Sunday, 19 November 2017

On Being a Christian

On Being a Christian

What is distinctive about being a Christian? A Christian is someone who is a “follow of Christ”, but if a non-religious person wanted to identify a Christian, how would they do so? I would like to explore this is greater depth.

One approach is to search the New Testament for various “proof texts” about Christians. Here we might look at the words of Jesus on his followers - “by their fruits you shall know them”, and also consider, for example, the “fruits of the spirit” mentioned in Paul, in Galatians 5:22: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness and Self-Control.

The problem with this approach is that it is not showing what is distinctly Christian. A thought experiment may help here: you could have two people, one atheist, one Christian, both caring, compassionate, self-giving (like Mother Teresa). It would be impossible to tell from outward appearances who was a Christian and who was an atheist, unless there was some specifically Christian practice in which beliefs were also enunciated. Of course whether Christian or not, such actions should be commended.

If we look at the New Testament again, but not using proof texts, but simply marking out the broader picture which emerges, we can see that there are certain indicators, present in the early Church, which mark out Christians as different. There may be more, but I think one can safely single out at least five.

1.     What in modern terms we would call “lifestyle”, the way in which we live, and the values by which we live our lives, which are an ideal aspired to, even if we fall short of this. It is hear that we locate the “fruits of the Spirit” mention in Paul’s letters. The idea of “conforming to Christ” can also be located here.
2.     Coming together on "the Lord's day" and celebrating the "Lord's supper", which is again clearly denoted in Paul's letters as a tradition “handed down”, and is clearly very early. This may be termed “Mass”, “Eucharist”, “Holy Communion”, or even simply just “The Lord’s Supper”, but the core of the celebration remains the same. Again, this indicates that being a Christian is not, as a rule, a private matter, but a community matter, and also that it is not just about belief, but at its heart also involves the body in what might be understood as a form of “re-enactment”.
3.     Use of the "Lord's prayer" in liturgy and private prayer - this seems to have formed a part of early worship, and is also presented in the gospels as the prayer Jesus taught his disciples when asked how they should pray.
4.     Assenting to a an early credal statement like the Apostle's Creed, even if not explicitly spelt out in this form, as this is implicit in the New Testament writings, and places the elements of belief in proper harmony, not promoting one at the expense of others.
5.     Being baptised, as this forms part of the early tradition, and is a sign of joining and belonging to the Christian community. As with (2), this is a community practice, not a private social event.

I think if you just had (1), you would be possibly closer to Confucian or Socratic ethics than Christianity, in that it would not be distinctly Christian. The thought experiment of Mother Teresa shows that lifestyle, while necessarily a part of being a Christian, is not sufficient to mark out what is distinctly Christian. Equally, if you just had the ritualistic element of (2) to (5), this could all too easily become habit, losing sight of what Christianity is all about. Baptism (5) can degenerate into a social event, which is a ritual of a society with no beliefs but only  vestigial, pseudo-magical,  notions that certain rites must be followed. The Eucharist (2) can become just a community event, participation in which forms part of polite society and is expected.

While ritualistic element (2) and (5) can lend themselves to empty formalism, I don't think these can be remove them from the equation. The nearest to a Christian group without ritual would be the Quakers or Salvation Army, and even they meet together on Sundays, and conduct their own form of worship.

Historically, there is little evidence of Christianity from the earliest without these rituals, centred upon Jesus; Christianity is not purely ethical like the practices of the Stoics or Epicureans. Obviously there are exceptions, and there is a ascetic tradition of retreat, of being a hermit, as can be seen clearly with some of the desert fathers. But this is not taken as normative practice, although it is taken as permissible, of belonging within the boundaries of Christianity.

Of course, at the heart of Christianity, as at the heart of any faith tradition, is not just statements or practices, but an existential element. I remember a Druid friend of mine saying that rituals without engagement are just empty words and actions. At the heart of Christianity is God, and God is love in relationship:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.

For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Co 13:1-13)

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