Sunday, May 29, 2011

when I say I am a Christian, I mean...

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.


Tom Smith said...

I very much appreciate your post. Labels are difficult for me to deal with but when I identify with traditions, writings, etc. I too identify myself as a Christian. Like you I have studied other religious traditions and have learned much from them. To me the NAME Christ is not the issue, but rather it is the power/spirit etc. that has been identified with "faith/hope/love and the greatest of these is love." I believe that much of what stands in the way of many when it comes to identifying with Christian is the emphasis that has been placed on the institution of the "Christian" church rather than on the teachings of the Gospels.

I tend to summarize my labels as "universalist Christian Friend."

Steven Davison said...

Joanna, the notable thing to me about your wonderful 'confession' is that it is rooted in God rather than in Christ per se, that you seem to experience Jesus as the door or handle on your experience (your image was the face of God), and even this seems to be more about his teachings and his life rather than deriving from some direct experience of Jesus as Lord. Do you have such experience?

I myself have a bunch of definitions of 'Christian', but only two really carry weight for me. The first is that one has had direct, personal experience of Jesus as Christ and this experience requires that I conduct my religious/spiritual life as relationship with him. I have in fact had direct, personal experience of Jesus, in a couple of different ways. But they have not required of me—he has apparently not required of me—that I center my religious/spiritual life in him. Therefore I do not call myself Christian—at least not by that definition.

On the other hand, Jesus himself rooted his own religious life in experience of God, just like you have, and I have always been uncomfortable with the way the Christian tradition has seemingly transposed its worship in ways he would have found—well, probably blasphemous. "God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth", as he said to the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus Christ as the face of God, as you have put it, really works for me. Violating the first commandment by putting him before the God he knew so intimately does not work for me. I can't worship Jesus. I can talk to him as the face of God, though.

I referred to another definition that carries weight with me. This defines a 'Christian' as someone who follows the teachings of Jesus the Christ. Of course, that involves interpreting the gospels (not, emphatically, the letters of Paul, in my opinion) and so I, like everyone else, have my own idiosyncratic understanding of what those teachings are and what they mean. I have spent a lot of time, research and energy trying to understand who and what Jesus was, what being the anointed one/Christ/Messiah meant to him, and what he taught. I'm a bit obsessed with this, in fact; almost nothing has given me greater fulfillment than the openings I've experienced doing this work. Anyway, I'm clear that I do not follow Jesus' teachings as I understand them. And worse yet, I know I'm not going to. I'm like the rich young man in the gospels who went away sad, knowing he could not "sell everything and follow" him.

Now, I don't know anyone else who follows Jesus' teachings as I understand them, either. Except maybe you, actually. A definition like this, that limits the community of true followers (not true 'believers') to zero, for all practical purposes—such a definition becomes an absurdity. It explodes the idea of a Christian church or community and leaves you with meaningless chaos. That's where I live.

I fear that the 'apostate church' is essentially the attempt by 'believers' who find they can't be 'followers' to come up with something that will still honor their inner need to understand their religious experience. For that, like you say, you need a tradition. That tradition only goes so far in helping me understand my experience. The Quaker tradition takes me quite a bit farther. But some of my most foundational and transformative experiences still lie outside the Christian/Quaker tradition. I have had to go to other traditions to integrate them. Quakerism offers an umbrella that protects my attempts at integrating all these experiences, a settlement where I can find community for that work as a guest in the the house that Christ built in the 1650s. How grateful I am for such a place to settle, if even as a guest!

Mr. Bishop said...

Joanna, you show a willingness to look yourself squarely in the mirror and ask yourself deep and probing questions about your most foundational values, and I've gotta say, regardless of who or what is Christian, people who can do what you're doing here make me proud to be _human_.

Steven, I like your analysis. Your Christology makes sense to me. I'm going to go back and reread it a few times, but I think I agree with the distinctions you make, between God and Christ, between Jesus and Spirit. I'm not sure how deep our similarities go, but it's food for thought.

forrest said...

There are a couple of different ways of worshipping God. One is to take what the local traditions tell people about God, on "faith"-- and if those traditions call for sacrificing one's firstborn, or exterminating the village over the next hill-- "It's not easy doing what God wants, but we'd better..." and the other way is to tell God things like: "Hey, I don't think my son wants to be sacrificed, and he's got a point there. I'll really going to hate it if you need to Zap me for this, but I'm not going along with it!" That second stance may get called 'irreligious,' but it's closer to worshipping God the way God actually is.

The point is, you've got a lot of people saying "Lord, Lord" to an image of Jesus that doesn't do justice to him. But mostly people are attracted to Jesus because they intuit that what he's saying is in tune with the love, wisdom, and compassion of God.

People often need to wrestle with what gets called "Scripture" and with the demands they think God puts on us. But the way I understand Jesus, we're talking about the ultimate in non-coercive leadership. We aren't called to bully other people into acts they don't want to do-- or called to bully ourselves into anything. What a situation demands of us-- may turn out to be a real stretch-- maybe even something we wouldn't expect we "can" do-- but it'll be a stretch that feels "right", not something we're forced into by dutifulness or pride.

And that, as I'm beginning to see it, is the Government of the Kingdom of God.

Robyn said...

Thanks for sharing.
Please take a look at my thoughts on what you think about at

Joanna Hoyt said...

Wow. Thank you, all of you.

