Saturday, June 19, 2010

That Which We Call A Rose, or, What's in the Name of Christian?

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,

Retain that dear perfection which he owes

Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name;

And for that name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.

Romeo and Juliet, Act II, scene ii

The meaninglessness of the term Christian.  There are probably as many definitions of what makes a person a Christian as there are people who claim to be one.  Much of this last year has been spent trying to find a Christian identity for myself that didn't include the list of Fundamentals from my childhood. If I don’t give intellectual assent to any of the doctrines essential to Evangelical Christianity, then what makes me think I am a Christian? If my understanding of the nature of spiritual reality does not align with Christianity, as it is generally understood, then am I a Christian?  For many people, if not most, there are certain rules that must be accommodated to be accepted as a Christian.  As one wag noted, “you can park your lawnmower in the garage all you want but that doesn’t make it a car”.  Interesting, however, is the depth and variety of standards to which one must adhere to be a True Christian. Every group, at the very least, has its own definition of who is In and who is Out.  As if any human could know the heart of another so well as to judge its connection to the Divine.

Absolute Truth is the elephant in the room that we are all too blind to see (to reduce it to almost absurd simplicity).  Most everyone can sense the elephant but in our post-modern secularity, we generally deny what cannot be known through the dim eye of science.  In the various religious traditions of the world are those of us who acknowledge the elephant but we can only describe the experience of the elephant from our own perspective:  some know the tusks, some the belly, some the legs, some the tail, some perhaps only the smell or sound or the feel of the air rushing past from the flapping ears or the flailing whack of the trunk.  None of those experiences is NOT the elephant, but they are ALL less than the whole elephant. 

Most people’s experience of the elephant of Absolute Truth is culturally determined—someone raised in Baghdad is probably going to have a Muslim description, while someone from Baton Rouge will have a Southern Baptist description, and someone from Santiago or Mombassa or Paris will have another description altogether.  What matters less than the name we use to describe the elephant is whether we have found a means by which we can know the elephant.  Have we actually met the elephant? Does it know our name? Do we know if it knows our name?

Some people find that the description of the elephant that they were raised with doesn’t work for them and they find the means to know the elephant in another religious culture.  Just as some people are delighted to live politically expatriated from their place of birth, some people move easily in the metaphor and tradition of an expatriate religion.  Personally, I’m not a very good expat:  I enjoyed my time in other places and other cultures and I learned a great deal from other religious expressions, but I always felt foreign—an uncomfortable displacement of Being. For better or worse, I am forever and always American and Protestant.  I think in Christian, any other language to describe my spirituality feels foreign, even when I think it is more descriptive of my experience. 

The need for me to identify as Christian is about wanting to embrace ALL of who I am, my present and my past, and the traditions from which I came. I want to integrate the best of my heritage into my current self.

I’ve been a heathen and now I’m a heretic.  Being a heathen ultimately was unfulfilling for the reasons I just stated but being a heretic is painful for a whole lot of reasons I hadn't expected. There's so much more baggage from growing up in a religiously addicted, codependent, Christian family than I thought and it just keeps getting dragged up the more I attempt to define my spirituality in Christian terms.  Is that really a good thing?  Or should I just let sleeping dogs lie? Is there a third option?

I can't get the shame-based Original Sin beliefs ("from the moment of conception you were depraved beyond all the rest of creation and can thus never be acceptable to God") out of my head.  When I try to frame the nature of spiritual reality in Christian terms rather than non-Christian terms, I get caught in this "beat myself up in the name of God" thing that just doesn't happen with the same intensity when I frame the nature of spiritual reality differently.  While I am inherently, culturally comfortable in the language and metaphor of Christianity, I find much of the traditional dogma and doctrine antithetical to my experience of the elephant.  Far too often the words of the Evangelicalism trigger this psychological sewer in my mind.

The question I'm really bumping up against is whether I should keep struggling to frame my spiritual life in Christian terms or give up Christianity again for a framework that doesn't present such an obstacle to my actual relationship with the Divine.   I miss the comfortable presence I had with the Divine that I struggle to find with the Christian God--yes, I know they are both different parts of the same Absolute but which part I look at seems to make a huge difference to my psyche.  As a heathen, I had a good thing going that isn't so good anymore when I'm trying to find common ground that would enable me to find human community.  

To accept that none of my religious options include a feeling of actually belonging is to accept that I had expectations of finding community in Christianity that now seems even more unlikely than my prospects of community as a heathen.  


  1. I think that the heart of what the term "Christian" means (and what I use it for, for myself) is "Christ follower" ~ i.e., Jesus is the way truth and life / we are His disciples. I think we can use it honestly if this is true of us, regardless of how others use/perceive it. This doesn't mean that we have to understand everything today...You might like this book:

  2. Hillary,

    Yes, that is a reasonable definition of *Christian*, as far as it goes. It is the stuff that people seem to want to tack on afterward that trips me up. And it is the basis of how I use the term in reference to myself.

    Recently, in another email on this same topic, I said "The short answer to that is I am a Christian because I follow the Jesus’ model of attaining spiritual meaning, as opposed to following the models espoused by the Buddha or Mohammed or Confucius even though I think they all taught basically the same thing."

    I will look into that book. Thanks.

  3. I thought that author looked familiar. I just saw it on another blog yesterday and already added it to my Amazon shopping cart! Where was that? Internet Monk, maybe?

    Anyway, looking forward to reading it and to reading your reviews.

  4. Sandra,

    *sigh* I hear you. The strong spirit of Heidi Klum fundamentalism will not go away. "You're either in, or you're out." It's ubiquitous, and it's a major reason a lot of people can't/won't/don't call themselves Christian.

    Churchianity won't allow it!

    Since you are still struggling with pretty overwhelming at times PTSD, maybe it is in your best interest to try to find a different vocabulary of faith.

    But if you don't want to, don't! People are continually trying to define Christianity for me, to tell me whether they think I'm in or out.

    Honestly, the only opinion that matters to me is Jesus' opinion. The one who said, "the person that comes to me I will never cast out". His is the opinion that counts.

    So do what's best for you. If the haters won't let you on the playground, only you can decide if you want to be there in defiance or if you would be happier finding a different space to enjoy.

    Much love from this woman who KNOWS she is accepted by God and well-loved by Him. =)