What do Christians Believe?

Reverend Francis RitchieMiscellanyLeave a Comment

What do Christians believe?

Recent public discussions have put the spotlight on the Christian faith and concepts like sin, repentance, and hell. Because we live in a pluralist society in all its beauty and diversity, I’m aware that the story and beliefs of Christianity no longer form the foundational narrative that everyone in Aotearoa New Zealand basically understands and buys into. It’s no longer the worldview that informs our collective morality. Because of this shift I’m aware that understandings of the Christian faith have also decreased, so this post is my feeble and fallible attempt to offer some understanding of the basics, thus increasing awareness. Yes, this is very presumptuous of me since I can’t speak for all Christians. I will not be engaging in debates about whether what I say here is the ‘truth’ or not, as defending the Christian faith is not the point of this article.

It’s worth noting that I’m aware that whatever I write won’t satisfy many from varying worldviews, including Christians since we are a diverse bunch. There will be much in whatever I say that can be criticized from a number of angles. I’m not attempting to cover everything, and nor am I seeking to convert anyone. This is just a simple attempt to explain some of the basics.

To begin with, Christianity is about an adherence to a basic and big story – an ancient overarching story that encompasses everything. That story has a few main characters. The lead role is God, to whom Jesus is intricately connected (more on that later), and the other main characters are humanity and creation (the universe, earth etc).

We call God ‘Creator’ because we believe that all that exists was brought into being by a personal entity that is both beyond time and space, and also intimately within it. We believe that this Creator is the sustainer of life itself, so within the Creator we live and move and have our being. This Creator does not live in temples, churches, or mosques. This Creator is above all – sovereign over all created things. We believe all humans are, in some way, the ‘children’ of this Creator – ALL of us. We see all of life as a gift from the Creator.

Chief among our beliefs about how this Creator relates to us is love. In the creation narrative of the book of Genesis in the Bible, God is so near, that we received life itself through the Creator’s Spirit being breathed into us. Some argue that the personal name given to the Creator in the Bible mimics the sound and action of breath. Words given to the Creator’s Spirit, which permeates all of creation, also relate to breath – wind, breeze, small wind. Thus, we are given an image of a Creator who is over and above all – one we are in awe of, ultimately sovereign – but also close and loving in a way that no other can be. To capture this, we are also given metaphors in scripture that relate the Creator to both a father and a mother. Christianity has predominantly and traditionally used the title of ‘Father’ to describe God, not as a gender identity since God has no gender, but as a role.

To understand Christianity, we must first and foremost grasp this narrative of intimacy and love. Without that foundation, talk of sin and judgment take on a warped focus and are poorly understood, as we’ve seen recently.

It is our belief that humanity, as the pinnacle of creation – endowed with the image and likeness of the Creator in some way, and therefore being God’s representation within creation, to tend and care for the earth that has been gifted to us as the garden of the Creator (making us co-creators) – was given free will. It’s clear, as it is for any parent that has children, that there was a risk in this. The risk was that we would spurn the love of our ultimate parent, our Creator. The risk was that we would trash what was gifted to us, and break our relationship with the garden we have been gifted (the earth), our relationships with each other, and our relationship to our Creator. In the story of scripture that Christians adhere to, we played that risk out and we continue to play it out.

The story of scripture, written into the library that is the Bible, is then a glimpse down through time, in particular historical context’, of humanity spitting on the Creator, instructions being provided for how the relationship could be mended, us coming back, running away, and so on – rinse, and repeat. It’s messy, it’s gut-wrenching, and it’s often hard to understand. It can hit depressing lows, and sublime highs, offer comforts and challenges, and sometimes it feels like reading one step forward and two steps back. If it hasn’t distressed you at times, left you aghast, caused you to want to throw it, made you pull your hair out, held a mirror up to you, and given you moments of sublime insight, you probably haven’t read it.

