God,  religion,  the ethical life

Skim Reading Not Recommended: On what it means to be (hesitantly) Christian

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I’ve gone back and forth on whether I want to include religious content on my blog. I fear doing so will alienate practically everyone and bring no real benefit, so why bother? But the long story short is that I’ve decided I will include some religious thoughts, occasionally, though I’ll keep the bulk of the blog about books and homeschooling, math and occasional politics. This post is about why I want to be more open about my religious beliefs, and the story starts with me reading this blog post and with the following paragraph sticking out to me:

For those of us who try every day to walk the talk, it’s downright embarrassing to call yourself a Christian. The assumption is immediately made that we are narrow minded bigots determined to inject Jesus, whether you like it or not. “God” has become a dirty word, thanks to the Right, who use Him for political instead of spiritual purposes, to justify things like homophobia, misogyny and racism…to justify a particular oppression of the soul. If the Right is upset that there’s no God in the Democratic Platform, it’s nobody’s fault but their own.

I posted the link and quote on my facebook page and had a friend challenge me there, saying:

Keeping your religion to yourself amounts to complacency in the misrepresentation of Christianity. Effectively the message it sends is that you’re okay with the portrayal of your religion that’s being put forward by the right-wing nutjobs; that it may bother you, but not enough that you will do anything about it.””

Well that left me thinking about things. Am I complacent? Should I be more outward with my religious beliefs? I hesitate. I think of all the reasons why I shouldn’t talk about my religious beliefs, and then I think also of the question, why do I continue to think of myself as Christian? At some level it is because of loyalty to Jesus. So why not defend his name?

Of course one of the reasons I don’t talk about religion much is that there is no short-hand available for me. Loyalty to Jesus – what does that mean? There’s a really, really good chance that whatever you’re thinking it means, is not the same as what it means to me. Another reason I don’t talk much about religion is the way I describe and understand my religious beliefs are always changing. So given those two things, the possibility of misunderstanding is huge. The internet is relatively permanent and I don’t want to jeopardize future possibilities by being on record saying something.

On the other hand, what does my insecurities matter, if my attempting to explain my beliefs could help? I don’t know if they will help. I’m just one small confused voice and the imagines of a very nasty Christianity are plentiful. Yet, I’m going to try.

I jokingly replied to my facebook friend. He linked to this comic and I offered a joking attempt at defending Christianity, saying that anyone who bombs anything is not Christian. (And I suspect the same goes for Muslim.) That led to a bit of a conversation about who is Christian or not. People who call themselves Christian do try to bomb things. Does being Christian just mean choosing to identify as Christian or does it mean something else? (In some ways this idea parallels that question of what it means to be native – is it blood, culture or self-identity that makes someone native?)

If Christianity is just a matter of self-identity then why should anyone bother to reclaim it? Let the crazies have it. For Christianity to matter at all it must have some defining characteristics. Imagine that a word is like a box, (perhaps a box of sound,) that can hold meaning in it. Different people can struggle to have the meaning they want placed in the the most prominent position in that box. People can wrestle for control over the box just like different ideologies can wrestle for control over words. Saying that Christianity is just about self-identity is like filling the box in. You have a cube, not a box. The word means nothing. It means less than when you have all the other meanings wrestling for control of it. If the only defining characteristic of being Christian is wanting to be Christian than it really doesn’t matter.

Think of it another way. What is a chair? A lot of different things can be used as a chair. We can call a log a chair and use it as one but in order for the word chair to still have meaning, there has to be a way of saying “that is not a chair.” A curtain is not a chair. A fork is not a chair. You cannot sit on it in any way. People might disagree about what is or isn’t a chair. A log might not fit into a person’s definition of a chair. Yet even the person who says the log is a chair will recognize that not everything is a chair. For the word “Christian” to have any meaning there has to be a way of saying “this is not Christian.” There have to be characteristics attached to it and for the word to be useful it should be something more than self-identity.
People might not agree on what characteristics should define Christianity. Some might think that being Christian means trying to follow the laws and guidelines laid out in the Bible in a literal fashion, while others might think it means developing a personal relationship with something that appears to me to be very much like an imaginary friend named God or Jesus. To me, being Christian means recognizing the truths that Jesus and some of the other Biblical voices were trying to point at. (I say “some of the other Biblical voices” because certain voices in the Bible say that God condones mass murder. I reject that, believing that it is okay to admit that some chaff got mixed in with the wheat when the Bible was being compiled.) I think it more honest and more useful if “being Christian” is defined by characteristics, even if disputed and disagreed upon, than to say that self-identity is all that matters. Better to have many people with disagreed meanings for the word than to have one agreed meaningless meaning for it.

Or maybe I’m wrong on all this. Maybe self-identification could be enough of a defining characteristic. One could, after all, recognize that a person identifying as an non-Christian is not a Christian. Yet if the only characteristic is self-identification than why in the world would anyone bother? I could just as well say I’m a Gimblykim. Who else wants to be one? All you have to do is say you are one and you are.

