Why I Call Myself a Christian
by Dr. Bruce Arnold
Bonnie asked me this summer if I consider myself a Christian. I do, and yet that simple answer is hardly enough. That could mean a lot of things I don’t intend it to mean. I thought I would like to write something to tease out the various elements of what that means to me. Each of these points could receive a lengthy treatment on its own; this is meant more as a summary than as a full explanation. Some day I may flesh these out more.
First, the fact is that I was raised in a Christian home in a largely Christian country, in the Western culture that was formed largely within a Christian context. That alone predisposes me, whether I wish it or not, to certain ways of perceiving, feeling and thinking that are characteristic of the Christian faith. Even people who do not consider themselves Christian, who grew up in this cultural milieu, have many of those same outlooks and perceptions.
Second, I find that the life of Jesus is a watershed in human history. I hardly think that the most objective observer from any background would deny this. The nature of the Christian religion, and its spread in its various forms all over the globe, has had an enormous impact on people everywhere, Christian or not. I have no doubt that Buddhists would see the life of Gautama in the same way; or Muslims, the life of Mohammed. I have no quarrel with that; in the same objective way, I would have to agree. I don’t see any of them as the watershed in human history; they are all tremendously significant. Given my personal history and cultural heritage, I have to honestly state that, as much as I love or respect other faiths, the life of Jesus is more pertinent to my life than the others. See #1.
Third, I have long felt that, no matter what you think of Jesus, for such a simple man to have had such an enormous impact on history, there had to have been something extraordinary about him. People like this just don’t live in every generation, every century, every millenium. In religious matters, you’ve got Confucius, you’ve got Buddha, you’ve got Moses, you’ve got Jesus, and you’ve got Mohammed. Outside of those five, who else?
Fourth, I find that most people’s views of God and Jesus, whether believers or not, are essentially those that gained dominance during the medieval period. There are large admixtures of superstition, magical thinking, and the uncritical acceptance of legendary elements in those viewpoints. Many people who consider themselves atheists have in fact rejected superstition, yet do not know that there are non-superstitious ways of conceiving of the Divinity. Many people who consider themselves staunch Christians still maintain those old viewpoints. If educated, they have adjusted them somewhat to the post-Renaissance world view, but not much. Perhaps, for instance, they do not have an anthropomorphic idea of God, but beyond that, it’s pretty vague. Of the recognition that there is equal value in the teachings and practices of other religions, there is mostly lip service, if at all. As a post-Renaissance person, I find that the Christian religion still has great meaning, although I do not think of it within those medieval boundaries. I don’t think that the sun goes around the earth, that you can fall off the edge of the ocean, or that kings rule by divine right, either.
Fifth, I don’t believe in some of the old Christian stories, such as the virgin birth or the resurrection; at least, not as historical fact. Agreeable with Carl Jung, I acknowledge that the archetypal value of those stories transcends the question of historicity. Yet the same myths are found in other cultures; Christianity does not lay exclusive claim to virgin birth or the resurrected God. The parallels between Jesus and Mithras, whose religion was as prominent as Christianity in the Roman empire until the time of Constantine, are astounding. They celebrated the feast of Natalis Sol Invicti (The Birth of the Unconquerable Sun) on December 25, for instance. Candidates for initiation were bathed, similar to full-immersion baptism. There was a meal associated with the worship, not unlike Communion. Descent into and return from the Underworld is characteristic of other sects, such as that of Orpheus. This, to me, does not discredit Christianity; it highlights the power of those archetypal elements. While I don’t find the Genesis account of the Creation to be literally true — the fossil record is pretty convincing in that regard — there is no denying the narrative power of the story, and this is significant in its own right. I am not going to elaborate on the importance of archetype here; it is too complex for a brief exposition. Let me just say that, since the pioneering work of Jung, followed up by such brilliant scholars as Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell, calling something a “myth” does not mean that it is any less profound or powerful.
Sixth, I do believe that Jesus is an exemplar of the way God can act in people’s lives. He is wholly divine and wholly human, because his surrender to God was complete and without reservation. Yet, unlike those in the mainstream of Christianity, I consider Jesus to be the Great Example, and not the Great Exception. He is not the only Son of God; he shows us the way to a birthright which we all share. If, through Jesus, the Word became flesh, so too can any of us be that Word that God utters in this moment. The more we surrender to that, the more Christ-like we become.
