Not That Kind of Christian

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This November, we are examining what strong-benevolent Christian identity looks like in our pluralistic world. Many of this month’s contributors attended a conference with Brian McLaren, author of Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, on October 15th at George Mason University and will be reflecting on their experiences there. 
By Jessica Tate

two faces copyIn a workshop last month, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi‐Faith World, Brian McLaren talked about people leaving Christianity (and other religions) because they refuse to be hostile toward other people and faiths. He lifts up author Anne Rice as a prime example. In 2010, Rice “quit Christianity,” saying that she refuses to be “anti-gay,” “anti-feminist,” “anti-science” and “anti-Democrat.” “Today I quit being a Christian,” Rice wrote. “… It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.”

There are many examples of the Christians to whom Rice refers. The book banners. The funeral protestors. The Quran burners. Most Presbyterians I know will quickly say, “but I’m not that kind of Christian.” And we aren’t. But those of us that aren’t that kind of Christian aren’t terribly vocal about the kind of Christian we are.

A number of years ago I was part of The Scandal of Particularity — a group of Jews and Christians pulled together by the Institute for Reformed Theology and the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies. The group gathered regularly over two years to build relationships and re-examine the central religious concepts of our respective traditions.  The organizers believed that neglect of these central concepts contributes to the loss of the center of religious life — either to religious extremism or benign faith.

The group of thirty that gathered for The Scandal of Particularity was divided equally between Jews and Christians and consisted of a mix of seminarians, scholars, lay people, clergy, educators, and community leaders. I learned — through our conversation, our debate, and our cultivated friendships — that my understanding of faith tradition and my practice of living faith is strengthened as I articulate where my Christian community finds meaning and authority and how we interact with the world as Christians. In other words, the dialogue forced me to name the core convictions of my faith in a diverse group of people, and to do so among people who, while different than me in faith background, are people for whom I care, respect, and admire.

One exciting aspect of this gathering of Jews and Christians (and one that distinguished this group from many other interfaith dialogue groups) is that our time together focused not on what our two traditions have in common, but rather on the particular and distinct claims that are made by Jews and Protestant Christians in six central concepts. Together we explored:

  • the ways divinity is revealed at Sinai and in Christ;
  • the authority of sacred texts;
  • the (competing?) claim to be “the people of God;”
  • the divine presence in Israel and in the person of Christ;
  • the importance of religious space as it is practiced in worship and prayer; and
  • the role of religious people and communities in the public sphere.

Through discussions and wrestling with central concepts of faith together we broke down prejudices, we clarified misunderstandings, and we learned together the particular points of difference around which we could not compromise.  These points, we discovered, are the core convictions of our faith traditions—and joyfully, they often led to respect rather than hostility.

From the earliest gospel writers, Christianity has a troubling history of defining itself against Judaism. Often in our scriptures Jewish leaders like the Pharisees are used as dramatic foils for Jesus. It is not uncommon to hear contemporary Christians say things like, “the Pharisees promoted a system of purity; Jesus promoted a system of compassion.” That is a false dichotomy. Or, as my Jewish friends might say, “If a religious leader is favoring purity over compassion, she’s a bad Jew.”

These conversations and relationships helped me see the importance of Christians defining ourselves around the life-giving grace of God that we experience in Jesus Christ, not by the ways we are distinct from Judaism (or any other group). It also helped me realize the importance of articulating our faith in ways that make sense beyond our “tribe.”

The incredible benefit and gift I’ve taken from the work of this group of Jews and Christians is a clearer understanding of who I am as a Christian. I left this group with a set of core convictions about my own faith tradition that are based on who I am rather than who I’m not:

  • I am a believer who trusts the promises God has made to God’s people throughout history, to Israel and to the church.
  • I believe the scriptures are the authoritative narrative by which we come to know these promises.
  • I trust God’s grace is made known through God’s self-giving love in Jesus Christ.
  • I believe I am called to gather in community with others to offer thanks and praise to God for creating, redeeming and sustaining this world.
  • I trust the Holy Spirit continues to guide me to work with others for justice and compassion in this world.

As a result of these clarified beliefs, my posture toward those who are different from me has shifted. I need not be intimidated by others’ beliefs. I need not assert my own as better than theirs. I need not worry that diversity is code for “anything goes.” I need not be fearful that respecting different beliefs somehow compromises my own — in fact, I’ve discovered that respecting beliefs of others inspires me to be more committed to my own.

I want to be the kind of Christian whose faith is deep, sure, humble, joyful, and propels me to work in the world for justice, peace, and abundant life.

After quitting Christianity, Anne Rice went on to say, “My faith in Christ is central to my life…. But following Christ does not mean following His followers. Christ is infinitely more important than Christianity and always will be, no matter what Christianity is, has been or might become.”

To that I say, “amen!,” and I hope to be the kind of follower whose faith —in the ways I articulate it and act on it in the world — doesn’t make people want to quit, but invites others to come and see that this good news I know and try to live is indeed good.

Jessica Tate1Jessica Tate is the Director of NEXT Church.