Why be a Christian?


I just discovered a fascinating blog from Dr. James McGrath, professor of religion at Butler University. Perhaps I should say that he discovered my blog first, and now I am returning the favor. After perusing a few of the entries in the blog, I wanted to call attention to some things he has written that I like.

One of his entries, titled "Why I am a Christian", contains a wonderful exposition of why he places himself within the Christian tradition even if he doesn't accept all the orthodox dogmas of that faith. He specifically cites Marcus Borg, and for good reason, since he apparently shares with Borg a basic understanding of religious identity in the context of a pluralist understanding of religion. Dr. McGrath writes,

I find very helpful an answer to this question that Marcus Borg has also articulated. I am a Christian in much the same way that I am an American. It is not because I condone the actions of everyone who has officially represented America, or that I espouse the viewpoints of its current leaders. It is because I was born into it, and value the positive elements of this heritage enough that I think it is worth fighting over the definition of what it means to be American, rather than giving up on it and moving somewhere else. In the same way, the tradition that gave birth to my faith and nurtured it is one that has great riches (as well as much else beside), and I want to struggle for an understanding of Christianity that emphasizes those things. And just as my having learned much from other cultures is not incompatible with my being an American, my having learned much from other religious traditions doesn't mean I am not a Christian.
He goes on to say,
Why am I a Christian? Because I prefer to keep the tradition I have, rather than discarding it with the bathwater and then trying to make something new from scratch. When we pretend that we can simply leave the past behind and start anew we deceive ourselves...
Well stated! What I find interesting, although also predictable, is that this posting received negative commentary in another, militantly atheist, blog. I say "predictable" because the kind of religious faith expressed by Dr. McGrath or Marcus Borg doesn't fit into the paradigm of militant atheism, which, as I have argued before, is really just the flip side of religious fundamentalism. Like religious fundamentalists, militant atheists essentially consider fundamentalism to be the only legitimate expression of religionus faith; thus progressively tolerant expressions of Christian faith such as that articulated by Dr. McGrath are derided as illegitimate. I have seen this same phenomenon elsewhere; the problem is that progressive Christianity calls into question the very basis of the stereotypes that serve as the fodder for militantly atheistic attacks on religion. They think all religion is illegitimate, and to prove their point they cite the evils of fundamentalism. It is just easier for them to pretend that progressive religion doesn't even exist--which is why you don't find much mention of Marcus Borg from the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens.

The funny thing is that as much as I admire the perspective of the Borgs and McGraths of the world for choosing to use the label "Christian" to define themselves, I actually don't call myself a Christian. I think of myself as perhaps so much out of the Christian mainstream that I'm not even within the Christian fringe. So instead I just sort of hang around in progressive Christian circles, not really committing to anything because nothing really feels like home. But that's just me. I can fully understand the reasoning behind staying within the Christian perspective even as you accept the legitimacy of other faiths.

Here is a quote from John Spong that appeared in the weekly newsletter of a progressive Christian church in my area:
I do not believe that I contribute to the interfaith dialogue by seeking to master a faith tradition other than my own. While I certainly do not think that God is a Christian, I believe the ultimate pathway to religious unity comes through my willingness to go so deeply into Christianity that I escape its limits. Only then can I bring to the interfaith table the pearl of great price that I believe Christianity has to offer. I hope that all religious people of all traditions will be equally dedicated to discovering the essence of holiness that that their faith tradition possesses so that they can share with me the essence, the pearl of great price that they have received from their life in Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. My goal is to enrich the world with the essence of Christianity even as I am being enriched by the essence of other worship traditions.


Yael said...

When we pretend that we can simply leave the past behind and start anew we deceive ourselves...

Have to disagree with this one. It isn't easy to start over again as someone other than what we were, but it can be done, and is done, by converts to Judaism. I see this statement as a cop-out. If someone is willing to do some hard work it is indeed possible. We only deceive ourselves if we think the process will be easy.

Mystical Seeker said...

Yael, I sort of glossed over that part of the quote when I read it the first time. Rereading it now, I can see why you would have a problem with that statement. Even though he used the word "we", perhaps he was really speaking from personal experience. In the sentence that preceded it, he did say "I prefer", implying that it was strictly a personal choice. It would not be fair for him to speak for everyone.

For many of us, a certain faith tradition is the most comfortable to us, and it is so much a part of us that it is simply preferable to stay within that tradition and explore it to its limits, warts and all, rather than go somewhere else. Speaking from personal experience, that is why I remain on the periphery of Christianity rather than go somewhere else. I certainly don't think that my experience applies to everyone, and I can fully understand why someone might decide to change teams altogether. Everyone is different; some people prefer to remain with what they are comfortable and familiar with in spiritual matters. Others are willing to make a break with the past, as you were. I don't think that either way is right or wrong.

Mike said...

From a fellow heretic, it's great to find your blog! After this post I can't wait to explore all of it.


Mystical Seeker said...

Mike, Thanks for visiting my blog!