Friday, March 10, 2006

What is a Christian?

This is the question that I always thought had an easy answer. I was reminded of it Wednesday night during the debate with Marcus Borg. The first time I realized that my answer to this question was not universally acknowledged was a year ago during the first Socratic Club debate I ever attended. The question being debated was borrowed from Karl Marx, “Is religion the opiate of the masses?” Dr. Paul Metzger of Multnomah Biblical Seminary was debating Dr. Susan Shaw, professor of women’s studies at OSU. Dr. Shaw opened my eyes to a whole new vision of Jesus that exists in the world. Her view represents, of course, a small minority of Christians worldwide, but a growing number of people in academia.

You see, I had always assumed that the definition of a Christian was fairly objective (silly I know, Mr. Post-modern); that while there may be differences in doctrine among various denominations, or between Protestants and Catholics, ultimately there were certain essential beliefs that characterized Christians as a unique group of people. Apparently I was wrong. However, in order to see how I was wrong, let’s look at what (generally) defines a Christian.

I would define a Christian as someone who believes that Jesus is the Son of God (the God of Abraham and his descendents), sent to earth to die for our sins in order to reconcile our broken relationship God, and that through faith in Christ, we have the hope of eternal salvation. A Christian may also be rightly characterized as someone who believes in the trinity, that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. A Christian believes that the Holy Bible is the word of God (or inspired word) and that no other documents may be regarded as scripture (Q, Gospel of Thomas, Book of Mormon, etc).

Truthfully, I do not know if this definition has any historical precedent. Perhaps there has always been a broader definition.

In contrast to this, the Jesus seminar, some progressive main line churches, and others believe something quite different. Dr. Borg and Dr. Shaw both call themselves Christians, but so far as I know, hold none of the above beliefs. They do not believe that Jesus was the Son of God, nor do they believe that Jesus thought he was the Son of God, or even God in flesh. They do not believe he was sent by God to die for the redemption of our sins. Some do not even believe he was really crucified. Dr. Shaw explained that the crucifixion was an invention by the patriarchal culture’s male death obsession. They do not believe in the second coming, or they believe that it’s already happened. They do not see the gospels as accurate portrayals of Christ’s life, but rather as poetic and more often than not, metaphorical narratives.

This, of course, begs the question, “What do they believe? Unfortunately, it’s much easier to talk about what they don’t believe than what they do believe. Not only are their beliefs (in my opinion) complicated and vague, but there is virtually no universal agreement, even among the Jesus seminar folks themselves. Dr. Shaw describes Jesus as the ultimate example of human potential, and this made him holy. Borg sees God as “the encompassing Spirit in whom we live and move and have our being.” Jesus was fully human person who had a unique capacity to be filled with God’s spirit, and in him, “we see the incarnation of God.” These descriptions are only pieces of what they believe and do not ably describe the whole of their beliefs. Borg has authored a number of books that articulate his viewpoint, and that of the Jesus seminar.

So……what is a Christian? Is there a description that most people can agree on? Are there necessary characteristics that define Christians? Can people with such progressive and radical views of Jesus rightly be called Christians? Is it intolerant to say “no”? And finally, as we try to spread the gospel to a world with modern sensibilities, how broad of a position can we take for the sake of inclusiveness and still maintain our identity?


ted said...

If Jesus was the ultimate example of human potential, how fast could he run the 100 meter dash?

"as we try to spread the gospel to a world with modern sensibilities, how broad of a position can we take for the sake of inclusiveness and still maintain our identity?"

Our modern sensiblities are only modern today. Christ's message has withstood the test of time better than just about anything else. It's over 2000 years old and still changing peoples lives. It could easily be argued that the refusal to accept the Bible as God's word under the guise of progressive thought and philosophy and promote this as truth is the work of Satan. We should never be afraid to reserve the free white man's right to call "bullshit" on something like this.

I think the position we can take that is truly inclusive is that all men are sinners (who occasionally use the term "bullshit") and were worthy enough in God's eyes that he would send us his son.

Off topic, but you should go into the blogger dashboard and turn on the password verification. It will completely eliminate any blog-spam.

everyday.wonder said...

Oh, man. What a question. As you said, it doesn't seem like a terribly difficult Christian. A name for a group ought to allow for some sort of definition as to who is and who is not included within a group (as in, what language of this type is designed for). However, since there still remains enough positive connotation around the word "Christian" that many people who might be excluded by a proper definition are still fighting to redefine and adjust its meaning to suit their own positions.

That said, perhaps the simplest definition of Christian ought to begin with the root of the word in its first context, the group of disciples in Antioch which first called themselves Christians, meaning "little Christs". This is simply another way of saying that such-and-such is a follower of Jesus.

Of course, having seen all of the different crazy directions that can be taken, those of us who are heirs of several thousand years of what might be called orthodoxy might not be comfortable with so limited a definition. I liked the attempt you made at outlining some sort of limited set of doctrines which might be central. Paul certainly did so, in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 and in Titus 3:3-7, among other places. Still, once you take any of these seriously, many many people start raising a ruckuss that they want to be included too and that they have a different point of view which is equally valid, blah blah. It all gives me a headache.