In a recent conversation, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times asked Pastor Tim Keller, “Am I a Christian?” Although posted on December 23, the op-ed has generated more than 900 comments through today. Almost immediately, people from around the blogosphere affirmed, critiqued, and interrogated Keller’s many and nuanced replies to questions from a friendly Kristof: including Brian McLaren. I want to highlight the posts from Kristof/Keller and McLaren, as each have cast a certain light upon Christian identity, and raise important questions that we would do well to consider.
For Keller in his conversation with Kristof, the replies flowed from “literal” belief in the Bible, textual criticism, confidence in one’s faith in tension with questions generating diffidence, skepticism, attraction to people in mission but incredulous reaction to the same people with antagonistic beliefs, the range of Christian salvation, religious plurality, and finishing on the doctrine of God. Whew! What a tour!
For the most part, Keller framed the Christian faith, right from the get-go, as “a body of thought”, one which contributes to forming social boundaries for the church, so that one could have “a cohesive, integrated organization.” Then, his all important claim: “Jesus’ teaching was not the main point of his mission. He came to save people though his death for sin and his resurrection.”
Now, let me first of all say: Bravo. I like and endorse the move that links Calvary and the Empty Tomb; Keller links the two, and that deserves further elaboration from him. I need to follow that by asking: Whither the Kingdom of God? I make mention of this, chiefly because Redeemer Presbyterian Church has a remarkable history and presence of witness and service within Manhattan: such practices offer valuable signposts toward the reign of God in Christ, and the presence of the Holy Spirit. I found it strange that Keller omitted any response about Christ’s preaching on the Kingdom of God. Finally, it’s hard to know the importance of mission from a single interview about the aforementioned commitment by Keller and his congregation; so much of Kristof’s questions centered on identity, and—as I will get to below— Keller consented to keeping the discussion within that ambit.
For McLaren, though, the interview became an occasion to recollect (sans pleasure) how Keller’s version of “Christian identity is primarily defined by a list of beliefs, as it was for me in my upbringing.” As he continues his journey through his memory, McLaren knows first-hand that such a identity both secured a destiny in Heaven and one could have repellent list of personal sins left intact and impervious to transformation: simply because “if you held the right beliefs, you were going to heaven when you die, and in comparison with that, nothing else matters much.” This kind of propositional-based belief still has currency (see any of your friends from neo-orthodox churches), and empowers a long view of being safe in Heaven, while completely diminishing any value of other persons, the need for justice (or correcting injustice), holds dominion over the earth as a primary value for human existence thus authorizing environmental decay, and simply affirms a dualism between body and soul. McLaren suggests an alternative… or does he?
McLaren also takes up the question of Christian identity, although his angle of entry initially appears sympathetic to one I would endorse: “As we approach Christmas, it’s a good time to reflect on why Jesus was born and why it matters.” From there, McLaren approves of people entering a journey of discovery of significance: “It’s a good time to note that according to the Gospels, Jesus himself gives a number of reasons for the ‘main point of his mission’.” From here, McLaren cherry-picks some excellent topics: repentance, liberation and healing, truth-telling, preaching the Gospel: and then this: “Yes, a meaning-rich and world-changing suffering and death were among those many reasons (Jn. 12:27), but it’s a mistake (a popular mistake) to let that one reason silence all the others.” Well, yes and no.
Yes, McLaren is correct to elevate and celebrate the importance of Christian identity becoming generated, practiced, and competent through practices of mission. Amen. But, as Newbigin once said, “Words without deeds are empty. But, deeds without words are dumb.” Put another way, and even Keller and Kristof recognize this: the Christian faith does not have the religious market on caring for the poor, the widowed, and the orphan. Actions like these, in which as Keller recognized as “the importance of the individual person and … love as the supreme virtue”, deserve interpretation from beliefs and doctrines. But, we need those practices to assist in developing maturity as Christians.
So, No, we can’t discard some of our espoused convictions regarding soteriology and the doctrine of God just because a different system of beliefs is asserted to be superior or to be more inclusive for the naming and creation of Christian identity. To wit, that different system merely addresses different questions: “Do you love the least of these? Do you love the earth as God’s creation or money that can be made from exploiting the earth? Is love— for God, self, neighbor, other, enemy, and the earth— your highest aim and deepest desire?” McLaren raises these questions and more in his conclusion. He is correct to interrogate static models of Christian identity that only rely upon assent to theological convictions.
But, we don’t check in our theological traditions along the way in identity formation. We need to recover a process of identity formation that involves a constructive, dynamic response to the imperative of the one we are convinced of who offers us life: “Come follow me, and I will make you fishers of humanity.” (Mk. 1:17)
But, I wonder how “local” the questions of McLaren are, especially relative to Jesus. Put another way: even Jesus had a context, one of a long religious tradition that permeated every aspect of life. That tradition underwent several changes during internal political changes, external influence and military invasions; these changes took place during forced migration from home and in repatriation. But, the Jewish tradition endured, and long expected another exodus-like saving event from YHWH. So, whether the changes enacted by family politics or Roman imperial forces acting upon the tradition, the Jewish people kept their faith in a multicultural and multiethnic milieu. Jesus had no problems engaging with Gentiles, (e.g., Mk. 5:1-20) and he certainly directed those who followed him to do likewise. (C.f., Mt. 28:19-20)
Now, one might push back on me: “McLaren observes “the other”, and “the outsider.” True. But, here’s the snag: For McLaren, (and for that matter, Keller) declare through their silence that belief and service occur in an ethnically-neutral context of North America: that is how Christian identity becomes formed. One wouldn’t know from either of these pastors that racism is America’s original sin. While McLaren (and we could presume Keller, as well) would champion a wholesale rejection of racism, violence, and structural injustice, and especially in light of the increasing events of white hostility following the recent presidential election, their omission of such makes me wonder how far their observations extend to Christian identity. How can we discuss caring for the poor, or the healing of the sick— who are often people of color— without consideration of their ethnic identity and our own ethnic identity? How can we make any prescriptions—or recommendations— about beliefs or practices for Christian identity without some consideration of the racialized society we dwell in?
Other friends chimed in on my FB page: surely the NT doesn’t drive a wedge between belief and practices. Similarly, if one wanted to press the whole notion of identity, we could look to the rite of initiation: baptism. And, this initially appears warranted, at least theologically. Yet another observed regarding beliefs, that evangelicals like Keller and McLaren (although the latter may not want that label anymore) hardly can be affirmed for the inclusion of the creeds in their belief systems as constituting evangelicalism. Some version of “both/and” was called for. I made note that for both Keller and McLaren, they both draw boundaries, and they simply do it differently than each other. I wanted to address this element more thoroughly but in my prayers, I could not look away from the total absence of discussion of ethnicity and context as informing Christian identity. One might also wonder why suffering is omitted from either descriptions of Christian identity. (C.f, 1 Peter 3:8-22) Similarly: there’s not a shred of conversation about how our gender contributes toward the formation of our Christian identity: clearly, this last element needs a more thorough examination. To be sure, the differences between Manhattan and Manhattan Beach hold unique elements.
Christian identity becomes formed not only through beliefs and practices, but also in context; both engage the respective contexts and are engaged by the same. For Kristof, Keller, and McLaren, we would ask them: “Who is your neighbor? And, is your neighbor of a different ethnicity than yourself?” How they—and we— answer such questions may well help all us understand how we all are formed into our Christian identity.