Wednesday, February 17, 2010

All True Christians

“All True Christians Are Pro-Life,” thus said a bumper sticker in Carson City.

I am indebted to this bumper sticker for keeping me entertained for days, spinning out lines of inquiry and wonder at such a curiously arrogant assertion of dogma. These are a few of the things I wonder about.

Who decides what opinions you have to hold in order to be a “true Christian?” For centuries, we worked out our definitions of orthodoxy in ecumenical councils. Bishops from all over the Christian world met in prayerful deliberation, guided by theologians, mystics, and people of noted sanctity. They came to a consensus definition of the faith. In those days, the statements of the ecumenical councils set the limits on Christian belief. There was a lot going on in the Protestant Reformation, but the theological heart of it was the claim that the definitions articulated by the councils had become too precise. Each person, the reformers insisted, should be given a copy of the sacred text, written in his or her own language, and allowed to find their own understanding of the truth guided by the indwelling Holy Spirit -- not an ecclesiastical hierarchy. That opened up the possibilities of “true Christianity” to a radically wider array of opinions. What may be new in our time is the extension of this individuality to the right of each individual not only to discern his or her own interpretation but to declare that interpretation to be orthodoxy itself and pronounce anathema on anyone who has reached a different interpretation.

So who defines a “true Christian” today? Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition took most of the pending legislation of the 1990’s, prescribed a right position on that legislation, and claimed that any legislator who voted wrong on any issue was not a “true Christian.” But how did Ralph get that authority? He couldn’t even get himself elected Lieutenant Governor of Georgia. Yet he claimed a greater authority than the Council of Nicaea.

It used to be so simple. For Paul, if you could say “Jesus is Lord,” you were a true Christian even if you had some harebrained ideas. Eventually that 3-word affirmation grew into the Apostle’s Creed, and finally the Nicene Creed. In the 4th Century, being baptized and saying the Nicene Creed were enough to call yourself a true Christian even if you could not have passed Ralph Reed’s gauntlet of legislative issues test. Who decides whether someone is a “true Christian?” Maybe we could go back to objective standards like the Bible and the Ancient Creeds. Otherwise, we are in the hands of the manufacturers of bumper stickers.

But what about the substance of the claim itself? Are all true Christians “pro-life?” The threshold issue is: what do we mean by “pro-life?” If it means a basic orientation toward life and engagement with the world as opposed to life-denying asceticism, then I have to agree that a true Christian is pro-life. We are an Easter people, a people of the Resurrection. So we are for life – no doubt about it. I would think being pro-life compels one to be an ardent advocate of the Millenium Development Goals, to eradicate death-dealing malaria, tuberculosis, HIV-AIDS, and malnutrition. A pro-life person sends Nets For Life to Kenya. Since life depends on health, surely one who is pro-life must oppose toxic waste dumping, nuclear proliferation, global warming, and smoking. Are all of these positions essential to being a true Christian? Is that what the bumper sticker means?

Of course, that is not at all what “pro-life” means in American politics. It means support for government regulation of a women’s choice to carry a pregnancy to term as opposed to abort. I have no doubt whatsoever that a true Christian can be “pro-life” in that sense. I know many of them. But is that moral stance so indisputable as to be the core of Christian faith? It is probably not in Scripture (one Old Testament verse is possibly related– but it’s a stretch). It is definitely not in the Creeds. It is not an ancient dogma of the Church. It was never addressed by an ecumenical council. The Episcopal Church’s Resolution on abortion is “pro-life” in that it regards all life as sacred, it holds any abortion to be a “tragic choice,” and says abortion should never be done for trivial reasons – but it finally affirms that this is an intimate moral decision to be made by a woman with pastoral guidance and moral counseling – not something to be regulated by the government. So, if being “pro-life” means I have to support legislation, I would have to defy the teachings of my church in order to be a “true Christian.” Yet, so many of the Epistles and the writings of Church Fathers like Ignatius of Antioch and Clement of Rome say that a true Christian respects the teachings of the Church. The bumper sticker does put many of us on the horns of dilemma.

