On Being a Christian (with Apologies to Hans Kueng)
This is a modified version of an essay I wrote on my old blog after a critic claimed that he doubted I was “born again.” The reference in the title is to the Catholic theologian Hans Küng’s famous book, On Being a Christian.” I’m sorry I had to use ” ue” for” ü” in the title, but I find that WordPress doesn’t let me type non-English letters in titles; only in the body of the post. For what it’s worth to readers, here is the story of my conversion and current faith, and what I mean on those occasions when I use the term “evangelical” as a self-description.
I was raised in a United Methodist home of a type that would once have been called “evangelical liberal,” but those two words are almost never placed together anymore. The majority of my family is still UMC, but my extended family includes Pentecostals (Assemblies of God), Presbyterians, Church of Christ, and Roman Catholics–possibly more, still. As a teen I went through a period of adolescent rebellion that included skepticism and considering myself an agnostic: Ironically, I ceased to go to church just as my father, following a second-career call to ministry, was ordained a United Methodist deacon and was continuing education toward ordination as an elder. (I know my father was embarrassed, but he wisely gave me space and both he and my mother prayed for me–talking to God about me when it was impossible to talk to me about God as my mother later put it.)
At 18, helped by Black Baptist, Methodist, & Pentaecostal friends, I was “born again.” (My debts to African-American Christianity and the Black Church remain HUGE. I must save to another day the question of why it was largely my experiences as a welcomed visitor to the Black Church and living faith of African-American Christianity that ended my doubts and led me to Jesus.) I do not like the way this term “born again” is used by many in American evangelicalism to refer either to a subjective experience or to some kind of contract with God that makes discipleship optional. That is not the way the phrase functions in the Gospel of John where it is better translated, “born from above.” In the New Testament, the New Birth is the beginning of salvation, not it’s fullness. In addition to justification and regeneration, there must be progressive sanctification (whereby I/we are “being saved” in life together in an alternative community called the Church). Nevertheless, though I am tempted when asked about when I was “saved,” to reply in Barthian style, “on Golgotha,” there is a subjective experience that accompanies the objective work of God-in-Christ. And, in my case, that conversion experience was extremely powerful.
I had never been confirmed in the United Methodist Church. I had quit confirmation classes at the beginning of my period of skepticism, partially because of new doubts about “God and this Christian stuff,” and partially because I became convinced (and remain so) that, if Wesley’s account of salvation is true (and I believe it is), then it fits better with believers’ baptism than with infant baptism–which finds a more natural home in theologies of Calvinistic predestination. So, after my late teen conversion, I was baptized as a believer at First Baptist Church, Jacksonville Beach, FL by the Rev. O. R. Rice, whom I remember quite fondly–even though he did pronounce New Testament Greek words with a thick Kentucky accent!
However, I had already enlisted in the U.S. army when I experienced saving grace and therefore had no chance to be formed in a Christian community that would mold me in Christian character before I departed for basic training. Fortunately, a high school friend who was opposed to my joining the army challenged me to memorize the Sermon on the Mount during basic training. So, I spent my days learning to be a soldier and my “spare time” memorizing the largest block of Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels, including the beatitude on peacemakers and the commands to love enemies, etc. It caused much cognitive dissonance.
I found myself stationed in Heidelberg, Germany–or West Germany as it was then. Since I was trying (with very mixed results ) to learn German, I stopped going to the chapel on post and started attending the small Baptist church in Heidelberg which, at the time, had both a German service and an English service with the same sermon. I attended both trying to get better at my German. This was at the beginning of the huge European peace movement of the ’80s and the pastor preached often on Christian peacemaking. I remember him quoting Martin Luther King, Jr. often. (Strange that I had to go to Germany to learn to take seriously the words of my own countryman and fellow Baptist.) I became convinced that Christians must be peacemakers, not warriors. I joined the congregation and applied for conscientious objector status and a discharge–which, after much grief, was granted. It was here that I first learned the meaning of the word Baptist. So, even though I had previously been baptized in a Baptist congregation, in my mind this is when I claimed the identity “Baptist.” I became a Baptist and a C.O. at the same time–and this was like a second conversion for me.
