Dec 212010

For a few weeks I have been ruminating on what I would post for the Christmas season, and then it finally came to me: Who owns Christianity? Who has the authority to codify what it does or does not mean to be a Christian, or regulate who can or cannot call themselves Christian, let alone who is permitted to be Christian?

Recent discussions with dear friends have once again brought to my attention how easy, how seductive, how unconsciously reflexive it can be to think and speak with labels, such as “Christian” or “Christianity.”  As labels, these terms serve as a kind of shorthand conveying a wide range of assumptions and generalizations about the person or persons to whom they are attached.  Sometimes we even label ourselves in this way.  The use of labels also easily taps into my personal beliefs and value judgments that accompany those assumptions and generalizations, and thus stimulates emotional reactions and attitudes toward the person or persons I have labeled.   Almost invariably, these processes occur semi-consciously, and I do not realize that in the process I have dehumanized somebody.  I do not realize that I have started treating a person as an abstraction that I am judging as right or wrong, and thus about which I am either comfortable or uncomfortable.  I do not realize that I have forgotten she is a unique child of God, a one-of-a-kind gift of Love to this world, like that little child in Bethlehem.  I may not ever realize that I have missed an opportunity to welcome, understand, accept, value and coexist with her, to love him, as that precious gift.   One of the ironic things about this pattern is that I do it despite how much I dislike other people doing it, which reminds me of Paul in Romans 7:15.

I know what it feels like to be the object of someone’s labeling, their stereotyping, and how it can harm the potential for us to care for each other as two whole and fully present human beings.   Some of the most troubling labels I’ve experienced are “Christian” and “bad” or “false” Christian.  Even “good” or “true” Christian can be troubling, and perhaps even more so!  The baggage that comes along with identifying as Christian can be enormous.  Many non-Christians automatically assume I fit their stereotype, which seems to be an increasingly negative one that prevents them from being open to anything more than a superficial relationship.  At worst, it leads some people to instantly take a distrusting, defensive and hostile position with me because they are certain that I am going to be judgmental, narrow minded, prudish, condescending and proselytizing.  On the other hand, fellow Christians often automatically assume I share most if not all of their beliefs and attitudes about things, or fit their own stereotypes of “Christian”.   When it’s discovered that I don’t fit their expectations, it’s not unusual for them to act like they are shocked and offended or threatened, as though I have personally challenged their own sense of identity, and then they put me in some other box.  I know I am not alone in these things, and it’s probably safe to say that you have also been painfully aware of them at times.

Experiences with the Christian stereotypes, and having seen myself in all the roles, have repeatedly led me to wonder about the value in calling myself Christian.  Of course, I do it for a number of reasons:  It is my native religious culture, and its symbolism, ritual, lore and language were being poured into my psyche even before I was born.  Through childhood, adolescence and early young adulthood it remained the primary milieu in which my ideas about self, other human beings, and the world took shape.  As I explored other traditions in adulthood, and now well into middle age, despite my willingness and attempts to let it go, Christianity has remained a constant reference point.  These experiences, combined with a growing understanding of how the psyche works in general, and mine in particular, led me to realize that, of all the world’s spiritual traditions, Christianity has the greatest potential to serve as a bridge between the consciousness of my adult personality and the childlike presence deep in my heart.  I came to realize that I just can’t help it that Christ’s love is the spiritual ideal that most inspires me.  I, this adult named “Chuck”, didn’t choose for all of these things to happen, but I do choose to accept them.  I am a Christian because I embrace the reality that the spirit and traditional forms of Christianity permeate my being; it is my religious home.

No matter how much doctrinal testing, prooftexting or Bible thumping anyone might do, nobody can take away my Christian identity, and in that sense I own it.  I also own it to the extent that I accept responsibility for the never-ending process of determining what Christianity means to me, and what it means for me to be a Christian.  In these ways I own Christianity for myself, and in doing so I realize and respect the right of every other Christian to do the same.  But, as noted earlier, I must also admit that even I can’t take my Christian identity away from me.  In many ways it is bigger than me, not controlled or possessed by this personality named “Chuck”, and so I can no more own it than the air I breathe.

Yet I don’t think that is where this issue of ownership stops.  As you might have been expecting from the moment you read the title of this post, if anyone rightfully owns Christianity it must ultimately be God through Christ.  Furthermore, as all creatures are God’s children, I believe we are all heirs and co-trustees of Christianity, just as we are with the air we all share, whether we consider ourselves Christian or not.

And the messenger said to them, `Fear not, for lo, I bring you good news of great joy, that shall be to all the people — because there was born to you to-day a Saviour — who is Christ the Lord….  (Luke 2:10-11, my emphasis)


Merry Christmas!

  9 Responses to “Who Owns Christianity?”

  1. I just typed a huge comment, then posted it without entering the CAPTCHA code. As a result, I just lost all of it. Here is the condensed version:

    First of all, Chuck, thanks for being a Christian and not what I call a “hyphenated” Christian. Some feel that they have to make excuses for the bad behavior of others, and so they say “I’m a Christian – but I’m not *that* kind of Christian”, or “I’m a Christian, but I’m one of the good guys.” I made a decision a long time ago to tell people that I’m a Christian and not to follow it up with lame excuses. I also resent the implication in that kind of talk that all “conservative” Christians are jerks. Many of them are people who would give the shirt off their back to a person in need.

