I have been asked how, since I reject so much of the “traditional” opinion, I can “justify” calling myself a Christian. I understand that many find my unorthodoxies unsettling, even incompatible with the faith they claim. And so, for those people, I will attempt an answer, whether I believe they will be satisfied with the answer or not.
I recognize that, to many, there are certain beliefs that are considered mandatory if one so wishes to consider themselves part of the Christian family.This isn’t something I personally adhere to, not when I recognize all of the different versions and strains of Christianity (there are approximately 38,000 denominations existing just today - and that’s not counting all of the various strains and sects of Christianity that have existed throughout Christian history that aren’t included in today’s numbers) with different, even, at times, conflicting beliefs, as well as the various arguments that have existed from the beginning of Christian history on issues such as the nature of Jesus, the concept of the Trinity, and so much more (some of which I’ll most likely end up writing on in the future). Understanding that, as well as the how fallacious it is to insist that there actually existed one, unified Early Christian Church (Harvey Cox’s The Future of Faith gives a great look into said fallacy), I instead choose to break it down to the lowest common denominator, the one thing that absolutely *every* strain and form of Christianity *is* able to agree on : Jesus himself.
I have said before that my definition of a Christian is :
“someone who believes in the person of Jesus, the message of love, compassion, and humility shown through his life, the thought that he reveals to us the character of God, Who is love and compassion, and who believes that living by his teachings and following his example can bring us closer to God as well as our fellow man.”
Though I recognize that said definition may leave out some of the more conservative or fundamentalists who stress a more vengeful (and therefore not so loving or compassionate) side of God, the basic gist of my definition is someone, anyone, who’s faith is founded in the person and message of Jesus, however one may understand them.
And I *do* believe in and follow the person of Jesus and the message he taught - I just happen to understand it differently than many of the other Christians out there, though not all, I’ve found - as I continue in my religious “education”, I constantly realize that there are more of us out there than one would initially believe.
(Authors like the aforementioned Harvey Cox, as well as those like John Shelby Spong, Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, and Philip Gulley come to mind, though I don’t believe exactly as they do, it is nice to have others represent a not so orthodox side of Christianity)
Not only do I believe in the person and message of Jesus, they make up the *very foundation* of my faith. I am *firmly* rooted in the person of Jesus and the message he gave us, the Bible that came to express that message (whether or not I believe it does so infallibly, think it is meant to be understood literally, or interpret it the same way others might), the God of love and compassion he devoted his life, and death, to serving, and even the Christian faith itself (even if I prefer to recognize and consider *all* the various forms and branches within the Christian tradition and its history, and not limit myself to the more well known, “accepted,” or “approved” strains). And while it is true that I feel the message Jesus gave us can also be found echoed in the teachings of others, and occasionally pull from those others, their attributed texts, and the faiths founded on their teachings in my spiritual cultivation and understanding, it does not change that the Jesus is *the* example upon which my faith is formed, that *he* is the one I am most familiar with, the one in whom I am most deeply rooted.
As well, with Christianity being the religion through which I was raised, the means through which I came to understand faith, God, humanity, etc, I must admit that I see things through a Christian perspective, in terms of vocabulary, perception, understanding, etc. I may reject what many consider to be “traditional (or “required”) doctrine”, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not rooted, in perception and in way of understanding/processing information, in the Christian tradition. Christianity is the lens through which I understand life, humanity, divinity, even other religions.
I must recognize and admit that, even when I study other religions, I do so through a Christian mindset, as it is my ground of reference, if that makes sense. I don’t understand them as their followers understand them, though I do try to understand them in a way that is as unbiased and as honest to their actual intent as possible. I *have* to admit that my Christian perception causes me to look at them in a certain way, to make certain connections, to frame the information in a certain understanding or frame of reference. My *entire worldview* is based upon the Christian tradition. Therefore I couldn’t convert to any other religion (believe me, a few years ago I had a crisis of identity, afraid I couldn’t call myself a Christian anymore, only to realize that Christian is all I could *ever* be), since I would merely be following a Christian understanding/adaptation of that faith. Not that I don’t think the various faiths are good enough on their own, I just have Christian perceptions/themes/ideas/etc I wouldn’t be able to leave behind, if that makes sense.
It’s not just Jesus or a Christian mentality, though - I also am rooted in the Bible. Many may feel my beliefs are unbiblical, but I believe they are supported by the Bible. I just read the Bible differently; understand it differently (as will be addressed in an upcoming post). I *am* following and applying the Christian holy text, it *is* the text I read most and lean on the most, given I am most familiar with it, the text I compare others to, another way my perception and ground of reference is framed. I may not be a literalist, or believe it is the “actual” word of God, but I do believe that one can find truth within its pages, and rely on it more than any other text in my walk. Yes, I read other texts and believe those other texts (and their respective faiths) contain truth. But I *am* rooted in the person of Jesus, his message, and the texts and tradition that surround him. That is the context in which my worldview and faith are framed.
My ultimate goal is to follow Jesus and his message (as I understand it), to emulate him and live his teachings in a visible way in my life. Whether one would wish to deny it of me, I am still a Christ-follower, still strive to be Christ-like.Christian is the strongest self identifier I have, the deepest part of who I am….
I just look at the *whole* picture – the different strains and ways of understanding Jesus and his message, the different factors (like the changes in ideas like “belief”, the concept of rite vs right, the Jewishness of Jesus as well as the political side of his message, archaeological/scientific evidences and how they relate to how I understand the text, etc, etc), the different influences on Judaism and Christianity and the Jewish/Christian thoughts/beliefs, as well as changes in Jewish/Christian belief/opinion. I don’t just limit myself to what this more conservative, fundamental, literalist version of Christianity has to say, especially since this version of Christianity is one that is so new (literalism and fundamentalism being relatively recent ways of understanding Christianity will also touched on in another post).
I don’t believe that Jesus came to establish the kind of required belief that we see today, I don’t believe orthodoxy (in terms of “right belief” or an “accepted way of following Jesus”) would have been something spoken or established by him. The Christian faith today, I believe, would be unrecognizable to him. He spoke against legalism, dogmatism. Called us to a standard of love and faith, which isn’t the same as belief.
I believe in studying what I can, as far back as I can, as much as I can, in order to try to come to a more original understanding of his teaching/message. I don’t believe in just taking the Bible at face value, assuming we can understand we know what he was trying to express without even taking the time to look at the original language or tradition. And I have devoted myself to digging as deep as I can, to getting to that original message, to what he *really* meant for us to understand.
And…. to be honest, I believe as I do because I believe it is *more* genuinely Christian (or, at least, what Christ intended) than the other interpretations and applications of the Christian faith and the message and teacher it is founded upon…
Whether or not one believes that it is doesn’t change the fact that it is *undeniable* that my faith and beliefs are *all* about Jesus and what he had to tell us, that I *am* a Christian - an earnest and sincere follower of Christ.
I’ll close with a phrase I may have used before in my writing, but one that I do truly feel sums up my faith and identity. And that is:
Christian, in my opinion, doesn’t imply an adherence to specific criterion of faith, but instead indicates a specific standard of heart, a criterion of love
And I do - I strive to live, and to love (God and His creation), like Jesus…..
(Up Next : This Unitarian’s Understanding of Jesus)