Why I Am a Christian and Why I Am Not

Why I Am a Christian and Why I Am Not
3-16-08
Rev. Douglas Taylor

I could have titled this Why I Am a Buddhist and Why I Am Not, or Why I Am a Pagan and Why I Am Not. Each label would have allowed me an opportunity to make my point about the ambiguous and nuanced reality of life that labels flatten. But I will admit that I chose the focus on Christianity rather than another religious tradition today in part because I knew it would rile up many of us; but more importantly becasue today is Palm Sunday in the Christian tradition, celebrating Jesus’ triumphal entry in Jerusalem – the first event in what is known as Holy Week. I also chose this focus because of Unitarian Universalisms strong and rebellious historical roots to Protestant Christianity along with the personal roots that many here share as well. Unitarian Universalism is a living tradition that draws from many sources including the Eastern and Western religions, Humanism, Paganism, and many others – but none so ambivalently as Christianity, our mother religion.

Thomas Jefferson, in the midst of his first term as president of the United States of America, wrote a letter to his friend and fellow patriot, Benjamin Rush. In that letter Jefferson spoke candidly about his religious beliefs saying:

To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed, but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished anyone to be: sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference to all others, ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other. (April 21, 1803)

Jefferson was a free-thinking Deist who occasionally referred to himself as a Unitarian; although he regularly attended an Anglican church in Virginia, he did so because there were no Unitarian churches that far south at the time. And he later went on record to deny the divinity of Christ which is a standard Unitarian claim. Was Thomas Jefferson a Christian? Was he a Unitarian? Both questions elude a clean ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. He certainly considered himself to be both and Christian and a Unitarian. Others have regularly denied his claims to both groups. Is Unitarian Universalism a Christian denomination? Well, yes; but not really, no. Am I a Christian? You know, it all depends on whose definition of ‘Christian’ we’re using.

I remember a church course I’d taken as a young adult; the topic was our Unitarian Universalist history and heritage. We learned about how the Unitarians broke away from Protestant Christianity 400 years ago over the doctrine of the trinity – claiming that God is instead a Unity: God is one. The implication, of course, is that Jesus is fully human and in no way divine. We also learned about how the Universalists likewise broke away from American Protestantism over 200 years ago proclaiming that God is a loving father who would no condemn any of his children to eternal punishment: Universal Salvation means there is not eternal Hell and that all of us will be united with God in heaven.

Our instructor then asked us to break into discussion groups and one of the questions we were to reflect on was “Do you consider yourself to be a Christian?” Well I serious thought to this question! I grew up as a Unitarian Universalist. I’d been taught to honor and look for the beauty in all of the world’s religions. I had learned of Buddhism and Hinduism, Islam and various Pagan traditions. I thought about what I’d heard about Jesus and his teachings. I considered the ways he challenged the corrupt authorities of his day, his admonitions to not worry and to not judge, his call to love others – even strangers and enemies – as if they were neighbors. I figured, Yes, I strive to live by that call to love. Yes I am a Christian.

When we went around the circle, the few people ahead of me said ‘No,’ they did not consider themselves Christian. I said ‘Yes’ and then another person in my small discussion group practically pounced on me. “You can’t be a Christian. Do you see Jesus as your personal Lord and savior? Of course not!” Interestingly, when my challenger had her turn in the circle to answer the question, she stated as bold a brass that she was certainly not a Christian but she did consider herself to be a Protestant on the grounds that she protested against creeds and beliefs. I thought, ‘that’s not fair! If she gets to redefine what a Protestant is than I can redefine what a Christian is!’ But I didn’t say anything. I was younger then and had not yet found my voice.

