I received this innocent question a couple of months ago, and it actually scared me--I was forced to look at myself closely, at a time that I didnt really want to...
This dear, warm letter came in (some of the remarks I have removed):
I am taking a fresh look at Christianity--having studied it before, but now looking through new eyes at it... I have affirmed by faith in Christ, and I wanted to get your take on it, from your current vantage point.
What does it mean to you to be a Christian?
I know the creeds, am familiar with the various catechisms, but figure you could give me a working definition anyway.
I work in a science lab, and have been the 'leading' skeptic among my co-researchers, so they are surprised by the change.
My first response was a quick email:
Hello C--I hope this finds you well... I am in a hotel in Atlanta GA (USA) as I write this, 4.44AM... I have to get ready for a speech (on technology stuff) in a couple of hours, so I cannot really reply right now--but I did want to quickly respond to your warm email:
What part of the world do you live in? and how do you spent your time? (it might even be easier to talk over the phone for some of this--although I tend to think too slowly for 'live' conversations--but if the question has been framed--like you have in your email--then sometimes I can have some material 'together enough' to offer and discuss over the phone... assuming YOUR personal style can work in this...
Where you live also affects--dramatically--the 'utility' of a local church for your personal development. My experience (actually the experiences of thousands of others via emails through the ThinkTank) is that 'thinking types' are often marginalized by the Western churches, since our needs are so 'complicated' and our numbers are so statistically small that the normal local Christian assemblies are unequipped to deal with us... with the consequence that they are sometimes 'threatened' by us, and therefore--like WE do to others sometimes (sad smile)--they vilify us... I don’t want you to avoid the local church, but I do want you to set your expectations reasonably--it may become a wonderful place to experience worship and community and love (depending on how 'real' the church is), but you might also be facing a sense of isolation ('nobody here is like me') there. Fortunately, in today's world, the web alone is adequate to build a warm, identity group... I personally attend church maybe once a year (except when I get to teach there), but my deepest, warmest, defining community is a group of REAL followers of Jesus on the web (e.g., a guy in Iceland, a professor in Michigan, a hematologist in Australia, a med student up north, etc).
[I realize this is very random, but please forgive me--I will get to the real question you asked (chuckle) at some point in the future...just not in THIS email]
I will have to give you a 'measured response' to your 'what does it mean...' question. As I first read this this morning, what immediately came to mind were a series of quasi-aphorisms, more suited to a cute poster than to an email of peer2peer counsel... all true, and all an aspect of this treasure, but probably not central enough to the needset:
"It means being aware of the presence of a warm, quiet, non-invasive, 'human-friendly' God in your life--at the closest distance imaginable"
"It means there always being hope, whether you want it or not, whether you doubt it or not"
"It means that Ultimate Reality wears a smile and bears a warm heart toward you--in spite of how proximate reality treats you..."
"It means never being able to escape the unceasing efforts and unyielding commitment of His love for you PERSONALLY"
"It means always being the last one to forgive yourself in future acts of moral failure--and knowing He is always the first"
"It means getting accustomed to feeling worse and worse about your future personal sin, as He actually makes your life cleaner and cleaner from such sin, quantitatively and qualitatively..."
"It means being held to the highest level of honesty imaginable--His very presence in your heart, His companionship in your thinking processes, and His constant urging to non-slander of other positions and non-acceptance of easier, self-supporting positions..." (sigh!)
"It means a source of life and freedom within a conversation/prayer's distance away, beyond all imagination but unlike most human expectations of 'how' that powerful intervention should 'look'..."
"It means never, ever being alone--especially when the feelings of loneliness are overwhelming..."
"It means always being humbled intellectually by His subtlety, and always delighting in the implications of that"
"It means being consistently surprised by His patience, His acceptance, His warmth toward you, His constancy in helping your heart grow into freedom, beauty, dance, art"
"It means still knowing His reality, His closeness, His activity in your life--even when you become SO frustrated with all the competing creeds, denominations, theologies, hermeneutics, churches, etc out there...all struggling to express in our world the incredible riches of His disclosure, His actions-in-history, and His heart-as-experienced in our daily walk with this living God..."
