What about being Christian?

Chapter six of
Dear Kim, this is what I believe . . .                           by Bill Loader
Dear Kim,

There seem to be so many ideas around about what it means to be Christian. Some people think its means being ‘good’; others speak about being ‘born again’; others, about belonging to a Christian country; and others, about being ‘christened’.

Being ‘christened’?

Christenings or baptisms might be a good place to start. It used to be the case that nearly everyone was baptised; it was one of the things ‘proper’ parents did for their kids. It still is in some countries. But in Australia and New Zealand it has become less common. What difference does a Church ceremony which sprinkles water on the heads of small babies make, anyway?, we might ask.

For some people it made a huge difference and still does: it’s the difference between being pagan and Christian, between going to hell or going to heaven. For them, baptism is a kind of magic which makes you one thing or the other. It is hard to imagine, but for some people it made all the difference. There is often a strange idea of God behind all this. God will get upset if the person has not been ‘done’ - enough to want to punish them for eternity. I see this as a very sincere but also very sick idea of God. God is not finicky. What sort of decent parent or human being would want to stand on ceremony in this way? Once again, out-moded ideas of what used to count as appropriate for ‘superior’ human beings have been foisted onto our idea of God and have stuck.

Being sprinkled with water or being dipped in water cannot make that kind of difference. But I like the image of water in thinking about God. God is like the water that brings life to dry places, the water which quenches our thirst, the water that washes; and being in touch with God is like standing in a stream of life which has flowed down through history. The life of Jesus is like the main head waters, though other springs flow into the stream as well.

I like to think of baptism as an act which represents my joining that stream or putting myself (or my children) in the place where it flows. The stream flows where you find people gathered together enjoying its waters. That will be in local congregations and groups where people come together to open themselves to the kind of life Jesus showed. When parents want their children to be in the place where the stream flows, then baptising children makes a lot of sense. I couldn’t want anything less for children than that they be surrounded with the kind of influence which comes down from Jesus. However going through the act of baptism where this is not intended makes a mockery of it. Unfortunately baptism as ‘the social thing to do’ often lost sight of its deeper meaning.

Being sprinked with water or being immersed in water, which is more dramatic and the more ancient form of baptism, is nothing on its own; but, when we associate it with these deeper meanings, it can be a wonderful symbol. That will often entail bringing that meaning back to an event which we, ourselves, cannot remember and which may have happened without much thought. That is like a lot of life’s experiences - including, of course, our own birth!

The earliest Christians always linked coming to believe in the gospel with this symbolic act, so much so that often it could stand for the whole process of conversion. For instance, instead of saying something like, ‘When we opened ourselves to Christ and his influence, we became part of him and his influence and we symbolised that by being baptised’, Paul could simply say: we were ‘baptised into Christ.’ That was shorthand.

Shorthand expressions

Shorthand expressions like this can be quite useful, but also quite confusing. One of the most famous sayings attributed to Jesus is one about being ‘born again’: ‘Unless people are born again, they cannot see the kingdom of God’; or ‘Unless people are born of water and the Spirit, they cannot enter the kingdom of God.’ Inevitably some people began to use shorthand like: by water or baptism we become children of God. If you forget that this is shorthand, it sounds like people become children of God simply by going through a water ceremony, as if it had some magical quality of its own.

Properly understood, it means that when you become ‘Christian’, you join yourself to Jesus and his movement. This is a new beginning. It means opening yourself to what he was on about and joining others who are on about the same thing. You can seal this by going through baptism or, for people who have been baptised once before, by reaffirming what your baptism symbolised.

‘Born again

But it is not just around baptism that there has been a lot of confusion. I’ve already mentioned the term ‘born again’. It’s become a hackneyed phrase and can mean almost anything: ‘he’s a born again marketer’; ‘she’s a born again saleswoman’. In these expressions it seems to mean: being full of enthusiasm. Unfortunately, it has been Christians of a strongly fundamentalist kind (who treat the Bible almost like a magical book) who have used ‘born again’ a lot. For many people, ‘born again’ Christians are those who are especially fanatical and rigid. For this reason, I am rather reluctant to use the term any more. People get the wrong idea.

The original idea is linked with changing life direction, turning around and beginning again. It’s more, though, than turning over a new leaf, because it means also something has happened, has been done to me, to make me able to change. When I let go worrying about what people think of me or feeling guilty and inadequate and believe what Jesus said, that God loves me, then that can really turn me around. We can be transformed inside and out.

