Just What is a Christian Anyway?

I have spent the past nine weeks in a theology class wrestling with the concept of Christian exclusivism. Well, I say “wrestling” somewhat ironically. I am not specifically “wrestling” with the concept of Christian exclusivism – I am not torn up over it – since I am not a Christian. This is worth saying again: I am not a Christian. The reason for the repetition is because I believe the concept carries immense weight – that is, saying “I am not a Christian” is to say something meaningful and profound. Likewise, to say “I am a Christian” carries as much, if not more, weight.

To be a Christian exclusivist, at least as I’ve been told, is to believe in the validity of the statement “there is no salvation apart from Christ.” Or, as has been stated in a quote from an essay on this topic by my professor Ed L. Miller; “Christian exclusivism is the announcement to the world that Christianity, and it alone, is the God-appointed means of salvation. The claims of other avenues of salvation are thus excluded.”

Much of this discussion, and others like it, have been produced by the writings of a group of predominantly 20th century theologians who have sought to broaden the boarders of Christian dogma to produce a more pluralistic slant. John Hick, Paul Tillich, Karl Rahner and others have produced many well-argued positions that have put Christian exclusivism on the defensive. Now many Christians are left with an embattled self that is attempting to reconcile the blatant exclusivity of traditional Christianity with an increasingly pluralistic world community that demands tolerance from its members.

It can be truthfully discovered, through an honest investigation into the history of Christian thought, that much of the historical development of Christian dogma has been heavily influenced by the desire to draw the proverbial “line in the sand” – to state, clearly and concisely, who is and is not a “true” Christian. From the production of the concept of bodily resurrection at Nicea, to the destruction and discrediting of gnosticism, Christianity has continually sought re-and presumably better-definition.

But Christianity has seen unimaginable schism since Luther’s fateful posting of 95 revolutionary theses on the church at Wittenberg. Prior to this event Christianity meant only one thing: Catholicism. However, we now live in an era in which two people who both call themselves “Christian” could disagree so profoundly on issues of belief that they would each feel shamed and angry to be classified as the same religion as the other. To many Christians individual “Christians on the other side of the fence” are no less damned than the Islamic terrorists who threaten our daily safety.

What is a Christian? Both statements – I am or am not a Christian – can only be flushed-out through a description of the concept of “Christianity.” With regards to this you will generally find such descriptions as being thoroughly divided along the believer/non-believer line. In short, it is very hard to find even a relatively unbiased description. However, my point here is not to harp on the believer/non-believer line, this line, even in its most tenuous and difficult-to-identify form, pulls attention from a more pressing, interesting, and, in my view, more difficult question. This is the question of the believer/believer line – that is, the line that exists between two people who both call themselves “Christians” but believe the other to be mistaken.

Within my theology class, a class with a heavy majority of self-proclaimed Christians, the discussions of the Christian exclusivist position have centered on the believer/non-believer line. This is a discussion of the contentions of the Hick and Rahner school claiming that other religions, that are espousedly non-Christian, are unknowingly participating in a line to salvation, specially coded for their culture, that will bring them to the identical salvation Christians enjoy. As should be somewhat clear, although this question offers some interest, I find the truly pressing question to not be whether or not Christians can jibe with other world religions, but rather whether or not Christians can jibe with other Christians.

Again, we are back to “what does it mean to be a Christian?” Presumably, this concept is unpacked by a description of the propositions that Christians believe to be true. Now, is the crucial question that every Christian must ask honestly of themselves: “What are those propositions that I believe to be true and make me, and possibly others, a Christian?” This is certainly no easy question but it is undeniably pressing.

Cutting to the chase: In my experience Christians define themselves by metaphor. There are many such metaphors, but two stick-out as exceedingly common: one is a stipulation stating Christians believe that “Jesus is the path.” The other is whether or not “Jesus is in your heart.” It cannot be stated strongly enough that both of these statements, and many like them, are not truth functional statements. They are so inundated in metaphor that they cease to have substantial truth content. “Jesus is the path” does not mean one should literally walk on Jesus in order to reach a destination. Likewise, Jesus is presumably not squeezed into my heart somewhere between the left and right ventricles.

I am not saying these statements don’t mean anything. They clearly mean something very poignant and poetic to Christians. However, these statements are presumably based on, and are summations of, a variety of truth statements that make claims and produce distinctions on what is and is not true. I am asking Christians to decide on these statements.