(see what I mean--a bad "desiderata" poster...smile/sigh)
...and it means "being a source of blessing to others in ways only His love-heart can sculpt"... like today!
I am going through a difficult time in my life right now, all seems dark and discouraging, so much seems out of place... I am in 'back to basics' mode, needing to re-center, re-focus my intense stream of activity, it seems... and your simple question this morning has caused me to reflect again on this 'Rock' of His companionship in my hourly experience. I have wept a couple of times as I spewed out this list above, as I was once again dwarfed by his love, gentleness, loyalty, and non-judgmental forgiveness... I am surprised again today by providence, with His blessing my life/day by your warm, honest, open-hearted, and eager email, C... my heart moves to Thanks again, for the steady stream of encouragement-in-poorly-lit-valleys-of-death (smile)... as you walk with Him, you will have to get accustomed to this too--His steady stream of small blessings, quiet encouragements, mini-moments of massive transcendence, 2-minute eruptions of tears of joy and/or numinous experience of His closeness... this is one of the oddest aspects of the Christian's experience--His absolutely private display of His affection (never to be defiled in a courtroom of 'apologetics' or 'debate'--intimacy kept intimate and special)... but more on this later...
I have to get to work now, but I will try to do a better job next round, C--and I will try to learn more about your background from your email (I did read in your earlier email that you seemed more historically oriented than philosophically so, that might help me frame my remarks more usefully for you)...
Anyway, its 5:43 now (I guess its been an hour writing this...see how slowly I think...if at all --smile),
Warmly, and looking forward to getting to know you, friend-- glenn
He fired a quick response back:
Sent: Thursday, May 03, 2007 5:15 AM
To: glenn miller
Subject: Re: Is Christianity Understood?
Thank you for responding at this odd hour. Your sincerity has always struck me.
I have a great interest in historical issues, but that only implies that I have a lot invested in my views and more ego to wrestle with when it comes to historical problems of Christian faith.
I responded to
the last paragraph of that email--
See brief comments below,
friend....(it's late here again, and I have another early morning for
the next couple of days...sigh)... "no rest for the wicked",
I guess (sigh/smile)...
Yeah, the good-and-bad news of this relationship with a God of truth is that the working rules change...sigh...
The research question (historical or otherwise, generally, I have found) divides into THREE sets of moral interactions with the good-hearted, truthful-speaking One...
<One: are we right or just 'bright'--with the last one being the much easier of the two to achieve [as you undoubtedly already know!];
Two: how did we deal with the multitude of moral questions involved in every 'choice' we made in our process of discovery and our process of argumentation--
[btw, this is the hard one for me... unrelenting honesty with the countless data 'weighting' decisions in the use of historical sources is exhausting, but something He will continue to push for, to support with 'breaths of fresh authentication', and to communicate His quiet-and-mild-but-real grief when we choose the self-supporting option/interpretation 'too quickly'... this is a beautiful thing, actually, and we grow immensely from this interaction with our newly enhanced conscience, but something we humans are not accustomed to, I am afraid...
For myself, this aspect is sometimes a struggle with motive... to wit: I encounter some discordant-to-my-anticipated-conclusion data point, and I find that sometimes my first motive for working through this data point HONESTLY and DEEPLY is to 'cover my rear' so I don't 'take a hit' in some later rebuttal... I generally catch myself somewhere down this process and realize the motive is flawed and ignoble... I research and write TO SERVE OTHERS, to bring peace-of-mind-n-heart to those wrestling with some of these questions... this is NOT about 'keeping out of the line of fire' or about 'being persuasive'--it is about serving others (who do not have the time, resources, or background to dig into this stuff as deeply) and about doing it 'as unto the Lord', like coloring a picture in Kindergarten for my mom, like doing the Little Drummer Boy thing ("I have no gifts to bring; I'll play my drum for Him"), or like making a gift for a dear friend... (Col 3:23: "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men ")... And when i put aside (temporarily...sigh/smile) my glenn-centric motive, His blessing on the research work continues (and I can sense His pleasure---perhaps you remember the quote from Chariots of Fire, when the sister was trying to talk Eric out of running in the Olympix... Eric says something like "God made me fast, Jenny, and when I run, I feel His good pleasure"... it's something like that feeling, when my heart is pure and open and honest and other-goaled...).
