What Does It Mean To Be A Christian?

Our friend Max returns with a series of questions. Those, plus my responses, seemed to merit a separate post.

What does it mean to be ‘Christian’?
Being nice? Being a generally forgiving person?
Handling people with care and love despite the way they treat you? Being compassionate?

Being a Christian means living as the gamut of Christian phases. We start as seekers. And to a degree, good Christians maintain that mode of seeking all through their life. We are curious, we explore, we are dissatisfied with things as they are and look for answers to difficult questions.

We continue as believers. What that means should be obvious, but on the whole that we accept Christ and a relationship with him.

We eventually come to being disciples: that is, we live our lives in imitation of Christ.

Max’s questions are peripheral. The good qualities he posts are not the ends, or even the means to the end. In particular circumstances, being forgiving, loving, and compassionate are qualities of a Christian. But I don’t think they define a Christian, especially since non-Christians can also express these.

Does it matter that Jesus EXPLICITLY says his commands matter?

Jesus says a lot of things matter. In the Gospels, he says them in a particular context. Sometimes he addresses a person. Sometimes he speaks to his disciples. Sometimes to the crowd. Sometimes to his enemies.

For a person being rejected, “shake the dust” might be more important than “love your neighbor.” Especially if the disciple has mastered somewhat love for neighbor, but remains a doormat for her or his opponents.

Are people ‘saved’ for doing these things? or is there no salvation if you do not believe?

As an ex-Christian, Max knows the answer to this. People are not saved for doing anything. They are saved by Christ’s doing. Good behavior, including the imitation of Christ, might be evidence of salvation. But it is not a sure thing, to consider this evidence.

How do you construct a Jesus without using the text to prove who Jesus is – and who he isn’t?

Because a disciple’s relationship with Jesus goes beyond the text.

And how do you protect yourself from the charge that you are being solipsistic?

I don’t. I have no interest in defending myself at all. I attempt to live a Christian life as a disciple as best I can. That’s all I have to offer. If people don’t like it, or me, they can find another Christian disciple (or blog) or try an alternative to Christianity.

If a person’s personal Jesus tells him he should Kill Homosexuals, how do you argue against that understanding of Jesus when you have refused to use the text as a proof?

I argue–persuade would be my choice of term–through life’s example and personal witness.

Are you just very comfortable with the unknown? Letting God settle these matters?

Largely, yes.

Then why not be comfortable with the unknown in other ways, as in….maybe there is no god?

Because I haven’t found that to be true.

I cannot understand how you get to create for yourself a Jesus of your own who does not live on the pages of the Bible. And I don’t understand …

I’m not a biblical fundamentalist.

And this gets directly to your statement.. you said, “I don’t see anything Christian in those philosophies”

For goodness sake, why not?

Because they fly in the face of the law of love and self-sacrifice. The example of Jesus, at its core, is the Paschal Mystery.

If you have granted yourself permission to accept a Jesus of your own, unconnected to biblical text, why are you saying other philosophies are not “Christian” when those preachers are only doing the exact same thing YOU are doing? they are only making up a Jesus they like instead of adhering to the one described in the text.

I cannot fathom how you can claim them to be wrong? What are they doing different from you?

Well, I can claim a lot of positions are wrong for a few reasons. One, I believe them to be in conflict with basic Christian principles, especially the greatest commandment. Max should realize that Jesus himself set priorities.

Maybe the reason that most resonates with me today is that I like being contrary. I say a lot of things critical of other Christians’ views, including bishops. Even my friends. I say and write a lot of things that are audacious, even disrespectful. But my good mood is not dependent on people agreeing with me. Or being persuaded.

Max has told me he was a Christian for many years, and now he is not. I hope he switches back, but I don’t see it as my responsibility to lasso him up and hog-tie him to belief. He can visit and comment however much he likes here. I’m not sure I will be as satisfying a foil as he hopes.

Other comments?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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9 Responses to What Does It Mean To Be A Christian?

  1. Liam says:

    I bothered to remain Christian because I am in a relationship with a Triune God (why a Triune God – because “God *is* love” is really the simplest way to say that – to say that God is loving is not an ontological equation with love). As a matter of intellect, I bothered to remain Christian in part because of the problem of evil; while we are quite familiar with the theodicy issue being a reason for disbelief in a personalized God, for me it was actually rather the opposite (basically, the notion of evil ultimately doesn’t square with n a purely materialist construct), and the classic Catholic-Orthodox Christian apprehensions for why this is so made the most sense to me of the major types of understandings. Buddhism offers some attractions, but I prefer the Christian impulse to passion over dispassion (because my own character was once inclined to dispassion, and it left me cold).

  2. crystal says:

    Someone once asked me many of these questions too – he compared a personal relationship with Jesus/God to having an imaginary friend (like Harvey the rabbit) … it was hard to explain to him how a risen Jesus encountered in prayer could include elements not in the bible and yet still be thought of as valid.

