When a student I’ve not met drops by during office hours, one of the first questions I ask is “what’s your religious background?” If they’re Christians, they’ll usually tell me which sort of Christian – Anglicans say Anglican, Catholics say Catholic, Pentecostals say Pentecostal, and so forth. This is super helpful for any sort of pastoral care; knowing a bit about their backgrounds, styles of worship, expectations of clergy, goes a long way.
But occasionally a student will come in and say “I’m just Christian.” And I always respond – rather cheekily, I must confess – “oh, so you’re non-denominational evangelical protestant.” I’ve become quite good at letting that polysyllabic designation roll off my tongue, and I always have to stifle a little chuckle when they blink back at me in bemusement.
“I’m just a Christian” strikes me as peculiar, and a little presumptuous, too – there exists a tribe of Christians who understand their tradition not so much as a tradition but as a neutral or basic expression of Christianity. As if Christianity was a car, and you could buy the non-denom base model without all the power windows, sunroofs and such. (You can have great fun with this analogy: the Reformed car is the one where the GPS takes over and gets you to your (pre)destination, the Orthodox car takes forever to get anywhere, the Pentecostal car’s horn blares incessantly . . .).
I say peculiar because it seems so out of place in our time. This is an identity-obsessed moment; gender, class, race, sexuality, creed and age are all invoked all the time, in Twitter bios, before remarks made in grad seminars, in the vast array of student clubs on campus. And sure, this can be a kind of navel-gazing, but at its best it’s a recognition that where we come from is critically important. There is no such thing as a view from nowhere. And the fact that so many of the “just a Christian” kind of churches are led by white dudes is telling. As one so seated, I can say that it’s really easy to presume my white dude point of view is the normative, basic, neutral one.
Years back, the chaplains’ association at Laurier became a multi-faith organization, and we debated whether to use “multi-faith” or “inter-faith” to describe ourselves. We agreed on the former because it made space for the particularity of our traditions; none of us wanted to water anything down. “Inter-faith” made it feel like that’d be necessary, that we would have to be less than honest about our compatibility, or lack thereof. We chose to preserve difference, even as we gathered as a single organization.
Can focusing on difference or particularity be divisive? Definitely. But just as often, I’ve found it provides for rich and honest conversations. There’s something about knowing who you are and where you come from that allows for genuine ecumenism and even multi-faith collaboration. And sure, sometimes those conversations are difficult and disorienting. But when they are, I’ve found it’s made me return back to the well of my tradition and retrieve sustaining things I didn’t even know were there. I dare say I’ve become more Reformed even as I’ve found friends and colleagues from every tribe and tongue.
May it ever be so. I say that because the temptation to do the opposite – to have our heads turned by the mass market and the generic, to uproot ourselves for the sake of relevance – is ever present. Sometimes I think we’ve developed an inferiority complex in Reformed circles, and that we think the answer to our anxieties is found not in what we’ve inherited, but in whatever form of Christianity seems successful at the moment. And maybe an inferiority complex is preferable, I guess, to the old habit of being arrogant, dogmatic bulldozers. That too is rubbish. Surely there’s a way between the two, one where we state our convictions with courage, receive our inheritance with gratitude, and remember what a blessing it is to have a story.