and Three, the ego issue gets even worse when # 1 and #2 are on -target!!! It is really quite comical how our old self is so candy-centric... smile... "not only was I right, but I made the morally right decisions at every step of the way, with constant renewal of motives and goals, etc--aren't I something, Lord?!" LOL... oh, goodness...chuckle... you may have a bigger problem with this than I, simply because you may have 'lectured' to your fellow researchers so much before this point... and with that investment it is tough to 'leave everything behind and follow Me..." (Jesus to the rich young ruler, paraphrased, et. al.)... most scholars NEVER are able to shift their positions late in life (e.g., Einstein on quantum indeterminacy?!!!)...
...and i can read something I wrote 10-12 years ago and REMEMBER the moral short-cuts I made back then... amazing how this constant improvement, renewal, beautification works! It is often humbling, but the beauty in even THAT is exquisite... He really is more a gardener than a carpenter, I think...
and the process is so 'graceful' (?) by design--the less my ego is concerned about how 'beautiful' it looks to others, the MORE beautiful it actually is to others...the more my ego sees the beauty in others, the more others see the beauty in my ego... just like the Trinity--each Person trying to honor the Others exclusively...
It's a little like this: sometimes somebody will be amazed at some tiny thing I can 'do' (or, more accurately, 'have done'), and they will ask how do I deal with 'elitist pride'. I sometimes answer that i have developed criteria for "legitimate arrogance", such that if I could satisfy the criteria, then I could be arrogant with full warrant. The two criteria I have chosen are these: if I could speak an entire universe into existence from nothing, by sheer act of will, then I could be arrogant 'legitimately'; or if I could raise myself from the dead by my own personal choice/will, then I could legitimately be arrogant... then I comment that if I DID have that much power/ability, then I probably might not have any 'need' for arrogance (smile), and would probably be so good of spirit that arrogance wouldn't even be 'native' to me--only love, service, caring, etc... not even temptation to be arrogant... and honesty about my 'power' would just be that--honesty, not pride or arrogance or elitism...
so, I have grounds for encouragement in this area, since His steady work of growing real 'life' inside me produces a better and healthier ego along the way... you will see and experience this too, and you will be CHANGED by just watching this quiet blossoming of new life, new beauty, new vistas, friend... I am quietly excited for you--you have come to this with enough life/investment behind you to REALLY appreciate what you will find flowing from His heart for you...
[gotta break now--its 11:41pm and my daughter from Philly just called--she wants me to call her at 4 am my time in the morning for a wakeup call... she is in politics and tomorrow is a BIG election day/work-day for her! I will need to crash for a while before that... I'll try to get a little further with my comments within the next week or so...
[warmly, glenn miller
BREAK FOR THE NIGHT===============================
He clarified that he was more interested
in philosophical issues, than historical:
Sent: Monday, May 14, 2007 11:46 PM
Subject: RE: Is Christianity Understood?
See brief [comments] below,
friend....(it's late here again, and I have another early morning for
the next couple of days...sigh)... "no rest for the wicked",
I guess (sigh/smile)...
“For that reason, and because
I'm trying to get into it more generally, I would appreciate your
comments on the philosophical side of things.”
[As i get older, I find myself getting more philosophical about my getting less philosophical (smile)... I cannot tell if I am just getting tired, becoming lazy, absorbing airborne-postmodstuff, becoming more defensive (about my lack of ability and/or success in the area), or just more stubborn, but my confidence in much of philosophical theology continues to erode... I have become more and more nervous with refined discussions about the trinity, the incarnation, attributes of God, "decrees of God", and many of the aspects of predicate and modal logic, when applied to the divine.
I read about the trinitarian controversies and now I am studying the Muslim attacks (historical) on the Christian's attempts to articulate the Trinity, and I keep finding myself wanting to ask the disputants if they really FEEL like they know what they are talking about? When the Christian argues that three-ness is a "modality" of existence, instead of 'parts', 'aspects', or 'manifestations' of God--does he/she really have an idea of what is being affirmed? Does the muslim's response of 'that is simply nonsense' presume the the same degree of 'analyze-ability' of God?
