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To Be or Not to Be a Christian

an essay by Gene Marshall

As I now understand being a Christian, the choice to be a Christian involves three different arenas of decision:

(1) to be or not to be an authentic person, one who wholeheartedly lives my real life (or at least is fundamentally dedicated to doing so).

(2) to use or not to use the Christian heritage as my primary religious language and practice with which I express and nurture my authentic living.

(3) to join or not to join a specific Christian community.

1. To Be or Not to Be an Authentic Person

The choice to be a Christian means, at its most primary level, simply the choice to be the person I really am rather than to escape from being the authentic me.

Am I going to treasure reality and fight illusions in my personality and in my society, or am I going to treasure illusions and fight reality?

Am I going to face the real issues of my life and the life of my society, or am I going to avoid them?

Am I going to think through my actual experience, or am I going to force my experience into the straight-jacket of my latest dogmas?

Am I going to open myself to perpetual change in my personality, or am I going to close down in favor of some familiar version of me?

Am I going to be a prophetic presence in my society, or am I going to go with the flow of existing herd attitudes and behaviors?

A prophet, by the way, is not someone who is ahead of the times: a prophet is someone who is with the times, while most others are behind the times. One can be prophetic in many contexts: a prophetic artist, a prophetic sociologist, a prophetic psychologist, a prophetic religious innovator, a prophetic expression of family relationships, or all of the above and more. Am I going to respect and learn from those who are prophets in all these arenas? Am I going to be a prophet myself, or am my going to go with the herd still gripped in the obsolete solutions of the past?

Clearly such decisions are basic decisions for anyone of any religious background. Furthermore such choices must be made again and again throughout our lives. To be or not to be an authentic person is the sort of choice that moves throughout our lifetimes into ever deeper depths of decision. This movement has no end point. The journey into ever deepening authenticity is the arrival.

Obviously, there are people on Earth who manifest some or all the qualities of authentic living who do not claim the title "Christian." Perhaps they claim some other religion for their primary expression and practice. Nevertheless, what I mean by the term "Christian" points to those who choose to choose and keep choosing authentic life as their life direction. So anyone who chooses to live their authentic lives has, from my perspective, chosen to be a Christian, according to this first and primary meaning of the term "Christian."

This means that each person on Earth, at each and every moment, is choosing to be or not to be a Christian. Most people, however, are not using Christian symbols to talk about their choices.

2. To Use or Not to Use Christian Symbols

If I have chosen to be a Christian in the sense of choosing to live my real life rather than fleeing from it, I still face a second arena of choosing. Shall I use Christian symbols—the whole historical treasury of Christian traditions—as my primary resource for expressing and nurturing my authentic living?

Shall I be a Christian in the sense that I choose to associate myself with this specific (though indeed complex and diverse) tradition which developed in connection with the events that surrounded the person, Jesus, and which inspired a long list of Christian "saints" who followed.

If I say, yes, to this question, that does not mean that I do not draw help from Buddhism, or Taoism, or Native American traditions, or Goddess traditions, or anywhere else I find helpful resources. It only means that I understand myself as a practicer of Christian heritage who is integrating into my primary Christian practice these other resources.

I could decide that I am primarily a Buddhist and then integrate Christian and other resources in to my Buddhist practice. Every person has made, is making, and will make some sort of decisions in this arena. Clearly, one person cannot practice all religions. One cannot even learn, in one lifetime, all of what is contained in any one of the long-standing religious traditions. Some sort of decision will, of necessity, be made by each person about his or her specific religious practice. Even the decision to have no religious practice is a decision in this arena. "Having no religion" usually means having no traditional religion. In a broader sense, "having no religion" is as misleading a notion as "having no economics." If I am eating, I have some sort of economics. If I am sustaining an authentic life, I have some sort of religion. Religion is the way I give outward expression to my spiritual being. The reason there is so much confusion about this is that we have defined religion too narrowly. Some very simple things like reading poetry or going for walks in the woods may function as my religion. Furthermore, the maze of practices that most people call "religion" may appear to be offering me escape from my authenticity rather than aid in expressing it. But such religion is "bad religion" in the same sense that "bad economics" might fail to provide physical support for my life. On the larger scale, bad economics might mean economics that oppresses most people for the sake of granting unlimited wealth to a few. If we are attempting to live authentically, we must inevitably choose some sort of good economics. Similarly, anyone who is choosing authenticity, will also find him or herself choosing some sort of good religion.