    I do think people who don’t believe can be “saved” … what about Rahner’s Anonymous Christians? And didn’t Francis recently say that non-believers could be saved, though the Vatican contradicted him right after? … http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/11/pope-francis-atheists-abide-consciences. If non-believers, including my sister, don’t get saved, I don’t want to be either.

  3. Atheist Max says:


    Thank You for the thoughtful replies.

    • Atheist Max says:

      I’m genuinely interested in how people justify (for themselves) which Jesus they think they know – and how they determine ‘proper’ Christianity from false Christianity after they have done this. When I was a Christian it seemed rather obvious that certain Christians (Pat Robertson, say) were categorically wrong about Jesus.

      But looking back, I don’t know how I really reached these decisions.

      Christ’s image in one’s mind may lean in any number of directions:
      Soldier for god, Conquerer of the world, Peacemaker, Compassionate samaritan, lover of all humans, humble servant, sharer of pain, etc.

      But it seems to me everything depends on the already inherent quality
      and character of the person who is doing the imagining.

      Once a version of Jesus is arrived at in one’s mind, it appears God is on your side with that decision. Whatever it may be. It is odd that nobody rejects the Jesus they feel is the real one.

      So there appears to be no ‘wrong’ interpretation of Jesus from the point of view of the outsider. And there is no evidence God prefers my true Jesus to Pat Robertson’s true Jesus or your true Jesus.

      Again, my fascination is with imagining of a Jesus without Biblical text.

      My very Catholic father used to say,
      “The Bible is true in the same way a poem is true.”
      This seemed very helpful for me once upon a time when I was dealing with what appeared to be contradictions. And some passages in the Bible seemed to have a ‘ring of truth’ for many years.

      But when many Christians increasingly say they do not ‘proof text’ that goes farther than my father did. That seems to distance oneself from the text altogether.

      I am left wondering if this is because the bible is not true enough as it is? Or, is it because some Christians see the bible as flawed – they are too uncomfortable with the actual words? Or is there some other reason?

      I ask these questions because I care about people. And I care about the truth.
      I think the VAST majority of people are very good – whether they are Christians, Muslims, Jews or whatever. I don’t doubt that Christians are generally wonderful people at heart.
      Thus, I reject the idea that ‘we are all sinners’ – there are too many good, loving people on this earth for me to comprehend how that can even be rational.

  4. crystal says:

    I think as soon as a person decides that they are going to have a personal relationship with Jesus/God, they leave the realm of certainty. In all human relationships, we have to make a leap of trust – can we ever really know another person completely? Maybe the best we can do is just to try, to trust that we aren’t in the relationship alone, that it’s not all up to us and that God will do his part as well. If someone wants certainty, maybe they should go to church, recite the creed, follow all the rituals and rules, and stay away from personal prayer and spirituality ;)

  5. crystal says:

    PS – an interesting book, “When God Talks Back” by TM Luthman, is a study of the personal relationships Evangelicals have with Jesus … I think a lot of what she found applies to those into Ignatian spirituality/imaginative prayer too (also a video – http://youtu.be/1qIrRNmOwjQ). There was an article by Bryan Cones at US Catholic that mentioned her and this whole subject too … “Look who’s talking: personal conversations with God” … http://www.uscatholic.org/life/everyday-spirituality/2012/04/look-whos-talking-personal-conversations-god

    • Atheist Max says:

      Thank you, Crystal – And thanks for the links. I’ll look into them.

    • Atheist Max says:


      I really appreciate that. Thanks.
      I remember the Tanya Luhrmann interview with Terry Gross. I never miss that program.

      And I recall thinking this:

      If most people are generally good, it is completely predictable that they would think good thoughts about how to live and what to do in situations – and they would talk to themselves about doing good things. Most importantly, people would naturally enjoy doing this very much. It is comforting to have someone to talk to and to affirm the best ideas you already had.

      And the process could easily feel like a real conversation.

      As an Atheist I talk to myself all the time
      and get the same feeling of fun from solving a problem
      after talking to myself about it.

      “Max, you’ve got to get away from that computer and feed the dog now” I’ll say to myself.

      And seeing how happy that makes my dog and how glad I am to have pulled myself away from my work for a few moments – is really just as fun as when I believed I was talking to God.

      If people are generally good (I believe they are) and they want to do good things (which I also believe) they will talk to themselves about doing good – they will do good – and they will feel very good – as though they had an agreement with ‘someone’ about a plan which validates the good they felt as well as the existence of the ‘someone’ who they thought they were talking to.

      Anyway, That is my take on this sort of thing.

  6. crystal says:

    Yes, it’s like keeping a journal. I read that doing that, even if no one else reads it, makes people feel better, happier. It’s like meditating too, I guess. A lot of things can improve psychological health. But if God exists, then prayer would be more than that.

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