Steven--I can see that a community limited to perfect followers of Jesus (even according to their own interpretations) would be a null set. And yet, for me the community that I need, that helps me to grow, is the community of people who are followers--who are trying to live what they have understood, in a way that is ongoing, persistent, and at work in all aspects of their lives. I have more common language with the Christ-following contingent of that group, but it's less important than the basic commitment to follow. And part of what the community of followers shares, I think , is our backsliding, and the ways we've found to deal with that and get going in the right direction again.

I think to a great degree I understand parts of the tradition that were once obscure to me as I set myself to follow the parts I can understand and know the need for (and deal with my own resistance to this commitment.)

There are still some apparently simple parts that I am not sure about. Most notably, "Give to whoever asks of you." That is another whole blog post...

Forrest, I find words friustratingly unspecific as I mull over what you wrote about the stretches truly required by God feeling right. I have experienced the dangers of an obstinate, dutiful and lifeless endeavor to be Good. I have also experienced times when I felt graceless, wrong, dull, when the things that i hold most true didn't *feel* true to me, and when what i had to do was go doggedly on following where the light was the last time I saw it.

Knowing which is which...

Joanna Hoyt said...


Peter: Thank you very much. unfortunately I find talking, even courageous-sounding talking, rather easier than living the talk.

Forrest: On the one hand, I agree with you that Jesus didn't, and Christ in his followers doesn't, bully us or coerce us to choose as he would have us choose. But I think he did, and does, confront people with the truth about God, about what God requires, about our ability to do what God requires if we choose it, and about what we are actually doing, in a way that jolts us out of passivity, vague niceness, self-serving religious feeling, self-delusion of all sorts. Hence "not peace bring I, but a sword..."
I think there's a great danger in making Christianity bullying. I think there's also a great danger in making it nice, bland, unchallenging.
And I don't mean to avoid what you said in the beginning fo your comment, but God commanding me to do something I consider evil is not a situation I've encountered, so I haven't much helpful to say about it; I have some trouble imagining it.

Steven, I don't fully get the distinction you are making between God and Jesus/Christ. When I pray soemtimes I say "Jesus", sometimes "Christ", soemtimes "God", sometimes "Thou", sometimes just "Thanks" or "Help" or whatever it is I need to say.

Kim said...

I thought I might like to respond to something Steven raised - I think the thing with a lot of what Jesus said is that He was such a straight shooter (for the most part) there is no interpretation required! I like that you seem to be able to see some of the radical things that Jesus taught and be honest about how you feel about them rather than try to explain them away or 'interpret' them as meaning something other than what they plainly say (going by the one example you gave).

It's interesting Joanna that you mention 'giving to those who ask' husband and I have been praying a lot about that particular command of Christ recently and what it means for our lives. But it's in line with Jesus saying we must forsake all that we have in order to be His disciple.

I really appreciated your article and your replies to other people's comments.

In just a few plain words when I say I am a Christian I mean that I try to follow the teachings of Christ that are preserved in the four Gospels, to be guided by the Holy Spirit day by day, and trust in God for his provision that I may fulfil His will. (Although I resonated with what you wrote also.) Like you said, it is a lifetime's work :o) It's a challenge, a joy, a privilege, a sacrifice, and brings fullness of life.

Ember said...

I love what you wrote in this blog post, Joanna.

Elizabeth O'Sullivan said...

Some people are going to see their own wounds and opinions instead of seeing you and what matters most to you. When they look at you, it is like they see a mask they have have painted instead of seeing your face. This is the case in regards to religion and almost everything else in life. I appreciate your post, and your attempts at bridging this gap in understanding. In my experience, and from what I read in the Gospel, our ability to help other people understand our experience of God can be limited. I find I need to follow my Guide closely when I feel misunderstood and mischaracterized, or I become a respecter of people and lose my focus on other work God may have set before me.

Joanna Hoyt said...

Thanks again, belatedly, all of you.

Kim, if you're still there, I would like to hear more about how you live out "Give to whoever asks of you." Part of my trouble with this is clearly selfish. Part isn't. I tend to think that Jesus didn't necessarily mean that you are always to give them what they ask for. I note that he declined requests for a miraculous sign, and for privileged positions in his kingdom. Which suggests to me that saying no to requests that seem either impossible or unwholesome is all right. I read also that sometimes when people were flocking to him for healing or teaching he went away alone to pray. (Though sometimes if they followed him he healed, fed, taught them anyway...)

Laura M. said...

I am not sure how I stumbled upon your blog, but I am glad I did. I am in the midst of a personal spiritual crossroads and have found myself asking my current religious community (and myself) some hard questions. Over the past 48 hours in particular I have felt a growing sense of urgency over the matter of determining how to proceed- and declaring where exactly it is I stand.
So much of what you said here resonates in my own life and spiritual journey- reading your words was almost overwhelming! "...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." Seeing that was as if the rhythm of someone else's religion finally matched my own!
Then to go on and read the comments...Steven articulated something I was trying to explain to myself and others quite literally just minutes ago: "I have in fact had direct, personal experience of Jesus, in a couple of different ways. But they have not required of me—he has apparently not required of me—that I center my religious/spiritual life in him. Therefore I do not call myself Christian—at least not by that definition." Yet another drumbeat perfectly in sync with my own.

Aside from giving me much to ponder, it has also given me hope that perhaps what it is I seek in a faith community exists- and not just within my imagination. Thank you so much for that.