Thursday, April 11, 2013

What Makes Someone a Christian?

Ah, you ... who do not regard the deeds of the Lord, or see the work of his hands!  -- Isaiah 5:1a, 12b

At various times over the years I have wondered what it is that makes me a Christian, what it is that makes anyone a Christian.

When I was re-examining the faith of my childhood as an adult, questioning some of the things I had been taught about God and Jesus, I wondered then:  am I still a Christian if I don't believe certain tenets of the Christian faith?  For example, if I don't believe that God created the world in exactly six days, as is described in Genesis 1, or if I'm not sure whether Jesus was born of a virgin or not, could I still be considered a faithful person and a Christian?  I wasn't even sure that asking such questions was a proper thing for a person of faith to be doing.  I remember feeling very secretive about my questions of faith because I was afraid of being rejected by other Christians or by God.  (That was when I still thought that I could keep something secret from God. )

Shortly after I started to worry about this, the vicar of the church I was attending asked everyone to think about what was essential to their faith.  "What is the foundation of your faith, without which your faith would crumble?"  This I knew.  I had already determined that the one thing I depended upon entirely, through all my other doubts, was that God was a real presence in my life.  I had experienced "the peace which passes understanding" too often to doubt that.  So when the vicar told us that we could consider the creeds if we wanted to, but that it was not necessary, I felt brave enough to share my understanding:  for me, God is The Peace Which Passes Understanding.   And you know what?  The Vicar said something very similar:  for him, the most essential belief was that "God is."  That's all.  When I reflected on this afterward, I was amazed that it answered so beautifully the one thing that had been stressing me out the most.  I no longer had to worry about asking faith questions.  I had a solid foundation.

But this foundation, that God "is," is true for all people of faith.  So, I then wondered, what makes me a Christian as opposed to some other person of faith?

So, I studied the words of Jesus.  For about six months, for as many hours in the day and night as I could find, I immersed myself in the Gospels, trying to understand the essence of Jesus' message.  I ate his words for lunch.  I woke up before dawn with his words on my tongue.  And at the end of it all, I understood that Jesus came to remind everyone that God's love for us was Amazing, Abundant, Joyful, Unfathomable, Unconditional.  It was greater than anyone could imagine.  If we could only accept that, we would no longer try to hide ourselves from God, we would open our hearts fully to his guidance, and live in that love and that truth.  And we would want to love the whole world in the same way that God loved us.  Jesus' message was both radically new and absolutely faithful to the prophets that came before him who said love God with all your being, and love your neighbor as yourself. 

But these two greatest commandments are shared by Jews, Muslims, and Christians.  So I wondered once again, what makes me a Christian as opposed to a Jew or a Muslim?

So, I studied the history of Christianity.  I read books on Christian theology.  I tried to make sense of the basic doctrines of traditional Christianity.  Once again I got bogged down in doctrine.  I studied other Christian denominations trying to find a kernal of similarity among them all.  I remember exclaiming to a friend, frustrated by all the differences I found:  "What is the TRUTH?!!"

Later that same day, I opened up a devotional that had been sitting, collecting dust, on my shelf for years, and read,  

Moses never took any heed what sort of bush it was – he only saw the brightness of the Lord. (from “Adam Bede” by George Eliot)

When God shall be “all in all,” is it not implied that harmony and happiness shall take the place of inharmony and unhappiness? Is not the true test Character rather than belief, and Christlikeness rather than dogma? (from “Edward Burton” by Henry Wood)
                         -- from "Looking Onward and Upward Day by Day," June 29

I was amazed.  Once again I felt God guiding me to what is most important, most essential: not doctrine, but "Christlikeness."  It seems so obvious.  After all, the word "Christian" means "like Christ."

But, what puzzled me was that I knew of non-Christians that were or are very Christlike, such as Gandhi and the Dalai Lama.  And I knew of many people who claimed to be Christian, who were or are not very Christlike at all.

So, I wondered, Why do we even make such distinctions?  Why do we label ourselves like this?  Did Christ?

No.  Christ thought of himself as the son of God.  He did not point to himself.  He pointed us to God.  He pointed us to our neighbor.

It's extremely relevant that the earliest disciples of Jesus were called "followers of The Way."  The Way.  Jesus' way of living was to be an example for the whole world of how to live as God wants us to.

So perhaps, I'm asking the wrong question.  Instead of asking, "What makes someone a Christian?"  I should be asking, "How do I follow His way?"

Dear Lord, thank you again for sending Jesus Christ into the world to give us an example of your love.  Always yours, Pam


Steve Finnell said...

you are invited to follow my blog

Pamela Keane said...

Hi Steve,

Of course, Steve. Everyone needs people in their life with alternative points of view!!