At the heart of the Christian understanding of that exercise of free will is the belief that in playing out as it did and as it continues to, all of us live with a brokenness – an inner darkness – that keeps us turned away from our Creator; something that we cannot heal on our own. We call this ‘sin’ and it is a deeper concept than breaking some imposed moral codes (which we often have disagreements about) that you will often hear as the focus of some. It can display itself in many ways – some of it in ways that can look very pious and sanctimonious.

Christian acts of confession and repentance, when not abused, are first and foremost a recognition of this in ourselves, an acceptance of what God has done for us (I’ll explain that soon) and a conscious desire to turn towards something better. We believe that the first step in our ultimate healing is a recognition of our own brokenness and a turning towards the ultimate source of love. When we own this for ourselves properly, it becomes hard to judge others. Owning this should lead to us growing in the ability to forgive ourselves and others. We mess it up when we spend too much time looking externally for brokenness and darkness, and pointing it out in others, with little time spent acknowledging it in ourselves.

It is our belief that such inner brokenness and darkness keeps us, in some way, disconnected from our life source – our Creator – and it is our belief that God intensely wants to restore us, reconcile us to ‘him’, each other, and the rest of creation. Again, the imagery of God in this, is of love and ultimately, a radical hospitality.

This is where Jesus comes into the picture, and where many, including other religions, think we go a bit crazy. Remember, I said that we believe that we cannot heal our (or the world’s) inner brokenness or that darkness on our own. We believe there is no set of rules or conduct that can make us perfect. Our activity truly matters, but it is our understanding that the only way true and deep healing/restoration/reconciliation can occur (Christians often use the word ‘salvation’ to describe this) within us and towards our Creator, the creation, and one another, is if God rushes towards us and does it for us. As that ongoing healing/restoration/reconciliation occurs within us, we then participate with God in it at an individual level, and in and with the world around us.

Driving that activity of God rushing towards us to do what we cannot do ourselves, is an unrelenting love. The results are grace that often times seems ‘unfair’, mercy, forgiveness. In Christian belief, how does that rushing towards us happen? The answer for us is to say that the Creator became one of us – emptying ‘himself’ and taking on the nature of a human on the bottom of the social ladder; a servant (this is the story of Christmas). With this it’s easy to get bogged down in a whole stack of confusion as Christians talk about what’s known as the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), but what’s important is the central idea that Jesus is the act of God rushing towards us – taking on our nature with all its ups and downs, its struggles and joys.

Importantly, in becoming one of us, it is our belief that God took on our shame, and our disgrace; that which we see and feel when we look inside and discover our brokenness and darkness, and that which we see when we look at the world around us. Jesus shamed himself by suffering as a man, and being beaten, battered and hung on a cross. It was the ultimate act of ‘unfairness.’

That chosen self-shaming and disgrace of God – that act of weakness and humility – informs every breath of the Christian faith. It’s why you’ll see Pope Francis washing the feet of prisoners and kissing the shoes of politicians that he hopes will work for peace – because whether it’s for show or not, he understands that acts of weakness and humility emulate what we understand of God, and the Creator’s act of rushing towards us. It’s also why our central symbol is a cross – a device of shame and disgrace. Christianity gets out of kilter when we act in a manner opposed to this; when we seek after power, spend much time and effort trying to defend our societal territory, shun those who are different from us, and the list goes on. We are called to selflessly serve one another and the world around us – that’s what Jesus showed us.

It’s important to point out that when Jesus was subjected to the death of the cross, for his early followers all seemed lost. The whole exercise of the last 3 years of spending time with him would have seemed like a futile waste of time. They had missed the mark on much of what he had said and done. It’s in the midst of that sense of futility and uselessness that we then get the story of the resurrection – Jesus risen from the dead. Now hear me, this is understood to be a big deal that changed everything. It is the very heart of the Christian faith. We rise and fall on the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. No Christian believes dead people just rise from the dead. People get resuscitated from time to time, but the resurrection of Christ was something much more significant. It was a one-time event in history. We believe that when Mary Magdalene discovered that his tomb was empty, that his physical body was like the seed of a whole new type of person. Out of death, uselessness, and futility, God busted into the world with something completely new, and an amazing adventure began.

