I recently had a conversation with a friend regarding forms of this term. It is loaded, probably moreso than most terms you come across in your everyday life. Today I will aim for clarity, in the hopes that you the reader can understand that when someone says "I am a Christian," they are telling you next to nothing outside of a huge context.
Politically speaking, there are notions in the U.S. of being a "Christian nation," typically vocalized by movements such as the Moral Majority, associated with people that some would call Evangelicals and some would call Fundamentalists. Regardless, of what you may think of this, nearly every U.S. President has to answer the question of whether they are an "Evangelical" or "Born-again" Christian. Christianity, as a term, has political implications, and markedly different ones in Europe, especially with terms like "Evangelical."
So, let's look at the evolution of the term. Historically speaking, Christianity is an offshoot of Judaism that began in the 1st Century A.D. It grew and became what it is today through many different periods, and the most notable distinctions in Christianity tend to come from its' splitting. 1054 A.D. saw a massive schism into the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity, and the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century, which schismed the Western Church between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. There is also the Anglican Church and countless "denominations" of Protestantism. This, in broad strokes and extremely simplified, is the religion we are attempting to define by the term "Christianity."
To the modern Western mind, the easiest way to unite these is in terms of common beliefs. In other words, if you put Christians from all different sections of their faith in a room and tell them to talk about what they agree about, you'd come about several beliefs, which have been collectively referred to as "orthodoxy." This is not to be confused with Eastern Orthodoxy, which is the Eastern branch of Christianity. More on this later. For now though, it is helpful to understand that orthodoxy means "right belief."
The way historic orthodox Christianity is generally defined by a reading of several creeds from early church councils. Namely, the Nicene Creed is generally the most agreed upon creed of faith to understand what Christianity is. Some people, particularly early fundamentalists have seen fit to define orthodoxy in 5 points based on this creed, as follows:
1. Belief in the doctrine of the Word as applied to the Bible. That is, that it is divinely inspired and reliable. Some use the term "inerrant."
2. Belief in a Triune God. That is, he is one God in three manifestations, or persons. God the Father, seen mostly in the Old Testament through demonstrations of power, God the Son, seen in the figure of Jesus Christ, and God the Holy Spirit, present in a real sense in some fashion within believers in Christ's teachings.
3. Belief in the dual nature of Christ as fully God and fully man. That is, Jesus Christ, present on Earth, was completely human, and yet was simultaneously completely God. There are many theologies that explore how this is possible.
4. Belief in the Resurrection. That is, when Christ was killed, he bodily resurrected three days after he was buried, overcoming death. Resurrection can be seen as a metaphysical concept of God overcoming evil, personified in death, but the basics of this belief is that Christians believe in Christ's resurrection.
5. Belief in the Virgin Birth/miracles. I cite both of these together because there have been numerous lists of points made defining Christianity's core beliefs. Believing in a Virgin Birth (and indeed, in most of these points), is to believe in miracles. The Virgin Birth simply states that Christ was born of Mary (Mother of God, blessed among women, etc.) while she was still a Virgin.
As you can see from this list (and possibly from my discussion before it), there have been many attempts to define Christianity's essence, most recently by the Fundamentalists. Though this term is loaded today in more ways I can count, the original Fundamentalism movement within Christianity stated that all Christians should focus first on what they can agree on, and then move beyond it with generosity into discussion with regards to other beliefs (baptism, communion, sacraments, etc.), which became known as Adiaphora (Greek for "indifferent things," generally understood to mean the non-essentials).
There have been many other sets of beliefs that people have counted as essential, most notably the Reformation "Solas," which are extolled mainly by Protestants, and usually by Reformed Christians, who usually also believe in most of the 5-7 points of Calvinism. For more clarification on the Reformation Solas and Protestantism in general, you can read my earlier post, The Inadequacy of Labels, and Frustration. If you want to know more about Calvinism, I suggest you look up the acronym TULIP for a good start.
However, suffice it to say, there is a huge amount of variance as far as beliefs go within Christianity. As one of my favorite authors put it, there is a "wide stream" of Christian belief, and almost no one has the same set of beliefs as anyone else.
Those of you reading precisely will notice that I have yet to define just what Christianity IS. The problem with doing this may be self-evident by now, but to be as explicit as possible, I will explain. Even those 5 points above are inadequate to define a two millenia old religious movement based on an even older religious movement. They also happen to be dependent on a very specific type of culture, namely the modern Western culture, which is largely a result of the Enlightenment.
