Nicholas Kristof, Tim Keller, Christmas, and a key pastoral question

I read with interest Nick Kristof’s NYT interview with Tim Keller.  I’m a big fan of Nicholas Kristof, and I have a lot of respect for Tim Keller, who generally presents one of the better contemporary expressions of the traditional Evangelical theology in which I was raised.

This interview centers on a very personal and very pastoral question: “Pastor, Am I a Christian?” The answer, no doubt, depends on how one defines the key term. For Tim, Christian identity is primarily defined by a list of beliefs, as it was for me in my upbringing:

… if you don’t accept the … foundational beliefs as defined by the Apostles’ Creed, I’d say you are on the outside of the boundary.

There’s a lot we could debate about this, such as, for example, whether boundary-set thinking is a better approach to matters of the Spirit than centered-set thinking. But Nick’s question and Tim’s answer raise the deeper question of what the term Christian really means these days.

The question recalls Nick’s conversation with me a few months back, about my 2016 book The Great Spiritual Migration.

Nick quoted my book and then offered his own reflection:

“What would it mean for Christians to rediscover their faith not as a problematic system of beliefs but as a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation and expressed in compassion?” McLaren asks in “The Great Spiritual Migration.” “Could Christians migrate from defining their faith as a system of beliefs to expressing it as a loving way of life?”… McLaren advises worrying less about whether biblical miracles are literally true and thinking more about their meaning: If Jesus is said to have healed a leper, put aside the question of whether this actually happened and focus on his outreach to the most stigmatized of outcasts.

Although Tim and I may differ on some matters, I fully agreed with his point near the beginning of the interview:

If something is truly integral to a body of thought, you can’t remove it without destabilizing the whole thing. A religion can’t be whatever we desire it to be. If I’m a member of the board of Greenpeace and I come out and say climate change is a hoax, they will ask me to resign. I could call them narrow-minded, but they would rightly say that there have to be some boundaries for dissent or you couldn’t have a cohesive, integrated organization. And they’d be right. It’s the same with any religious faith.

The question is “what is truly integral” to Christian identity?

In the Evangelical/Fundamentalism of my upbringing, as long as you held to each item on the list of “foundational beliefs,” you were safely in. You might be violent, unreflective, willfully ignorant, factually incorrect, science-denying, misogynist, greedy, lustful, prideful, spiteful, ignorant, racist and selfish, but if you held the right beliefs, you were going to heaven when you die, and in comparison with that, nothing else mattered much.

This interpretation of “what is truly integral” to Christian faith is related to something else Tim said … something that I used to say as well:

Jesus’ teaching was not the main point of his mission. He came to save people through his death for sin and his resurrection.

Again, this understanding is at heart of the belief system that many of us were taught from childhood, namely, that Jesus’ only real value is in solving the problem of original sin by being killed on the cross to appease a wrathful God. This understanding was critiqued succinctly just this week in a rhetorical question posed by Greg Boyd in a Tweet:

How did “God so LOVED the world he GAVE his only Son” evolve into “God so HATED the world he had to KILL his only Son?”

As we approach Christmas, it’s a good time to reflect on why Jesus was born and why it matters. It’s a good time to note that according to the Gospels, Jesus himself gives a number of reasons for the “main point of his mission” – from bringing people to repentance or radical rethinking (Mark 2:17) to seeking and liberating or healing the lost (Mt. 19:10), to serving people and setting them free (Mt 20:28), to speaking the truth (John 18:37), to being a light (John 12:46), to preaching the good news of the revolutionary kingdom of God (Mark 1:38), and more. Yes, a meaning-rich and world-changing suffering and death were among those many reasons (Jn 12:27), but it’s a mistake (a popular mistake) to let that one reason silence all the others.

If Jesus had said, “By their beliefs you will know them,” it would be one thing. But he said it was by their “fruit” (Matthew 7:20, see also Galatians 5:22-23) and above all by their love (John 13:35) that his disciples would be known.

That’s why I think that if Nick had asked Jesus, “Rabbi, am I one of your followers?” he would have received a different answer than he received in this interview. The answer might not have been a simple “yes” or “no” – but may have involved a new set of questions:

Do you love the least of these – the poor, the prisoner, the sick, the outsider, the outcast, the enemy?
Which do you love more – the earth as God’s creation or money that can be made from exploiting the earth?
Would you rather be known for defeating, humiliating, or destroying your enemies or making peace with them, so they become neighbors and friends?
Do you just want to use correct words about me, or do you want to follow my example and live my teachings?
Is love – for God, self, neighbor, other, enemy, and the earth – your highest aim and deepest desire?

With our global politics so highly charged this Christmas season – by a resurgence of white nationalism, by renewed talk of a nuclear arms race, by tensions between democracy and demagoguery, by concerns about real and fake news, by our need for a better option beyond dead religion and deadly religion – I have a feeling that the issue of Christian identity is going to matter more and more in the months and years ahead.

I think Nicholas Kristof is asking exactly the right questions, and I hope we’ll all keep our hearts open for the best answers.