God has poked His head and His hands into history in a number of places, times, ways--for purposes of 'identification'--and in countless more p/t/w's for purposes of stealth-helping... the Christian is stuck with this: how to get BEYOND simple affirmation (i.e., scripture clearly indicates that there is only One God and that there are three 'faces' which require personal pronouns and which must be called 'God'), to anything more... and I am increasingly dubious that we can get much further than this--
The two-natures Christology problem is just a continuation of this problem--we don't know what 'essence' , 'existence', 'subsistence', 'person' are AT THE LEVEL OF PRECISION NECESSARY to describe their interactions, interpenetration, inter-whatevers... maybe I am methodologically just 'tired', but i have written already on the Tank about my position on the limits of the 'epistemic bubble'...
[Strict non-trinitarian monotheists, btw, don't get away from the problem--believe me--since the issue is the INTERFACE and inter-penetrability of the 'natural' and 'supernatural'. An eternal Quran in heaven--uncreated, but in Arabic (with foreign vocab words--smile)--now 'incarnated' in an Arabic Text in a Museum somewhere, has the same eternal/historical interface problem...So does Judaism's "God dwelling in the temple" motif... the problem is one of understanding how the 'gap is crossed'... that it is crossed is a matter of history; how it is crossed may be outside our ability to discover EVER... hence my pessimism...
That being said, my complaints are largely about just those grandiose concepts--and not more mundane topics such as perception, epistemology, language, consciousness (although I should state that the intractability of rigorous, non-assumptive human consciousness study and the intractability of ever discovering 'where the meaning of a text IS' have fueled my skepticism about such matters--and significantly lessened the urgency of those questions... I gather from one of your other comments that we will disagree about this matter, but IMHO, (1) Plantinga's argument from Other Minds to God was a real eye-opener and convincing approach to me, and (2) the seemingly 'non-local' (in the physical sense) character of semantic meaning added more confidence to my doubts about pan-reducibility... these seemed to be irreducible 'brute givens' ... but I wax superfluously (smile)...
Anyway... didn't mean to drag you into MY morass (smile)...
One autobiographical note, though: when i first became a Christian as a college junior and finally 'woke up' during that summer, i was under the impression that there were only two Christianities: pre-Vacitan2 Roman Catholic (my background) and Protestant (which i became)... I was aware of the different brands of Protestantism (e.g. baptist, methodist, etc), but assumed that the differences were more of style and practice... when I began teaching a bible study on campus that senior year, I began to be bombarded with rival theologies (e.g, Reformed, charismatic, Lutheran, etc), and I soon discovered that there were at least 50 competing theologies that I knew of, all proclaiming themselves to be the 'true' system incarnated in the bible...
Thus began my journey into methodological studies--I figured there HAD to be a way to verify one (or parts of some) of these theologies as being true, and that all that was needed was a proper theological method... so, I began reading in that subject matter profusely: Torrance, Kaufman, Tracy, Lonergan, Kuyper, etc... this ended up only pushing the question further down to hermeneutics of sacred texts (e.g. Hirsh, Gadamer, etc), which seemed to get weirder with each passing year... and hermeneutics pushed inexorably into philosophy of language, and that into epistemology... and dumped me into philosophy of logic...
I still have the book that started some of the doubts--"The Philosophy of Social Science", in which the authors laid out the predicate calculus approach (it was the heyday of hubristic hope! - the late 70's) for Social Science. They called it a promising approach, to define a predicate calculus in which all the symbols were related and wff's were defined, and rules of inference established, etc--and then, all a sociologist had to do was to define some sociological term (e.g. "exogenous authority") and plug it into the formulae, and conclusions and implications would trickle out, with relationships with other predicates and substrates becoming visible. I realized then that the system's accuracy STOOD or FELL with the precision and 'isolation from background' of the variables they plugged into the calculus... I found myself wondering what it could possibly mean to plug in a variable like "Immutability" or "Timelessness" and work that through a calculus! How could we really know what implications could be reasonably drawn from 'immutability' (e.g., cannot think two concepts in a row?)... and how substituting Persons for Substances, and characteristics for attributes, would (a) be any better--given the flowing nature of personal existence--and (b) how you could EVER mix Persons and Divine Substances together 'well enough' to come up with anything solid enough to use... sigh...
