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HI, I’m Bill, and I’m a Semi-Christian*
March 25, 2020
[with thanks to friends Henry Breithaupt, John Frohnmayer and David Kenagy for comments as this essay developed]
Christian devotion has been central to my identity for almost as long as I can remember. My great-uncle, who had pastored the same congregation for 55 years, baptized me in his 85th year. I began studying faith in earnest at age sixteen, memorizing vast swaths of the biblical text and learning both ancient Greek and Hebrew so that I could internalize the precise words in which God spoke. Though all four boys in our family were supposed to major in math, I left that field for religion in my sophomore year in college. I couldn’t get enough, and so I picked up a divinity degree from an influential Evangelical Seminary and then topped it off with a Ph D in the history of religions. For good measure, I wrote my dissertation on a New Testament theme. The study and practice of faith were the most vibrant categories of my life.
The same focus on mastery of sacred texts also moved me to learn the Creeds of the Church. I wanted to know not only what moved my own spirit but which words had been used over time to describe the portentous and momentous event of God’s becoming flesh. I attacked each creed with relish, wanting to know what it meant, for example, that Christ was, according to the Council of Chalcedon (451), to “be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably.” For me, faith was a quest for understanding, and understanding was the basis of faithful living.
I still am taken by the breathtaking beauty and power of the Scriptures, and I realize that every time I open its pages there will yet be more truth to spring forth from the Word. Yet, as I continue to engage in study and thinking, another thought has started speaking with greater and greater intensity. That thought is that the affirmations of faith which have always been accepted by many orthodox Christians are becoming less persuasive or less important to me over time. For example, I see the debates over the nature of Scripture, and which word should be used to characterize its inspiration, as tired and worn-out, reflective of the fears of nineteenth century people who were trying to fight intellectual battles that aren’t our battles any longer. I see debates over the end times as almost fully irrelevant to how one understands the world today. And, I don’t really care if the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father alone or from both the Father and the Son.
When I began to go through this process of whittling down what I actually did believe of the orthodox faith, it dawned on me that very few of its affirmations were of vital interest to me. I realized that I had therefore left the category of what I had always considered a Christian to be: one who affirms the truth of the Scriptures and the Ecumenical Creeds of early Christianity.
But, perhaps surprisingly, I began to feel that my faith was the more robust for having discarded doctrines that no longer have either any clarity or resonance with me.
Becoming a Semi-Christian
But by so doing I was becoming, if I wanted to be honest with myself, a “Partial” or a “Semi-Christian.” I could no longer embrace the idea that I was a devout Christian, since “true devotion” to me included many affirmations, and perhaps even practices, which no longer had much allure for me. Yet, I wasn’t the weaker for having discarded old doctrines, just as one is usually not the poorer for discarding some of those old clothes that still clutter our closets.
Yet, Christianity today has no positive words to describe a faith that no longer affirms what has always been central to the Church’s confession of faith. If one is a “devout” or “faithful” Christian, one must affirm the Scriptures and the Creeds. But what are the other options to describe people who are no longer “devout?” We only have words like “lukewarm” or “lapsed” Christians or, even worse, agnostics or atheists. That is, Christianity has historically looked at itself as an all-or-nothing proposition. You accept it all, or you are (almost) condemned to outer darkness.
My purpose in this essay, as is now clear, is to carve out a positive and robust new term, a “Semi-Christian” for those who only want to affirm very few things about God or Christ or their relationship to the world. Each person who calls him/herself by this moniker might confess different things, but I would venture to say that if a survey were taken of Christians in the pews today, the vast majority would come in as “Semi-“ or “Partial-Christians” rather than those who believe “the whole shebang.”
In my experience in talking to people who think of themselves as devout Christians, I recognize people of good heart but of very few affirmations. Christ as Savior and Lord is one of them, and often this faith is expressed in terms of a “personal relationship” with Christ. But usually things become pretty fuzzy after that. This, to me, is the essence of being a “Partial-Christian.” So, let’s stop the subterfuge about what the actual reality of Christian faith is about in our day. Christian faith today is not, by and large, about those things that have historically defined a Christian. It is not about the nearly 30 affirmations in the simplest of these Ecumenical Creeds. It is about our own partial visions of discipleship. So, let’s just call ourselves that—“Semi-Christians.” It would be a bracingly honest affirmation.