Christianity is about…

September 18, 2007

I was wondering the other day, what is this Christianity thing about? So I sat down to make some notes and came up with five key concepts which seem important to me. Because I like to show off, I arranged them into a cross:

  Failure  
Jesus Love God
  Victory  

Christianity is about… Jesus – an itinerant rabbi living in a small backwater of the Roman Empire, Jesus was the only founder of a major religion to be executed young, alone and powerless. He taught a new view of morality based on the ideal of love, and after his death his disciples became convinced that his story had not finished and that his life showed us the nature of God – that God is like Jesus.

Christianity is about… Failure – failure at all levels. If we should love one another as ourselves, it is obvious we don’t – personal failure. As communities we wage war, tolerate slavery and starvation. But Christianity is also about the failure of Jesus, crucified. And by proclaiming a God of love, Christianity raises the question of the failure of God by putting the problem of evil at its starkest – if God loves us, why do we suffer still?

Christianity is about… God – God the creator, maker and sustainer of the ongoing universe, working through it; but also God the lover, not merely transcendent but approachable – she who lives in love lives in God, and God in her.

Christianity is about… Love – charity, agape, love; the basis of true morality. Love is about relationships and the value we put on others; we are called to enter into relationships with each other, not to obey rules.

Christianity is about… Victory – through love, there is the present reality and hope for God’s victory. Called by many names: salvation, the kingdom, the Spirit of God, the new convenant, the resurrection, life in abundance; it is a vision and coming reality of the healing of relationships and the breaking in of love into our hearts and lives. The work of God; this victory is seen in Jesus, seen in our own lives, still coming. It provides the hope of a victory over death itself but is here, and now.

This isn’t everything – it’s probably wrong, too.

What do you think Christianity is about?

What is it not about? Things I think it isn’t about: the Bible, miracles, hell, commandments, sacrifice, atonement, purity.

Before I so rudely interupted myself, I was trying to do a small survey of the faith documents put out by liberal Christian groups. I’m starting with Christian faith statements, because I’m not qualified to really discuss, say, Buddhist statements (are there Buddhist statements of faith?). Second off the rank is the Centre for Progressive Christianity and its 8 Points.

Source

The Centre for Progressive Christianity is, in its own words, dedicated to providing “guiding ideas, networking opportunities, and resources for progressive churches, organizations, individuals and others with connections to Christianity.” It has as a founding document “8 Points”, which are:

By calling ourselves progressive, we mean we are Christians who…

  1. Have found an approach to God through the life and teachings of Jesus.
  2. Recognize the faithfulness of other people who have other names for the way to God’s realm, and acknowledge that their ways are true for them, as our ways are true for us.
  3. Understand the sharing of bread and wine in Jesus’s name to be a representation of an ancient vision of God’s feast for all peoples
  4. Invite all people to participate in our community and worship life without insisting that they become like us in order to be acceptable (including but not limited to):
    • believers and agnostics,
    • conventional Christians and questioning skeptics,
    • women and men,
    • those of all sexual orientations and gender identities,
    • those of all races and cultures,
    • those of all classes and abilities,
    • those who hope for a better world and those who have lost hope
  5. Know that the way we behave toward one another and toward other people is the fullest expression of what we believe.
  6. Find more grace in the search for understanding than we do in dogmatic certainty – more value in questioning than in absolutes.
  7. Form ourselves into communities dedicated to equipping one another for the work we feel called to do: striving for peace and justice among all people, protecting and restoring the integrity of all God’s creation, and bringing hope to those Jesus called the least of his sisters and brothers
  8. Recognize that being followers of Jesus is costly, and entails selfless love, conscientious resistance to evil, and renunciation of privilege.

Each of these has an associated “Study Guide”, which are too long to post here. Interestingly, the first sentence “We are Christians who…” doesn’t have a study guide.

The TCPC says “From the beginning of TCPC, the intention of the ‘8 points’ has been to present an inviting expression of a particular approach to the practice of Christianity. Our hope is that this series of ideas will be appealing especially to those who do not find a comfortable fit with traditional understandings of Christian faith, and result in thoughtful conversation on basic themes throughout the Progressive Christian network and beyond.”