Many of the students of that era were abandoning 'systematic theology' and 'philosophical theology' in favor of 'biblical theology', since it seemed so much 'safer' in the limits of its truth claims... (I remember secretly suspecting back them they were were just wimping-out, because they didn't have the intellectual firepower to 'force' a system out of the biblical raw materials--lack of rigor, and all... oh, humiliated sigh...'by what standard ye judge...') but we all knew that there was a systematic theology and a philosophical theology HIDDEN in the very sacred text--it was basic to our understanding of a God who loved truth and Who wanted to share that truth with us little god-figurines.
Wow--that was a long digression, but I should point out that this methodological doubt has not stopped me from waxing philosophical on the Tank, of course! ("foolish Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds" [Emerson])
Okay, one more comment on philosophy--actually just a book recc, but it is in the perception of god/epistemic category... I have not finished it yet, but it is off to a GREAT start (good rigor, too!): Experience of God and the Rationality of Theistic Belief. Jerome Gellman. Cornell:1997.
Okay--on to another topic--philosophy! (haha)... inescapable, isn't it?
This is merely a description of MY path 'out from materialism' (but not a really rigorous one, of course, since i sorta talked myself into doubting the precision and completeness of materialist discourse in the above process)...
Years before i read Platinga's piece and had discussed the nature of semantics with an awesome neo-thomist professor of mine in my attempt at phd-getting, I had realized that beginning with material-only, we were not gonna be able to 'get up' to life, then to consciousness, then to spatial-but-not-bound-to-gravity angels, then to omnipresent-but-not-distributed deity... reductionism was merely a creed at that point--we could not demonstrate ANY meaningful, cross-area reductions (e.g., biology to physics, consciousness to biology, demonic episodes to abpsych). As far as i can tell, even many of the scientific paradigms have moved AWAY from this as a working platform (e.g., genetics is not physics, its 'information science'; evolution is not 'random'--it is mystically directed --e.g., convergence traits; individual psych has gone 'up' into socio-ontologies). In some areas, you HAVE to start with this methodologically (e.g., medicine), but even there the thrown-down wildcard of 'placebo effects' and top-down causation means that there's "more to it than that" somehow)...
So, I figured the hold 'hierarchy thing' needed rethinking, and so I wondered if maybe we had started at the wrong end to do the 'reduction'... if we started with God, and 'ripped out' some of the omni-traits, we would get angels. If we took angels, trapped them in material, in-cosmos bodies, then we get humans. If we rip out high-order semantics, community-dependence, elevated moral sensibilities from humans, massive recursion, we get animals. If we rip out quasi-volition and/or self-directed movement (on a large scale, that is), we get plants. Rip out reproduction, we get rocks... Reduction made sense, conceptually, even though I am sure my categories and distinguishing traits are too imprecise... (this is on the Tank somewhere, --just found it--"Black and Blue Books", a swipe at Wittgie, eh?)
With this in mind, I started working on the interface problem--how can God 'show me' something, or communicate His love to me, or lead me to a change of mind... granted His main tools here are other people ('personal secondary causes'--smile), but that only pushes the question back to them--How did He influence THEM in that direction...
but its 10:36PM here again, and I have been writing on this almost 2 hours and probably did more damage than good... (none of this has as its main focus your original question: "what does it mean to me to be a Christian?"--sorta... but it sorta DOES too, since honesty and searching and learning is beauty to God...)
Your question was 'comments on the philosophical side of things':
1. I distrust it for theology proper and questions of the divine/human, ultimate/derivative interface (but I don't reject it per se);
2. I distrust it for elemental metaphysics (the ultimate nature of reality);
3. I trust it to debunk a lot of crap positions (almost functioning as a via negativa);
4. The philosophical theology of the past ten years has been outstanding, imo--the work in theodicy, miracles, and even epistemology of religion has been almost breathtaking in its clarity/forcefulness;
5. I really like Swineburne and Wolterstorff;
6. I am not sure philosophy can talk about God-the-Persons meaningfully (philosophy can talk about the mortality of Socrates, but not about what breakfast food made him smile the most)--It DOES try to talk about the being, existence, nature, etc of God--but this is where my skepticism is strongest (the linguistic bubble thing)
7. To me the area of philosophical needs are: nature of communication in encountering texts in different intentional stances; and the nature of interpersonal communication WITHIN a single person (I experience myself as multiple agents, constantly--especially in 'inner child' therapy); epistemology of common religious claims; development of social ontologies (e.g. A Social Ontology. David Weissman. Yale:2000.)
