What does it mean to be Christian? What makes a person a Christian?
Before I begin to answer that question, let me be very clear that I’m not providing criteria by which we can judge who’s in and who’s out. It’s not up to me to decide who’s in and who’s out, who’s a Christian and who is. I’m not separating sheep from goats.
Rather, what I want to do is reflect about what is “at the heart of being Christian,” to use Marcus Borg’s felicitous phrase. The question I want to address is “What matters most in seeing what being Christian is about?”
This week, I want to begin with two things which I don’t believe describe what it means to be a Christian, even though both are very popular among some. Next week, I’ll address what I believe it means to be a Christian.
Firstly, being Christian is not about believing the right things. Many would disagree with me; the notion that Christianity is about believing a set of teachings or doctrines is widespread. However, that is a relatively recent distortion of Christianity.
It began with the Reformation of the 1500s and the Enlightenment of the 1600s and continues today. Protestants distinguished themselves from Catholics by what they believed compared to what Catholics believed. Then Protestantism divided into many churches, each distinguishing themselves from others by what they believed.
So also the Enlightenment heightened the emphasis on believing. Characterized by the birth of modern science and scientific ways of knowing, the Enlightenment called into question many conventional Christian ideas: that the earth as the center of the universe; that creation happened in six days and not all that long ago; the sense that miraculous supernatural interventions sometimes occur; and so on.
In the face of such challenges, the response in much of Western Christianity was to believe in spite of evidence to the contrary. That represented the beginning of modern biblical literalism: in the face of modernist impulses, it emphasized that the Bible was literally and factually true, even if it went against “common sense”. Biblical literalists believe that from creation to the birth, life and death of Jesus, and into the future, the Bible is without error.
For them, to be Christian is to believe these certain things.
It is true that the language of “believing” has been part of Christianity from the very beginning. But New Testament language doesn’t primarily mean believing the right theological beliefs. Marcus Borg reminds us that it meant something like the English word “beloving.” To believe in God and Jesus was to belove God and Jesus — which means to commit one’s self to a relationship of attentiveness and faithfulness. Commitment and fidelity are the ancient meanings of faith and believing. It is not a head trip. It is a commitment of the heart.
The two most frequently used Christian creeds (the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed) both begin with the Latin word “credo.” Most commonly it is translated into English as “I believe.” But the Latin roots of credo mean “I give my heart to.” Of course, both creeds include a list of central Christian convictions. But saying the creed does not mean, “I believe the following affirmations to be literally true.” Rather, it means “I give my heart to God” — and who’s that? The creator of heaven and earth, of all that is. “I give my heart to Jesus — and who’s that? The one we say these things about.
The other problem with the popular misunderstanding of believing is that “believing the right things” does not intrinsically lead to a changed life. Again, as Marcus Borg puts it, “you can believe all the right things and still be a jerk.” It is possible to hold certain beliefs strongly and still be unchanged: fearful, self–preoccupied and self–concerned, angry, judgmental, mean, even brutal and violent. Christian history and the history of other religions are filled with examples. Believing has little transformative power.
The second thing I don’t believe is that Christianity is about what happens to us in the afterlife. Much of popular Christianity emphasizes what happens to us after we die. We have to believe the right things now so that we can get to heaven later.
I disagree. Christianity is not about what happens then. It’s about how we live here and now, in this world, showing compassion and grace and love to all of the created order.
Beloving God and people. Living here and now. Next week, I’ll more to say about both.
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook.