What does it mean to be a Christian, especially nowadays and in the U.S.?
“Christian” as an overarching term is freighted with tons of baggage, and there is such a riotous variety of denominations and sub-traditions and theologies, AND there are billions of individual Christians each living out their own unique Christian spirituality. This all means there is no one absolute definition of Christianity. Hallelujah! I think most of us, Christians included, are tired of absolute definitions. Still, looking at commonalities between different kinds of Christians can help us hone in on inclusive, unifying characteristics of the tradition.
This classification of Christians typically focuses on branches of theology and denomination, starting from the academic assumption that Christianity is best described as a religion. While Christianity certainly is a religion, first and foremost this means it is comprised of people. And I think it’s safe to say that for Christian people, on a daily basis we experience Christianity primarily as a form of spirituality – a set of lifeways oriented toward Christian interpretation of the Divine – rather than as a set of institutions and doctrines oriented toward this interpretation.
So how do we classify these kinds of Christian lifeways?
As I’ve explored this question myself, I’ve noticed four mutually-inclusive types of Christians in the world, as well as in my personal journey away from and then back to the tradition. Like most folks, I’ve been each of these throughout my life, and typically in combination. I currently identify with all four, as you may or may not:
cultural Christian – denizen of Christianity
communal Christian – participant in Christianity
creedal Christian – believer in Christianity
committed Christian – follower of Christianity
In our modern context, we’re experiencing the most angst and acrimony in relation to the latter two types, so we’ll be addressing those in deeper detail in this Articles of Faith series. For now we’ll look at the basics of each type in turn...
Cultural Christians espouse at least some of the values, norms, and worldview that can trace descent to Christian influence. Examples include compassion for neighbors and enemies alike, the Protestant work ethic, etc. More on this worldview in the next and future posts!
Consciously or willingly or not, most people in the U.S. are cultural Christians to varying degrees, whether because of family upbringing, or simply via social osmosis in a Western society (unless they’re a recent migrant from a decidedly non-Christian region). Cultural Christians can be, but aren’t necessarily, followers of, or participants or believers in, Christianity. But they are at least “denizens” of it.
Communal Christians are at least “participants” to some degree. Usually this means attending church-hosted worship, fellowship, service-work, and/or activism with some regularity, even if it’s just on Christmas and Easter. It might also mean partaking independently in the tradition’s spiritual practices, like praying to a Christian conception of God or seeking out art related to Christian theology and stories.
Almost everyone who considers themselves Christian falls into at least this category, which, again, is mutually inclusive of the others. Christianity is a world religion (as opposed to a parochial one), which necessitates its practices be freely shared. And there are still plenty of churches that are welcoming to whoever walks in the door. Thus this communal category is accessible to all, even those who eschew creeds. This flexibility is partly why communal Christianity remains so common in our modern world – many people love being this kind of lower-case-christian, without all the baggage that can come with believing or following upper-case Christianity.*
THE NEED FOR OPENNESS
Tragically, too many Christian communities are not so open-minded, and can be less than accepting of questioning or the many dimensions of people’s experience – race, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, and class, for example. Some churches, theologies, and denominations are even hostile to many people in their totalities. Such patently un-Christian intolerance is predictably driving people away from the tradition writ large. This exodus should be interpreted as a sign that exclusion is a doomed and immoral strategy. But in some cases it is being interpreted, appallingly, as necessary or even beneficial. Such a delusion is often rationalized on the basis of a literalist and narrowly selective reading of scripture, in which the true, deep wisdom of the Bible is warped or ignored to bolster projects of holier-than-thou sectarianism and end-times millenarianism. These are some of the most scathing examples of creedal Christianity run off the rails.
But does this exclusionary minority necessarily poison the deep well of Christianity for everyone else? I don't think so. In fact, the shallowness of some branches of Christianity is actually encouraging more of us to look deeper than we might have otherwise, redeem our beloved tradition, and reveal just how inclusive it is. This is where true creedal and committed Christianity, believers and followers, come in.
So what is creedal Christianity? And what does it mean to be a committed Christian? What characterizes believers and followers?
Stay tuned for Part 2!
In the meantime, I offer you some reflection questions:
How have you been exploring lifeways oriented toward the Divine?
How do you relate to being a denizen, participant, believer, and/or follower of spiritual traditions in your life?
How have you been embracing openness over narrowness?
How have you been interpreting the beliefs of spiritual traditions in your life?
* - This was certainly my case for many years: I went to church and nurtured an implicitly Christian spirituality, all the while questioning my acceptance of the doctrine and liturgy. (I’m still questioning.) I was fortunate to belong to relatively open-minded faith communities that accepted me in my questioning.