    As far as what to be or what to call yourself, I think you have to be faithful to the path to which you’ve been called. For me to change directions now would be to break faith with Christ – when he has never ever broken faith with me. Not to mention that it would be pure hubris for me to think that I don’t need him anymore. When I encounter people who say “I used to be a Christian but now I’m a (fill in the blank)”, I usually detect just a hint of pride that they have progressed to the point that Christianity is no longer adequate for them. Like a child who refuses to sit in a high chair anymore because “that’s for a baby”.

    Anyway, I appreciated the post and thought that it was appropriate for the season. If I don’t talk to you again, I hope that you and yours have a Merry Christmas.

  2. Thanks for the kind words and reflections, Seth. I have to admit that I have been guilty of everything you’ve noted. I admire you for being a Christian with no excuses. It takes courage to make a statement like that and then let the chips fall where they may. As tempting as it is to offer explanations before anyone has asked, one’s actions are most telling, whether as first impressions or long-term testaments.

    Blessings to you and yours.

  3. Stimulating post, sir. I can certainly relate to much of what you say. I confess that I have, at times, felt almost embarrassed to say I am a Christian. It’s fair to say that this is 99% my own weakness but I know that there is an element of just knowing that people are going to make some pretty flaky assumptions about you as soon as you utter the ‘C’ word. I like what Seth says about just declaring oneself a Christian with no other qualifying explanations. I must try it!

  4. Hi Jerry,

    Thanks for stopping by. It occurs to me that my own assumptions about the other person are often included in the act of automatically accompanying “Christian” with an explanation, such as:

    – They probably have a view of Christianity with which I don’t want to be identified.
    – They probably don’t know the wide range of possibilities for being Christian.
    – They want or need to hear my explanation.

    From case to case, some or all of these things might be true, but perhaps the most consistent truth they reference is my own struggle of belonging within this tradition.

  5. I just found your blog yesterday and have been reading through the old posts this morning. I had a conversation just the day before yesterday about this very subject, and I expressed sentiments almost exactly like you have described in this post. I don’t know what to call myself, and I have generally avoided calling myself Christian anymore unless I take the easy way out that Seth described and use a hyphenated version. I even have even even more confusing terms like ‘follower of the Way,’ or ‘I follow Jesus’ or just say love or kindness is my religion. Although these convey the idea, I still feel like I am giving short-shrift to the real depth of the feelings and ideas I have about… the Way (lol).

    Thank you for posting the article.

    • Hi Allan, and welcome. I’m glad the timing of finding this piece was good for you. One thing I didn’t really communicate in this post is the sense of responsibility I feel to continue publicly identifying as Christian. To me, not doing so would feel like giving consent to the public presence of Christianity becoming even more monolithic and narrow, and people with experiences and views like ours feeling even more pressure to conform, hide, or leave the tradition all together. I want people like you to know that you are loved and welcomed just the way you are, and that there are many among us who care much more about your intentions and your actions than the doctrines you profess.


  6. I no longer self-identify as a Christian but that is just me being as “real spiritually” as I know how to be at this juncture. Your post is timely and so are the comments. I no longer struggle with the identity thing but I do wonder if there is a way to discuss a human spirituality that is common to all without an exclusive Christian religious overlay?

    thanks, you’ve given me so much to think about.

    • Hi Nancy,

      Thanks for the comments. It seems we may be in agreement that there is a spirituality beyond religious labels. I think the highest aim of all religions is to point us toward That. Nonetheless, after some time of having distanced myself from the label, and thus to some extent the community, of Christianity, I found myself coming back to it for all the reasons I noted above. It’s also true that we live in a world of communities, some to which we are native, and some into which we migrate. There is even the community of “no community but humanity”, yet it cannot help but fall short of the absolute inclusiveness it tries to promote.

      Still, it is at least theoretically possible, in my opinion, to have the kind of discussion you speak about, but my experience suggests it’s a bit like trying to eat a meal free of any cultural identity or nuances. I’m not interested in a world where I can’t enjoy the variety of Indian, Thai, Italian, or Mexican-Cajun fusion, while also finding a special comfort in the Southern cooking of my childhood! 🙂 Some may call that nothing but attachment, and if so I stand guilty as charged and won’t pretend it doesn’t exist or can simply be willed away.

      So, some meaningful questions for me are these: Do I want to make a difference in the communities I have become identified with by myself or by others? If I do, how can I best do that, from the inside or from the outside? My answers vary from case to case, and to some extent are more of a process than a final response. I also understand that others’ answers may differ significantly from mine. 🙂

      Thanks again, Nancy. I hope to see your thoughts again.


  7. Thank you Chuck for helping me sort this out, your response is helpful. A painful life situation opened my eyes to see God/Truth as nothing else but 13 years later that’s not the “real” crisis. Seeing Truth active in my human spirit—that creates an on-going crisis. A crisis in “how” I believe, think, know, understand, comprehend see, hear and respond to Truth. Experiencing the love of God [Christ] for myself in a meaningful way that makes sense—real, relevant, interactive and present—doesn’t make me better, smarter, greater, more loved, more spiritual, more real spiritually, more useful or more anything. It simply makes my life experience normal—a human spirit being, a normal child of God.

    I’m not distancing myself from Christians or the Christian community of believers but if a discussion moves past surface interacting and agreement of “that” or “their” Christian religious belief system …by default I find myself on the outside.

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