To claim that “there is no salvation apart from Christ” is coming closer to a meaningful truth-apt statement. However, this is very unclear. This statement is in no way a simple statement of a simple fact (i.e. “The cat is on the mat”) but rather a complex assortment of expressions that needs to be thoroughly unpacked. Claims should be made and defended.

However, most Christians seem to implicitly know the danger in this effort. To make claims and distinctions, to state and support what about Christian behavior is a true path towards salvation, what is an illusion, and what, exactly, is salvation, will rule many people out. And, many of those people will be sitting next to you in the pew.

Now a trade-off is created. An undeniably appealing and essential aspect of nearly all religions, and certainly a part of Christianity, is the desire for and appreciation of community. The choice between a full and rewarding community of seemingly like-minded individuals (like a typical congregation) and the statement of hard claims and distinctions about the path to salvation is a difficult one. In many ways these options are mutually exclusive. Often it is simply good enough to move off the metaphor “Jesus is the path” and proceed from there. Perhaps this is a valid trade-off, community over an attempt at a hard explanation of truth. But, perhaps one should also be aware that such a trade-off exists.

I am not a Christian because I do not believe Christ was God. I do not believe in the resurrection. I do not believe in an afterlife. I do not, in fact, believe in a personal God. I do believe that Christ was a great man who had many great things to say that should be learned by all. I do believe that something resembling salvation can be attained on Earth. I do believe in pride.

These are my factual, truth-apt statements stating why I am not a Christian. I know of no interpretation of Christian doctrine that could place me in this category.

I understand that, in some way, the discussion could be turned on me. I feel that I am a philosopher and that I belong to a group of many people who consider themselves philosophers. When asked “what is a philosopher” I may express some vague, pseudo-metaphorical answer that leaves the question only half answered. Perhaps I will say “people who love wisdom” and the immediate retort is “well what do you mean by that?”

This point I somewhat concede. However, a large amount of Christians are content to not even ask themselves this type of follow-up question to their most cherished doctrines, regardless of asking others. Furthermore, my possible exclusion of some self-proclaimed philosophers from my better elucidated definition of “philosopher” does not place those philosophers in eternal damnation. Towards this aspect I have considerably less guilt.

It is not that I don’t understand the importance of metaphor and the fact that, at the deepest levels, metaphor may be the best we can ask for in terms of truth. However, I am continually made to feel that most Christians are content to start with the metaphor and end all inquiry there. What I am attempting to do here is show both the importance of the question “what does it mean to be a Christian” and the possible eventualities that may result from answering it. These are important questions that cannot be denied.

I realize that many Christians may concede some of my points here but counter that they know little more about their faiths than is explained in metaphors like those above. This seems very plausible. Then, however, it seems that perhaps the point of the good Christian life is to continually ask oneself those questions and attempt to make claims that seek to clarify the path one is supposed to walk. This is all I am asking.

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One Response to Just What is a Christian Anyway?

  1. Anonymous says:

    Ooh, ooh, I know this one!

    Your comments on Christians and Christianity are insightful and honest, and as a Christian I appreciate the entire tone of this article. However I think the definition of being a Christian, while it seems to have eluded both you and all of your Christian classmates, is nevertheless graspable and relatively easy to understand. Here is the definition that I was taught.

    A Christian (Christ-ian) is someone who follows the teachings of Christ. Christ is another name for Jesus, who had several biographies written about him in the early 1st century.

    An account in one of those biographies (Mark 12:28-31) has a learned scribe asking Jesus what the most important commandment was, presumably trying to understand Jesus’ angle. Jesus answered with what has been taught to me is the summation of all of his teachings, the central theme of his message: “‘And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.

    So by a simply two-step logical process you can get the definition of a Christian. A Christian is someone who follows the teachings of Christ. The teachings of Christ are summed up as;

    1. Love God completely
    2. Love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.

    Anyone who fulfils this criteria is a Christian, whether they like it or not. Anyone who does not fulfill this criteria is not yet a Christian.

    You can expand the definiton with the questions “What is love?”, “Which God is he referring to?”, and “Who is my neighbor?” but that is beyond the scope of this post :).

    As for Christian pluralism, I have not encountered this idea much at all, and it troubles me. Presumably if a religion-culture combo in any geographical area produced people with the above criteria, then hey, you’ve got more Christians, and pluralism is valid and active. But if people in other religions have not even heard of the one true God, the creator, the all-powerful being with a personal interest in every person, then how can they love Him? I suppose this would be the major reason why Jesus told his disciples to spread the good news around the world.

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