Truth be told, I had accepted this person’s rebuke and stopped considering myself a Christian. I changed my label to, ‘one who tries to follow the teachings of Jesus.’ I hadn’t really had a serious commitment to the label, calling myself a Christian back then was more of an intellectual exercise than a conviction. Over the years I’ve learned the dramatic difference between having opinions and ideas verses having convictions and beliefs. This difference between religious ideas and religious beliefs is experience. William James wrote about religious experiences, he wrote about how the ground of religion is not in beliefs or creeds, liturgy or rituals – it is in direct experience. James wrote about people’s direct experiences of meaning and depth. Beliefs arise from these intense religious experiences. It is later that these experiences are codified into systems of belief. The error comes in assuming you can have convictions about your beliefs without the experiences that lead you to the beliefs. Traditional religion tends to be the codified statements of belief devoid of the original experience, it tends to be faith packaged and presented for spiritual consumption without the recognition that it can’t be yours until discover it on your own.

Many UUs grew up in a Christian home and eventually turned away from the Christianity. Was it because there was an expectation to accept certain beliefs without the underlying experiences? Was it that the experiences you did have did not fit the accepted patterns? Or perhaps it was because you had no experiences of Jesus or of God’s love and felt hypocritical? Can you say you believe something intellectually but not feel it inside – is it enough to say it but not really have experienced it?

When I was in seminary I had a bible professor who offered a very succinct answer to the question, “what is the difference between a regular Christian and a Unitarian Universalist?” Some of the other students in class asked me that one day, and Professor Kempton Hewitt answered for me. He said, While Christians believe the most significant of the story is Jesus’ death and resurrection, Unitarian Universalists believe the most important part of the story is Jesus’ life and teachings. Being able to separate the ethical teachings of Jesus from the beliefs about Jesus and then focusing only on one of those two parts is something many people do.

Listen, for example to this passage from the book Nickel and Dimed,

The preaching goes on, interrupted with dutiful “amens.” It would be nice if someone would read this sad-eyed crowd the Sermon on the Mount, accompanied by a rousing commentary on income inequality and the need for a hike in the minimum wage. But Jesus makes his appearance here only as a corpse; the living man, the wine-guzzling vagrant and precocious socialist, is never mentioned, not anything he ever had to say, Christ crucified rules, and it may be that the true business of modern Christianity is to crucify him again and again, so that he can never get a word out of his mouth.
-Barbara Ehrenreich from Nickel and Dimed

But are we allowed to make that division? To say I commit my life to following the ethical teachings of Jesus is not the same as saying to believe Jesus is my Lord and Savior, certainly. Many UUs speak of their appreciation of Ethical Christianity. We easily separate out the teachings and strive to follow them without accepting all the beliefs. And yet, I still wonder about the wisdom of this separation being so easy. Many Christians claim that being Christian is more that ethics – it is an experience of accepting Jesus. So by this line of thinking, I am NOT a Christian.

But in that scintillating title I claimed both sides for myself. I won’t subscribe to certain central Christian beliefs, I don’t see Jesus as my Lord and Savior, and I even question now whether an Ethical commitment to the teachings of Jesus would suffice to take up the label. Well, then in what way DO I consider myself a Christian?

Well, let me tell you a story. A little over ten years ago I had two very powerful religious experiences in the space of a few weeks and it is not too far of a stretch to claim that these experiences changed my life and perhaps even saved it. This happened while I was serving as a chaplain in Strong Memorial hospital in Rochester, NY. 400 hours of chaplaincy was a mandatory component of my theological education, and this is how I spent a summer between my second and third year of seminary. I was part of an ecumenical group of ten chaplains serving that summer; we were mostly Catholics, American Baptists, a Methodist, a Disciples of Christ, and me. During the first week I established myself as the radical free-thinking Unitarian Universalist in the group – putting them all on notice that I was most certainly not a Trinitarian-believing Christian, though I assured them I did belief in God, or at least something close enough to what they might consider God that we could pray together without too much difficulty.

One afternoon we were in prayer together. Our supervisor was leading us through a process called Lectio Divina, which a sacred and meditative way of reading scripture. One part of the process is a long stretch of silence in which we listen. I emptied my mind and I waited. I listened and a word broke to the surface of my mind. I pushed it down and tried to be empty again and wait, but the word re-appeared. So annoying – this was what it was always like when I try to meditate. My mind was always shooting on ahead – unwilling to quiet down. I’m better able to manage it now, but back then it was a constant trial. I emptied myself again and waited and listened. Again a word broke to the surface of my mind. It finally occurred to me that this was the point. I was supposed to be listening, right? So I listened. “Patience.” I felt a chill down my back as I comprehended the possibilities of what was happening. “Patience.” I took that to mean, “Relax, Douglas, you’re going to be alright.”

