In response to a sentence in my posting, “A Church at War,” one person wrote, “What objective standard would you use to determine the existence of a ‘more authentic Christianity?’”
The sentence in question was, “It is glaringly obvious, from reading Bates’ fine book on a Church at War that whatever our hopes for a more authentic Christianity, particularly one that sees God at work in culture as well as over against culture, those hopes do not lie with the realignment movement or with the English hard line evangelicals.”
Let me first say that my comment was about Bates’ devastating journalistic account of the political manipulations of the players in the American realignment and English reform groups. Given his account, I came to the conclusion that whatever counts as an authentic Christianity will be found somewhere else. The reader was quite right to point out that I don’t define what would count as an authentic Christianity or how one might go about providing an objective standard for determining that something was an expression of authentic Christianity. Implicit in his question is whether I am just muttering slightly warm air or have any sense of what I was talking about. Good question indeed.
So here is a small beginning stab at a personal faith statement of what I consider authentic Christianity to be and how one might go about testing if one’s own expression of faith meets the test. It is of course a futile small and unworthy effort if for no other reason than that words fall short of adoration and ideas far short of grasping the joyful proposition that God is a present tense reality rather than a distant thunderer and / or a former creator now relaxing as the whole thing unwinds.
I am a Christian, among other reasons, because of the following:
(i) I have accepted Jesus' invitation, “follow me” and am working out the details. The best hints I have of what that means are that:
I am to practice, as he did, self-emptying - getting my ego out of the way of God’s spirit taking me where I would not otherwise go, to people and places beyond my imagining;
I will more and more caught up in the immediate follower’s experience of Jesus being the person in whom all the fullness of God is pleased to dwell, or alternately of Jesus as being the exact imprint of God in the world.
(ii) I take seriously William Stringfellow’s witness, that “I spend most of my life now with the Bible, reading or, more precisely listening.” (p. 3, Instead of Death) I am by no means as disciplined or as good at that as Stringfellow, but I am on my way. That listening itself is a practice, one which by no means is limited to the biblical material, but rather is without limits as we grow in our ability to hear the sufferings and joys of others and hear them without feeling threatened and without condemning - that is to hear them with compassion.
(iii) I practice being a companion and seeking companions on the way, trying not to be too ego centered and picky about those I break bread with. We say, the bread we eat is companionship too with the One we follow and that Jesus is thereby know to be with us on the way. We share all sorts of concerns and joys and sorrows, for the way stretches out before us as a way through the wilderness, and at the core of that sharing is the biblical witness. The bread is all the more tasty for being a meal on the journey.
So, my sense is an authentic Christianity consists of following Jesus without too much ego and in awe of knowing God present in him, in living in a mode of biblical listening, and in sharing the simplest of meals on the Way. An authentic Christianity, in this sense, is filled with the desire to practice self-emptying, to listen compassionately, and to share the bread of tomorrow.
What sort of “objective standard” might there be? Beats me. I suspect there is no objective standard. Yet anyone who is without guile (or ego demands), who listens and who walks in the way will have a sense of knowing the presence of someone practicing such a Christianity.
You may note that none of this has very much to do with Church in its complexities of historical functions, forms and theologies. I have sometimes said half jokingly that I don’t think Jesus had the Church in mind. It is indeed only half a joke. WE have the Church in mind as a way of responding to the notion of the people of faith as the Body of Christ. It is no joke to try to do this: to incorporate organizationally to be a collective reflection of authentic Christ presence, or an authentic Christianity. But I do think Jesus would be appalled by our behavior sometimes.
I love the Church in its efforts to be an embodiment of Christ in the world, and more particularly the Anglican Communion and the Episcopal Church as expressions of that effort. But I don’t for a moment confuse its standards for the demands of authentic Christian living. It does often provide better guidelines and signposts than we might otherwise be able to find, but it is finally to be judged by the least of the followers of Jesus Christ and its leaders brought to task for setting burdens on faithful people that are unnecessary or worse that separate us from the love of God known in others.
I am aware that after 40 years in the ordained ministry and 65 years of stumbling around on the planet this is hardly a well organized statement of what I believe it means to be authentically a Christian. The reader will easily recognize my shortcomings in not being able to provide any sort of “objective standard” for what it means to be an authentic Christian. Still, my sense is that we are likely to recognize such a Christian when we meet her. I know I have.