Salvation is a large biblical concept that is too often reduced in American evangelical circles to either a one-time event or to “fire insurance.” But there is a past, present, and future to salvation: I have been saved; I am being saved; I shall be saved.
Moreover, in both Old and New Testaments, God’s redeeming work in the world is mainly concerned with creating a people and calling them out to mission: WE are being saved together. It is in THIS sense (and this sense only) that the ancient word is right: extra ecclesiam nulla salus—outside the church is no salvation. By grace, God enables us to participate in God’s redeeming work in the world. Discipleship, following after Jesus, is the very shape of the Christian life–not an option that born again individuals can choose or reject.
The church is both the foretaste and the primary agent of the Kingdom or Rule of God which has broken into history and is coming in fullness at the Eschaton. That Rule of God come into history, not some disembodied existence in “heaven,” is the goal of Christian faith, as Byron has argued over at Nothing New Under the Son.
Now, as to the term “evangelical.” It means “gospel-centered” and my goal is always to be a “gospel-centered” Christian. In much of the world, “evangelical” is used interchangeably with “Protestant,” and I am certainly a Protestant–though I know some Catholics and Orthodox whom I think are more “gospel centered” (i.e., evangelical) than most who call themselves “Evangelicals.” After Zwingli and Calvin began the Reformed tradition, Evangelical took on the connotations of “Lutheran,” and even today many Lutheran denominations have the word “Evangelical” as part of their formal name. I like much about Luther (and dislike much, too), but I am NOT a Lutheran. In the 18th C., the transatlantic Great Awakening was known also as the “Evangelical Revival,” and so “Evangelical” came to mean “revivalistic” or even “Wesleyan.” Though raised Methodist and with great admiration for Charles and John Wesley, I am not Wesleyan in theology–though still Arminian (believing that Jesus died for ALL, not just the predestined elect; that humans have the free capacity to choose to accept or reject the grace of God, and that apostasy remains a possibility for Christian disciples). My relation to the revivalistic tradition is mixed. I admire the evangelistic fervor and, in the person of those like Charles Finney, Jonathan Blanchard, and others, the way this issued in amazing efforts for social reform. But I dislike the way the revivalistic tradition tends to reduce conversion/salvation from a dynamic process to an instantaneous event–saved to sit.
Beginning with the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the early 20th C., the term “evangelical” began to also mean “conservative Protestant.” Here, I reject the term. As the late evangelical New Testament scholar, F. F. Bruce, said, “I believe some things that many consider ‘conservative,’ but I do not believe them because they are conservative, still less because I am conservative, but, because, rightly or wrongly, I believe them to be true. I believe other things that many would consider ‘liberal,’ or even ‘radical,’ but I believe them for the same reason, rightly or wrongly, I am persuaded of their truth.” I am “evangelical” because I am gospel-centered (or try to be), not because I am “conservative,” or “liberal.”
Theologically, I can affirm the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds–though I keep my Baptist aversion to giving any human statement the kind of authority usually implied by the term “creed.” I see these ancient affirmations, along with Reformation, Anabaptist, and Baptist confessions of faith, as “guideposts” in biblical interpretation–not infallible documents. Nonetheless, I make only a few mental footnotes when I affirm the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds. They are good, if not perfect, summaries of Christian belief. So, in that sense, I am “conservative” theologically. However, I reject the term “inerrancy” as applied to Scripture or tradition. Scripture is the primary, not only, source of Christian doctrinal and ethical conviction. It is authoritative, not inerrant or infallible. The criterion by which Scripture is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ, the living Word of God. Those who insist on inerrancy as a litmus test will say that I am neither evangelical nor conservative–and if that’s how those terms are being used, they are right.