I'll have to resume on your next comment later--a very juicy one...
I will close with one anecdote i used on the Tank, relative to arguments about God's reality, nature, intervention, etc:
"I remember an illustration I read somewhere--but I cannot for the life of me find it now--about a simple Christian farmer who went to some famous Atheist lecture. He had an atheist friend who begged and begged the farmer to go hear this Atheist speaker (I think the speaker was Ingersoll?). He agreed, and they both rode to the event from their town together in a car. After the lecture, as they were riding back home, the young atheist friend asked his thoughtful Christian farmer buddy what he thought of the speaker and speech. His reply was something like this:
"Well, he was a good speaker, but I guess I just heard his lecture thirty years too late.
When the young atheist asked him what he meant by that, the old man said:
"Well, if I would have heard the lecture 30 years ago, I probably would have believed him. But now, over the last 30 years God has done for me all the things this man said He couldn’t do: He has answered my prayers, changed my character for good, and gotten me through the sorrows and difficulties of life without me going bad or bitter."
That has been my experience as well…
I know that I sometimes over-interpret my experience, friend, and I look for 'signs' everywhere (although less so each year, btw)--and I also know I am not SUPPOSED to do this over-analysis…I am supposed to 'walk by faith, not by sight'. I am supposed to trust my good-hearted and omni-competent Lord to enable me to live warmly, freely, and with self-determination in the vast majority of details of my life. I am NOT supposed to be like the horse who has to be "led about with bit and bridle"…I am not supposed to ask for constant "what color socks to wear today" level of direction, but rather entrust my choices to Him and live by His directives of love, other-centeredness, loyalty, and integrity. But even with me seeing some "things that are not there", a very large portion of my experience STILL falls into that category described by the anthropologists, psychiatrists, and historians--the "unexplained residue that remains"…and that which "resists Western attempts at explanation"…
================== BREAK FOR NIGHT=========================
One residual comment on social ontology-- two of the drivers 'pushing me' toward thinking about social ontologies are 'life' and 'Trinity'.
The 'life' driver arises from reflection on the status of a human 5 seconds before death and 5 seconds after death. The change at death of the body's activities is as stark as can be. Zero continuity in the major processes. There is a MASSIVE difference between a dead body and a live one--perceptually, pragmatically, and relationally, but there is ZERO materialist difference. There has been no change in matter, energy, or even any real change in compositional mix yet. Some organic processes continue a bit (e.g., nails and hair continue to grow), but they are few and far between. Physics-class processes continue at the same pace (e.g., entropy rises), but the bio-processes which 'outran' that entropy (and kept the organism together, reproducing, acting as an unitary agent, and alive) are no longer there to impede the process of degeneration, decomposition, and oxidization of everything. Controlled processes of oxidation now become uncontrolled processes, producing decay.
What has changed--materially? Nothing that we can detect, at a physical or chemical level. Cells have always been decaying--it's just that cells were also reproducing (outrunning the death). These processes were somehow kept 'in synch', as if some social 'platonic form' was 'structured ONTO' the mass of loosely-coupled masses... This vivid thing called 'life' was "there" (reification problem?), then 'gone'. The experience of this life was of something AGENTLIKE, something unitary, something dynamic, something quasi-transcendental. There is no perception of it as a 'conglomerate' of loosely-coupled processes. Again, it is almost platonic--this life seems to have been some 'social' FORM or schema or framework INTO WHICH the material was 'poured'--I realize how nebulous this sounds, but I don't think the phenomena gets more 'reduced' than this level of 'liquid-ness'...
It seems social because the elements it 'coordinates' work in concert, in community-like action (like a man-o-war colony), no elements of which contain the scripts for the OTHER discrete elements-- there should NOT be (from a ground-up approach) an orchestral score for the whole, embedded in each part... (sorry this is so terse, but you probably have already seen what i am struggling to articulate)..
