Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Why I Am Not A Christian?

I don't call myself a Christian. In casual conversation, I tell people I am a Quaker, because this at least is true. If pressed, I will say that I am a pluralistic but still Christocentric Hicksite Quaker, and if that's not specific enough we have a long talk coming.

But I'm not sure where the truth in all this lies, or whether I have the right of it. My dearest friend is a Christian, in the Jesus Saves sort of way. I don't mean that badly at all: he lives out his faith with more love than I have ever witnessed before. We have long discussions about faith, and one of the points that it often comes down to is this: he doesn't believe that I am Christian.

Here is what I say about myself: I attempt to center my life around my faith. I don't believe in an all-knowing, all-powerful, Creator-God, but I believe in Something. I believe in a very certain Something. I believe that there are many ways to get at Something (I'm getting a little tired of the 'many roads to the top of the mountain' metaphor, but it gets the point across), but I also believe that spiritual dabbling will not work for me, or just about anyone, likely. I am going to choose one path and stick to it with all my heart.

I was raised Catholic, in that altar-server, I-want-to-be-a-nun sort of way. I've more or less always believed in a God of some sort or another. The metaphors and teachings of Christianity resonate very powerfully with me. I don't believe that they're universally true. I don't believe my atheist friends are going to hell. I don't believe that Jesus the man was the literal son of God. I do believe in Christ. I believe in Christ as the light that illuminates every man's soul. Christ as a state of being. Christ as a metaphor. I read the letters of Paul and am powerfully moved by his exhortations to us to become more, companions in Christ, to circumcise our hearts. I am constantly struggling to circumcise my heart. I am struggling to let go of my own will and be subsumed by God's (unfortunately, I get in the way far too often). If it wasn't so bloody creepy to say, "Christ is the center of my life!" I might do it.

But is this Christian?

My friend argues otherwise. He points out that a Christian is a follower of Christ, and that description does not fit me. I ignore plenty of things that Jesus said, like the bits about no man coming to the Father except through him, and the bits about Scripture being the word of God, and the bits about listen to the people I send (I like Paul's letters, but I throw his misogyny out the window). And I most assuredly do not subscribe to the 'Jesus is my personal Savior' bit. I don't even believe in Jesus as God. Christ, not Jesus. He says this is like kind of obeying the speed limit, or mostly not going over the double yellow lines in the road, or being a little pregnant. Either you are, or you aren't. Only 100% obedience counts.

On the other hand, isn't making oneself a living oblation 100% obedience? And why should it have to be 100% to begin with? And who came up with these rules? And why do I get so upset over it all? I don't even call myself a Christian.

And that brings me to the third hand. Even if the shoe fits, how could I bear to put it on? I want nothing less than to be associated with the sort of bigotry that seems to predominate among public Christians in this country, and maybe everywhere. I more than enthusiastically support the queer community in their struggle for equality. I subscribe to the Hilary Clinton school of thought when it comes to abortion- let's keep it safe, legal, and rare. I am an evolutionary biologist. I think school-sanctioned prayer in public schools is wrong. I am firmly in favor of the separation of church and state. Perhaps, though, this is exactly why I should embrace the label. Religion should be co-opted no more. (Did anyone else read the August Harper's?)

Then again . . . I have nothing but respect for the sort of Christian who practices what they preach. I know a number of rather fundamentalist Christians, and if I called them at two in the morning because my car was broken down fifty miles away, they would come pick me up in a heartbeart. And they have told me very firmly that it is offensive to the Real Christians (capitals mine) for someone like me, a poser, if you will, to call themselves such. And I wish to respect this.

How many hands are we on now? Five? Then again, I don't think they have a handle on the truth.

I've run this track around in my mind too many times to count. What it tends to come down to is this: I know what I believe. I am quite clear about these basic outlines, though the details are constantly being shifted and changed by the Light. Is the name so important? Perhaps I shall let my friends and companions argue over why I am or am not a Christian, and go my quiet way in peace.

I hope that's not a cop-out. I wish the way was clear.

18 comments:

Robin M. said...

