If we want to practice what some, including Michael Spencer, have called a “generous orthodoxy” – a commitment to the creedal Christian faith that recognizes “one holy catholic and apostolic Church” – then we must learn to speak about our own personal faith identities and commitments precisely.
Here is the way I have learned to respond when asked about “who I am” or “what I am” with regard to my spiritual and religious identity:
I am a Christian, and I practice my faith in the Lutheran tradition.
I find this helpful for a number of reasons.
First, it makes clear who I am at the root: I am a Christian. I am a member of the Christian family. My identity is bound up with the person and name of the Lord Jesus Christ. I believe in Jesus. I follow Jesus. Jesus’ story is the story into which I have entered. I have taken his name. I interpret and approach life through him.
Just like my surname represents not only my personal identity at this moment in space and time history, but also my family, my background, my heritage, my ancestors and a particular story woven throughout the history of humankind, so my identity as a “Christian” links me to all who have borne that name through the ages and to those who continue to bear that name around the world in various traditions. If you are a Christian, you are my sister or brother. Though we may be far removed on our family tree, we are nonetheless organically related.
When articulating my faith identity, this is the first and most fundamental thing I say.
Second, it makes clear that the particular tradition to which I belong is important but not the ultimate essence of who I am. It is my practice, the way I approach living out my identity. I practice my faith in the Lutheran tradition.
I won’t delineate this second point here today. Suffice it to say that my understanding of what it means to practice faith as a Lutheran is bound up with a commitment to the ecumenical creeds, particular forms of evangelical Catholicism in the western Church, the Protestant Reformation as specifically pursued by Martin Luther, his writings and the Lutheran confessions, and the development of an ecclesiastical tradition that has morphed over the centuries and which I now experience here in the United States as a member of a mainline Lutheran denomination. I concur with those who say that Lutheranism was not meant to be a separate denomination as much as a renewing movement within the church catholic. If I had my druthers, I would do away with the term “Lutheran” and opt for some designation like “Evangelical Catholic” to describe this particular branch of the Christian family tree.
I am a human being with a story. This is my fundamental character. As a human being, my specific identity is tied to (1) the story of all human beings and (2) a particular family story. I practice or live out my life as a “human being with a story” in the context of various traditions, settings, and circumstance.
I live my life as a twenty-first century American. I live as a family man. I live within the context of my marriage, my position as a father and grandfather. My parents call me their son, and my in-laws their son-in-law. I live as a member of a certain generation. I dwell in a particular community. I work for a company and have a job designation. I write for this blog. I belong to certain organizations and live out who I am through my involvement in those groups. I have learned to enjoy and value particular habits and hobbies and activities and I live out my identity pursuing those. Various experiences have shaped me and caused me to look at life in certain ways and to think, speak, and behave in certain ways.
All of these things are important, but none of them get to the essence of who I am. And therefore none of them should be of the essence when I relate to you.
I am an American, but that does not mean if you are from a different country you are less of a human being. I may think my country and government functions in better ways than yours, but that does not change the fact that, at root, we are both human beings. Our practices may be different, but at the core, we are connected by a common identity. I can relate to you as a fellow human being. We may discover that we have serious differences about how to approach life, but the bottom line should be that I accept you as one who is related to me at the most fundamental level. Our shared humanity makes us neighbors, which is to say, members of the same “community” (common + unity).
Applying this to the realm of faith: as Christians we share a common creedal identity. The ecumenical creeds provide the rule of faith which locates our identity within the Story of Jesus. Those who align themselves with this Story are baptized into the Christian family, and share the unity of “one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6, NRSV).
If this is your Story, you are my brother or sister. We may have profound differences and perspectives on the faith, but we share the faith itself. When we discuss, debate, argue about, or even fight over our differences, we do so not as enemies who ultimately stand in opposition, pronouncing judgment, but as brethren engaged in a process of trying to gain a better understanding and practice of the faith. You may have to hold your nose to recognize me as a fellow Christian, but you do it nevertheless, though our family feud runs long and deep.
Several people have tried to illustrate the distinction between essence and practice. The most famous is C.S. Lewis, who distinguished between “mere Christianity” that exists in as in a Great Hall, and particular traditions that meet together in smaller rooms off the Hall:
I hope no reader will suppose that “mere” Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions — as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else.
It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall, I have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think preferable. It is true that some people may find they have to wait in the hall for a considerable time, while others feel certain almost at once which door they must knock at. I do not know why there is this difference, but I am sure God keeps no one waiting unless He sees that it is good for him to wait. When you do get into the room you will find that the long wait has done some kind of good which you would not have had otherwise. But you must regard it as waiting, not as camping. You must keep on praying for light: and, of course, even in the hall, you must begin trying to obey the rules which are common to the whole house. And above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best by its paint and paneling.
In plain language, the question should never be: “Do I like that kind of service?” but “Are these doctrines true: Is holiness here? Does my conscience move me towards this? Is my reluctance to knock at this door due to my pride, or my mere taste, or my personal dislike of this particular door-keeper?”
When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. This is one of the rules common to the whole house.
Lewis’s metaphor is helpful, but I think it suffers by locating everything indoors, as though the faith is a matter of finding a place to settle down and get comfortable. Michael Horton and the folks at Modern Reformation advanced the complementary notion that we should think of the old New England arrangement of many individual church buildings surrounding a village green where people meet together. This is better — at least they get us out of the building!
“…evangelicalism is like the village green in older parts of the country, especially New England. There may be two or three churches on the grounds, but the green itself is a wide open space where people from those churches can spill out in conversation and cooperation.”
Let me try a couple. If you will forgive the militancy of this illustration, perhaps we can think of an institution like the U.S. military. There is one military establishment, but it exists in various branches: Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard. Together and separately, they share a common Commander in Chief and an overall common mission. They actively engage in protecting and defending our country. At the core, they are all military, while in practice, they perform their tasks within their own unique branches, complementing and cooperating with each other strategically.
Or perhaps we can think of the United States itself, as a nation with the slogan, E Pluribus Unum — “Out of the many, one.” Made up of a variety of states, regions, and communities, we nonetheless are all Americans with a common federal government, who all swear allegiance to the same flag and sing the same national anthem. An Alaskan is no less an American than a New Yorker, though their lives and experiences may be extremely different.
Disunity and schism in the Church is not inherently seen in our diversity, but in our divisiveness. In far too many Christian conversations and dealings, we assume that so and so simply can’t be a Christian because he or she disagrees on certain points of doctrine or practice that we assume are fundamental to our identity, when in reality they represent matters outside the rule of faith. And so we cast anathemas at each other for disagreements about many things that are, at best, of penultimate importance.
Of course, this is a broad statement, and in the complexities of ecclesiastical life and teaching we cannot simply leave it here. However, I think it may be a good starting point.
If we could develop the habit of simply identifying ourselves like this: “I am a Christian, and I practice my faith in the ____________ tradition,” perhaps we could learn to distinguish the rule of faith from perspectives and practices that characterize us but do not ultimately define us.