What Is Meaning of “Christian”?

By Hank Zumach, February 17, 2013

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

We all have repeatedly heard and read the word “Christian.” It is used in common phrases such as “Christian nation,” “Christian values” and “Christian beliefs” to indicate some broad set of commonly held values and doctrines we all understand. But, other than the core belief that a man named Jesus Christ was born about 2000 years ago, was the son of God, and preached some basic human values, it seems that is as much as Christians have in common. To an outside observer, it might even seem they worship and follow different gods.

I attended a religious school for five years and over the course of my adult life I have had discussions with a number of devoted Christian laypersons and clergy and have read a range of religious publications. The more I have come to understand their sincerely held beliefs, the more I have come to understand that “Christians” have significantly different beliefs about which version, and which interpretation, of the Bible is the correct one. Perhaps more importantly, they have significant differences about how society should meet the social goals of the Bible. If, as is often claimed by various Christian leaders, the United States is a Christian nation founded on Christian principles, then it seems reasonable to ask that there be a clear understanding of what that means.

It cannot be said that Christians have a belief in “the Bible” because immediately the questions become: which Bible? the King James version? the New Revised Standard version? the New American Bible version? There are many different versions that have differences so significant that using the same book title seems meaningless. Do Christians believe the Bible was literally dictated to men by God or was it written by men who thought they knew God’s mind? Were its rules meant to apply only to the people living at the time or are the rules and stories largely metaphors that do not actually apply to the present society? Which rules still apply and which do not? If there is meaningful agreement among Christian denominations, why can’t they come together to write a clearly understood version, written in today’s verbiage, perhaps with explanatory footnotes? If something as simple as that cannot be done, using the term “Christian” has little real meaning or value.

On a separate, related topic not so entwined with doctrinal questions, there are important social issues that have slowly come to the forefront of modern society. Homosexuals’ rights and women’s health issues are in the news almost daily. These issues have not been settled, in large measure due to the serious disagreements within large segments of “Christianity.” If agreement on such basic social questions cannot be reached, I suggest that when the spokesperson for a denomination makes a public statement that, for the sake of clarity, they only use the name of their specific denomination, thus indicating they are not speaking for all, rather than use the term “Christian.” The same guideline should be used by the media.

I accept that the primary motivation of the leadership of the various denominations is to do good works as they believe Jesus Christ taught. There seems to be little disagreement between theologians that among the basic societal obligations taught by Jesus Christ are to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort the sick and shelter the homeless. However, throughout history and up to our present time, those societal obligations have seldom been met. While a few denominations have focused on those charitable works, too many have had other priorities. Can’t the various denominations set aside their sectarian differences, even briefly, to reach across the theological aisle to arrive at a sound, reasonably detailed description of how the poor should be helped, the homeless sheltered, the sick provided with professional health care? From a practical standpoint, the most effective method to achieve those highly desirable goals would be to come together with a true, non-denominational plan.

I am not writing this to criticize people with sincere religious beliefs. Rather I am writing as a person who has serious concerns that our country seems as politically divided as any time since the Civil War. There is little meaningful dialogue between the two political parties (or has it actually become three?). This divisiveness is due in part to the fact that some religious denominations have aligned themselves with one or the other of the political parties. Our social safety nets are fraying and neither side seems willing to cooperate in
developing workable solutions.

Nearly all Freethinkers, myself included, strongly believe in the need for the separation of church and state. However, what I am advocating would not violate that requirement of the 1st Amendment. This can be done in a way that meets the Constitutional requirements while actually improving our cultural health. Isn’t that a basic societal value we can all agree with?

Hank Zumach
President, La Crosse Area Freethought Society

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