How do I describe myself if I come to regard aspects of the fundamentals of the Christian faith inherited from the orthodoxy of the fourth and fifth centuries as mythical constructs defying reason? Those fundamentals of faith, as formulated by Christian conservatism in the twentieth century, are belief in the:
- Inerrancy of the Bible
- Literal nature of the biblical accounts—the miracles of Jesus and the Genesis account of creation
- Virgin Birth of Christ
- Bodily resurrection and the physical return of Christ
- Substitutionary atonement of Christ on the Cross (i.e., Jesus died for me)
On the other hand, one may still share many other ethical and religious concepts from the Christian tradition. Nevertheless, questioning any of these particular “fundamentals” is certain to compromise one’s relationship with traditional Christianity in the twenty-first century in one way or another.
The church through the years has evolved certain terms for those it regards as being outside the household of faith. In antiquity orthodox Christianity regarded those outside the church as pagans; that is, they were non-believers or “civilians” who had “not enlisted through baptism as soldiers of Christ against the powers of Satan” (Fox, Pagans and Christians, 30-31). Today a pagan is thought to be one who has little or no religion or an irreligious or hedonistic person, neither of which may fairly describe you.
Another term used by the church through the years is heretic. The term describes someone who holds a religious opinion contrary to church dogma, or who dissents from some accepted belief or doctrine (see Hedrick, “Heretics and Apostates,” Wry Thoughts about Religion, 4/26/2018). So a heretic might be regarded as an errant member of the faith community, who nevertheless still identifies with the faith community, but whose views are rejected by the faith community.
Another term used by the church to describe those outside the household of faith is apostate. An apostate is one who has renounced a particular religious faith (Hedrick, “Heretics and Apostates”). Hence apostates by their own deliberate decision are no longer members of the household of faith; they have completely given up the faith.
The question is: should one simply accept any of these church terms as a self designation, or should one find other ways to describe oneself if one questions the “fundamentals” of the faith? There are other terms that one might use without becoming too specific: for example, free thinker, seeker, atheist, agnostic, etc. These terms might even be used of oneself even while participating in a Christian community of faith, if the community is tolerant of diversity to some extent.
What later became Christianity in the fourth and fifth centuries was in earlier centuries a “big tent religion,” meaning that in earlier centuries it was characterized by diverse views and theologies. There was no successful standardization of the faith until the fourth and fifth centuries, when it became Christianity. Jesus, to judge by the early Christian gospels, was not a Christian and hence did not share the so-called fundamentals of the faith drafted by conservative Christianity in the twentieth century. Jesus was a Judean man whose religion must be understood in contrast to the Judean temple cult of the first third of the first century. It was only later in the faith of the Church that he was made into a dying and rising God.
The temptation for many is to react negatively against the church, when they discover its “feet of clay,” but the truth is that most of us reared in the twentieth and now twenty-first centuries in America have learned religion either directly or indirectly through the cultural influence of the church. We are, therefore, in a distant sense “Christians” by cultural tradition. And, truth be told, we still find some redeeming social and religious value in the Christian Church when considering all its manifestations and history.
In describing oneself one should not hesitate to draw upon one’s roots in the traditional church if some aspect of church history, faith, and ethics allows an accurate statement of where one is religiously. For example, I might call myself Baptist by conscience, Jesusite1 by religious tradition, critic of religious convention by training, skeptic by confession, humanist by disposition, reason’s servant by profession.2 How would you describe yourself?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
1Compare the designation “Jesuit,” (i.e., one who is a member of the Society of Jesus in the Catholic tradition).
2See Hedrick, “Who am I,” Wry Thoughts about Religion, 6/26/13.