Faithful and Free
8 - Being Christian
Our starting point (back in chapter two) was to acknowledge that many people reject religion because they think it unreasonable, irrelevant, or immoral and hypocritical. We have offered our own understanding of Christian faith in conscious response to these criticisms. And we have invited you constantly to check out for yourself whether our presentation is convincing.
Our approach has been to argue that faith is, in fact, an inescapable response that human beings make to the world around them. It is true that this basic confidence is called into question by negative experiences. The function of religion is to describe the-way-the-world-is in a way that justifies faith, while accounting also for experiences that seem to negate it.
Our own experience of the trustworthiness of reality leads us to give ultimate reality the name 'God'. Only God-talk is capable of doing justice to life as we experience it. Alternative accounts of ultimate reality have been offered - scientism and secular humanism, for instance. But we are convinced that belief in God can be presented in a manner which is more reasonable, more comprehensive, more liberating, and more inspiring than any other option.
It is the New Testament witness to Jesus as the Christ that focuses our belief in God as Christians. This witness invites us to openness, novelty, the unexpected. It challenges us to inclusiveness. It presents a vision of freedom, justice and fulfilment for all that is non-hierarchical, and destabilizing of the status quo. The Jesus-tradition expresses the conviction that God's non-partisan love for all creation is God's free choice to relate to us in such a way that God makes a difference to us all and we all make a difference to God. It reminds us that challenging the social order in any age will arouse opposition. When that happens the appropriate response is creative dissent, imaginative protest, and courageous witness that embraces suffering if it has to.
We go on to suggest something of what it means to be Christian.
The Jesus-tradition encourages you to value yourself as God values you. In the spirit of that tradition we offer the same challenge. Whoever you are, you are of inestimable worth. God freely chooses to relate Godself to you. Your life makes its unique and everlasting contribution to God's being. You are valuable. You are significant. You make a difference. We invite you to accept your acceptance by God, to appreciate and respect your self, and to choose to become the best person you can be. This is part of what it means to be Christian.
The Christian response to the love of God is shaped by the Jesus tradition. It has social and political dimensions. Life in community is to be so ordered as to allow freedom and fulfilment for all. Discriminatory prejudice and socially-conditioned habits of judgment are to be challenged. Injustice is to be redressed, the yoke of oppression broken. These imperatives do not relate only to large-scale political structures. Injustice and oppression may be equally expressed, and are to be equally resisted, at all levels of human relationships, and not least in one's own personal life.
As is now almost universally recognized, there is responsibility not just to fellow-humans, but to the whole of creation. The Christian ideal is to ensure the freedom of every creature, in its relatedness with every other, to achieve its potential. Just what that means in a particular situation, is a scientific rather than a religious question (and there may be no simple answer to it). What religion does is to raise the question of value. In every time, and in every place, you are invited to respond to God's unprejudiced love by reflecting it to all creation. Act in such a way as to ensure for every creature, within the boundaries of its inter-connectedness with others, freedom to reach full potential.
The right to life and bodily integrity, to food, clothing, shelter, rest, and health care. It is society's responsibility to ensure that these are provided in sickness, old age, unemployment, and inability to work.
The right to self-determination and political participation should be protected by law.
Rights of movement:
The right to freedom of movement; the right of nationality and residence; the right to internal and external migration.
The right to social intercourse; the right of assembly and association; the right to form societies and organizations.
The right to work, to adequate working conditions and a just wage; the right to organize unions; the right to property.
Sexual and familial rights:
The right to choose a life-style; the right to form sexual relationships or be celibate; the right to procreate or to avoid conception; the right to found a family. Society should ensure the economic, social, cultural and moral conditions necessary for nurturing relationships and family life.
The right to religious belief, and to its private and public expression. The state should protect religious freedom.
The right to freedom of expression, and to freedom of cultural expression; the right to education; the right to be informed truthfully.
We would like to suggest some priority principles to guide the formation of social policy when there are conflicting claims within a community:
(a) The needs of the poor take priority over the wants of the rich.
(b) The liberation of the oppressed takes priority over the liberty of the powerful.
(c) The participation of marginalized groups takes priority
maintaining the status quo that excludes them.
We do not wish to leave the impression, however, that a concentration on good works in itself makes one Christian. Of course it is good to do good and to refrain from evil. It is good to avoid sacrificing other people to one's own selfish interests, or to the interests of one's own class or group. But to accept such obligations simply as a moral chore does not lead on to the personal wholeness which the idea of salvation implies. (See chapter five.)
