What Does it Mean to Be a Christian?

A couple of days ago a co-worker asked me if I were Christian and I didn’t know how to answer.

I might have said yes; I pray to God and Jesus and Mary and the saints. I try to be compassionate and give people the benefit of the doubt. I believe in the human soul and the afterlife, and that love is stronger than hate, however slower.

Is that what it means to be a Christian? When I wavered in my response, my coworker laughed and said, “It’s a simple yes or no answer!”

For me it isn’t.

Words are agreed-upon symbols. We don’t always mean the same things when use them, but they exist to convey a picture, an ideal, a whole basketful of notions. The word “Christian” has been through many permutations, and these days, at least in the broader cultural sense, it doesn’t just mean a person who tries to follow Christ’s teachings. It has an unfortunate amount of connotations tied to its tail. Bigotry, violence, political manipulation, contempt, and worse have all been perpetrated in the name of Christianity. Take, for example, the bumper sticker my husband saw recently that said “Praise Jesus and pass the ammunition!”

Along with all the contemporary, so-called Christian ideals and mores with which I have no desire to be associated, there are all the things I do believe, or partially believe, which have no accepted place in the modern church. The I Ching, for example. The Enneagram. Past lives.

I spoke to someone else about this recently, someone less conflicted about his faith. When I asked him why he called himself a Christian, he said it was because he believed that Jesus Christ died on the cross for his sins, and was resurrected.

“But what does it mean to believe that?” I pressed. I wanted to know: Does belief in the crucifixion as historical fact suffice? I have no trouble “believing” the story (and by “belief” I mean acceptance) that there was once an extraordinary, perhaps even divine man named Jesus who was murdered for political reasons. And, I am an imaginative person: I can even go along with the resurrection. The trouble for me comes with the meaning ascribed to that event over the centuries. The idea of divinely sanctioned slaughter as the ultimate and final cosmic sacrifice is particularly difficult for me to swallow.

It’s not that I don’t want to see the dark side of God, or that I can’t accept a God who would allow the murder of his supposed only son. That part is actually easy for me. Scripture claims people are made in God’s image. If this is true, then I see God’s dark side every day on the news and—if I’m honest—in my own heart.

What troubles me is the idea that Jesus’ crucifixion was the last word, cosmically speaking. For me, this interpretation of the story diminishes any larger meaning we might find in our own quotidian sufferings. Do you and I not suffer for mankind? And by that I mean because of mankind, and also on behalf of mankind. Consider the victims—and the survivors—of the recent terror attack in Nice. Consider the woman whose young husband is on hospice and cannot get her insurance company to provide for his comfort and dignity. Does their anguish not hold up a mirror, asking us as a society and as individuals to examine ourselves? If our struggles are meaningless and must only be endured until the afterlife, if our pain is only the consequence of living in a so-called “fallen world,” then our lives are ultimately meaningless.

Perhaps this is what is meant by those saints who have taken solace during times of hardship by imagining that they suffer “with” Christ. Rather than a sense of solidarity, it might simply be a realization that suffering is unavoidable; it makes us human. In a way, it is our duty. To suffer “with Christ” is to accept with humility that which we would prefer to avoid—and a feeling of isolation is inherent. On the cross, even Jesus cried out to God in agony, “Why have you abandoned me?” That part of the story has survived redaction for a reason: It is important for us to understand that despair is natural, and also forgivable, when God’s care seems as weak and ineffectual as starlight.

In consideration of this necessary humility, I realize something else: my reluctance to be called a Christian, to avoid being associated with what I consider to be perversions of Christianity, the low-minded flag wavers and regurgitators of empty jargon who also claim to be Christians—this is a kind of pride. Christ never flinched from suffering and he also never shied from associating with pariahs. He was crucified alongside common criminals. If humility is called for—and Christ’s example implies that it is integral—then perhaps for me it means wearing a garment dirtied by others without explanation or excuse, or presumption to an advanced understanding.


One thought on “What Does it Mean to Be a Christian?

  1. My friend, please forgive me for having been inattentive to Un-Orthodox for a few months. It is no slight to you. It is merely that I was paying no heed to any of the blogs or columns in my reader for several months, a deficit I have just recently been trying to remedy. So, while I have not been paying attention to your journey away from or back to or uncertainly in the midst of Orthodoxy or what-have-you, and while I don’t know nothing ’bout no Enneagram, let me offer you this.

    In accepting an honorary doctorate from the Department of History at the Ionian University in Corfu, His Beatitude Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana quoted Ioannis Kamiris: “Not only Christians but also non-Christians, infidels and Gentiles can become ‘fellow heirs, members of the same body and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus (Eph. 3, 6) through the Church to which the Gentiles and heterodox can belong invisibly on the basis of the strength of their own faith and the saving grace granted to them by God.”

    Now, the Apostle Paul did tell the church of Corinth, “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.” (I Corinthians 15:19, KJV.) As Christians we do believe in certain supernatural claims. But this is a matter, not just of why anyone who chooses to do so should call himself a Christian: it is also a matter of the hope that Christianity affords, quite regardless of whether this soul or that is cognizant of the hope. I myself have never had any truck with those folk who like to say of this progressive person or that controversial figure, “professing Christian,” which of course means by the folk saying that, “not a Christian at all.” If a person calls himself a Christian, I have no problem accepting that, and let God judge how worthy a Christian he is. If one does not call himself Christian, let God judge likewise.

    His Beautitude’s entire set of remarks, by the way, are worth your time. They have been compiled in a three-part series entitled Multi-Faith Europe and Orthodoxy:


    it grieves me, I confess, something sore to see many fellow Orthodox on the “social media” deriding Islam and other religions (but, let’s face the facts, Islam gets the brunt of it these days), arguing with progressive Protestants (who, to be sure, are horribly misguided, but who are also nonetheless incapable from the perspective of their ongoing arguments of caring about any Orthodox rebuttal), and generally condemning all who are not members of a faith most of them only just joined ten seconds ago. Yes, they are (and they don’t like it on the rare occasion I point this out) mostly converts. You, however, at least have the advantage as a convert of not being one who pretends she has acquired an Orthodox φρόνημα and must therefore be on a mission to instruct the heretical masses. You know well you and I disagree on a good many things (including, for instance, your misgivings about Orthodox services not addressing contemporary news every Sunday), but at least (and this is no small credit to you), you don’t stand in judgment of all who have not yet consciously found the faith you happened to discover—even if, indeed, you are now uncertain of whether to hold onto that discovery.

    Liked by 1 person

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