Why I Am (Not) a Christian
One of the biggest struggles of divinity school, for both myself and many others, has been the issue of Christian identity. What does it mean to call oneself a Christian? Is it about one’s status before God, about being ‘chosen’ and ‘elect’ and ‘saved’? Is it about being a part of a community that identifies itself as the ‘body of Christ,’ a community called forth to embody an alternative form of life as revealed in Jesus? Or is it simply about following the teachings of Jesus in one’s own personal life as one comes into contact with others—a slightly more private affair? These can be difficult questions to answer, especially considering the Bible’s ambiguity on the issue. Fortunately, Wake Divinity has been the perfect place for allowing persons like myself to explore these questions freely. This is my attempt to answer that question for myself.
Growing up as an Evangelical, it always bothered me how the term ‘Christian’ was thrown around as an adjective: Christian music, Christian tattoos, Christian movies, Christian counselors, and an entire Christian industry dedicated to forging grade-D versions of whatever the ‘secular’ media had already produced. But even now I am bothered by the way ‘Christian’ is used as a noun, and how many Christians both conservative and liberal want everyone to know why being a Christian is a superior identity/form of life. That would be like if Jesus had been intent on letting the world know why he was a Jew, but it seems to me that it was his own disregard for fast and stable identities that permitted his teachings to lead to the creation of a new religion (although this is certainly not what he intended). Jesus was neither intent on creating new religion or on stabilizing Jewish identity. To the contrary, he was intent on true spirituality as he had encountered it in his context.
I have personally encountered what I consider a true spirituality through the teachings of Jesus—love of the divine through love of neighbor and creation, which is a divine love that discloses for us the Ultimate Reality. Hence, for me, Christian spirituality is a way of being in the world oriented around compassionate, self-giving love as the incarnation of Ultimate Reality, or “God.” What I love about Wake Divinity is that they understand this, that to be “Christian” is about becoming agents of love, compassion, and justice in the world. It is not about proclaiming a Christian identity as a banner of superiority or special status before God. It is about taking up the cross that Jesus carried—the Way of self-giving love.
Recently I was speaking to our resident theologian, Dr. Michelle Voss Roberts, about theological method and rhetoric, and she reminded me that theologians sometimes get carried away and forget to talk about love. That is the heart of the Christian tradition. It is not a tradition about itself or its own name but about spreading divine love without regard to reputation or status. Because of this, I have to say that I am both a Christian and not a Christian. I feel that I must disavow my religious identity to the degree that it becomes just another label or boundary, dividing me from my sisters and brothers in the family of divine creation, which include Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, atheists, and all others who do not carry the label “Christian.” On the other hand, I must acknowledge and own the tradition in which I have encountered a spiritual source of deep wisdom and insight. I must acknowledge that for me, personally, the teachings of Jesus are where I first discovered the wisdom that says. “Love is the Ultimate Reality,” and my brothers and sisters are the very site of God’s worldly existence and the place of divine encounter.
Michael is graduating this spring and beginning Ph.D. work in philosophical theology next fall through VU University Amsterdam. He has an academic passion for combining humanism, naturalism, postmodern philosophy, and radical theology for the betterment of all of life and creation.