Oddly enough, in the past two years that I have been blogging, less than a handful of my posts have been about my spiritual beliefs—a subject that is at the core of my life, my vocation, and my passion. Rather than analyze or make excuses as to why that is, I will attempt to change it.
Yesterday, as we were en route to New Jersey (another story for another time) I was scanning radio stations for news of the elections. When stopping at any given talk-radio station, I would invariably hear the words “Christian,” “family values,” or “Jesus,” touted as rallying cries, whereupon I would quickly change the station in disgust. Considering I am employed by a Christian church, and have actively belonged to Christian churches throughout my life, this might seem somewhat surprising (or disturbing). Why is this?
Labels and words—or perhaps more specifically their perceived meanings—evolve and change over time. Being referred to as “gay” in the 1920s carries an entirely different meaning than being referred to as “gay” in the present day. Originally, a “democrat” was someone who believed in or practiced a democratic form of government, and a “rebublican” was one who valued or believed in a representative form of democracy. Thus one could be a “republican democrat” with no contradiction. Times have changed. Likewise, a “liberal” by its root [same as liberty] was one who valued freedom, and “conservative” was one who wanted to conserve something. If I want to conserve water, land, or the environment, does that make me a conservative? Not today.
The label “Christian” at its inception, I think, simply pertained to one who followed, or placed confidence in the teachings of Christ. Today, however, if I say I am a Christian, there are several unspoken assumptions that are instantly made, by Christians and non-Christians alike. With slight variations, they go something like this: “A Christian is someone who is politically conservative, subscribes to a set of fairly rigid moral standards (mostly relating to sexuality), and who believes that his beliefs are beyond dispute (inerrant) to the exclusion of all other religions and spiritual beliefs.”
None of these describe me.
I realize that I am generalizing—not all people make these assumptions, and I’m grateful for those (among both Christians and non-Christians) who don’t—but increasingly I find them and those who make them to be in the majority. Still, it’s the teachings of Jesus that continue to inspire me—though I must admit I find them to be often greatly misunderstood and more often misapplied by those who claim the allegiance.
Lest we forget, Jesus was not a Christian. He was very Jewish, and never sought to be otherwise. I don’t even think it was ever his intention to abolish (or replace) existing religions or even start a new one—just a new way of living and acting within them. As he is portrayed in the canonized gospels (and even more so in the non-canon gospels) he seems to actively resist and even defy labels. Especially ones that are used to exclude or marginalize people (If you think Christians don’t exclude or marginalize today, just ask a conservative Christian his or her views on immigration). Jesus summed up all of his teaching with the commandment to “love God and love others.” And yet, if you ask the casual passerby on the street what word comes to mind at the mention of the name “Christian,” I very much doubt if “love” comes up that much.
Because of this, I struggle constantly with the label “Christian”—especially when applied to me. I go back and forth between wanting to embrace something that, as I define it, has given me purpose in life, and hoping that institutional Christianity (as it is defined by many of its practitioners) will hurry up and die so that we can get back to the business of caring for the poor, the sick, and the oppressed. Which is basically what Jesus taught us to do, regardless of how we label ourselves.
Peter Rollins, in his book How [Not] to Speak of God describes his own faith as living in the dynamic and constant tension between embracing the existence of God (theism) and rejecting it (atheism). He calls this “a/theism.” There is significant biblical precedent for this kind of faith, including Jacob, Job, and several psalmists. I can identify with it, and perhaps apply it to my own struggle with the “Christian” label. In the next few posts and weeks, I hope to explore further how this plays out in my life, and what it might mean in relation to our culture and world. In the meantime, it is in this light that I say, with great humility rather than great confidence, that “I am [not] a Christian.”