Who, really, is a Christian?
Anyone who has struggled through leaving Christianity cannot help but be aware that those still in the faith often have trouble categorizing us. Regarding their belief system as overwhelmingly desirable and, moreover, obviously true, they seem compelled to try to explain this anomaly that we represent, apostasy. And we all know the answers: generally, either we weren’t really Christians in the first place or, the minority view, that it is somehow impossible to de-convert (“once saved always saved”), so we’re still Christians despite ourselves.
Or, sometimes we see them declare that we never really understood Christianity – again, obviously, because if we had, we wouldn’t have left! No amount of elegant theological exposition on our part will convince them that we really did, in fact, understand it – and freely, knowingly reject it – because there are an endless number of hairs that can be split to prove we got this or that wrong.
So I, like most former Christians, have had to think a lot about this issue. Who, really, is a Christian? Was I really one? How do I respond to this criticism? After some study, and some thought, I will here suggest an answer.
Ludwig Wittgenstein was a philosopher from the first half of the twentieth century who had a lot to say on the topic of language, words, and meaning. Among the wealth of observations he produced was this one: we generally conclude someone understands a new word when they can use it, correctly, in their everyday language, not when they can give a definition of it. This is, after all, how we teach children. We don’t sit down with our toddlers and tell them “a pencil is a writing implement, cylindrical, usually made of wood, with a graphite core”; we show him a pencil and say “this is a pencil”, and then we show him what you do with it. When he can point to it and say “I want to draw with a pencil”, we know he has learned the word, and knows what it means.
Wittgenstein then went even further: not only do we not require of someone that they divine the “inner essence” of a thing before we think they correctly understand it, he suggested that often there may be no inner essence to some things in the first place. Consider his example, the word game. Can anyone give a single definition of “game” that includes all instances of what we consider to be games, and only such instances, perfectly? Is there any single criterion or set of criteria that unites baseball, chess, 20 questions, solitaire, peekaboo, military war exercises, “chicken”, and World of Warcraft into a single concept?
His point was that all the things picked out by the word “game” are united only by the fuzzy, loose, somewhat arbitrary human use of the word “game”, what he called a “family resemblance” – not by any deep, inner essence. Games are, in a sense, not “out there”, in the world, to be discovered. They are not like chemical elements, what philosophers call a natural kind, in which nature itself tells us what the essential characteristics are – i.e., what makes gold, gold (its atomic number). “Game” is a human designation, not a natural one.
What I suggest, then, is that the word “Christian” is more like the word game, and less like element or gold. It picks out a real but poorly defined, fuzzy, overlapping set of groups that by common (but not unanimous) assent are called “Christians”. They are so designated by humans, reflecting human identity, for human classification purposes. Thus, there is no essential meaning to the word “Christian” beyond the uses to which it is put.
Another way to approach this, from a slightly different angle, is the following: rather than asking “how can we know who is a Christian?”, ask “how could we settle disputes about who is a Christian?” This, I think, can help clarify the matter somewhat, and get to what I am gesturing toward. It is obvious, I hope, that there is nothing like a physical test we can run that will give us our answer, so this question is not an empirical one. As an alternative, we could potentially, as some evangelicals often suggest, appeal to an authority, such as God or the Bible. While I would concede that God, if God exists, could settle the question for us, unfortunately no one seems to agree on just what it is he said. There does not exist agreement as to whether the relevant authority is a text, such as the Christian Bible, or a person or institution, such as the Pope, or something else entirely. Moreover, there are many who do not accept the Christian Bible as any kind of authority at all, or perhaps not as a full authority, or not the only authority. And even among those who do believe it to be an authority, there is no agreement as to exactly what conclusion it reaches. So, empiricism is a non-starter, and disagreement reigns in the appeal to authority. Clearly, then, this dispute is not a resolvable one.
So, following these two strands of thought, then, I think a conclusion begins to suggest itself. Since there is no higher authority to appeal to, and no test to run, and we have good reason to think that the word “Christian” (like the word “game”) is not defined by something “out there” in the first place, but rather by its use, then it seems inescapable that there simply is no larger answer to question of who is a Christian. In other words, there is no ultimate metaphysical fact to the matter as to who is, and who is not, a Christian.
The question can, however, be answered in more particular contexts: we can specify our reference group, the group whose smaller, more “local” criteria we are willing to adopt, and answer it in conscious light of those criteria. We can say, “I was a Christian, as American evangelicals use the term”, or “He is a Christian according to his (liberal) Episcopalian church”, or simply “She is a Methodist”(implying the Methodist definition). In the negative, one could say “Catholics are not Christians, according to fundamentalist Protestants.”
But are Catholics really Christian? There is no answer to this question, asked in this way! It is only in relation to a specified linguistic community that the word “Christian” has any meaning at all. In the ideal situation, you self-identify as a Christian, and you have a church or community that claims you. That way, there is no important dispute, at least not for you. That is to say, if you are in agreement with those whose opinion matters to you, and whose definition you wish to use, there is no problem (unless of course you are bothered by there being no cosmic validation to your identity, as I am arguing, and conservative believers, of course, deny that). If there is a dispute (say, between groups), one can do no better than to point to the dispute itself, and name the divergence of opinion.
As an example, Episcopalian Bishop and popular author John Shelby Spong is commonly accused of being a non-Christian, if not an actual atheist, by many more conservative believers. This is because he does not, by his own admission, believe in a literal God. According to some, who imagine there is a definition “out there”, given by God, that can determine who is a Christian, he thus fails an important criterion. So, then: is he “really” a Christian? Again, my reply is that there is no larger, final answer. According to conservatives, no. According to his own congregation, yes. That’s all we can say. But which group do you think he cares about?
And that brings it back to me and my own case, as a final example. It used to frustrate me whenever someone accused me of not “really” having been a Christian, or not having “really” understood it, or tried otherwise to pigeonhole me and explain my experience away. But after mulling this over as I have described, I am now content with my answer: according to all who knew me at the time, I was considered a Christian and accepted as a Christian. I considered myself a Christian. My church, and family of origin, were my chosen reference group, those whose opinion I cared about, and that was and is the end of the matter. No other groups views were of any consequence to me. (And of course, as I now believe, there is no God for this to have been in the mind of, so there is no larger perspective to adopt). So, by all meaningful criteria that existed and were relevant at the time, I was a Christian.
Now, I consider myself a former Christian. My current chosen reference group – my own family, my friends, my fellow traveling apostates on this board – accept this designation. That’s enough for me. The fact that current Christians, to whom apostasy is an indigestible threat, often wish to set me straight, no longer irks me, most of the time. I even can honestly say I understand it, really, because their whole world-view rests on tightly interlocking assumptions about their identity, and their self-esteem is bound up in their identity. But my identity is in my own hands, and in the hands of those I love, and whose opinion I care about. I need no better answer than that.