christianity. This doesn’t make me reconsider being Christian. So far as I can see, every name of God and every good cause (love, justice, freedom, even mercy...) has been used to justify harm-doing. But I do feel responsible for the harm-doing in my own tradition, just as I do for the harm-doing of my own country.
I also feel a close and warm sense of pride in the good that is done in the name of my religion, and a sort of family feeling toward the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ who have spoken truth, lived in solidarity, kept open to God, in Christ’s name. That is blessedly unproblematic. I am still trying to figure out how to deal with the other side.
At least I know how not to deal with it. In some circles I am strongly tempted to say what amounts to, “I am not one of those Christians; I am one of a much wiser, kinder and more responsible set of Christians.” That is both unhelpful and false. Unhelpful, for obvious reasons. False, because we are members one of another—at root all living creatures are, of course; but it may be true in a more particular sense of all members of a particular tradition. False, also, because I have done and said many things by which I would not like Christianity to be judged. My anxiety, my armor of apology, my self-preoccupation, are real, but they are not caused by my attempts to be Christian. They also don’t fully define me. And the people I am tempted to define as “those Christians” also have reserves of the courage, lovingkindness, integrity, justice of which I know myself to be capable, although, like me, they do not always use them. Indeed, some of them act bravely and lovingly in areas where I still flinch away.
I think, however, that it is appropriate, and sometimes necessary, to say to my co-religionists, if there is sufficient relationship so that I think I can be heard constructively, “Please don’t say this/do this in the name of our God. Please stop, pray, think again. I think this is doing harm.” And when people seem to have a very negative take on Christianity, to say ‘Yes, we have done harm, but there is more to us than what you have seen.”
And, of course, I need myself to strive to live in a way that does not make others less open to the good things that are in my tradition; and to confess when my actions betray or fall short of what I claim to believe.
Sorry that this is long and rambling. I am still trying to understand better. Writing helps. If any of you have gotten all the way to the end of this and feel inclined to say what you mean when you claim membership in a particular faith tradition, or what you hear when someone says “I am Christian”, or anything else that comes to mind, I think that would help too.