What is a Christian–Really?

The other day I sent my sweet mother, a devout lifelong Lutheran, an email about my religious and spiritual beliefs. It was a topic she had skirted for decades, probably out of fear of what she would learn and what if would mean for my eternal salvation. Mom was surprised to hear me say I was a Christian.She thought I was Buddhist.In truth I’m both.How can this be?

In order to answer this question, one must first define: What is a Christian?To my mother, along with the majority of Christians in the world, a Christian is someone who believes that God was so concerned about mans’ errant ways that he sent his son Jesus to teach about human morality, and then be crucified for sedition and resurrected from the dead.According to them, belief in this provides for forgiveness for all subsequent human and earns them a place in heaven when they die if they lead a good and pious life here on earth.  No mention is made of what happens to the billions of millions of people who lived before Jesus or who have existed since Jesus (including current and future times) who have never been exposed to his teachings

While this is a commonly accepted definition of Christianity, it is by far no means the only one—something many traditional Christians have trouble accepting. They often think that because they are in the majority that their beliefs represent the One True Christianity.But when one understands that Jesus was a mystic who often spoke metaphorically in parables, that no there was no tape recorder (or stenographer) present when he spoke 2,000 years ago and that the first gospel (Mark) wasn’t written until over 30 years after Jesus’death, one begins to realize that the gospels often cannot be taken literally and there are other interpretations of Christianity which are equally valid.

Six hundred years ago most people believed the Earth was flat.This all changed with exploration, discovery and education. Many modern day Christians are unable to accept the vicarious atonement story we were taught by our parents and Sunday schools. We believe that Jesus’ profound teachings on human morality are, in and of themselves, reason enough to accept him as our spiritual teacher and savior. We believe that he saves us not from eternal damnation when we die, but from the hell on earth that human minds can create when they are not aligned with Jesus’ teachings of love, compassion, tolerance and forgiveness.

The Christianity to which I adhere is based on the teachings of Jesus in the four gospels. I don’t necessarily adhere to the teachings of Paul, who was somewhat of a fanatic who never met Jesus and yet whose writings ended up comprising half of the books of the New Testament. Paul certainly had his own take on what Christianity should be, but it was just that—his own take. His words are not Jesus’ words. And while I accept most of the morality teachings in the Old Testament (i.e. the Ten Commandments) I do not unquestioningly accept them all.If I did I would have stoned my daughter to death for talking back to me.

I have read the gospels twice and don’t ever recall Jesus condemning homosexuality or abortion or advocating pre-emptive war—issues so many Evangelical Christians feel so strongly about.These phenomena existed in Jesus’ time as much as they do today, but they apparently were weren’t on his agenda as he never addressed them.I do recall Jesus promoting love, compassion, tolerance and forgiveness—time after time.And I recall him saying the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. “At hand” means here, now, in this life, but we must open our hearts and minds to it if we are to experience it. We do this by practicing love, compassion, toelerance and forgiveness. It’s that simple……or difficult.

So the Christianity I believe in is perfectly consistent with Buddhism, which is really more of an orientation toward life than a religion.As such, many western Buddhists also adhere to other religions, usually the one they were raised in.I know several Jews who are also Buddhists. Knowing how difficult it is for people to adopt a religion from another culture, the Dalai Lama discourages people from converting to Buddhism, but rather to go deeper into the religion into which they were born.But for some of us Westerners, Buddhism is just too rich to pass up, as are the teachings of Jesus.

If you were going to build a house, you wouldn’t gather stones for the foundation and chop down trees for the structure. You’d use cement, milled lumber, copper wiring and plumbing, drywall, insulation, glass windows and carpeting. We are much more knowledgeable and advanced now than we were 2,000 years ago, so we use modern methods and materials, which result in much better houses. This is why I and a lot of other modern day Christians are unable to blindly forfeit our spiritual beliefs to the interpretations of backward, superstitious (by today’s standards) people of millennia past which have been passed down largely unchanged for 2,000 years.For us, the moral teachings of the Prince of Peace—love, compassion, tolerance and forgiveness—are all we need and will endear us to Jesus forever.

I know the traditional interpretation of Christianity brings great peace and comfort to a lot of people, including my mother.I don’t begrudge them their beliefs and I don’t try to change them, for I understand that religion is a highly personal thing. In return I ask that they recognize that their particular take on Christianity is just that—an interpretation, nothing more, nothing less.And that others may have other, equally valid interpretations of what Christianity is–nothing more, nothing less.

To each his own.Amen.

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#1 Mary Carwile on 01.26.08 at 3:48 pm


Oh, how true this message. I agree with you. As I age I continually see the closed mindedness of so many people and the fear…FEAR?…of accepting someone that looks or belives differently than we do. I believe if Jesus were to appear on earth today he would be shocked and surprised and very sad to see what we have done with His message. Wasn’t it a message of LOVE? Why, then, all the hate in this world. It seems simplistic to say, “Can’t we all just be nice to each other?” but I happen to believe that our world would look much differenly if we did just that. Let’s try..one person at a time, if we need to, to just give more love. Love and Peace to you, my brother!

