Fifty Years Later – Part 11

What is a Christian?


Part 11: What is a Christian?


Past and Present

If you ask this question, the most likely answer you will get, is that a Christian is a person who accepts Jesus as Lord and Savior, this being the most likely answer both fifty years ago and also today. I have never accepted this answer. Instead, my understanding has always been that the real question is whether one acts responsibly in loving one’s neighbor. Participation in the divine activity working for justice and freedom is the key, and not what one believes. We can still ask what makes a Christian, and the answer would be something like getting one’s bearings from Jesus, but not to the exclusion of others, including atheists, who do good. What distinguishes people is not whether they have been “saved” or not, but whether they are loving or not. Some lovers may also be Christian, but that certainly is not a mandatory prerequisite.

A second question that is included in this chapter deals with the relationship between the human activity and the divine activity in coming to this loving lifestyle. The shorthand language used to inquire into this relationship asks about “grace and free will”, and the answers given have divided Christian theology in every place and time. Basically, the answers fall into two categories, those who say that the person involved must have the freedom to choose the good, otherwise what sense does it make to call us moral? On the other side, humans are seen as so totally caught up in sin that they are incapable of agape love. Clearly there are many nuances and qualifications, but the question remains: to what extent, if at all, are we capable of pure love?

Although today I would phrase the issue differently, at bottom the question remains unanswerable. It seems to me that human beings are inescapably egocentric. This blindness to reality is the simple consequence of the brain ordering sensation, then filtering it, and finally distorting experience as we make it fit into our pre-existing patterns of organization. But there are also those moments when Reality breaks into the little world we have created for ourself and we are set free from our bondage. The freedom, however, does not last, although we can expand upon it. We can reflect upon our new experience and learn more deeply who we are. Being part of a community of similarly awakened people helps growth into the process. So the context for what I do and what God does is more specifically delineated, but the mystery remains. What exactly happens in a moment, such that I am enabled to transcend myself and the ego I drag along, and become open to live Reality? An important clue to understanding the mystery, if that is possible, is to recognize that free will is not a part of our nature that lives on somewhere inside us, but is rather an event that happens instantaneously. Whether the beneficial consequences remain with us depends on who we are and who we hang around with.  Key is to be open, to become as aware of self and world as you can, and when moments happen, enjoy, reflect, welcome, remember, share, and anticipate more of them. We may not understand what is happening, but we can accept and rejoice and grow.


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Dr. Carl Krieg received his BA from Dartmouth College, MDiv from Union Theological Seminary in NYC and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is the author of What to Believe? the Questions of Christian Faith,   The Void and the Vision and  The New Matrix: How the World We Live In Impacts Our Thinking About Self and God. As professor and pastor, Dr. Krieg has taught innumerable classes and led many discussion groups. He lives with his wife Margaret in Norwich, VT.

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