The other problem with rejecting self-identification as the defining characteristic of Christianity is that it raises the question of anonymous Christians.  If I say that the characteristics of Christians are X, Y and Z, and then my friend B over there, who identifies as part of a different religion, has all those same characteristics then is that person really and truly a Christian? C. S. Lewis presents that argument in his Narnia story The Last Battle, when he says that truly good service, even done in the name of Tash, is really given to Aslan. Yet the idea is kind of obnoxious. It suggests Christianity holds a monopoly on the good characteristics. So perhaps self-identification is one aspect of Christianity that must exist alongside the other characteristics? Yet if the other characteristics can exist independent of Christianity, and Christianity has in many circles the burden of a bad reputation, why not abandon the self-identity part and keep those other characteristics, as I assume the author of the post I linked to first is suggesting Democrats do. Using self-idnetification as the defining feature of Christianity avoids all that confusion by focusing on the one thing that really is different between those who want to be identified as Christian and those who don’t.
If being Christian means trying to follow the truths that Jesus and some of the other Biblical voices were trying to point at, I’m quite confident in saying that bombing is not a Christian thing to do. Until, of course, I read about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and reading a biography of him is one of the other things I’ve been doing recently. I have only the sketchiest knowledge of him right now but I am delighted by the idea that he would acknowledge violence and murder as a sin yet say that for the sake of love for his fellow human sometimes people must sin. He accepted guilt for his participation in resistances against Hitler.

But even as I type this out, I think, no… wait… that idea that sometimes people do need violence, and so they should accept guilt, is dangerous. The person bombing the abortion clinic sincerely believes that he is using violence to prevent someone from causing mass murder. The person believes he’s doing the same thing as Bonhoeffer was. So can Bonhoeffer be a sincere Christian, and the other person not?

Perhaps Don Quixote can shed some light on this. I love the TV show The Newsroom by Aaron Sorkin, and it uses Don Quixote as a metaphor for what his main character is trying to do, so I started reading Don Quixote. I’m reading the book whereas Aaron Sorkin was refering more to the musical. Aaron Sorkin talks of Don Quixote trying heroically to do the impossible. As I read the story, I don’t see someone heroically trying to do the impossible, I see someone insanely fighting battles that don’t exist. Doing the impossible, fighting giants and dragons, might be heroic when they exist, but they aren’t when they don’t. Accepting the use of violence when the need is really there might still be Christian, but when the need really isn’t there? Not Christian. But then the question is, whose vision is right, mine or the extremist who wants to bomb abortion clinics? Are the abortion clinics dragons or flocks of sheep? Heroism is acting valiantly (and violently) when needed, but also not acting so when not needed. I don’t know.

Is it heroic to believe oneself to be heroic and to attempt to act as a hero to the best of one’s ability? Is it Christian to believe oneself Christian and attempt to act as a Christian to the best of one’s ability, even accepting the uncertainty that comes with not knowing exactly how to be one?

I’m waffling, sidetracked by the cartoon and the image of Christianity associated with bombing. I’m trying to nitpick about definitions rather than acknowledge what it is I believe. I believe that Jesus was a Jewish person in a particular time and place. I believe he was working against empire, presenting an alternative worldview to the ideas embraced by the Roman Empire. I believe that when the Bible says Jesus is Lord or Son of God, the Bible is using the terminology of the time in order to connect with the people of the time. Emperor Augustus was Lord. He was the Son of God. Saying Jesus is on par to that is throwing the whole value systems, the whole worldview, topsy-tervy. It isn’t about saying that Jesus had the magic of the Star Trek Q. That doesn’t mean I believe Jesus is just a great teacher either. His earliest followers had a reason for saying he is Lord. It is a shift of value. It is monumental. It is huge. It just isn’t making him a magic being.

So if Jesus was working in a particular time and place, against a certain worldview, does that mean he holds no relevance now? I think he does hold immense relevance now. I believe that if Jesus were here now he would turn as horrifiedly against the imperial religion of evangelical Christianity just as he did against the imperialistic Roman oppression.

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  • Lily

    Hi Christy, just discovered your blog and am loving it.

    No, I’m not a Christian (I’m a Zen Buddhist agnostic if asked for a label) but I still enjoy home education blogs with a Christian, or other religious, perspective. I love reading about how and why people believe what they do (and how those beliefs translate, or not, into action).

    I’d certainly encourage you to continue speaking your truth here. I’m absolutely not alienated by it. You come across as very thoughtful and that sort of approach to anything benefits us all (in my humble opinion). What’s not to love about considered authenticity?


  • Michele West

    I just came across your website (via Gifted Learning) and have been reading some of your posts on religion. I just wanted to say that I have loved the ones I have read so far. It is such a complex area and I’m glad to read your writings on these thoughts and ideas and questions. It’s been a delight to read.

  • Isabel

    Hi Christy, I also have only just discovered you blog and am greatly enjoying your interesting topics, thoughtful analysis and coherent writing style.

    • Christy K

      Thank you! And I have greatly enjoyed waking up this morning to the collection of comments you’ve left. Now that I’ve approved them any further comments you make should go up on the page without waiting for me to moderate them, though I’ll still get an email telling me they are there so I don’t miss them. 🙂

  • Isabel

    You have given me a timely reminder that there are, in fact, Christians who are people of intelligence and integrity.

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