The fundamentals and the markers of Christian identity are perpetually elusive. We have the historic creeds of the church, of course, but these raise the same issues raised by bibliocentrism. No unmediated access, revised understandings of the text to incorporate new data, and what constitutes participation. And the perennial problem that assenting to “right doctrine” cannot be equated with living, dynamic faith.
We know from church history that not even the church can entirely agree on what constitutes it. The church has split on various occasions (first the Eastern and Western churches, and then later when Protestantism broke from the Western Catholic church). It’s not outside of church tradition to splinter off and start a new structure. And even before this, we have in the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple writings abundant evidence of debates about what it means to be the “real Israel.” (Just, for example, read the Esther and Nehemiah. Both have very different ideas of what it means to be a Jew. Esther–a Jewess living in Babylon–has no qualms about marrying a pagan king. In Nehemiah, intermarried with non-Jews is verboten: you can be a proper Yahwist if you are married to foreigners. Both are Jews in different physical and social locations, and both have different ideas of what being a “true Jew” entails.)
The issue of identity markers brings us again to the problem of the larger body and the individuals within it, and what is a Christian. So we have prophets who constantly tell us to return to the early teachings, be they of the early church, Jesus, or the historic creeds–individuals calling the body back to its true self. But let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that “being true to the true body” means embodying the teachings of Jesus or emulating life of Jesus (as many Christians would say it is). What are we to do with those people of other faiths or no faith at all who actual do embody this spirit and who do the kinds of things with their body that Jesus did. They are not within the Christian markers of identity, not baptized, not confirmed, do not profess Jesus with their lips. Are they part of the true body even though they live outside the very True Body where God is supposed to be most fully present?
So what is a Christian? Who is a Christian? Am I a Christian?
I continue to think of myself as a Christian, but thinking is not the same as existing, moving, as a body within a larger body. I interact with people, some Christians and others not, in a wide variety of contexts. I try to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with my God.
I’ve gotten all my cards punched. I’ve prayed the Sinner’s Prayer. I’ve been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I have three higher degrees in Bible and theology. But more than that (because we all know you can have three Bible degrees and still be an asshole): I’ve tried really hard to be a Christian. I’ve tried to love people and do what I think will help usher in the kingdom of God on earth. I’ve never expected being a Christian to be easy. Life in itself is difficult. Living with an awareness of bodies and being committed to redeeming or re-creating the structures that have proved toxic is hard no matter who you are. But I think I always expected the hardest pressures to come from outside the church body. I was not prepared for the resistance within.
Here, naturally, my sacramental theology kicks in, but this exacerbates the sense of God’s missing body. God is supposed to be present in the eucharist, the priest, and the faces of the people kneeling beside you taking communion. Communion–that food you can’t get outside of church. That covenant meal that might feel less awkward and less funerary if everyone at the table lived like they actually gave a shit about the world Jesus came to save.
Communion and participation in the sacraments was less of a conundrum for me when I was an evangelical than it is for me now that I’ve turned to liturgical strains of Christianity. In an evangelical context, participating in the body meant trying to have meaningful relationships with other Christians. Since the church was “the people” not the physical architecture or the liturgical structure of the Sunday service, you could “do church” anywhere. Having coffee with a friend could be church (as long as you did some praying and ‘fessing up). Church was less the ritual of the Sunday service or the sacraments and more about the relationships.
If I were still an evangelical, I would have no intellectual qualms about stepping away from traditional church structures, away from the weekly rituals and sacraments. I mean: isn’t that how we grew up? Who among evangelicals or post-evangelicals doesn’t have the odd house church in their history started by some unordained white man in a Hawaiian shirt who thought God would be most fully present in his living room? If that’s what being a Christian is, can’t I just grab the nearest bunch of likeminded Christians and pitch a new tent?
The Sacramental Body
Because there wasn’t much sense of tradition to retain in an evangelical context, we felt okay doing pretty much whatever we wanted as long as it didn’t conflict with the morality system we’d created. Now that I have a keener sense of tradition, I’m less comfortable leaving the sacraments behind, even if I’ve lived most of my life devoid of many of them. I grew up without many aspects of church that I think are important to maintaining a sense of Christian identity: confession, regular communion, reciting of the creeds. I crave these, not because I think it’s the only way to “do church” or for God to be present, but because they are dramatic performances that aim to help us embody stories of re-creation. These rituals (in theory) are supposed to keep grounding us in the traditions about God’s presence in the world, helping us to be God-in-the-world.
Writing this makes me sigh with the weight of the missing body. What if God isn’t here in this eucharist and in these performances? What if we don’t take God from the church to the world? What if God has wandered out into the world, and we keep running after him to pull him back inside?
My desire for the grit of liturgy only highlights a problem with church I’ve had for as long as I can remember. My closest and most meaningful relationships have never existed in connection with the body that met on Sundays. Many of these relationships have been with Christians, but always in other contexts like school or work. The only time I’ve felt the actual weekly gathering of Christians felt life-giving for a sustained period of time was during my year in Oxford, where most aspects of my life converged. I was living with other Christian students and many of these went to the same liturgical church. I found the liturgy profound and life-giving, but I was also learning a lot in my academic courses at Oxford from a variety of teachers from different persuasions and faiths.
Maybe my question isn’t really what/who is a Christian, but why do I continue to identify as a Christian. Should I? The tensions between the larger structure and the convictions of the individual exist everywhere–they are not unique to religion. We can’t quit all the worlds we inhabit. I would still be part of a mass, one thread in a great web. My concern is the adaptability of the structures we choose to inhabit (insofar as we can make a conscience choice). It’s clear to me that conservative American evangelicalism has lost any power it once had to speak prophetically into the culture. There may be faithful individuals living and moving in evangelical contexts, but as a body it has a bad habit of spitting out its prophets. But maybe this is nothing new. Maybe prophets were made to be vomited up.
Is a body still malleable, still open to change, still moving? This is an issue that has often troubled me in the twenty-two years as a Christian. I have known individuals open to growth and change in various ways, but the majority of gestures I have witnessed from churches were gestures of self-preservation rather than growth or openness to change. Even my Christian university experiences were like that (though some were more open than others). Even in the educational context that taught me to think and question, there were still places we were intellectually not allowed to go, at least not publically. There is a very real fear of otherness that rears its ugly head in various ways.
Maybe this is not particular to Christianity. Maybe institutions and large bodies are just resistant to change (just look at America’s (in)justice system). But when is it time to quit the body and how do you decide if it’s redeemable? Or, even if it is redeemable, if you’re really the one most suited to help redeem it? You don’t quit a marriage at the first sign of trouble, but you also don’t want to cling on for years and years and years hoping your spouse will change.