How do we define a “true Christian?” What are the standards? My son-in-law, an ordained presbyter of the Methodist Church, recently “became a fan” of a Face Book page supporting gay marriage. A friend wrote him a lengthy exposition explaining that homosexuality is a sin, so she could not understand how a Christian could support such a thing. She was making a host of major assumptions which many of us who think of ourselves as Christians do not share – for example the basic function of the Bible as a rule book, the interpretation of ritual purity violations as “sins” even though both Testaments clearly treat them differently, the idea that forbidding one specific sexual practice implies the prohibition of others, the idea that rules explicitly directed against men can be extended to women, the notion that most ritual purity rules were superseded by the gospel but a select few were not, that the whole of moral revelation was complete in the Scripture, etc.

Again, there are clearly thousands of people on both sides of this issue –thousands who have been baptized, who receive the sacraments regularly, who recite the Ancient Creeds, and revere the Holy Scriptures, all saying “Jesus is Lord” and meaning it – yet who disagree about the morality of homosexuality. Is it possible for these people to disagree and yet recognize each other as “true Christians?” Yes, if . . . .

And here I gulp at what I feel compelled to say. In this post-modern age of devout subjectivism, I know this sounds hopelessly conservative. We can do what our forebears did. We can disagree and have high-charged energetic provocative conversations about the implications of the faith, but only if we embrace a strong orthodoxy and a vigorous orthopraxy.

The orthodoxy consists of a commitment to the sacred text, our holy Scriptures, as the starting point of discussion; a commitment to the ancient creeds as the framework, the language structure for our image of God; and a willingness to listen respectfully to the teachers, saints, poets, and sages of our tradition more than the pundits of today. The orthopraxy consists of a commitment to the Summary of the Law. To love God with all our hearts is to love a mystery, to revere a mystery, and so to be humble in the presence of that mystery. To love my neighbor as myself is to give him what is his due and what I expect in return, a decent respect for my integrity and my conscience. It occurs to me that adherence to the Summary of the Law might imply a certain reticence in what I paste to my bumper.


SubVet-Dad said...

Thank you for this insightful post. You covered many things I have thought about over the years. I have to agree, who is it that determines whether or not you are a Christian, or a "Good Christian"? The answer that I have always come up with is simple, God. How does this help you if you are wondering about yourself? My answer, talk to God. Let the spirit in and let it help you with that.

I think the way you put it is great.

Rick+ said...

Really well said! Thank you!

Rev. Clelia Pinza-Garrity said...

Thank you so much for this very thoughtful reflection -

Work in Progress said...

Very thoughtful reflection. Good food for thought and action.

Matthew said...

I still think we have to have "outside limits" on what is not truly Christian. And, not just the creeds and scripture, or rather a need in our modern society to APPLY the creeds and scripture to specific fact situations. I don't know how we do that even as Anglicans yet alone as all Christianity. The recent "kill the gays" bill in Uganda is a painful example (and the silence of the church there and even the silence of the ABC for weeks -- despite press releases that they were working behind the scenes to eliminate the harshness of it). The problem is that I don't know precisely how to draw the line between activism and statements that the bill is not truly Christian from a slippery slope leading to where Ralph Reed ended up taking positions on all kinds of non-essential matters. I believe one can be truly Christian and believe homosexuality is a sin (or not), but the behavior of some Anglican leaders in Uganda recently has troubled me. I realize there are huge risks in saying they are not "truly Christian" but if we can't do it, then we can't condemn Darfur either as against true Christianity.

Martha Watson said...

As I read the part of your post about the cleft in the rock as an indication of God's brokenness, I thought of an idea Jurgen Moltmann offers about creation. Briefly, he says that for there to be space for creation God had to contract into God's self; the term he uses is tsimzum from the Kabbalistic tradition in Judaism. This contraction makes space for creation but it represents a self-emptying of God. Your cleft reminds me of that: God's making room for us.