There are famous stories of people, like Paul, who changed from being someone wanting to stamp out the early Christian movement to one of its strongest proponents - quite sensational and dramatic. But for other people the influence of Jesus is just something that grows on them until they find they are more Christian than anything else. It doesn’t matter how; the important thing is choosing to open ourselves to the kind of God Jesus talked about and showed us.

It is not the label ‘Christian’ that matters; it was a nickname given to Christians because they talked about Christ. What matters is not what we are called but what we are and what we want to be. Becoming Christian is only the beginning of a process of letting ourselves be more and more shaped by love and concern for others and by a close relationship with God.

Going to heaven or going to hell?

Often people think the main thing about becoming Christian is making sure you get to heaven when you die. If you’re a Christian, if you’ve made a decision to follow Christ, then you’ll be saved; if you haven’t, you won’t. But this kind of thinking skews what Christianity is about. It puts a far off place in the centre of things and encourages me to think only of myself. It also puts far too much weight on the single event of making a decision. How can a decision once made or an experience of conversion function as a kind of guarantee like that? Doesn’t life here and now matter? As I read Jesus, relationships matter most - both in the here and now and in the future. Being a Christian is about living in touch with God. It is about my relationship with God and so with people, with myself, and with the world around me. God is at the centre of it all, not heaven or hell.

What about heaven and hell then? How should we think about them? I find the idea of hell as a place where God punishes people forever and ever a repugnant idea. It contradicts the image of God as loving and caring which I find at the centre of Jesus’ teaching. The idea of God’s loving as a kind of temporary concession in history would give me finally a God who ceases to care. We would not tolerate any system of justice which proposed permanent torture. Even our most severe sentences leave room for reform and rehabilitation. This ‘god’ leaves no room.

Yet, for all that, the image of hell can be useful as an image of human chaos and destruction. People can create their own hell, even hell on earth, and can do so for others. In creation God makes room for our reality and that includes making room for us to destroy ourselves and to make hell for ourselves and others. Cutting ourselves off from God’s love and wisdom, becoming alienated from God’s being, estranged from our inner home, is also a hell we can make for ourselves.

Some Christians pretend their way around the Bible in order to agree with the kind of position I am arguing. They refuse to acknowledge the rough parts. I think it is more honest to acknowledge that there are biblical passages which espouse the kind of belief in hell which I am rejecting. I have no difficulty in this because I am not suggesting we treat the Bible as infallible.

What about heaven? Heaven and hell belong to a complex cluster of images which people used when they tried to think about life with God beyond this life. The earliest Christians, like the Jews of the time, had a wide range of ideas about such life. One common image was of heaven as the invisible realm where God sat on a throne and ruled the universe assisted by angels. The spirits or souls of good people were also in heaven, either asleep or fully aware of events above and below. Frequently God’s presence was pictured as dazzling, bright light. People spoke of heaven as a place of great beauty and wonderful music. These are all images, such as we might find in our dreams. They are ways of saying that God is God and to be close to God is the most wonderful thing imaginable. Heaven is the language of poetry - so is hell.

Life after death?

But what about life after death? Some people try to prove this by recounting so-called contacts with the dead through spiritualism or by noting what people report who have technically died for some minutes and then been revived and who speak of out of the body experiences. It seems that it is common for such people to report strong sensations of well-being, of meeting significant people of their past and of seeing bright lights. Perhaps this is a form of hallucination. Possibly there is more to it. Then there are phenomena such as extra sensory perception or long distance mental communication which seem to suggest other levels of reality, but at most these make me doubt the sufficiency of current scientific hypotheses.

Yet in the choice between denying or affirming life after death, I come down on the side of belief. My starting point is God and I am confident that in death I am not cut off from God. I believe that, as with Jesus, I go to be with God. I don’t think I need to know any more. God is enough; the rest is imagery. In making this affirmation I am going far beyond what can be proved and you may feel I am believing too much. I ought to be able to say more than I can about how I envisage the relationship between the human body and brain and such life without body and brain. I certainly envisage a continuity of awareness (I will know this is me!). I do not mean simply a carry over of life force or impersonal soul into some other being such as in the ideas of reincarnation which hold so much fascination for many, because I don’t really understand that as living. I would not know this is me.

A vision to live by

But there is another set of images about the future which are much more powerful for me. These belong within the framework of thought about a future kingdom of God and about a second coming of Jesus. Do I believe in the second coming? I can’t answer that with a simple yes or no. I need first to say what I understand these terms to mean.

Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God or God’s reign as something people could look forward to. He said the poor and hungry could be glad because of the hope it would bring. They would be fed. They would find justice and peace. The current power structures in the world would be changed. There would be room for the outcast and despised. The powers that oppress people within themselves and within the wider human community would be removed. Jesus picked up the imagery of the prophets who spoke of men and women from all the peoples of the earth coming together in peace, beating their swords into plows and their spears into pruning hooks. One common image he used for this was of a meal in which all would share.

Jesus taught his disciples to pray: Your kingdom come! Yet he did more than this. He took his image of hope as an agenda for living here and now. In his life he showed God’s generosity; he included outcasts; he affirmed the worth of people of different race; he showed God’s acceptance and love towards the least lovable in society. And one of the characteristic ways in which this happened was by his taking the unusual step of eating meals with them. That meant departing from the normal custom of not eating with those considered unworthy or unacceptable in society. By using meals to show his openness and acceptance towards outcasts, Jesus made meals into a kind of advance statement of how the world was to be. They showed Jesus living out future hope in the present.

As we saw in the chapter on Jesus, Jesus’ last meal was seen as the culmination of such meals and the starting point of the Christian practice of Holy Communion. The earliest believers met regularly for such meals. In them, on the one hand, they remembered Jesus (it became a memorial meal) and, on the other hand, they celebrated in advance the day when the kingdom of God would come fully and they would be joined again by Jesus. Very quickly they spoke of sensing Jesus’ being present with them when they ate the meal together. The Lord’s Supper, as it came to be called, became a holy ‘communion’ or fellowship with him as well as an act of thanksgiving (the meaning of the word ‘Eucharist’) for his life. And in celebrating it they also looked forward to Jesus’ return.

Thus in the hands of his first disciples Jesus’ hope and vision for the future came to include also a hope about him. Here is where the so called second coming of Jesus fits in. They hoped for the kingdom’s coming and continued to pray in the Lord’s prayer: your kingdom come! They also hoped to see Jesus again and prayed: Marana tha! (Aramaic for: Our Lord come!). The first generations of Christians even believed that this hope would reach its fulfilment within a short time. Paul seems to have thought it would be in his lifetime! Jesus probably left it very open, but must have left behind the impression that fulfilment was not far away.

Urgent hope

This had a lot to do with the political and social crises which the Jews were living through at the time. Roman suppression of their religious movements and exploitation of their land through heavy taxes meant that many were reaching the breaking point of desperation. Surely history could not go on like this! Christianity was born in this atmosphere and its hopes were not easily separable from the cry for religious and political liberation. Certainly Jesus’ hope seems to have envisaged the kind of practical transformation of society which would be good news for the poor, for his fellow Jews in Galilee.

Unlike Jesus, some of his fellow Jews opted for armed rebellion. They succeeded in instigating a major revolt against Rome in 66-70 CE. The result was a disaster. The temple was destroyed. That kind of Judaism was all but finished and certainly met its end half a century later when the city was levelled. It was left for the surviving Jews who did not join the great revolt to reconstitute Judaism and lay the foundations for the Judaism we know today.

New twists in the urge for change

Meanwhile Christianity was finding it had a much greater following among non-Jews than among Jews. Visions and images of hope were becoming progressively disentangled from their Jewish nationalist roots. This development had the potential to unleash a movement living for justice and peace in every society. It also had the potential to transform Christianity into a movement no longer concerned with such an earthly fulfilment of the kingdom of God, but focused primarily on the individual and on the spiritual world. In history both options have at times been taken. On the one hand, we see Christians, already in the first century, transferring God’s reign into the invisible world of heaven or the soul. Hope becomes escape from this world into the next by death or during this life by mystical contemplation. But, on the other, at its best, we can also see Christianity offering a universally valid lifestyle, combining a deep sense of oneness with God in prayer and community with a practical devotion to live out the vision of the kingdom in everyday life, the vision of a transformed society.

Feeding on life and hope - in the community

Looking back on all of this, I find the simple eating of bread and drinking of wine at Holy Communion an event which tells me without words who I am and what I am about. It connects me with the vision of Jesus and with my life agenda. It feeds me with what he was and is. Eating and drinking becomes a symbolic way of opening myself again to that simple, yet profound love that matters most. It also connects me with all others who feed on this food and seek to live in this way.

I do this with others in community, usually in a church. I don’t pretend that the others with me are saints or that they understand things the way I do. And sometimes things can go on which make me feel quite of place. But that is what it means to drink at this stream. I am not a saint either. I am not always appropriate. I don’t mean I just have to sit back and put up with things I might not find helpful in the church; I can say something; so can others. But I am celebrating something which says there is a place here for every one of us.