The Christian pursuit of justice is a response to the all-encompassing love of God made known in the New Testament witness to Jesus. There is no single part of this world which is untouched and unclaimed by God's great love. Therefore all of creation has value, and is to be cared for. By working for justice, Christians are simply co-operating with God's will for the world.
Because this work for justice is a response to a prior fact (God's love), being Christian also involves the important work of witness, of making the love of God known. (Recall here our discussion in chapter six: we witness to God's work as redeemer, and co-operate with God's work as liberator.) Our own effort to think clearly about our faith, and to communicate it, represents our own commitment to witness to the reality of a loving God, and to the possibility of a life of freedom and fulfilment for all, lived in the light of that love. Together with the Reformers Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Wesley, we affirm that faith in God's love, and God's love alone, is what saves us - not good works. But we are also trying to say - with the New Testament and with the Wesleys - that "faith without works is dead".
It is not that rules are always foolish. Often enough they encapsulate wisdom which one generation would like to pass on to the next, to prevent the same mistakes being made over and over. 'Don't smoke!' is not a silly rule. It expresses the sad experience of too many people. It invites you to care for one part of creation - yourself, and those whose lives you touch and influence. But rules do not get to the heart of the matter. They often become out-dated. And sometimes they reflect agendas which, when it is thought through, Christians cannot (or should not) own.
Throughout this introduction to Christian faith we have sought out the reasonable path - the way that employs common-sense, and is open to dialogue and the best argument. An open and reasonable approach to Christian belief requires the same approach to Christian ethics. Certainly Christian faith implies moral values, but it cannot be allied with a specific unchanging morality. Christian faith urges us to empower ourselves and every other creature to achieve our fullest potential - within the limitations of a given historical and social context. But just what that means, and how we set about achieving it, is something people must work out for themselves.
We do not believe that being Christian can be reduced to a list of do's and don'ts valid for all times and all places, never to be criticized, but simply to be obeyed.
Jesus summarized the law of God in two commandments: love God, love your neighbour. He implied thereby that there are essentially only two sins - two human responses that bring death rather than life. The first is to be ignorant or careless of God. The second is by deed or omission to harm another.
What should be the Christian response to the high level of unemployment in our society? Such unemployment is a denial of basic human rights, and has devastating and crippling consequences. It is a result of the selfish and competitive ordering of society - which unfortunately seems to be the only system that 'works' in a global context. Communist systems have lost credibility with recent events in Eastern Europe. Christians also have low credibility when they denounce unjust social systems in an amateur way, without proposing genuine alternatives. And yet one task of Christians is surely to heighten public awareness of the consequences of injustice, and to combat misconceptions, as a counter to apathy and complacency. Perhaps one valuable contribution the church could make would be scientific - the gathering and publication of real and believable information about economic alternatives and their consequences. It might become clear that the range of options is quite limited, that this country is largely at the mercy of international developments over which it has little or no influence, and that high unemployment is here for a long time, whatever people do about it. Then the state should be pressured to ameliorate its effects. And perhaps some Christians should be contributing their creative energy to the growth of social structures that offer new possibilities of personal fulfilment less tied to economic factors.
Some of us grew into our faith without being aware at first what was happening to us. Things we accepted, in the first place, because those around us accepted hem, we came at last to own for ourselves.
But others of us are conscious of a definite beginning. There did come a first time when we consciously determined that we would accept God's acceptance of us, and that we would reflect that same love and care to others.
Perhaps a time of new self-understanding, or a time of new decision, has arrived for you. We wish to set before you the question whether or not you will choose as of this moment to be Christian. This cannot be a once-for-all decision for you, any more than it has been for us. But if what we have been saying makes sense to you, and if you have found it liberating and inspiring, then we invite you to adopt an experimental approach, for the time being. Try understanding your life in terms of belief in God, as focused by the New Testament's memories of Jesus. And try living as we have suggested - opening yourself to God's acceptance of you for the unique person you are, and working, so far as you are able, to empower others (human and non-human) to achieve their full potential as well.
If you are game to attempt this, you will probably find it helpful to do so in dialogue with other people who are also engaged in the experiment of being Christian. But this anticipates the subject of our final chapter - the Church.