Wednesday, June 30, 2010

What do you think the term "Christian" means?

I ran across a critique of an assessment of what prominent atheist author feels is important in being a genuine Christian.  The critique felt the assessment was inaccurate.  Here is the quote of the criteria used to determine whether one should be be counted as a Christian:

Hitchens: I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.

I don't think it is the statement itself is inaccurate, but how such statements (and the creeds from which they derive) have been understood and used which is problematic.

For example, even the Roman Catholic Church calls the resurrection a mystery. If we take the narrowest possible meaning out of a particular historical-cultural context, then words like "resurrection" and "sin" become fixed in a particular frame, say, a Calvinist style model invoking human depravity and substitutionary atonement. "God" also becomes somewhat fixed as a Patriarchal King and Judge.

If we use that kind of thinking, then Hitchen's statement is indeed too limited. But does that mean we should totally abandon such statements and ignore the most ancient and universal of the creeds?

I think not. Each age must come to terms with these statements while respecting the context(s) in which they emerged and subsequently developed.

For example, as Fr. James Martin frequently suggests (and others have said long before him), God is not JUST a creator, or love, or the spark of life, or, or, or... this is a danger. God is beyond any box or conception, so any description is always incomplete. One day we may make sense of our experiences via The Friend, the next The Problem-Solver, the next as The Ground of Being.

The trouble comes in when we latch onto one of these as "the only proper and true way" to relate to God. Another way to think of it that I devised is like bottles filled with different amounts of water. The same wind will create different sounds with each bottle. If we sub in "our hearts" for the bottles and "God" for the wind, then in a bitter heart God may come across as a cruel tyrant, in a fearful heart as the destroyer of foes, etc.

The same is true of "sin" and "resurrection". These terms and the creeds and stories in which we hear about them can have different meanings for us depending on where we are in our lives. This doesn't mean we get to make up what we want -- in fact it means we have to be honest about how we are reacting to such stories, not how we ought to feel. Nor does this mean we can skip things just because they seem fantastic or miraculous because we are comfortable believing in our own version of what is acceptably possible while others are just so primitive in their thinking. How many modern thinkers do you think have been shocked and even disgusted or frightened to find that their encounter with such a story was not the sterile, logical and mundane account that had no "supernatural mumbo jumbo" but rather one filled with a power and mystery that defied their expectations?

The following is a bit dated and done by a theological amateur, but it touches on such issues and provides alternatives to the interpretation Hitchens and some in the conservative Christian community hold to:

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