Seventh, I do not believe that Jesus’ death on the cross and the myth of the resurrection have anything to do with remission of sins. Even as a child, I could not imagine a God who would condemn to hell all the people who had never even heard of Jesus and thus could not accept him as their savior. For that matter, I have never believed in heaven or hell. I don’t believe in a punishing God, nor in original sin. People — all people — have a capacity for great goodness and great wickedness. That’s the way it is. We can be more one than the other, partly by our own choice and partly by accepting the guidance of the Spirit which is in all of us. Jesus set a uniquely revealing example of what it means to live a spirit-filled life to the fullest. God didn’t drop a dime on Jesus to set him up to be tortured and killed so his blood could somehow magically wipe my slate clean. I’m responsible for my own transgressions. Better get on with making my amends.
Eighth, there is that Spirit in all of us, what Quakers call the Light Within. It is a rule and guide, a comforter, a source of inspiration, a healer, and many other functions. In Hindu philosophy, the Atman is the individual expression of (not separate from but identical to) the Brahman, the undifferentiated Source of all existence. This is my experience also, as close as it can be put in words. If we remove all ideas, feelings, illusions, etc. that separate us from full immersion in that inner Light, then we find ourselves as we most truly are, nothing other than that Light, which is none other than That One which is beyond all name and all description. Thus each of us is an incarnation of the Divine, whether we know it or not, experience it or not. Jesus shows us what it is like to be fully That, and invites us to follow. This is more clear in the Gospel of Thomas than in the four canonical Gospels, which contain significant alterations for the benefit of the powerful elite. For instance, in Thomas, Jesus says, “… the Kingdom of God is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living Father.”
Ninth, I don’t believe in Jesus as “a good man,” a “great philosopher”, a “prophet.” I believe he was in fact a fully-realized Son of God. It’s just that I don’t think that possibility is his and his alone. While his death on the cross has tremendous significance for me, as evidence that God is not above or removed from our sufferings but shares them with us, I don’t see it as the central event in the life of Jesus. I’m not sure I want to pick a central event.
Tenth, being Christian is not the same thing as being Christ-centered, although I find that some people use these terms interchangeably. I am more Spirit-centered than Christ-centered, myself.
Eleventh, to have a dialog on this subject, both sides must acknowledge that there are is a wide diversity of beliefs which all call themselves “Christian.” No one gets to decide for you whether you are Christian or not, based on their own beliefs. There is a tendency within the Christian tradition to define in-groups and out-groups, and then to persecute the out-groups. The Crusades, the Inquisition, the witch-trials, etc. This goes on today, sometimes obviously and sometimes subtly. I don’t think Jesus saw things in this way. His life and ministry was inclusive, not exclusive. All those who would follow his way were welcome, even the Pharisee Nicodemus or the Roman captain.
Twelfth, as a modern Christian, I don’t find myself limited to the ideas or practices of my native culture. I have found spiritual nourishment in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism. I find their outlooks more highly developed in many ways than those of the West. The Buddhist idea of how the world comes into manifestation, for instance, resonates with me on a profound level, deeper than the Genesis story. Then too, the practice of Yoga has led me into the most intimate association with the One Source of All. The sage advice of the Tao Te Ching and I Ching is as penetrating a guide to action as any that exists. I don’t think everyone ought to feel this way; I have a penchant for philosophical exploration. I don’t see why it can’t be acknowledged as a vital option by any Christian. It isn’t, by many if not most, but it could be.
Thirteenth, the theology of liberation gives me a way to reconcile my lifelong concern for peace and justice with my spiritual life. This gives outward meaning, depth, and relatedness to what, for me, would otherwise be primarily mystical, inward, personal. It also gives a context for that concern which is more loving and humane than the political ideologies I have been associated with before.
I feel I need to add this: These are not propositions I thought out in philosophical form. Each of them is an attempt at expressing the experience I have received of the Spirit, or the Light Within. I find it repugnant, in spiritual matters, to think up ideas (George Fox called them “notions”) first, and then try to prove them by experience. Inevitably, two things happen in the latter method. One is that parts of experience which do not accord with the previously adopted ideas are ignored. The second is that people tend to think they are right, and when people think they are right, they often want to enforce their ideas on others. Sometimes in vicious or brutal ways.
Saying that these expressions arise from my experience does not make them right for you. It does not give them greater authority. I have found that, when people are moved by the Spirit, differences in how they perceive or express that can often be reconciled. Not always, and to our sorrow, but often. Whatever the case, when experience precedes philosophizing, the process tends to be more genuine, authentic, or honest. Maybe even more humble; not so sure about that. These are tendencies, not absolutes.