Liberal Quakerism, Part 4 – What do I mean by “Christian” and am I a “Christian”?

April 12, 2013 § 1 Comment

I said before that this whole discussion of the Christian character of Quakerism begs the question of just what do we mean by the word “Christian”? i said that I felt compelled by the testimony of integrity to answer the question for myself, as part of my quest to put my own experience in the Quaker context in a way that does not do violence to either the tradition or my own experience. And I said that eventually I had come up with five definitions of “Christian” and that none of them seemed to apply to me. Here they are.

Cultural Christian. Some people simply self-identify as Christian without thinking too much about it. They go to church, maybe not very often, but when asked, they would say, yes, I’m a Christian. They take for granted the divinity of Christ and probably have some vague idea of Jesus as savior. Doesn’t work for me. I think too much.

Believing Christian. Some people have thought about their Christian identity. They can say the Nicene Creed or the Apostle’s Creed and testify that they believe the words. For them, being a Christian is a matter of belief, of mental acceptance of a religious ideology and usually some kind of commitment to the moral teachings that go along with it and to worship in whatever Christian tradition they follow. Not me. Those ideas don’t work for me, and anyway, I define myself in terms of my experience, not in terms of my beliefs.

Experience Christian. Some people have personal experience of Jesus Christ. They are born again, or have had some other transforming encounter with Christ and now conduct their religious life as a relationship with him. Beliefs are really secondary, in a sense, though usually the ideology fits hand in glove with the experience. This, I think, describes in a general way many evangelical Christians.

Now I do have inner experience of Jesus of several kinds, so we’ll have to get into that. But none of them match the usual evangelical experience of salvation in Christ. More importantly, though, none of them have led me to realign my spiritual life around Christ as its center and none of them have convinced me to conduct my religious life as a relationship with Jesus.

Jesus’ own definition of discipleship. Here we touch on one of the relationships with Jesus that I actually do have, as an avid student of the gospels who has come to a clear and for me compelling understanding of how Jesus himself defined his messiahship—his role as the Christ—and what he required of those who would follow him. So this is a purely biblical definition, but according to my own unorthodox reading of the gospels.

I believe that the most important passage in Christian scripture is Luke 4:16-30 because in it Jesus declares what his mission as the messiah is in clear terms: to proclaim good news to the poor and the year that Yahweh favors, meaning the Jubilee of Leviticus 25.

Jesus has been anointed by the Holy Spirit to minister to the suffering and oppression of the poor and those who would follow him must live in a community (like that of Acts 2 and 4) that is organized specifically to do this, including the expectation that his followers must make their surplus wealth available to the community for poor relief, as Barnabas did (Luke’s positive case study) in Acts 4:32–37.

I believe that the heart of the real gospel—the gospel of Jesus, not of Paul—is an economic message of redemption (an economic term) for the poor. I have not realigned my life as ministry to the poor, which I believe would be almost impossible without the kind of community you see at work in Acts, anyway, and I don’t belong to a Quaker meeting that has this as its mission either. In fact, I believe that there are almost no Christians at all in the world according to the definition Jesus himself gave us and I know of only a couple of churches that try. So I’m not a Christian according to the one definition that I consider truly authoritative biblically.

The Quaker definition of Christian. Well, maybe I’m a Christian according to the universalist definition that Friends have given to the world, the great gift of our tradition. This definition, I believe, is that a Christian is one who has turned toward the Light. Early Friends, of course, equated the Light with Christ—the Light is the light of Christ. Originally, traditionally, this turning followed a convincement by the Light, in which one’s sins were revealed, and then one repented and turned toward the grace that Christ offered.

So the traditional Quaker definition is really a mutation of the traditional evangelical definition, in that it focuses on sin and salvation. But even from the beginning, it had this universalist twist, that all people possessed the Light and that the turning was what mattered, not the rest of the content that adheres to it in our tradition. Even Native Americans who had no knowledge of the gospel felt the light of the conscience guiding them and could turn toward it in obedience, according to George Fox in his journal. But Fox felt differently about those of us who have heard the word of the gospel: for us, confessing Christ matters.

Now I feel the work of the Light within me, like that Indian in the Journal did, and I try to obey the leadings of the spirit that it gives me. But it has yet to come to me with a name tag saying, “Jesus Christ”. Is the name tag required? Since I do know the gospel of salvation in Christ (though I don’t think it’s the true gospel), must I then confess Jesus as my savior, or—or what? Roast in hell?

See, that’s the thing—I reject the whole sin-salvation paradigm, as I call it. And so do a lot of other Liberal Friends, and with good reason, I believe. But that’s another blog entry. In any event, I could embrace the universalist mutation of the traditional doctrine of the Light that now prevails in Liberal Quakerism, in which the Light is fully decoupled from Christ and is its own spiritual—something. But that does too much violence to the tradition. I don’t feel particularly responsible to the Quaker tradition, but I do feel very responsible for it, and I won’t manhandle it that way. Ergo, I am not a Christian by the traditional Quaker definition, either. But by a more universalist Quaker definition? Maybe.

So we’re back where we started. We’ve reviewed several definitions of Christian and I’m not any of them. And I do believe that Quakerism is a form of Christianity. So where do I fit in? Can I articulate a Liberal Quaker theology that provides an honest home for my experience and yet keeps Jesus Christ in the master bedroom?

I think so. I doubt that it will appeal to my more traditional Christian Friends because it does not revolve around sin and salvation in Christ. I might have to get into why I reject what I call the sin-salvation paradigm at some point. I’ve already written quite a lot on this. But when I go to publish it in this blog, I feel a stop. I just have not found a way to say what I believe without feeling that I’m being insulting, and I love and respect my Christian Friends too much to do that. So I’m going to have to sit with it more.

So, again, I don’t expect to please Friends with a traditional understanding of the gospel. Maybe I won’t please anybody. But I do feel led to try.

So in the next post, I will return to experience as the foundation for this attempt. We’ll start with the experience that all of us have had—the gathered meeting. Well, a lot of us. One of the strongest indicators of our decline as a religion, at least in the Liberal branch with which I’m familiar, is that the gathered meeting has become so uncommon that now many of our members and attenders don’t really know what we’re talking about.



§ One Response to Liberal Quakerism, Part 4 – What do I mean by “Christian” and am I a “Christian”?

  • Micah Bales says:

    Steven, it sounds like you are hungry for Jesus’ way of discipleship. That’s what I long for, too. Rather than writing this path off as unrealistic, how can we support one another in following Jesus and embracing his Jubilee ministry of healing, liberation and societal transformation?

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