Saturday, 25 July 2009

What's in a name?

I tried to post this as a comment on Nick Baines' blog, but I thought the internet ated it so I posted here instead. It looks like it did post there alright but it's long enough I'll leave it here too.

I think a lot of this has to do with labels and with fear.

There are some people who would identify me as Christian (never mind denominational distinctions) because of my worship habits and beliefs, coupled with the baptism I received as a baby. There are others who would maintain that I am a heretic, perhaps even a dangerous one.

There are individuals and communities which identify themselves as Christian and which I believe do God's work. Some have been profoundly inspiring to me personally. I would be honoured to be associated with such people.

There are individuals and communities which identify themselves as Christian and which I have seen do great harm in the world. I am not sure what they think God's work for us is, but if their beliefs are similar to mine (and to yours, I think) I fear they may be way off track. Some of them have hurt me or those I love very deeply. I regret that the associations some people make may mean they identify me as part of such groups of people.

At this point I do not feel comfortable calling myself Christian because of various doctrinal issues. Further study and prayer may sort that out for me and in the meantime if people ask I tell them roughly what I believe and leave it at that. But I can certainly understand how, if I did call myself Christian, I might be eager to make clear that I'm not like those /other/ Christians, the ones who do things differently, the ones who have managed to hurt so many people. And one way of making that distinction would be to claim some sort of authority over the word, to redefine Christianity to suit the exclusion of those who do what I can't understand, or, failing that, to invent my own term, my own sub-definition, so that I don't have to keep explaining myself, at least once the shiny new definition is commonly known... By then, of course, there will be more splinter groups.

I can only assume that most Christians who feel (or speak or write) strongly on issues of practice -- whether that is about gay sex or whether communion wine can be served in individual vessels or what adornments are to be allowed in churchyard graves or communion for the unbaptised -- see themselves as having devoted some thought and study and hopefully even prayer to the issues.
I can also assume that either some of them are wrong, or there is no universally applicable right answer available at this time. Personally I lean toward the latter. But it hardly matters which is the case, because we are all -- those I admire and those with whom I think I'd rather not be associated, those who have shown me glimpses of what I can only call holy and those who have left me with wounds and scars, those who have loved me and those who have feared me -- we are all of us human beings, unlikely to achieve perfect discernment this side of paradise. And all beloved of God.

I hope that when we all know this, and know it well enough to stay aware of it in all we see and think and say and do, the petty squabbles will be revealed as unnecessary. Sadly that seems unlikely in my lifetime. But I don't think I would achieve much toward that by telling anyone else whether they should or shouldn't do things based on my imperfect understanding of what is right. I don't even presume to tell people whether they should engage in such arguments. I merely hope and pray that I might, by my words and actions and God's grace, let people know they are loved. Learning how to do that, in my work and in my personal relationships, will keep me busy for quite some time...


it's margaret said...

Study? Pray about it? Not one of them?

Foggettaboudit. --just do what you are called to do, and let the big One sort it all out...

blessings on you, Song.

Arkady said...

Humans do seem to have a strong need for labels as a way almost of defining their identity; a crisis of faith can sometimes be more about who we perceive ourselves to be - both inwardly, and in our dealings with others. By taking on a label, we are declaring our allegience to a "tribe" of people who share the same beliefs and outlooks on life.

Sometimes however we cannot pigeonhole ourselves quite so easily, and then it becomes much harder; our own self-perception can become a little hazy, and likewise other people's perception of us. We no longer fit into a handy little niche where by a single label, others know at once how we feel, think, act and believe.

Sometimes we have to reinvent definitions, or find new ones.

8thdayplanner said...

Thank you for so neatly putting into words the jumble of thoughts that I have been seriously wrestling with lately.

I have been slowly (reluctantly) backing away from calling myself Christian, mostly because of the behavior of many "Christians" I have experienced lately. And I have come to the conclusion that if I try to live my life the way I think Christ was talking about, that will have to do for now.

Here's hoping.

Song in my Heart said...

Margaret, I'm working on it! Figuring out what I'm called to do is no small thing, though I like to hope I am at least listening and responding as best I can.

Arkady, I'm not sure anyone ever really fits a single label, but humans keep insisting on using the things. I'm finding at the moment that I'm happy to use Christian prayer structures and study Christian scripture without calling myself Christian; for me, the definition of Christian includes holding beliefs I do not currently hold (except when I am singing).

8thdayplanner, I know that the church (or Church or whatever) is an institution made up of human beings... with all their flaws! I don't think it's possible to get away from that, in any faith. There are a lot of wrongs committed in the name of religion. But as much as I've been hurt by people who are or who claim to be Christian, I've also been hurt by atheists, by agnostics, by people of many faiths and none. It is particularly painful when people of a religion which preaches lovingkindness act so badly, but to judge the church by the actions of such people is to make a category error.

I have come to the conclusion that if I try to live my life the way I think Christ was talking about, that will have to do for now.

Powerful words! I think that is the best any of us can do, really, and it is certainly a more inclusive and understanding definition of 'Christian' than many of those in use today.