Oooh, cool. This is all part of the conversation I'm looking for. Very thought provoking.

Nice to see another Quaker blogger.

Chris M. said...

I would consider myself in the same category as you, Sarah. Here's how I put it: I consider myself a Christian. I pray to Jesus as the Christ that I may be of service, I read the scriptures, and I teach Firstday School every other month or so.

And yet then I think of C.S. Lewis -- a splendid example of a mainstream, academic Christian who was not eager to start a Holy War, and who in some ways struggled to come to terms with being an intellectual and a Christian. From what he wrote in Mere Christianity, I'm positive he wouldn't consider me Christian. And as Kathleen Norris quotes a priest, in The Cloister Walk, I think, "It's not 'your church' it's 'our church.'" How much do you have to agree with "our church" to be a part of the body of Christ?

Being Quakers, we always have that old fallback phrase, "primitive Christianity revived."

As Kurt Vonnegut would say: So it goes.

-- Chris M.

Liz Opp said...

Sarah, what a great post. I think I'll add it to my personal "important blog posts" list... next time I update it, that is!

Blessings,
Liz, The Good Raised Up

Sarah said...

Robin-

Thanks for the welcome! I'm enjoying the blogosphere quite a bit . . .

Chris-

Ah, C.S. Lewis. I am afraid that I wanted to throw Mere Christianity across the room at several points. He's worse about women than Paul. Ugh. On the other hand, some of what he said was incredibly beautiful, especially his imagery of being made new in Christ.

I am very fond of The Cloister Walk, on the other hand . . .

In the sense of trying to live in a community of like-minded folks, it certainly matters whether Christians At Large consider me and you to be Christian or otherwise. In the sense of our personal spiritual growth . . . I don't think I could say that it doesn't matter at all . . . but I'm still feeling out the boundaries of exactly how and when and why it matters or doesn't. hmmmm.


Liz-

Thanks. :-) It's silly, but that sort of thing tickles me pink.

-Sarah

Rob said...

Hey Sarah! So glad to meet you out here. I couldn't sleep last night because I was thinking about exactly the same issues as you raise in your post. Am I Christian? As someone who yearns to be a disciple of the Living Christ, can I still call myself a Christian if I don't believe in all of the tenents of something like the Nicene Creed?

Somewhere in my bag, I have something written out, which I hope to post today, but the internet cafe is expensive and I'm tired and cranky. (Sigh)

Welcome. I'm glad you're here. - Rob

Amanda said...

Just adding my chorus to all the rest: Welcome, this is great, and I know what you mean.

C. Wess Daniels said...

I agree with Robin it is nice to see another Quaker Blog Sarah. Thanks for posting and I enjoy the multiple hands you showed to explain some of your own reflections. I think it was your third hand I most readily agreed with - not that your post was trying to elicit my agreement or not.

I am a Christian-Quaker who aligns myself mostly with the Quakers of the first 150 years of the tradition (Fox, Barclay, Woolman, Penn, but I am a huge fan of Rufus Jones of the 20h century). I wish that most Chrsitians were different than what you described too because I am really weary of right-wing, fundamentalist (and often evangelical) Christianity. It is often that I think Jesus would fall on the opposite side of His Church. if a line had to be drawn. So I wanted you to know where I am coming from when I make a couple of Comments.

You don't have to start out at 100% obedience, If you read the Gospels most of Christ's own disciples didn't start out that way (and many waited until he was resurrected to believe completely). Believeing 100% all the time, may even be unrealistic - I think that it is even Christian to doubt at times, to struggle for a yes or no from God.

I did want to comment on your useage of the word Christ - all the word means is Messiah (in the Greek translation sense and in the way it was understood historically). It doesn't mean some mystical portion of Jesus. Now I recognize that some have taken it to mean this, and I certainly can't change that but I think it is important what it was meant to mean (and then agree or disagree with that).

