Everybody knows there is a lot of religious diversity in the world, but have you ever thought about how diverse Christianity is? If you were to judge simply by our houses of worship, you would be hard pressed to connect the small and ancient Orthodox church buildings of Greece to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, let alone to the average “Worshiportium” in one of today’s independent mega-churches. If you were to judge by our governance, you would have a hard time seeing how the democratic republicanism of the Presbyterians connects to the hierarchical structure of Roman Catholicism, or the sort of rubber-stamp elders behind a visionary semi-despot that defines many of today’s Evangelical congregations. What connects all of these different expression of Christianity?
Much, much effort has been put into that question, most of it by theologians. Which means the answers you get are theological. That is to say a set of standard beliefs or doctrines. Google up “Christian essentials” and see what you get. But I have to be honest, I find that an unsatisfactory connection. I have known way too many people that held all the right beliefs that I really do not want my faith associated with. I have also known many people, say people with mental impairments, that could not tell you what they believe but through whose lives Christ is apparent. Finally there is my almost decade among Mormons during Mitt Romney’s two runs, who virtually every traditional Christian would call simply “wrong” on theology, but where God seems very much to be at work.
Theology is a vital thing within the faith, but it seems insufficient to define us. Theology is important, but not necessarily essential.
Jesus had something very interesting to say about this whole question, ““Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:15-20) That strikes right at the heart of what I am talking about when I say about many in the Mormon community that “God seems very much to be at work.” Theologians everywhere have declared them “false prophets,” and I certainly do not agree with Mormon theology, but they seem to bear good fruit. Oh sure, there are some bad apples we can point to, but that’s true of other expressions of Christianity that are considered entirely orthodox.
But what do we mean when we say “fruit?” Are we talking about morality? Not necessarily. Think about those that were Christ’s greatest enemies; those that actually called for His execution. They were the most morally upright people in Israel at the time. They were the people charged with upholding the moral purity of Israel, and yet they and Jesus ended up on opposite sides. So “fruit” is something other than morality. Like theology, morality is vitally important, but it is not the essence of Christianity.
Paul said, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” (Gal. 5:22-23) These are attitudes and character traits, not behaviors. They are more about how we do things than what we actually do.
The debate about whether the United States is a “Christian nation” has been around for a while now. I think it will continue to be around for a long time after I am gone. But as I have watched that debate I am been fascinated to see people talk about theology, law and morality, but I don’t see people talking about character. Look again at that list of “fruit” in the last paragraph. Those are the things that I think have uniquely defined this nation through most of its history. That is, I think, what makes this a “Christian nation.” We’re not all Christians, but we sure have striven for the most part, to be those kind of people.
Sure, we got things wrong, but those “fruits” are what drove us to correct them. The old Christian cliché, “Please be patient, God’s not finished with me yet,” applies to the nation as well. Those attitudes and character traits have served as correctives when we strayed morally.
Whether you choose to label them “Christian” or not, I don’t think anyone can debate the goodness of that list of attitudes and character traits – “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” – these are things worth holding dear and preserving, I don’t care what religion you claim or do not claim. These are the essentials of Christianity – and of America.
It feels right now like these essentials are at stake in the nation. I’m not just talking about the election, although if the shoe fits…. I’m talking about what it’s like to go to the mall or a movie – just walking down the street. The nation nowadays seems more defined by road rage than deference to others. It seems more about indulgence than self-control.
Like most everybody, I am pretty upset by what I am seeing around me. But I take comfort in reclaiming those essentials.