Since I am choosing to be a practically functioning Christian, I am assuming that there is such a thing as good Christian religion. If I have indeed made the decision to live my real life, I cannot be interested in bad Christian religion—in religion that encourages me to escape from my authenticity. I have, in all the other essays of this collection, sought to express how Christian heritage can be understood in a manner that supports living life authentically. I do, in fact, believe that Christian heritage has been a healing factor in my own life and that Christianity has brought great depth to my views on what authenticity actually is. For me, no heritage serves me better. So being a Christian, in the sense of a Christian symbolic practice, has been and still is a viable choice for me. Furthermore, as the realistic core of Christianity becomes more visible to those who may only have seen Christianity at its worst, being a practicer of Christian religious heritage will become more viable for those persons as well.

3. To Join or Not to Join a Christian Community

So let us suppose that a person has made: (1) the choice to live authentic life and (2) the choice to symbolize and practice that authenticity with the aid of Christian heritage. A third choice remains: to join or not to join a Christian community.

Shall I join a particular, now existing, Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant denomination? Within that denomination, shall I join some particular local congregation? If I have already joined one shall I stay or leave. Shall I join another or none?

If no existing Christian denomination suits me, shall I create for myself and others some fresh sort of Christian community? Or shall I simply go it alone, attempting to be a solitary Christian with only memories and books and other artifacts from Christian communities of the past?

All these choices are possibilities. Certainly, we are not stuck with our religious upbringing or lack of it. We do not have to carry on in the same path as our parents. We do not have to do what we have done for the last two or twenty or fifty years.

If, however, we have clearly chosen to be an authentic human being and use some sort of Christian religious practice, we will experience the need for some sort of concrete Christian community. Human authenticity is a communal reality. Being an authentic Christian is also a communal reality. If we, who have chosen to be authentic Christians, notice our real lives carefully, we can see that we already do have some sort of Christian community. This is so even if one is a hermit Christian going it alone with only books and memories to provide the community. This third level of choosing is not about whether, but about how to form the concretions of our Christian community life for the future. The choice to be an authentic person and symbolize that with Christian metaphors moves us toward some sort of choice to join with others who are also choosing to be Christians.

The choice to avoid totally all forms of Christian community is simply a choice not to be a Christian in the second and the third senses of being a Christian. It may be a choice not to be an authentic person: however this would not be true in all cases. for not joining a Christian community can also be a choice to be an authentic person and to symbolize that authenticity within some non-Christian religious tradition.

Those of us who do choose to be Christians in all three senses remain in comradeship with all persons committed to human authenticity whether those persons claim to be Christians or not. We may not meet with them for Christian worship, but we will see ourselves on the same team with them in the healing of the entire human family and in the rebuilding of social structures that embody and protect human health, reconcille the sexes, build human justice, create ecological sustainablity, and so forth..

With this in mind, let us return to the choice to be, as authentic Christians, members of some sort of specific Christian community. This choice was perhaps easier in times when the existing Christian bodies were, in large measure, functioning effectively as manifestations of Christian spirit. But in our times this is not the case. I find myself again and again pushed to the conclusion that our existing denominational-congregation are woefully obsolete. These existing Christian institutions appear to me to be at least as obsolete as medieval Catholicism appeared to Martin Luther. Saying this, however, does not imply that it is always wrong to be a member of some denominational congregation. It does, however, imply that belonging to a denominational congregation places one in a position of temptation—the temptation to water down the full power of the Christian self-understanding to fit into an obsolete institution.

Furthermore, if we work within an obsolete institutions without watering down our Christianity, we will be a disruptive presence there. We will be a challenge to every aspect of that organization to change drastically. And what will we accomplish? We may awaken some people. We may create some waves, but the overall momentum of these obsolete institutions will simply smooth out the waves we make and continue moving on their set path toward ever greater irrelevance. This has not always been my belief, but it is now. The renewal required for Christian communal life is more radical than most of us understood when, years ago, we volunteered to be forces of renewal within the existing Christian institutions.

So whether we work in one of these institutions or not, we need to begin thinking in the direction of building Christian community anew rather simply making some minor adjustments upon the institutions we have. The first step toward building anew is simply to recognize that belonging to an existing congregation does not fulfill our own need for a sustaining Christian nurture with other authentic Christians. This need is being frustrated. This is why many Christians have already created for themselves small-group life along side their congregational participation.

