This piece was originally published in Religion Dispatches.
My friend Dr. Gary Laderman led us into the Triduum by asking “What do ‘The Christians’ Believe?” His thoughtful essay led to the inescapable, and accurate, conclusion that one cannot define a common “Christian” view on any controversial social, ethical, political, or moral topic. Our Scriptures were written and edited by too many people, our tradition spans too many cultural sea changes, and our constituency is simply too broad for us to say “Christians believe _______” and then fill in the blank with a particular hot-button issue.
Slavery, polygamy, homosexuality, abortion, feminism, pacifism, genocide, ethnocentrism, kosher food laws, Sabbath observance – to claim that any particular stance on one of these issues is the normative Christian one is to exclude huge swaths of people whom we would otherwise identify as Christians. In fact, any time a press release, a website, a newspaper column, or a book asserts “Christians believe ________,” they are simply trying to claim the high ground in advancing their political agenda. Generally speaking, this is a strategy used by the fringe right to defend otherwise inexplicable claims like “the Earth is six thousand years old” or “women should be subordinate to men.” If they can win the race to stake out their position as the “Christian” one, then the burden of proof, at least in the media and in popular culture, will be on the other side.
Unfortunately, as Dr. Laderman has eloquently demonstrated, neither history nor empirical evidence supports their attempts to restrict Christianity to a particular social view. Were Christianity in fact so inflexible, it would never have survived the vast shifts in cultural norms over the past two thousand years. Despite constant and lucrative attempts by televangelists, conservative activist groups, and the media to prove otherwise: Christianity is not a specific social agenda and Christians are not unanimous in our response to ethical questions.
That is a hell of a point to make right before Maundy Thursday. If being a Christian is not, inherently, about believing the things that the media claims we believe, then what is it about? Why do we bother? What does a Christian believe?
For me, the answer rests in the history of our tradition. The fifteenth chapter of Acts makes it clear that even the Apostles – who had known Jesus personally and heard his teachings firsthand – were divided on the practical definition of what a Christian does. As Christianity became expanded geographically and culturally, that diversity increased significantly until the fourth century. By that time, Christianity’s newfound legitimacy required extensive conversations among its leaders to determine where there was consensus on what Christians believed. That process produced three authoritative statements that have remained at the center of Christian identity ever since: the Bible, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Nicene Creed.
All three of these works are the product of debate, collaboration, and editing, and all three grew out of the consensus beliefs of a widely diverse body of congregations. In reading the two creeds, the logic of which provides the theological framework for which writings (and which versions) were included in the Bible, it is worth noting that there are no statements on moral, ethical, or social issues. In fact, the leaders of the Church were sufficiently unconcerned with diversity in these areas that they were comfortable including biblical writings that offered a wide (and sometimes conflicting) variety of ethical perspectives. Even as early as the fourth century, being a Christian did not mean a specific stance on social questions.
So what, then did it mean? What does it mean to be a Christian? In the hopes of standing in the tradition of the Early Church, and limiting myself to where there is actual Christian consensus, I will follow the logic of the Apostle’s Creed…
“I believe in God…”
Christians are people who believe in a divine reality, one beyond the material world perceived by our five senses. We believe that there is more to life than what we can control or understand. We believe that there is something beyond our comprehension, and that “something” is conscious, vital, wise, and loving in a way that is not limited by space or time. While Christians might have different perspectives on the value of the experiences and content of the material world, we are united in our belief that there is more.
“I believe in Jesus Christ…”
As Christians, we do not simply believe in a distant and untouchable divine presence. We also believe in “incarnation.” We believe that in some inexplicable way almighty and perfect God took on human form and stepped into all of the messiness of human experience. As Jesus, God healed us, taught us, comforted us, and fed us. To be a Christian is to believe, not only in the unique incarnation of Jesus – but also to have faith in the possibility of incarnation itself. Christians believe, even when all appearances are to the contrary, that God is present with us. We believe that, no matter how different the divine reality is from the world in which we live, God is able to reach into our lives and touch us.
“…[Jesus] was crucified, died, and was buried…”
For Christians, believing in the incarnation means also confronting the reality of the cross. God in human form, despite power and wisdom beyond our comprehension, did not wipe out disease. God did not overthrow oppressive empires. God did not create a new, Christian empire (although many lesser leaders attempted to make that claim). Having lived among us and walked beside us, God surrendered to the forces of greed, selfishness, and power. God was tortured by them, and eventually God died at their hand.
