What Is a Christian?

What does it mean to be Christian? What makes a person a Christian? An important prologue: my purpose in this blog is not to provide criteria for deciding who is and who is not a Christian, not to separate sheep from goats, not to suggest who is in and who is out. Rather, it is a series of reflections about what is at the heart of being Christian. What matters most in seeing what being Christian is about?

I begin with a negative. Being Christian is not very much about believing in the sense of believing the right things, even though the notion that it is about believing a set of teachings or doctrines is widespread. That is a relatively recent distortion of Christianity.

It began with the Reformation of the 1500s and the Enlightenment of the 1600s and continues today. Protestants distinguished themselves from Catholics by what they believed compared to what Catholics believed. Then Protestantism divided into many churches, each distinguishing themselves from others by what they believed.

So also the Enlightenment heightened the emphasis on believing. Characterized by the birth of modern science and scientific ways of knowing, the Enlightenment called into question many conventional Christian ideas: the earth as the center of the universe, creation as having happened in six days and not all that long ago, a world-wide flood that killed every land creature even more recently, and more generally that miraculous supernatural interventions sometimes occur.

With those notions challenged, the response in much of Western Christianity was to believe in spite of evidence to the contrary. This was the birth of modern biblical literalism with its emphasis on the literal-factuality of biblical narratives: from creation through the exodus from Egypt to the birth, life, and resurrection of Jesus. Add to that popular Christianity’s emphasis on the afterlife, and being Christian became believing the right things now for the sake of heaven later.

Of course, the language of “believing” has been part of Christianity from the first century onward. But it didn’t refer primarily to believing the right theological beliefs. It meant something like the English word “beloving.” To believe in God and Jesus was to belove God and Jesus. Namely, it meant to commit one’s self to a relationship of attentiveness and faithfulness. Commitment and fidelity are the ancient meanings of faith and believing.

Even the two most frequently heard Christian creeds, the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, reflect this understanding. They both begin with the Latin word credo, most commonly translated into English as “I believe.” But the Latin roots of credo mean “I give my heart to.” Of course, both creeds include a list of central Christian convictions. But saying the creed does not mean, “I believe the following affirmations to be literally true.” Rather, it means “I give my heart to God” – and who’s that? The creator of heaven and earth, of all that is. “I give my heart to Jesus – and who’s that? The one we say these things about.

Moreover, believing as “believing the right things” does not intrinsically lead to a changed life. It is possible to have strongly-held beliefs, even more or less right beliefs, and still be unchanged: fearful, self-preoccupied and self-concerned, angry, judgmental, mean, even brutal and violent. Christian history and the history of other religions are filled with examples. Believing has little transformative power.

But Christianity is not about “right beliefs.” It is about a change of heart. It is about the transformation of ourselves at that deep level that shapes our vision (how we see), our commitment (our loyalty, allegiance), and our values (how we live).

At the center of being Christian are:

*A yearning and passion for God. About 1600 years ago, Augustine wrote that our hearts are restless until they find their home in God. Yearning and passion are closely-related, even though the former can mean seeking without yet having found.

*A passion for Jesus. Jesus is for Christians the decisive revelation of God – the decisive epiphany, disclosure, of the character and passion of God embodied in a human life. The centrality of Jesus is what makes Christians Christian. To explain by comparison: Jews find the decisive revelation of God in the Torah, Muslims in the Quran. Christians find it in Jesus – in a person, not in a book. That is not about superiority, but about definitional difference. For Christians to affirm that we find it in Jesus does not require denying that God is known elsewhere. Of course, a book, the Bible, is also revelation for Christians. But for Christians, Jesus trumps the Bible.

*Compassion. Compassion is the central virtue of a life centered in God as known in Jesus. When Jesus in a few words summarized theology and ethics, the character of God and how we should live, he said, “Be compassionate as God is compassionate” (Luke 6.36; most English translations read “Be merciful as God is merciful,” but that is misleading given the common modern English meaning of “merciful”).

Compassion and love in the Bible often mean the same thing (for example, when Paul names the greatest of the spiritual gifts as “love”), but compassion has a richer metaphorical meaning. In Hebrew and Aramaic, it is related to the word for “womb.” God is “womb-like,” giving birth to us, nourishing us, and feels for us (and the whole of creation) as a mother feels for the children of her womb: willing our well-being, and sometimes becoming fierce when our well-being (and the well-being of creation) is threatened. We are to be compassionate as God is compassionate. Importantly, compassion is not only a feeling but a doing. The imperative is not simply to feel compassion but to “be compassionate”- to act in accord with the feeling.

*A passion for the transformation of this world. Compassion – love – in the Bible has a social form. It is about participating in God’s passion for a world of justice and peace. Together, they are “the dream of God,” God’s dream for what the humanly-constructed worlds of societies and nations and cultures should be like. Justice is not about punitive or criminal justice, but about the fair distribution of God’s earth, for the earth belongs to God (Psalm 24). It is about economics: everybody should have enough of the material necessities of life, not simply through charity but as the product of the way the social system is put together. Peace is about the end of violence and war.

Being Christian is about being captivated by these passions. They are not beliefs as much as they are convictions and commitments. That’s what being Christian is about. It is about the heart and its convictions and commitments.

So, what do you think? What might you want to challenge? What might you want to add? Looking forward to the conversation.


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