I’m proposing a new category. Like those who identify as “spiritual but not religious,” from now on I want to be known as “unapologetically (but not arrogantly) Christian.” That’s a bit of a mouthful, I know, but it gets at a dilemma I’ve been observing within Christians both conservative and progressive. I’ve led retreats the past two weekends, and the question came up in both of how are we to be as Christians in today’s world.
The group on the more conservative side wanted to know what to do in the midst of perceived constraints on Christians today (e.g. replacing “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays,” removing prayer from schools). They feel it’s become OK for other people to be open about their religion, but not OK for Christians.
The progressive Christian group came at the same question from a different angle. They wanted to know what to do in the midst of perceived hostility against Christians today (e.g. identification with the Christian Right, assumptions of being anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-science). They feel it’s become acceptable to declare oneself a follower of the Buddha or Mohammed, but not of Jesus.
I think both groups are onto something. Both are responding to the shift that is going on within Christianity in response to the reality in which we all live today. Like it or not, we live in a multi-cultural, multi-generational, multi-faith (I’d include the spiritual but not religious, atheists, “Nones,” etc. in here for lack of an easy category). In other words, it’s a mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up world. What’s a Christian to do?
On the one hand, we don’t want to be seen as arrogant, self-righteous or exclusionary. In fact, in the beginning of the interfaith movement, Christian participants often excluded themselves from leadership in multi-faith services , stepping back and encouraging those of other traditions to take the lead. We didn’t quite know what to do with Jesus , i.e. how to read the gospels, how to pray. In effect, we swung the pendulum the other way – going from dominating leadership to abdicating it.
I remember an interfaith conference in which we asked all the groups planning worship services, meditations or rituals to be faithful to their traditions – no watering anything down; attendees could participate to the extent they felt comfortable. But when we got to the Sunday morning Christian time slot – confusion reigned. How could we have a service of Holy Communion, even though that would be faithful to the Christian tradition? The first year of the conference, we did do it, albeit in a muddled kind of way; the second year we (in my opinion) caved and did not include Communion.
But we’re getting better at it. These days I can participate as a Christian – speak about Jesus, read from the gospels, speak about my beliefs – with integrity. I might say something like: “In my tradition, we say . . .” or “As a follower of Jesus, I believe . . .” We still have a lot to learn, but the pendulum is swinging back to a balanced place.
However, we still have to address the concerns of those who are not necessarily involved in interfaith activities and see only that their Christian place of privilege is gone, and they are left with anger, grief and anxiety. They too need to be encouraged to speak with integrity, yet with language that builds bridges instead of walls and starts conversation instead of stopping it. This way it will become OK for all of us to be open about our religion – or even lack of religion – together. I was heartened to receive positive response to this from the more conservative group. I believe the time is ripe for further discussion there.
As it is on the more progressive side.
For those Christians who get why why a creche in the public square is problematic, the issue is how to identify oneself as a Christian, but not “that kind of Christian.” Wear a cross and people will think you believe “Jesus died for your sins.” Mention Jesus in a conversation and they’ll assume you’re going to ask them if they’re saved. For this group, the challenge will be to find language that is unapologetic and self-defined. The same lead-in might work for this group also. For instance, when someone asks me why I donate to Habitat for Humanity, I might – instead of offering a political or social reason – say, ”As a follower of Jesus, I’m called to shelter the homeless.” Or “In my tradition, Jesus taught that we should care for the ‘least of these.” Something like that.
We need to have more discussion about all this. But do believe that it’s a critical component of this re-formation that Christianity in undergoing. And it’s one that might actually bring conservatives and progressives together in a conversation that will help improve our intrafaith relationships, as well as our interfaith ones.
So while it might be a mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up world, I think it’s pretty darn interesting and exciting. And as a follower of Jesus, I look forward to the ongoing process of growing into our identity and calling as unapologetic (but definitely not arrogant) Christians.