Yet I also have understanding when people sometimes say it is asking too much to stay with a congregation where we need to make an enormous effort each time to connect with the heart of the gospel. On the one hand, I can get worried about people shopping around for a comfortable church congregation. Looking for people who are just like me or who fit in with my ideas may entail surrendering an important aspect of the gospel: that there is room for all here. But, on the other hand, when one gets the message that something other than the gospel is predominating - such as fundamentalism, narrow mindedness, mutual comfort of the comfortable without commitment to justice, ideology and activism without spirituality - then why continue to offer support?

Belonging to Christ in the church

A number of the people to whom I feel closest are either just in or just out of the Church - at least that is how many see them. Those ‘many’ would perhaps see themselves as church stalwarts, whereas I might see them as having lost contact with what I see as central. I think it is a major tragedy that more and more people who are genuinely on the side of Jesus in what matters most find no room in the Church. They have been encouraged to think that the norm in the Church is a naive pietism which treats the Bible as infallible, has narrow moral views and largely right wing political tendencies and discourages intellectual integrity. I want to say to them, that the Church is where the stream flows; don’t leave the heritage of Jesus to the fundamentalists and narrow religious people. That is to abandon him to his opponents.

And I would want to say to those who with great dedication help maintain the institutional structures of the Church: beware of compromising the faith for the sake of apparent unity! Lowest common denominator Christianity will inevitably pander to conservative religionists. Hold the boundaries wide open for diversity but with integrity! I know in myself the tension between the will to compromise and not offend and the challenge of faith integrity. In ecumenical relations we push our creativity to the limits. I sometimes wonder whether in putting some things into acceptable formulations I have not blurred significant edges. The Church needs to be a place where there is room for diversity and struggle in the search for truth. My picture of God in all this is not of a nail biting deity, but of one who is glad human beings are using their minds.

Other religions?

So far I have not said anything about other religions or about more recent movements which seek to explore the spiritual meaning of life. I return to my imagery of the rug from chapter 2. The light shines through the rug at many points in human history. I have no interest in defining boundaries on the rug. If light shines in and through another religion or movement, and I have no doubt that it does, then I can only be glad. I will join hands with all who live by that light.

But, having said that, what do I mean by light? I mean by light the light that is God and my starting point in understanding that light is Jesus. It is the light as I see it in Jesus that I am welcoming. I don’t mean light with a Christian label; light doesn’t wear labels. I mean the light that shows itself in unconditional, affirming love for people and care and respect for the world around us. That is the love I have met in Jesus. I will not shy away from meeting it anywhere else and will rejoice wherever I find it.

I know from my limited reading that that light shines through at many points in the great religious and philosophical traditions of humankind and in many modern movements of spirituality. I know also that there are many points where I would see that light dimmed or darkened, including within Christian traditions. Whatever dehumanises, whatever causes people to be treated as of lesser worth than others, whatever disparages or is destructive of the created world, blocks that light. And whoever lives by the light which affirms what I see God affirming in Jesus is my spiritual companion. And when I don’t know where my fellow human being in another religion is going, I will want to listen and not judge.

The world needs you

The world needs men and women who can live with sensitivity to God in their lives. We don’t need any more people claiming to have all the answers or claiming to be better than everyone else. We need people who will decide to live at one with God, the loving God we learn of in Jesus. This is more than an internal private commitment; it is a decision to live with others and to be in community. It is to join up with others walking the same road. It means standing in the stream, being within the life of the Church, sharing its great resources, struggling sometimes where its channels are blocked and living out its hope in the world.

Christian living also includes developing private habits which stimulate our sensitivity to God’s love in ourselves and our world and being quite deliberate about it. Here, there are no rules. We must find what works for us. People find a number of things helpful: guided Bible reading; reading to keep informed of current issues; reading poetry, drama, novels; finding insights through film and theatre; enjoying and expressing oneself through various forms of art or music; enjoying nature and beauty; meeting with other human beings who challenge us or simply bring us love and joy; meditating, perhaps using relaxation strategies of thought and body movement; praying, using written prepared ordered material or in spontaneous self expression - thinking out loud before God, writing down personal reflections and challenges.

Ultimately being Christian has little to do with labels or status. It is not about guarantees or special spiritual favours. It is not even particularly religious. It is sometimes most real where the term, ‘Christian’, isn’t even mentioned. It is about a way of being human, of being what we were made to be. And that means living at one with God, in love and compassion towards other human beings and ourselves, and with care for the universe in which we live.

Sacred Space

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