The 'Trinity' driver arises from the Christian doctrine of the Trinity... We traditionally affirm a formula like "three-in-one". We start with the three agents and affirm the unity of essence (a shared essence-point). But the Syriac writers who interacted with the Muslim disputants started with the One and moved to the three (God, word, spirit-life), arguing--initially--that these aspects of God were agents in their own right. In both cases we start with the one (either three ones, which we have to lash together into a bigger One) or we start with the Big One which we have to 'parse' into three 'smaller' ones... We start with ultimate Aristotelian individuals...We do NOT start with a GROUP or Society of Persons --as the agent...
The traditional formula (three persons in one essence) seems to have the person/essence interface/ontology problem, so I began to wonder (20 years ago, probably), if a better formula wasn't "three persons in one person" (sorta like I am a 'stack' of glenns, all sharing the same center of consciousness, and all capable of interacting with one another... in cases of psycho-pathology, these persons can veer off-center and manifest themselves as alternate personalities or 'split' personalities--something has de-aligned the cores... In God I could see the three agents in this way, interacting, but all actually sharing the same 'outward eye' (?), all sharing a common center of awareness... so I begin to think of the primacy of the social over the individual--ontologically speaking, not in reference to 'importance' necessarily (a separate issue)--as being rooted in God himself... and hence social/community 'units' as more fundamental than the individuals we classically start with ... (btw, this 'corporate identity' motif is fairly common in the Hebrew Bible and in various Pauline passages)
ok, end of 'residual comment"....
On to your comment about the co-workers:
I'm already being asked by co-skeptics at the lab to give the reason for the new hope that is in me. I know the reason--Christ has bought new life for me--but I am having a hard time getting my insistence on 'faith' reduced to anything in the target vocabulary but 'feeling'. Which is not the thing.
When I first read this back on the road, my knee-jerk response was "sadly, it gets worse, friend"... as your experience of this inner newness/transcendence--which becomes more and more 'less likely to have happened to you' over the years (i.e., the growth that you will experience during this life ahead of you will look less and less like a trajectory from your past, less and less 'reducible' to the pre-Jesus influences--it will be harder and harder to explain it as a 'natural process' as time goes by--and BELIEVE ME, you will have those moments when you will ask yourself 'could I have really made all of this UP?"-- if nothing more than to keep a clear conscience before the Lord, you will have to ruthlessly critique yourself, your reasons, your perspectives, etc.
As more and more of your life comes into the orbit of His lordship and activity, more and more of your life experiences will support the central belief structure, and the more and more everything in your worldview then SUPPORTS your central belief, then the more and more you --under the imperative of honesty--will have to review your basis for faith--what data points are MOST resistant to re-interpretation under natural causes/influence... since in delusional pathologies ALL DATA is interpreted to support the central delusional belief, you will worry at times that YOU have done this--that you have perhaps taken a 'legitimate insight' and created an entire, self-supporting delusional worldview out of it...
But the worst part is the sharing with friends/family of this... nevermind for the moment the skeptical co-workers (who inculcate ways of de-mystifying things)-- it will be your precious ones in your life, whom you would give YOUR LIFE FOR, that will not see this, will trivialize you, will condescend to you--when all you want is for them to find this Living Water too! This will be a grief to you, much like various parenting griefs--when a child will not listen to the voice of reason/experience, and instead pursues a destructive course of action--as you stand helpless to convince them of the wise and constructive way to pursue their goals...
But this is a little different, as you note--there is a 'life' thing involved... Imagine my 5seconds before/5 seconds after situation: identical twins, one dies and one lives. five seconds after the death of the one, someone standing comments that the twins are absolutely identical. The living twin says 'No, I am different because I am alive'. The observer counters: "but there is no material difference between you2--show me where this 'life thing' is you speak of--document the difference"--what is the living twin to do"? Document that current runs in his brain? That electrical impulses still travel to his heart for contractions? These are physical processes that I can induce (morbidly) to a dead body, but that wouldn't be life--with due respect to Dr. Frankenstein... You would always be forced back to the irreducible: I have life, and I cant get much further down than that, in my trying to show you the difference.