This small-group life might be a maverick adult education class meeting in the regular church education time. It might be a group of friends who meet on week nights. It might be a gathering of clergy or of laity or of both. It may be well organized like a base community or a house church. It may be rather informal. Some of this existing small-group Christian life tries to fit into the overall congregational pattern somehow. Other groups know clearly that they do not fit into the congregational pattern and do not care to do so.

Whatever its initial form, small group life, if it is fired by the sort of authentic Christian spirit which I am exploring in these essays, is where the future forms of Christian community will germinate. I expect to see congregational institutions become more, not less, committed to escapist religion. Many have already become demonic places which willfully exclude all forms of genuine Christian community. Such developments can simply be allowed to die the death that awaits them.

The chief problem occurring within small Christian groups is that they can easily become discouraged. Reshaping Christian heritage for the centuries ahead is a huge task. Being obedient to the full context of recreating the forms of Christian community life for the next millennium is mind-boggling as well as gut-wrenching. It has been my purpose in this collection of essays to point to some viable directions, but none of these directions are easy. Each group that sets out upon this course will therefore be tempted to scale down what they are doing to something easier—such as, simply satisfying some of the psychological and spiritual needs of the people who show up for these small-group meetings and forgetting about this larger context of reshaping Christian community life for the coming millennium.

But such a reduced mission will soon wear thin. Only the vast and challenging commission to reconstruct Christian community life for the next millennium will sustain small groups of Christians decade after decade. However daunting such a commission may seem, it is a joyful one compared to settling for something less. When the vast vision is abandoned, members of the small group will either: (1) go back to traditional congregations and attempt to meet their nurture needs there and do some useful work there, or (2) abandon altogether any attempt to be a Christian, in a practical communal sense.

So how might we sustain realistic experiments in small group Christian community on behalf of Christian community life for the millennium to come? I want to suggest that meaningful regional ties among the various small local groups of vanguard Christians can be a sustaining dynamic. I can envision, for each region of the planet, arrangements being made for the local vanguard Christian circles of a region to meet together and compare notes, to do training, to reinvigorate their overall vision, to sing, worship, work, plan, and play together—to simply have fun being this overwhelming task. What sort of time would this take? One weekend every quarter? One Saturday afternoon every month? Whatever practical pattern works for a given region, some sort of well organized companionship among local vanguard Christian circles is surely required in order to keep on course with clear theological reflection, effective nurture, meaningful worship, and effective contributions to the world at large.

I don’t want to picture any of this as easy. Momentum can build, but it will very likely be a step-by-step building rather than a mob-like surge. Some small groups will cease to meet for good reasons. Some will simply become discouraged and quit. All groups will experience pressure to slide back into mediocrity simply because a realistic Christianity is all of these awesome things—post-transcendent, post-literalistic, post-patriarchal, post-authoritarian, post-Western, and post-denominational. An authentic Christian community will also be a post-marketer of saleable religion. Christian community, if realistic and true to the heart of Christian heritage, is an expression of prophetic spirituality. It speaks and lives from the drive of truth or authenticity, not marketability. The truth is not what the masses of people will buy. The truth, or many aspects of it, are what the masses of people are willing to crucify. So an authentic Christian community will have to meet this challenge: willingness to stand by the truth no matter what, and a willingness to believe that the full truth lived by ten is more powerful than some reduction of the truth lived by thousands.

Furthermore, we who volunteer to be these small groups of vanguard Christians serve not only our own nurture and our own vocational integrity but also sustain in history a living, breathing Christian community of deeper quality. If such community is sufficiently unalloyed with the flaws of existing Christian institutions, it can provide an option of Christian community to those who are coming fresh to Christianity or who are leaving the older institutions in disgust.

Finally, I see these vanguard Christian circles having the autonomy and spunk to be an ongoing prophetic critique of all bad religion of whatever heritage and of all bad ethics being practiced in their neighborhoods, communities, regions, and continents. I expect to see them share their visions of realism with the rich, the poor and the in-between, with insiders and outcasts, the powerful and the weak, scholars, educators, inventors, innovators, everyone and anyone in our era of history. I expect to see boredom and irrelevance and piousness and bigotry replaced with excitement and compassion and aliveness and humility. I expect to see prophetic spirituality crackling and sparkling in each and every neighborhood.

When such a network of vanguard Christian circles is vigorously present, it will then be somewhat easier for many more people to understand and consider all three aspects of this question and this challenge: To Be or Not To Be a Christian.