Friday, September 28, 2012

What is a Christian?

Unitarian Christians (and others) have been trying to broaden the definition of Christianity since the 1830s, when the publication of Rammohun Roy's The Precepts of Jesus caused a furore among conventional Christians of the day. Rammohun Roy could not accept the doctrines of mainstream Christianity. He also called into question what is meant by Christianity in his writings, which were published in England by the Unitarian Society. Roy's story also raises the issue of what religion is – is it the original form or impulse, or the "accretions" which subsequently accumulate, or a combination of these? Is it about values, beliefs, or practices, or a combination of these? All of these issues were raised by Roy and his contemporaries over his views and those of the Unitarians, and the issues are still being debated today in many contexts. There was considerable dispute (between the Baptist missionaries of Serampore and the Unitarian Thomas Aspland) over whether Unitarians were Christians, and whether Roy himself was one; this depended on whether Christianity was defined according to values and monotheism, or by belief in the divinity of Christ. In declaring Roy to be a Christian, early nineteenth century Unitarians perhaps sought to broaden the definition of Christianity to include themselves. Roy used the same techniques and sources as the Unitarians to answer his critics: German biblical criticism, the history of the Arian controversy, the discourse of radical dissenters, and rational scepticism.

In the 1950s, apparently, it looked for a while as if Christianity was going to be defined as a broad movement of people who subscribe to the values of Jesus - but then two things happened: an upsurge of secularism, and an upsurge of evangelicalism. After that, it became increasingly difficult to define Christianity as anything other than conservative evangelical fundamentalism, belief in Jeeesus as your Personal SaviorTM, and belief in penal substitution theology (the idea that he died for your sins).

James Martineau once famously wrote that he didn't want to describe himself as a Unitarian, because that was the name of a doctrine; instead, he wanted to be called a Free Christian.

This is at the root of the reason why the full name of the Unitarian tradition in the UK is the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches. A bit of a mouthful, isn't it?

But what is a Free Christian, or a liberal Christian? They are usually people who are working out their theology for themselves, and consider Jesus' moral example, and his teachings, to be more important than doctrines about him as a Saviour who died for people's sins. (I am sure there are more complicated explanations than that, but that will suffice.) They are also usually inclusive of LGBT people and tolerant of other religions, seeing them as equally valid paths to God / the Divine.

A Unitarian Christian is a slightly different critter, as this is someone who is both Unitarian and Christian. Again, they are working out their own theology, inclusive towards LGBTs and consider other religions equally valid; but they are also likely to hold Unitarian views of God, meaning that Jesus is not viewed as the second person of the Trinity.

But the name "Christian" does encapsulate a doctrine: it expresses the view that Jesus was Christ.

But it depends what you think a "Christ" is, and whether you think he was the only Christ, or whether there are more of them. The word Christ just means "Anointed One" and is a Greek translation of the Jewish word Messiah, also meaning "Anointed One". Some Jewish thinkers have suggested that there may be a messiah in every generation.

James Martineau also famously said:
“The incarnation is true, not of Christ exclusively, but of Man universally, and God everlastingly. He bends into the human to dwell there; and humanity is the susceptible organ of the divine”
 Buddhism is a project to make more Buddhas. Buddhism does not claim that Buddha was the incarnation of a deity.

What if Christianity was a project to make more Christs? Well, funnily enough, there is a very ancient form of Christianity that is exactly that. In Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the rite of baptism is called chrismation (anointing), and the aim of the Christian life is theosis (becoming divine).

Many, if not most, liberal Christians, Unitarian Christians, and Free Christians reject the notion that Jesus was "Very God of very God" and emphasise the human Jesus, his moral example, and his teachings.

But what if, as Martineau said, the Incarnation was true of humans universally? In Judaism, Isaac Luria taught that we all contain a divine spark; and Judaism has always taught that people are made in the image of God.

If the Incarnation is true of humans universally, then we must all develop our inner Christ (or Buddha, or Aradia).

If Christianity was a project to make more Christs, that might be interesting.

Further reading on liberal Christianity:
I am not a Christian and I never will be one (Wicca is my dharma, my sangha, and my tribe), but I am delighted that there is a strong liberal movement within Christianity. It provides an alternative to those who don't embrace exclusivism, homophobia, and intolerance of other faiths, and shows that another way is possible.

it would make a lot more sense if people talked about Christianities instead of Christianity. (And what about all those Christian churches that dissented at the Council of Chalcedon?)

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