Surprisingly, Christians do not have a consensus as to why. By privileging certain biblical passages over others, Christians have offered a variety of explanations: Jesus was a ransom, Jesus was a sacrifice, Jesus was an example, and Jesus’ death reconnected creation to the Creator – just to name a few. No single explanation is normative or even completely satisfactory. Where Christians agree, however, is in the inevitability of Jesus’ murder. For whatever reason, the incarnation of almighty God leads inexorably to God’s death – at the combined hands of a self-serving empire, a cruel bureaucracy, and an ignorant crowd.
This gives Christians a rather odd perspective on suffering, grief, loss, and failure. If God, who created the world in the first place, can experience these things – then they are not the ultimate defeat they can sometimes appear to be. If the collision of what is true, good and perfect with what is venal, debased and selfish can lead to a painful defeat even for Jesus, then when we experience those same things in our own lives we are not truly defeated. Christians believe that sometimes, perhaps often, choosing what is truly good and noble means utter failure in the eyes of a world which limits itself to honoring the shallow gain of material wealth.
“On the third day he rose again…”
Ultimately, those apparent failures are vindicated. Christians believe that death itself, the fear of which looms over nearly all human endeavors, is neither an ending nor a defeat. In the days of the early Church the first “witnesses” to Christianity were those who staked their lives on that claim, and as a consequence the Greek word for witness (/martyr/) became synonymous with choosing death over infidelity. At the close of the Easter Vigil, Christians around the world will share in their hope by standing before the mystery of an empty tomb and we will feast together, trusting that Jesus’ encounter with death means that someday all graves will be empty. Christians believe that death is itself defeated.
“and [Jesus] will come again to judge…”
Christians believe that the choices we make, our actions and our omissions, matter. As Dr. Laderman has rightly pointed out, we do not agree on which choices we should make or how we should act. We are united, however, in our common effort to work to make choices whose long-term consequences lead us closer to the person and example of Jesus. Young seminary students are often discouraged to learn, on studying the Scriptures and Church history more closely, how little clarity there is on the specifics of what we should and should not do. It is impossible for Christians to be defined by being completely correct about what is right and what is wrong. Instead, we are defined by our desire to try.
“I believe…in the communion of saints…”
Christians believe that we make those efforts as part of a community. We are accountable to each other, and to the long history of those who have gone before – from Moses to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Christianity is not a faith of or for individuals. It is a single body formed by the concerted efforts those who (guided by God as the Holy Spirit) seek meaning in the teaching, life, and death of Jesus. To be “Christian” is to trust that humanity is greater than the sum of our individual abilities and limitations. Christians value and nurture community.
This leaves a lot of things out, and those seeking clear guidance as to what “Christians” believe on controversial issues are likely to be disappointed. Those who make a living off of claiming Christian consensus where there is none are likely to be livid (if they even bothered to read all the way through). On the other hand, those who fear that – because their own views have differed from the popular Christian stereotype – they are not “real” Christians, they should take hope!
Perhaps more importantly, those from other traditions and those who claim no tradition at all, should likewise be encouraged. There is much common ground here. Although this specific combination of beliefs is uniquely Christian, there are many areas of commonality with widely-held views. Most of us believe that there is more to life than what we can see and touch. Most of us believe that what we do matters, and that fighting against evil systems and greedy desires is worthwhile even when we pay a price. Most of us, when push comes to shove, harbor at least a suspicion that death is not final. Through this lens, Christianity looks familiar to all who have asked these kinds of questions.
Which allows us to return to Dr. Laderman’s question original query. “What do Christians really Believe?” If we limit ourselves to widely-held stereotypes, the answer seems filled with cognitive dissonance. On the other hand, if we allow his response to help us brush away all the detritus of easy caricatures and selfish political agendas, we can then answer honestly. When we do, we can preserve a voice that is uniquely Christian, and we can allow that voice to speak in a way that is neither shrill nor strident. Instead, the Christian voice becomes one that can sing in harmony with the rest of us, the rest of humanity, as we all seek to find hope in the darkness of empty tombs.