Tag Archives: fundamentalism

Why Are You Even a Christian?

Christians who ask lots of questions or wear their evolving beliefs on their sleeves often incur the umbrage of other Christians still on the “inside.” There is a surprising amount of resentment toward those who publicly wrestle with faith and doubt. When I was looking through Christian memes for a recent post, I came across this one which hit home in a big way:

why are you christian

This is a variation on “why are you even a Christian?,” a question that has been directed at me more than once and at countless Christian seekers in “real life” and online. This really is an absurd and loaded question, but after I explain how absurd it is I think I’ll go ahead and answer it anyway.

“Why are you even a Christian?” is a rather rude and thoughtless way of scolding someone for not meeting our personal expectations. The assumption at the heart of this question is that I am a “normal” or mainstream type of Christian, and you have drifted so far from where I am that you no longer qualify. Or maybe I just look at you and wonder how you could possibly think those thoughts and ask those questions and even want to identify as Christian. Maybe this isn’t the right religion for you if you really think that way, and maybe we don’t want you anyway! Ultimately the question reveals a deep lack of self-awareness and a small and undercooked notion of what it means to be a Christian. It’s an implicit and lazy appeal to the status quo of institutional American Christianity and a thinly veiled judgment on someone else’s character.

I can think of three honest responses to the question “why are you even a Christian?”:

1. I was raised Christian (like most of us). 

2. I attend church and read the Bible and do many of the same Christian things that other Christians do.

3. I find Jesus endlessly compelling and choose to follow the path he taught and embodied. I am a Christian because I have faith (that is, vulnerable trust) in Jesus.

But maybe I should try and answer the real question, “how dare you defy my expectations?”:

The expectations and judgments of others cannot be the basis for something as personal and vital as how I interpret and experience faith in Jesus. If my journey and my thoughts are troubling to you, it might be that there are dimensions and aspects of life and faith that you have not considered. Or maybe we just have a genuine disagreement about what it means to be a Christian. Either way, we are both subjective voyagers, neither of us has the credentials or the authority to police the borders of true Christianity. We need each other’s questions and doubts just as much as we need kindness and encouragement.

I used to be where you are, and I was also puzzled and alarmed when people asked inappropriate questions. In fact, reaching back, I start to recall my old reasons for clinging to Christianity: obligation, fear, expedience, inheritance, expectation… And all of that is a recipe for anxiety and unhappiness. If I had a chance to talk with my young self I might ask him, “why are YOU even a Christian?” Turns out it’s an excellent question, if you ask the right person.


Is Biblicism Gnostic?

Modern Christians know that there were “false” versions of the faith from its earliest days. In reality, there were multiple Christian streams and traditions before an orthodoxy began to emerge. Some of the earliest believers designated as “heretics” were groups of Gnostic Christians. Unfortunately, most of what we know of these groups has to be reconstructed from what their orthodox critics wrote about them, so we can’t be certain that their beliefs have been properly represented. Gnostics apparently believed in a dual reality, a sharp separation between the world of matter and the world of spirit, which certain people could upwardly traverse if they possessed the proper knowledge (Greek gnosis). Special sorts of humans (not just anyone) could learn secret truths and by knowing them transcend their fleshly bodies.

Christian apologists today are well rehearsed in criticism of Gnosticism. It is not focused on sin or atonement, it diverges from the apostolic tradition, and it attempts to reconfigure the story and message of Jesus according to its own agenda. When Gnostic Gospel texts were discovered and published in the twentieth century, conservative Christianity quickly mobilized to “debunk” and dismiss them. But when I step back and look at modern conservative Christianity, particularly the fundamentalist and biblicist streams, I see a faith that frankly shares a great deal in common with that old Gnosticism.

I recently read an intensely biblicist article on Facebook. It celebrated the Bible as “revealing special knowledge” not available anywhere else, without which one cannot hope to “see heaven” when they die. God “sent us” this book, and if we want to know the saving truth, all we have to do is read and believe it. Now, as a Christian myself and a student of scripture, I fully recognize the unique value of the Bible to those who wish to follow Jesus. But the biblicist approach seems to me to be deeply Gnostic, for a few obvious reasons: 1) It assumes a dualistic universe; we live in doomed flesh and the point of religion and salvation is to transcend our fate and attain a higher plane of spiritual existence. 2) Information that was once secret has been made known in the Bible and is the key to unlocking salvation and transcendence. And 3) only certain (elect) people are even eligible to receive this special knowledge; many will never know or believe because that’s just how the universe is set up.

Again, I do not deny that the Bible is especially valuable for the way it puts the church in touch with the earliest traditions about Jesus and the ancient context from which he emerged. But celebrating a book as the key which unlocks enlightenment and heaven seems like a huge mistake – and a new sort of Christian Gnosticism. Instead of appreciating the scriptures as a witness to Jesus whom we may choose to follow on a path of thoughtful spirituality, the Bible itself becomes the magical gnosis which affords its true believers salvation and escape.

What is the antidote to gnostic faith? Isn’t all religion “gnostic” to some degree? Doesn’t every faith offer “special knowledge” that gets the believer on the inside? The answer is often yes, though it really boils down to the way we choose to understand and embrace our faith. Here are a few suggestions for keeping our Christian faith from going gnostic:

  • Remember that “the way” of Jesus is a lifelong journey of humility, learning, and repentance, not a magic transaction that places us on a superior plane of existence.
  • Remember that our tradition has traversed many borders of culture, language, race, and class. We are not an exclusive or privileged group.
  • Remember that many in our tribe can profess belief and understanding without ever demonstrating empathy or mercy, while many outside of our tribe have discovered the path of peace and forgiveness without our same knowledge or resources. Belief does not automatically translate into enlightenment.
  • Remember that the Bible is a partner and helper, a story told by our forebearers, and not a magic fount of secret knowledge.

There is no shortcut to wisdom or character, no fastpass to peace and salvation. There is only a life to be lived in either relationship and discovery, or alienation and fear. Knowledge is only a first step.