Initial Impression

Somewhat random, a shopping list and not a story. Obviously a camel – the work of a committee. A strange amalgum of dogmatic statement (Pt 8 ) and denial of the goodness of dogmatism (Pt 6).

Specific Comments

First off, what does “we are Christians who” mean? What does it mean to be a Christian? I’ve been told more times than I can remember that I’m not a Christian (I’m especially proud of the time I was told that I was a ‘fata morgana of a Christian’) so the term is hardly uncontested. Is this meant to limit what follows, or to say “This is the type of Christian we are”?

I have a big rant about the word Progressive, but I’ll save that for another time.

I actually quite like Point 1. It is reasonably clear while remainging broad. It is presumably further clarified by Point 8 – this is what it means to approach God through Jesus.

Point 1+8 seems to be immediately undercut by Point 2, though. I get what they’re trying to say – youse all ain’t going to hell. But this is such a strong statement of relativism that it tends to send the rest of the points into a spin. Can we approach God through a path that doesn’t involve Point 8?

Part of the problem is, I think the confusion between a way and a name for that way. It is one thing to say “other people have other names for the way to God’s realm”; it is another thing to say “their ways are true for them, as our ways are true for us”. Which is it? A single way (outlined in Pt 8 ) that has been called by many names, or a multitude of ways, all of which are valid for those who follow them?

Point 3 is pointless. Christians will recognise this as a position statement on the Eucharist. Why is this a matter of such importance to this group? The Study Guide on this point doesn’t really help me – it only talks about how there should be an open table. Great, I agree. But why mention this and not, say Baptism?

Point 4, “We’re TTTHHHIISSS tolerant!” (holds arms out wide)

Point 5, good-oh. The fruit test.

Point 6, Absolutes like Point 8? I guess I would put this in the “work out your salvation in fear and trembling” basket.

Point 7, Let’s Get Together!

Point 8, And be Nice!

I’m trying not to be cynical (really!). But there isn’t anything here to excite me. There’s no underlying proclamation, no good news. It’s an inhouse document, for Christians to speak to each other, which is fine. But I don’t live in that world. I want to be able to speak to the people around me with intellectual integrity and be able to say “This is where I stand”.

This document is too fuzzy for me. It would communicate little to my non-Christian friends, and little beyond fuzziness and “liberalism=doubt” to my Christian friends.

So what is out there in terms of short introductions to liberal Christian faith? Until I get bored I’m going to find and post (short) descriptions of faith.

I’m deliberately ignoring important differences in intent and audience between creeds, confessions, statements of faith, pledges of allegiance, catechisms, short introductions, etc. If it’s short, and it describes a liberal Christian faith, then it’ll do.

First off the line, the pledge of allegiance by June Alliman Yoder and J. Nelson Kraybill, president of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary:

I pledge allegiance to Jesus Christ,
And to God’s kingdom for which he died—
One Spirit-led people the world over, indivisible,
With love and justice for all.

(hat tip to Philocrites)

Initial Impression:

Wonderfully short but packing quite a theological punch. Focusing on the Kingdom and not on individual salvation; leaves open universalist understandings of the triumph of God’s love without expressly proclaiming them.

Specific Comments:

The phrase “I pledge allegiance to” probably works better for Americans who are used to the concept than, eg, Brits and Aussies who usually find it rather strange and weird. That is, I understand the attempt to undermine and radically co-opt the USA’s nationalist pledge of allegiance in favour of a commitment to the Kingdom of God vs. the Kingdom of Caesar; but I only understand it from an intellectual point of view. It doesn’t speak to me on an emotional level.

Like many of these creeds that I’ve found, a lot of complex theology is hinted at, but never fully faced.

This pledge obviously keeps things vague by mentioning that Jesus died for the Kingdom, but not mentioning the classics of credal Christianity – atonement and resurrection.

Is the “One Spirit-led people the world over, indivisible” the same as the “One holy catholic, apostolic Church” as understood from a Protestant ‘invisible Church vs. visible Church’ perspective? And if not, why the emphasis that the (Holy?) Spirit-led people are indivisible? Because it is patently obvious that Christians are hardly indivisible – there are divisions all over the place.

Not sure I like “with love and justice for all”. It’s not so much what it says as the phrasing – it’s like “Drinks for everyone!” or “Ponies for all!”. Maybe it’s just me.