At the time I was wading through a lot of rough stuff in my life. I was not feeling ‘alright.’ Seminary and this hospital experience are designed to pull up issues that may hinder you as you go into ministry – personal stuff that might trip you up if you don’t learn to deal with it. I have mentioned before that I did not grow up as a happy kid. I was raised in an alcoholic home and had learned to hide myself, my feelings, my hopes and everything. I went through a major transformation to open up to the way I am today. And this experience in the chapel of Strong Memorial Hospital, along with a second experience a few days later, comprise a pivotal point in that transformation. But at that moment, I was anything but ‘patient’ about what I was going through

Months later I was reading this Henri Nouwen stuff and I came across this interesting connection. He writes: “Patience comes from the word patior which means to suffer.” (p. 55 Out Of Solitude) More chills went down my back as I comprehended the possibilities. This week I went to my Pocket Webster Dictionary for confirmation. It says: “Patient: adj., undergoing pain, hardship, affliction, insult, etc. with calmness and equanimity.” Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death! There is salvation in waiting, in patience.

A few days after the group meditation in which I uncovered that soothing word, I was alone in the chapel in prayer. I was reacting to the suggestion of patience with impatience and feeling overloaded, overwhelmed, stressed and depressed, I was spiraling down. So I went to pray. Dragging up all my issues of growing up in alcoholic home, horrible sense of self-worth, abandonment, fears that I was grossly abnormal. And I put it all out there in my silent prayer, a plea to get through it.

What happened next is something I have felt before, but usually when I’ve been out in the woods alone – never in a building, let alone in a chapel. I felt wrapped in the love of God. I felt, actually a presence, what seemed like a human presence sitting next to me as I worked to accept my anguish and this call to be patient. I felt that I was not alone. In that moment I saw that the trick to getting through this fearful turmoil was not to sneak around it, to duck it, to get over it. The trick to getting through it was to go through it! But I knew, then, that I was not alone. And I never have been since.

This was a direct experience, of Jesus, of God? Perhaps – I didn’t rush to attach a label to it. It was an experience of sitting in the chapel and feeling a holy presence. From a Christian perspective, there is one clear answer as to what happened, one clear explanation of the experience. But I reserve the right to label my experiences in my own ways. I have had other experiences of divinity in other ways that would be labeled differently by an equally exclusive pattern of labeling. I could have quit everything and become a Christian back then. But by that standard I would have then needed to become a Taoist a few years later, and then back to being the Pagan I’d been as a youth. Of course every three days I would have renounced everything claiming to be an atheist and a realist, and forget the whole thing. Instead I belong to a faith that embraces all of it, allowing me to continue to grow in faith and understanding.

I consider myself a Christian when I weigh the impact of that experience of acceptance and grace on my current life. While I value the ethical call within Christianity to love my neighbor as myself and to not judge others – I suspect I would still set myself to those standards regardless of where they originated. While I enjoy considering the theological implications of the multiplicity of God and the incarnation of God, I have no wish to contain those beliefs into one version of the story. Some have suggested Unitarian Universalism is ‘more than’ Christian, but that doesn’t quite get to it and just comes off as arrogant. Ultimately we are each responsible to sort out our own answers to this, for me I am happy to consider myself a Christian in some senses recognizing that I do so in ways that few other Christians would acknowledge or honor. So I am happy to leave it a little fuzzy. Thankfully, I am above all a Unitarian Universalist and around here leaving our labels a little fuzzy is considered a wise step.

Unitarian Universalism is a wide faith. We hold no creed or dogma at our center; we do not unite around a single theological claim. Instead we share a covenant – a promise to support one another as we search for truth and understanding.

In a world without end, may it be so