In the story of the next part of Jesus’ interaction with his disciples, it was about helping them grasp this ‘newness’ and charging them with being agents of that new thing. Then came what we call the ascension – where Jesus returned, in some way, to the Godhead. Arguments about the mechanics of it aside, this is significant in that it means we believe the human nature of Jesus – the experience of being human, of suffering, experiencing pain, and also all that is good about being human – was taken back into the being and relationship of God. The fusion of humanity into the Creator and thereby leading to God enacting a reconciliation that we never could.

There are many legitimate questions about God. If we could answer them all then God would not be God, but as Christians, when asked the question ‘what is God like?’ our kneejerk response should be to point to Jesus.

The whole point of the Christian life is to recognize the sovereignty of God, through Jesus, and from there, to follow in the footsteps of Jesus with the aim being our unity with God, creation, and each other. Through doing so, we believe our lives are orientated back towards our Creator and we experience restoration, reconciliation and the ongoing journey of wholeness – in a word, ‘salvation.’

All of our gatherings, our life together, and our rituals and traditions, are about a bunch of fallible people working that big story out, being shaped by it, seeking to live it, and inviting others into it with us. We do so living in the hope and belief that brokenness, darkness and death will not have the last word – that, as naïve as it might seem at times, there will come a time when all things will be healed, reconciled, restored, and renewed well beyond anything we could imagine.

Sometimes we are sublimely good at living up to all of it, and other times the brokenness and darkness seep into the whole thing a bit too much and we fail miserably…. it’s not hard to look through history, and even our own times, and spot the latter. The fallout can be significant. If you have ever been the victim of that, as I have, I am truly sorry.

Outside of the central things we believe about the big narrative of life, God, Jesus and humanity, there are an untold number of things we disagree on… heck, many Christians will disagree with some of the stuff I have outlined here. Some will want to add things, take things away, shift what I have emphasized, or use different language. We’re a diverse bunch – a messy tapestry of different ideas and ways of living. We clumsily try and work out how to live this together even with our diversity.

As an example – and these are only a tiny number of the things we disagree with each other on – the nature of the soul, heaven, hell, exactly what happens when we die, untold numbers of social and economic issues, sexuality, the nature of marriage, how to understand and apply the Bible, what authority structures should look like in the church, what happens when we take Holy Communion, how the restoration of all things will play out, how we relate to other religions, how we should talk about our faith with those who don’t believe the same as us… and I could go on. We split churches over these things. We get involved in culture wars over them. We push others away where those disagreements occur. Why? Because sadly, we’re as good as anyone else at creating divisions over things that aren’t, ultimately, central. We’re very well practiced at it. So time and time again we need to be reminded about the big narrative, because as fickle as we can be about some of those things, we all believe in the importance of that bigger story.

At the end of the day we’re flesh and blood just like everyone else. We get offended when what’s important to us is denigrated, just like everyone else. We hurt when we’re mocked, just like everyone else. We experience the struggles of life, and the joys of beauty. We love our families and want the best for them. We want to be productive and contribute well to society. You’ll find us spread across the political spectrum. We’re tradies, doctors, media personnel, road workers, lawyers, cleaners, scientists, garbage collectors, politicians, beneficiaries, teachers, factory workers, volunteers, business owners, police, homeless. We represent every level of educational achievement, from the highest to the lowest. We hail from every socio-economic grouping and nationality. You’ll find us in most suburbs from the wealthy, to those struggling with poverty. We struggle with addictions and mental health issues, and you’ll also often find us in the services that are there to help with those things. We drive cars, we ride bikes, we take public transport. We also pay taxes, and we vote.

We’re involved in our communities and our nation, and we want to see them flourish. Sometimes we engage with you in that well, and sometimes our attempts at it are sadly misguided. Sometimes we get life right, sometimes we stuff it up. I’m sure you can relate.