So then I guess this leads to your reading of Paul - I think that its amazing that you who consider yourself not a Christian are reading the Scriptures. But again be aware that when Paul talks about "being like Christ," "Putting on the clothes of Christ," etc. etc. what he really meant was the actual God-Human named Jesus. To replace ideas about what Paul talked about (at least as a starting point) is to devoid his very thought of its richness and essentially of its main formula that made his thought work. Now I do agree that it is very difficult (if not impossible) to arrive at a singluar interpretation of many of the texts and that what makes the most difference in reading Scripture is encountering God but I do think that so far as we can be faithful to a person's thought about something we ought to try.

Of course this leaves us with that question mark of whether what they meant was right or wrong. But it is here in the question mark, and the pursuit of the answers that we will discover God. Karl Barth says that the Revelation of God is a big question mark set up behind all of reality.

Now I don't mean for my comments to sound overly critical because its not meant to be. So I hope you don't mind me chimming in.

I am still interested in reading "why you are not a Christian" though. You explain what you do and don't believe, who you resonate with and who you wish was less fundamentalist (I agree whole heartedly here) but what is it that keeps you from centering your faith on the Jesus of the Gospels and NT?

Pam said...

Sarah -

what a wonderful essay.

I struggle with this myself, though in all but the rarest and most esoteric of cases, I am sure that I am not a Christian.

I found myself thinking about words and identity as it relates to lesbian & queer issues (and the rest of the LGBTIQ universe, but those are the two words that do identify me)

We had a panel at my meeting last Sunday about "bi" and "queer" - A member of our community, who is straight (as far as I know) said something to the effect of "we're all different from each other, we're all queer" - he meant it to be inclusive, but it felt like a theft of identity (and he was "called" on this, quite lovingly and clearly)

I can understand your (or my) feeling like we are doing that to "christians" - those who believe Jesus was the literal son of God, that the resurrection was bodily, and central to our salvation (things I don't believe)

However, from my perspective, in the moments when I do feel like a 'true follower' of Jesus (even though I still can't even recite the Nicene creed without nausea) I feel more like it's an unfair exclusion to say I have to follow someone else's definition in defining myself

rather than being like a straight person identifying as "queer" - it's like a lesbian telling another lesbian she doesn't "count" because she's slept with men in the past, or has male friends, or doesn't currently have a girlfriend) Some things other people don't get to decide for you.

I am a quaker. I am not a christian. I haven't been able to find one path that makes sense to me, so I'm not an atheist or a buddhist or a pagan either, though all of those "labels" address part of me. Universalist Quakers are the only spiritual grouping that I have found myself at home in. I'm not sure what to do with that.

Kevin said...

Sarah,

Thank you for that entry. It spoke powerfully and directly to my present spiritual condition. I hope you won't mind if I link to it.

Welcome to Blogville!

Simon said...

Dear Sarah,

Its great to read your post and all these thoughtful comments by other bloggers – it has given me so much to think about! I came across an article you may be interested in called ‘Why do we believe in God?’ from The Guardian newspaper by the Labour Peer and fertility expert Sir Robert Winston – relating to his new book ‘The Story of God’, where he explores possible biological explanations about religion. The intrinsic/ extrinsic religiosity bit I’ve found fascinating and I’m now starting to think about how this can perhaps relate to Quakerism.

Keep on blogging!

With best wishes,

Simon
under the green hill

jez said...

Hi

I know that I might be a Christian. I leave it at that. My Quaker faith calls on me not to make (unnecessary?) judgements. The natural conclusion for me has been to make no conclusion.

I am sure enough that I can go to a Christian Peacemaker conference in London this weekend and be sure that even without the definition I will be in the right place.

It might be possible to overcome the uncertainty and still live your life true to your faith, until you and Christ are in the right place together. It may be possible to live your life and one day look back and see that you were a Christian all that time.

Or I could be very wrong.

Zach A said...

"I ignore plenty of things that Jesus said, like the bits about no man coming to the Father except through him, and the bits about Scripture being the word of God, and the bits about listen to the people I send (I like Paul's letters, but I throw his misogyny out the window)."

(One thing, for the record; you're friend might have suggested the opposite, but I'm pretty sure Jesus never said "Scripture" is the word of God, and even if he did he couldn't have meant the New Testament...)