My political beliefs tend to be left of center in the U.S. context (which probably makes them right of center in most other industrial democracies). I am a civil libertarian and strict separationist on church-state matters–the old-fashioned Baptist tradition. I am by philosophy a “democratic socialist,” though I work in the left wing of the Democratic Party because of the limits of the U.S. two-party system. My heroes among politicians tend to be Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Edward M. Kennedy, James Earl “Jimmy” Carter, Jr., the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-MN), the late Mark O. Hatfield, Republican governor and senator from Oregon, Rep. Barbara Jordan, Rep. John Lewis, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. To a lesser degree, because of the scandals and the watering down of convictions, I would include Bill Clinton. It is too soon to tell where Barack Obama will fit in this list. I voted for him enthusiastically and believe his presidency has great potential, but there is much that has happened this first year which has not made me happy–including the slow pace of withdrawal from Iraq, the expansion of the war in Afghanistan, the refusal to try the torturers, the slowness of closing the Gitmo Gulag, and threatening war with Iran. My political convictions come from my view that government exists to help people accomplish the common good together, when they cannot accomplish things separately. I think that is informed by my reading of Scripture. But neither “Christianity,” nor “evangelicalism” is a political party! God is neither a Democrat nor a Republican (nor Socialist, Libertarian, Green, etc.)! Those who act as if Christians must all come to the same political conclusions on every issue, join the same party, and vote together BETRAY the gospel!
I would vote for an atheist, Buddhist, Muslim, etc. whom I believed shared my basic political convictions versus a Christian who did not. In this I follow Martin Luther, who said he would rather be ruled by a prince who was a wise Turk (i.e., Muslim) than a Christian prince who was a fool! Likewise, when asked a similar question, John Wesley said that, if he were drowning, he’d rather be seen by a burglar who could swim than a bishop who was afraid of the water! Politics are important, but they have to do with what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “penultimate matters,” not the ultimate matters of the gospel–even though the gospel of the redemption of the whole person constantly has political implications and the church itself creates an alternative polis to that of fallen political systems. Things like good government, stabile family life, a fair and just economic system, racial and gender equality, equal treatment of sexual minorities, too, a clean environment, education and healthcare for all–these form an ethic of “preparing the way” for the graceful Coming of God. (Without them, Bonhoeffer notes, God comes anyway, but in judgment rather than grace.)
Being Christian doesn’t give one automatic answers to every political question–much less to scientific ones. It gives us broad values and convictions–a perspective to be shared in public debate. But there is room for much disagreement on specifics between Christians–and it is false to the gospel to pretend otherwise.
Finally, in the U.S. (not so much outside) “Evangelical” with a capital “E” tends to refer to a particular low-church (and para-church) Protestant subculture. I have spent some time in that subculture, but I dislike it intensely. I do not read Christianity Today on a regular basis. I do not much like praise songs–certainly not over hymns. I don’t think drinking alcohol in moderation is sinful. I dislike the use of tobacco, but this is a personal aversion (and a health concern), not a judgment on smokers (as long as they keep their habits far from my lungs). I do not want to outlaw gambling, but I am concerned about state lotteries because government should not profit by “idiot taxes,” and preying on the poor and desperate, nor by promoting addictive behaviors. I am fine with voluntary prayers in public schools, including “meet me at the pole” events, as long as they are student led and do not disrupt the educational atmosphere, but I think that attempts to get mandatory teacher-led prayers in schools amount to religious persecution of Jews, Muslims, and anyone else non-Christian, not to mention a violation of the Constitutional separation of the institutions of religion and government. I believe all abortions are tragic, but do not share with the Evangelical subculture the belief that all abortions are immoral (sometimes they are the best of a series of bad choices) or should be outlawed–and assassinating abortion doctors is simply domestic terrorism.
So, I am an evangelical in some senses of the word. Especially, I identify with the following quote by Menno Simons(1496-1561), the Anabaptist leader after whom the Mennonites are named:
True evangelical faith cannot lie dormant:
It clothes the naked;
It feeds the hungry;
It comforts the sorrowful;
It shelters the destitute;
It serves those that harm it;
It binds up that which is wounded;
It has become all things to all.
If I call myself, or allow myself to be called, an evangelical, that is the definition I have in mind.