Updated: Mar 29, 2019
(On the menu bar there’s a "Let's Talk" page. It's a place where you can ask me questions about things you are pondering or working through in your own journey. Each Wednesday I’ll write a "Let's Talk" blog post that addresses your questions. Today’s post is the first one. Just because your particular question isn’t addressed in this post doesn’t mean it won’t. I’ll do my best to answer every question.)
“Jim, I’m confused. Are you a Christian?”
I’m asked this question often. My background is in Christianity. I self-identified as a Christian as a high school senior, and was the Student President of a campus ministry during my college years. Following college, I earned a Master’s degree in theology, became an ordained minister, and served many years as the pastor of a Christian church. Though it’s not uncommon for me to speak of Jesus, I also point out where I believe the Christian religion misrepresents Jesus, and even causes spiritual and psychological damage in people’s lives, and causes division in the world. My understanding of Jesus has also evolved over the years. I think for these reasons some people are uncertain if I am a Christian or still a Christian.
Let me first answer the question with a question: What makes a person a “Christian”? What definition are we using? Is it someone who has the proper Christian theological beliefs? If so, who decides the theological litmus test? It’s estimated that there are 43,000 different Christian denominations worldwide, which represent many different interpretations of the Bible and doctrinal beliefs. To be fair, traditional Christian theology has been summarized in creeds such as the Apostles' Creed and Nicene Creed. But even this is based on the idea that the Bible was written so a single and coherent theology could be developed, a view that not every person accepts. And further, there are many historians who question the politics and motives that influenced these early church councils and the decisions they made about the canonization of the Bible and the accepted theological beliefs.
But even if someone could claim having correct Christian theology, what if that person’s life didn’t resemble anything like the life Jesus lived or the values he taught? Would that person be a Christian? And what about a person with an intellectual or learning disability? Can they be a Christian? Is a Christian someone who prays the “Jesus prayer”? And would their motivation for doing so matter? What if they said the prayer to make their girlfriend happy or the peer pressure of what everyone else was doing? Does regularly attending church make you a Christian?
Christianity is considered a monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. But did Jesus intend for there to be a Christian religion. I address this matter in great detail in Notes from (Over) the Edge, and Inner Anarchy. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with people choosing to associate and meet together to encourage one another in the ways they understand Jesus to be significant and relevant for their lives.
In my view, Jesus holds universal relevance and significance, regardless of one’s religious, spiritual and philosophical background. I fleshed out this view in this post. But that doesn’t mean a person will necessarily self-identify as a “Christian.” The “Christian” label has now come to mean so many different things, some of which are appalling. Increasingly people are choosing to be more descriptive about their beliefs rather than identify with a label. Another problem with the “Christian” distinction is that it often necessitates the opposing label of “non-Christian,” which can be equally discomforting. You end up with the same problem of definition. Who is the “non-Christian”? How would you label a person who lives the values Jesus espoused but does not attend church or have a well-defined set of beliefs about God or Jesus?
But the question here is, am I a Christian? My answer is yes, maybe, and no. If being a “Christian” means embracing what I wrote here, then yes I would feel good about thinking of myself privately as a Christian and connect with other like-minded people who felt the same. But would I identify myself with the “Christian” label publicly? Maybe. If Christianity was widely thought of in the above terms, I might be willing to use the label publicly. However, until that day comes, I don’t see myself pushing the “Christian” label for myself publicly, which is the “no” part of my answer. In too many cases “Christian” means something that I don’t advocate, and the term can be unnecessarily polarizing.
I get criticized on both ends when it comes to what I say about Jesus. On the one hand there are those who have “shed religion” and shed Jesus with it. For many of these folks, the mention of Jesus reminds them of everything that was wrong and even damaging about their beliefs and involvement related to their particular Christian experience. On the other hand, the typical person who holds fixed and strongly-opinionated beliefs about God and Jesus, in this case Christians, are sometimes not too fond of what I say about Jesus. This is because my beliefs don’t always line up with their particular Christian orthodoxy.
There are also those who have crossed paths with enough Christians to have concluded that the whole Jesus-thing is something to steer clear of. Many atheists and agnostics don’t really see any point in giving a lot of credence to Christianity. After all, there’s not a very kind historical record of what has often happened in the name of Jesus. The Crusades of the Middle Ages come to mind. Westboro Baptist church is another. There is no shortage of examples of how Christian religious fundamentalism has done great harm in our world.
I don’t believe Jesus needs to be a polarizing figure. Over the years I have shared what I believe the message of Jesus is and isn’t. There are a lot of people for whom their rejection of or ambivalence toward Jesus is because of the Jesus they were exposed to through the filter of fundamentalist Christian religion. That’s unfortunate because the Christian religion does not always accurately represent the life and message of Jesus. As I said, Jesus did not start the Christian religion, and if Jesus were alive today I don’t think he would claim the label. In fact, if Jesus came around today and lived and taught the way he did 2,000 years ago, some Christian folk might be the first ones to crucify him. Jesus was not a religious person, and vehemently opposed religion and the way it separated people from God, and divided them against each other.
Rather than asking, “Are you a Christian?” I believe a better question would be: Are we living the kinds of values that Jesus lived? Religion at its worst is a game of who’s in and who’s out, who’s right and who’s wrong, and who’s “us” and who’s “them.” Religion is at its best when it joins hands with any and all people who affirm and live values such as: the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity, and compassion in human relations; a free and responsible search for truth and meaning; the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.