I really appreciate your struggle with this... I go through the same things myself. One thing that helps me is to just recognize that there are different levels of definition of the word Christian. I mean, in one sense, a Christian is just someone who's 'guru of choice' (pardon the term) is this guy Yeshua as opposed to this other guy Siddhartha or this other guy Mohammed. And then there are a 1001 different more specific definitions... someone who is a member of the One True Church (whichever one), someone who believes XYZ, someone who has done PDQ, and so on. It helps me to realize the element of arbitrariness in all of these definitions, including that of your 'Real Christian' friend.

I mean, you're definitely right to ask, "Who made these rules?" Some particular finite human being in some particular culture and time. Even beliefs like "Jesus is God" started somewhere, and were not always universal among Christians. (Read this article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ebionites)

I feel like we liberal, universalist Quakers have every right to claim the name Christian if we want. I mean, believing in Christ as the light that illuminates every soul is as valid an understanding of what it means to be a Christian as any (and a traditionally Quaker one to boot). If anything, we should be the ones that 'feel offended' by all the people who presume to call themselves Christians yet don't in fact believe in that light shining into their souls!

I agree with you though, that even if the shoe fits, do I want to wear it? Many days (especially these final days I am spending at the evangelical Christian college I attend) I would say no. But other days I resonate with a message I saw once on a bumper sticker: "JESUS CALLED / He wants his religion back".

Dave Carl said...

Sarah,

I was thinking about this in Meeting for Worship this week. I recalled someone saying that perhaps we'd be better off if we had no nouns, just verbs. Thus, the question would be, not "am I a Christian" but "am I Christianing" or perhaps "am I Christing?" If we're not, we can keep seeking guidance from the Christ within us. George Fox urged us to be in the spirit first, then read scripture that was written in that same spirit. He found that a native American had "the light" of Christ when the man told him there was something within him that told him when he had done something wrong. Perhaps Christ's yoke is lighter (in terms of doctrinal requirements) than our fundamentalist brothers and sisters might have us believe.

Contemplative Activist said...

This is an excellent post! So wonderfully articulated.

Thanks for this. I'm still deciding whether to call myself a Christian or not. By birth and by culture but probably not by belief. Ah well.

Anyway - I have a question

"LGBTIQ"

What does the 'I' stand for??? I have trouble explaining 'Q' to my fellow Brits and now you Americans appear to have added another letter?!?!

CA

Sarah said...

Wess-

Thanks for your guidance. Yes, I know my reading the Scriptures probably doesn't follow their original intent . . . I think I just kind of answered some of what you asked me in the post I just made kind of revisiting this whole question.

Of course I read the Scriptures, though. :-) Even though I don't call myself Christian, I'm definitely Christocentric, and that involves knowing all the things that Christ said.

Zach-

Thank you. It really helps to know that someone else is going through the same struggles. And I like that bumper sticker, too!

Dave-

Hmm, christing as a verb . . . I shall have to think on this.

And finally, to contemplative activist, whose name I cannot remember-

Did I use that acronym in my post somewhere? Huh. Anyway, the I stands for intersexed. :-)

-Sarah

Larry said...

"I don't call myself a Christian." well I call myself a Christian- an evangelical Methodist Quaker universalist. I don't believe in giving narrow minded "good Christians' a corner on the word.

I was raised around them; they never bothered me. Let me suggest that when your evangelical friend thinks you're not a Christian tell him that you know he loves God with all his heart, but what about his mind?

Anonymous said...

Great points everyone! Since we are talking about C.S.Lewis here is what he would have to say (quoting from Mere Christianity) "I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: 'I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God.' That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic - on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg - or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to." (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, The MacMillan Company, 1960, pp. 40-41.) - musicmomie

Daniel H. said...

Thank you for your thoughts. I really liked what you wrote and it got me thinking.

Side note: I found your entry by pure luck (or guidance from above), searching for the poem by Mathew Arnold (Is it so small a thing to have enjoyed the sun, to have lived light in the spring, to have loved, to have thought, to have done...). I'm happy your caption caught my interest and I read on.

Greetings from germany,
Daniel