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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One Response to What Is Meaning of “Christian”?

  1. Dan Eumurian says:

    I would like to offer another take on the term “Christian.” I can boil my view down into one word: FREE. My major theology professor at Wheaton College Graduate School, Dr. Charles M. Horne, gave us students the basic idea, and I’ve developed it as follows. I would welcome anyone’s response.

    “F” stands for Fact. Those of us who hold to historic Christian teachings believe that Jesus was indeed the Son of God, or God in human form, and that he lived, died, and rose from the dead. Although they do vary in some details, the four gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke and John agree in substance. They are supported by far more manuscript evidence than any other ancient documents, as well as by external evidence (see http://www.probe.org/site/c.fdKEIMNsEoG/b.4223639/k.567/Ancient_Evidence_for_Jesus_from_NonChristian_Sources.htm. Christianity does not deny the existence of the material world or see it as something to be escaped from through mind-emptying meditation or drugs, but values it as something that can come into true focus when seen in its ture relation to God.

    “R” stands for Reason: to forgive us and make us right with God. In his book _Losing Faith in Faith_, preacher-turned atheist Dan Barker refers to the cross of Jesus as the “Christian torture symbol.” I prefer to see it as, if you will, a “flush lever.” Catharsis, or cleansing, was an important concept as far back as ancient Greece, and is found in cultures around the world. Our individual and collective screw-ups, such as the way we disrespect and take advantage of each other and fail to think deeply and critically, really matter.

    “E” stands for Encounter. It’s not enough to figure all of this out theoretically. Somehow it has to become personal and inspire a change of mind and direction. Existentialists might refer to it as authentic living, founded not in self-flattery, self-righteousness and “rugged individualism,” but in humility before God and others. My father, an 88 year old minister, has referred to humility as “a right opinion of oneself.” The Christian God is a personal God who “knows us the best, yet loves us the most.” As biologist Richard Colling indicates in his book _Random Designer: Created from chaos to connect with the Creator_, the purpose of the entire 13.7 billion (or however many) year process of creation was that God would have people of free will who would choose to live in relation to him, as a lamp lives in relation to a wall socket.

    The other “E” stands for Expression. In _Christian Maturity_, E. Stanley Jones, who associated with Ghandi, Nehru and other Asian leaders, states that other religions [as well as, perhaps, secular humanism and materialism] each have their own “ladder” to try to get where they want to go. In Christianity, though, God comes down to our level, whatever level that may be, and reaches out his arms in love. If we receive that love, we want in return to love God and other people–not just tolerate them. Our faith is expressed in faithfulness, delayed gratification, higher order thinking, altruism and maturity.

    As to my friend Hank’s question “which Bible,” I’ve studied some Hebrew and some Greek, but I can find the essence of Christianity in virtually any translation of the Bible, as well as in most of the Christian denominations with which I’ve associated. I address a number of social issues in my songs and poems, and believe that my Christian faith provides enrichment, deepening and a measure of unity as part of the priceless free marketplace of ideas. There are indeed versions of the Bible that are easy to understand and are targeted to various groups of people such as recovering addicts and prisoners. Yet I like to read the Bible and take my own notes on it, with the help of resources to determine, for example, what parts are metaphorical. A book by Leland Ryken does exactly that. Maybe Hank or some of my other Freethinking friends can write an abridged Freethinker’s version of the Bible, enhanced by our own perspectives and experiences!

    Again, I would welcome comments or questions on anything I’ve written.