A Strong-Benevolent Christian Identity

Recently the United Church of Canada made a couple historic decisions (speaking out against violence in Israel, electing first openly-gay moderator) that have placed them in the media’s attention. A colleague of mine, Kevin Flatt, was recently interviewed by many media outlets (Sun News interview available here) about what’s happening in the United Church. He spoke with the host of one show about whether or not the United Church’s religious identity is strong enough to attract and keep members. The host wondered whether the UCC has focused too much on a social gospel and not enough on the fundamentals of Christianity.

Although I struggle when one person tell’s another person’s story (Flatt is not a member of the United Church, but a historian whose research has focused on this denomination), the whole conversation has led me to think about Brian McLaren’s new book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? I had the privilege of reading an advanced copy as I travelled to Winnipeg by train a few weeks ago. McLaren analyzes a number of assumptions and theologies and recasts them in ways that can foster a “strong-benevolent” faith, that is, one that “combines certain key elements of conservative ‘new line’ Christianity (strength, commitment, intensity of meaning) with other elements of liberal ‘old line’ Christianity (ecumenism, reasonableness, a peaceable attitude)” (37). Such a Christian identity includes the kind of clarity of beliefs that Flatt addressed in his interview, but does not do so by creating walls that keep others out. It’s a faith that is strong, but that leaves room for conversations and relationships with those of other faiths.

I’m sure many of you can join me in listing groups, churches, and denominations that seem to come down hard on one side of the strength-of-belief and openness-to-others continuum. Many of us have probably had conversations with folks whose intense commitment to Christianity has forced them to shut out all those who are different from them. And we’ve probably met people who, perhaps reacting against these folks, practice radical inclusion yet in the process water down and even abandon a clear sense of Christian identity.

Neither one of these options is life-giving nor sustainable. If churches and faith traditions create walls of right belief that separate them from the world, they may develop strong Christian identities, but they cut themselves off from the world that God so loves. But if they accept all people into the fold without considering the core beliefs and practices around which the group can rally, then do they have identities that are strong and distinct enough to make themselves known as a Christian community?

It seems that what’s needed is a new kind of strong Christian identity (which McLaren proposes in his new book). Such an identity does not build walls or silos, but relationships. Too often in Christian strength is seen as something that separates us from outsiders.

John Berry, professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, proposes a model of acculturation that helps us understand what it means to have a strong-benevolent Christian identity.

In his framework, he states that there are two central issues for acculturation: a preference to preserve one’s culture and a preference to participate in and have relationships with a host culture (wider society as well as other minority cultures). People seeking high levels of engagement in a host culture without upholding their particular cultural identity make use of the assimilation strategy. The marginalization strategy is used by people who don’t care to maintain their particular culture or have relationships with the dominant culture. Folks who value the maintenance of their culture and don’t want to participate in or associate with wider society use the separation strategy. But people who wish to maintain their particular culture as they engage with and participate in the wider society make use of the integration strategy (Berry 2003, 24).

Acculturation Strategies of Minority   Groups and Individuals

Adapted from Berry (2003, 23).

Preference to have relationships with other groups Preference to maintain minority culture and identity
High Low
High Integration Assimilation
Low Separation Marginalization

This is something that I address in my chapter in Understanding Children’s Spirituality. It goes to show that a strong identity doesn’t require us to shut ourselves off from others. It’s possible to possess a strong Christian identity, a commitment to Christian belief and practice, while having high regard for forging relationships across lines of difference.

In fact, I tend to doubt the real strength of people and faith groups who cloister themselves from the world, who are only out to convert those who are different and make them into images of themselves (see a great video by Pete Rollins about this), but who are not able/willing to have real, authentic, mutual relationships with people of different faiths, cultures, backgrounds, vocations, etc. Shouldn’t a person with a Christian identity that’s truly strong be able to have friendships with folks who are different than they are without having to worry that their identity with wither away. Surely, mutual relationships should change who we are. But a strong Christian identity can be malleable and flexible as well. After all, isn’t an identity that snaps or crumbles with any change seem more brittle than strong? Shouldn’t a strong identity be able to adapt and change through relationships with others while still maintaining some cohesive sense of self? Shouldn’t strength be measured on its ability to engage with others without being consumed by others?

Maybe we need a new vision for what it means to have a strong Christian identity. Maybe we need to see strength as openness to being changed by the other and not as standing firm when encountering the other.

3 thoughts on “A Strong-Benevolent Christian Identity”

  1. Excellent article, Dave. Having a strong Christian identity doesn’t mean we separate ourselves from the world, but move into it with great grace and confidence in th message we hold dear.

  2. Amen Dave! This kind of living does take risks, but what worthwhile behaviour is risk free? Many are afraid of the risk., of course. Even in not too exclusive churches one hears cautionary sermons about not treating with the world.

    The way you developed this reminds me of the perennial disconnect between reductionists and integrationists. Reductionists really believe we will eventually be able to explain everything from the ground up, from the fundamental, irreducible bits. Integrationists recognize emergent properties and understand that no matter how many fundamental bits and pieces we know, until we see them all working together, we will never know what will emerge. And, when we do recognize an emergent property, we will be unable to fully understand it by taking it apart. It is a whole thing; a thing unto itself; and a very complex thing. The everyday world is full of such emerged things. That’s life.

    Denis Noble has written a little popular-level book on systems biology that gives many examples of this. Biologists are often divided into reductionist-integrationist (systems) camps. The really neat thing about the book, for Christians, is the huge number of statements Noble makes where only a noun or two would need to be changed to come up with a statement applicable to the heart of your message.

    The book is “The Music of Life” by Denis Noble

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