And then the next challenge comes as the New-life begins to transform, elevate, dominate the feelings... Then, there WILL BE a full FEELING component to much of the walk of faith, and your periodic 'dark night of the soul' experiences will remind you that you honor and value the God of the Universe for reasons of truth, ultimate value, and beauty--and NOT because He gives the 'good feelings'... it will be a Job-like experience, in which the malignant one accuses you of exchange theory motives: "does Job fear God for nought? Strike what he has, and he will curse You to Your face"...
When I was writing the first draft of my piece on Consciousness/Soul, I came across an article by Todd Moody on zombies/robots. In the article, he talked about robots/zombies who could process language FLAWLESSLY. As robots, they had no semantic understanding, but had PERFECT linguistic skills. You would not be able to tell the difference between a human and a zombie, from the flow of conversation (like you can today, on those automated conversational software systems). However, he pointed out that there would be ONE class of statement that a robot/z could NOT respond to, due to lack of 'consciousness' (inner self): "how would you describe the differences between your INNER concept of X and the standard/dictionary MEANING of X in the language?" This reference to something 'inner' would be incomprehensible (in this example) to an r/z, since they do not HAVE an inner experience world with which to create the framework for a 'gap'. Without that experience, there is no way to even DESCRIBE much less EXPLAIN (or 'reduce') human inner experience into something in the r/z's experience world.
Moody then closes with an extrapolation of this: the mystic who experiences routinely the presence of a God on a mountaintop. His language describes numinous-type experiences, losing one's self in transcendent intensity, etc. To the normal human who does NOT experience these types of things, his language has no 'foundation to latch onto' in their experience world. The words don't make sense, and any attempt at translation (from 3D to 2D, e.g.) fails miserably--the mystic is frustrated by trying to express a hypercube as a trapezoid, or some such! It's just not the same thing at all...
Now, in Christian theology, there exist numerous 'anchor points' in human experience, upon which one can sometimes BUILD a transcendent concept upon. "Common grace" and "natural revelation" are sometimes considered 'anchor points', but I prefer the personal realm (given my tendency to believe that personhood is the fundamental, irreducible, paradigmatic reality--based upon God as the ultimate ground)... This means that I find anchor points in love, compassion, noble deeds, honor, loyalty, parental orientations, etc... so I think SOME of the information of “what it is like” is easily mappable, and even some of the numinous experiences can be mapped (not without significant remainder) onto some 'truly human' experiences in the personal realm.
[midnite again... not making much progress, I guess... but all of this fits together a little bit (hopefully)... and maybe now I can get closer to your original question, CF]
At this point I suspected that I had misunderstood the question altogether and went back to his original email:
What does it mean to you to be a Christian?
I know the creeds, am familiar with the various catechism, but figure you could give me a working definition anyway.
Now that I read your original question again, I see that I may have misunderstood your question (as usual!)... I read it originally--probably because of the quiet-crisis I was in at the time--that your question meant something like
"What are the practical implications/consequences of your relationship with Christ?" (a 'what does it mean FOR YOU?'-- "How is it important to you?' -- "What difference does your faith make in your day-to-day experience?' type of question)...
But i just now re-read the line AFTER the question, in which it appears you were asking for a DEFINITION of being a Christian--something like the core content/characteristics/defining traits of that position.
My list of 'cute aphorisms' (but of deep, deep personal reality for me!) were in response to my FIRST interpretation of your question; but if I have misunderstood that, and if the SECOND (more definitional) understanding is correct, then I have a much shorter answer (smile). I actually have a one-page description on the Tank at the "What is a Christian?" link: http://christianthinktank.com/christn.html
Is that more in line with what you were asking, C? I hope I haven't wasted your time with all this other stuff (sigh)... That description/definition piece focuses on the intentional/commitment stance, and not on praxis. My few remarks on praxis (I don't have many, since they all are supposed to flow from the love commandant in the NT), is at the "What's Next?" piece (http://christianthinktank.com/whatnext.html).
But you may have already seen these pieces, so if you want to reframe the question to overcome my density (sigh/smile), please do so--and I will make another rambling-run at it (smile).
And let me know how it's going--I expect you should be hitting some SERIOUS turbulence (from within and without... as described a little in that What's Next? piece)...