To a postmodern world, this type of defining of a movement appears largely restrictive. Other definitions have come about, defining Christianity as a lifestyle. In other words, being a Christian means being like Christ, going through life in such a way as to live the lifestyle that Christ did, in the way that he did and Christians believe he still does. This is usually explained as involving the "Fruit of the Spirit," love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. In general, the most emphasized trait here seems to be love. There are advantages to seeing Christianity as a lifestyle as opposed to a set of beliefs, especially for action-oriented individuals. In general, this replaces "orthodox" (which they almost always still affirm) with another set of core beliefs, which are generally referred to as orthopraxis, or "right practice." The intention is to separate Christianity from its' religious nature, citing Christ's opposition of organized religion as an example. The problem with this comes when one has to confront hypocrisy in Christianity. After all, what is one supposed to believe about two millenia of history if the person in front of them is saying something different is the "true" nature of Christianity? Is most of Christian history a bunch of garbage brought about by misguided people then? Troubling, to say the least.
There are also movements to try to "recapture" what happened in the first century, viewing it as a "golden age" before Christianity became corrupt. Instead of moving forward, they look to understand the culture and happenings of the First Century, or sometimes use a radical form of "Sola Scriptura" (Reformation Sola, means Scripture Alone), to reject all historical tradition and instead "just use the Bible." The problem with this is the assumption that the first Century Christians had their beliefs correct in the first place. One read-through of Acts (the fifth book of the Old Testament) should cure this assumption, as the early Christians were already shown to be establishing systems or authority and dealing with disagreements. Sola Scriptura falls off to the wayside when one realizes that many church councils were convened to conclusively state the Church's position on things like the Trinity, to compose the Bible, and to set precedents for other Church beliefs before the Great Schism of 1054.
So, in the end of this survey of Christianity, we're left with a lot of questions, and we're left with people in different places. Some of you are asking questions like why I am still going on about this, why I would bother outlining any of this when I obviously know which one I believe and should just affirm it. Some of you are confused by this entire thing because Christianity is weird to you, and synonymous with negative or at the very least dissonant and confusing cultural, religious, and personal implications. Some of you are asking what Christianity is philosophically, and that is where I intend to go next.
You see, in the midst of this confusion and with so many branches of Christianity all screaming something different, some new and some old, and with many differing presuppositions about life and people and God and the universe, what I would propose is the question: what is a Christian?
Philosophically speaking, Christianity is nearly undefinable because of how many different cultures have their own take on what it is. Off the top of my head, there are the two sides of the coin of Modernism, Conservative and Liberal Christianity, the former with huge emphasis on right doctrine, and the latter with huge emphasis on right practice, there is Postmodern Christianity, which is a progressive lifestyle movement, there is Roman Catholicism which remains very rooted in tradition and Western theology, there is mainline Protestantism and Reformed Protestantism, which in general butt heads constantly over Free Will/Predestination and other theology, there is Eastern Orthodoxy, with emphasis on the culture that is perhaps the most alien to me, growing up in the Southern U.S., but tends to be much more metaphysical and with differing perspectives on some very key things that are emphasized by most of Western Christianity, such as the way Christ atoned for sin on the cross, the way in which Salvation works, and the way Church is practiced, and there are many other cultural movements present in Christianity that I will not even try to account for here.
So when someone tells you they're a Christian, what are you supposed to believe about them? Or perhaps more relevantly, what do you believe? Do you look at that person and think you've found a like-minded individual, are you suddenly wary of this person who seems to have admitted to being a religious nut, or do you simply not care altogether?
In my not-so-humble opinion, I will tell you what I believe a Christian is, and what I think a Christian should be.
A Christian is a person that finds solace in the religious movement of Christianity in some way, shape or form, whether it is the theology, the movement itself, the psychological satisfaction of being religious, the people they interact with every day in the religious community they've involved themselves in, the actions that they feel make them a good person, or the life they feel they are living, whether out of fear of punishment from a divine force, out of self-loathing, out of respect for the God they believe in, out of love, or out of many other motivations.
I think a Christian should be a person that seeks the truth in all matters and presupposes that that is through God, who is expressed in the figure of Jesus Christ, no matter what route one takes (reason, history, science, philosophy, religion, conversation, etc.). I don't believe this should be motivated by any other thing than what a person believes is correct, what a person believes is true. Because of this, I believe any person that is honestly seeking the truth about life is worthy of respect, and any person not seeking it and keeping others from seeking it should get out of the way of those that are. This, of course, diverts from what a Christian is to my beliefs about how people should act, so allow me to digress back to the original topic.
Christianity - What is it? It's a lot of people all trying to seek something they believe to be worthwhile through their belief in Christ, that have formed a fractured, imperfect, and multi-faceted religious movement with countless branches and unbelievable amounts of influence in worldwide culture.
I am satisfied to call myself a Christian because I seek truth in any form I can find it, and believe this all to be a seeking of Christ, the primal meaning of the universe, the Word, Truth.