Mary Catherine Carwile
Author of
Heartstrings at 35,000 Feet
Heartstrings and
Pink Ribbons

#2 jrpenberthy on 01.26.08 at 11:10 pm

Of the four qualities that I mention in the post that Jesus embodied, the one that people seem to have the most trouble with is tolerance. It’s fairly easy to love, have compassion for and forgive others like ourselves but tolerance involves extending these to others. When others have different skin color, religion, culture or beliefs it really puts us to the test. Jesus was such a master at this and we can learn much from his example.

#3 Annie Rose Stathes on 01.29.08 at 6:50 pm

Perhaps the intolerance in the world is the best (and maybe only?) way for our own intolerences to be revealed. If everyone is God walking around in drag (as Ram Dass so beautifully said), perhaps those intolerant practitioners of religion are our greatest gurus and therefore our greatest access to reaching within and experiencing our own disconnections from the dinvine. Just a thought.

#4 jrpenberthy on 01.29.08 at 7:02 pm

Good point. We’ve all got our intolerances, some better disguised than others. I do such a good job of disguising mine that I’m often not even aware of them. My favroite quote from Jesus sums it up nicely: “Let he who is without fault cast the first stone.”

#5 Steph W on 01.30.08 at 1:47 pm

Thanks for this thought-provoking post, John. I agree – Jesus was a great guy, but the trappings of the establishment seem to have gotten in the way.

#6 John C. A. Manley on 02.11.08 at 9:33 am


You’re thinking and mine are very similar.

I grew up in the Cathiloc tradition. Became very intent on spirituality at around age 14. By age 16 I left the church, practiced Buddhism for a while, but found my path in yoga.

Most of Jesus’ most misunderstood teachings were about inner liberation not outer.

I agree, hell, referred to life on earth in a human ego, “where there will be darkness and gnashing of teeth.” Hell and reincarnation are a bit synonmous in that way. “The burning fires” probably referred to burning human desires which cause compulsory rebirth.

I know what you mean that Paul’s teaching seem off-base. But I often suspect that they aren’t, but just so deep in metaphysical metaphor that they go over our heads. They’ve also most likely been edited.

His control issues with women, I suspect is more in reference to controlling one’s human emotions, for example.

When people ask me which religion I belong to I have three different answers I use (depending on the person):

1. If they are Christians, I say I’m Hindu.

2. If they are Hindus, I say I’m Christian.

(That makes life easier.)

3. If they seem open-minded I tell them the truth: “I don’t believe there is more than one religion. Like in ancient India, religion was dharma. There was no Hinduism. Just the way of life — eternal duty — the return of the soul to God or Bliss which every human being is pursuing, whether they know it or not, since everybody wants to experience more joy and less pain. There are simply different paths to that one religion. My path is Kriya Yoga. But our religion is the same.”

John C. A. Manley

P.S. So glad to have found your site. And looking forward to reading your book. If you want to send me a review copy, I’d review it on my site and send the review to my large subscriber base.

#7 John Penberthy on 02.15.08 at 9:39 am

Hi John; Thanks for your insightful comments. When you get past the dogma of all religions they all come down to one thing–love. It’s sad that human egos cling so tightly to the different paths prescribed by religions that they block realization of the common Goal.

#8 Linda on 03.19.08 at 4:04 pm

My brother and I are planning a visit with an “Uncle”, (2nd cousin), and it may be the last time we see him as he is in his 90’s. He has always been, in this life, a Southern Baptist – and a fine man.

We haven’t seen him in years, nor his daughter who will probably be there as well, also of the same faith.

I have fond memories of being with these people in my much younger days but the “split” that our country is outpicturing around fundamentalist Christian and non-Fund.Christians has infiltrated this relationship. I don’t want to “create” it out of fear but I wouldn’t be surprised if the “salvation of our souls” subject were brought up, or to “be with Jesus” (like they are), etc.

My intention is for this to be a pleasant visit yet I’m having trouble letting the possibility of this go. More than the subject being brought up is my response to such an occurence.

My questions to you is, what to you would be the most pleasant response of nipping a “discussion” or possible awkward happening in the bud if this is brought up?

It was brought up years ago, and I just don’t feel like “going there.” I’m metaphysically/spiritually oriented and align myself with the essence of your above article.

Thanks for your time.

#9 John Penberthy on 04.02.08 at 8:24 am

Linda; This is a tough one. You want your last visit to be loving but don’t want to compromise yourself. I wouldn’t broach the subject but if it comes up tell your “uncle” that you believe in Jesus but in a different way than he does. If he pushes it, tell him that religion is a highly personal thing and that we each have to be true to ourselves. If he wants to go beyond that I’d change the subject and be firm. We don’t owe it to our relatives to make them feel good about our religious choices. If they are uncomfortable, then it’s something they’ll have to deal with. No one is ever too old or entrenched to expand their thinking. Good luck, John

#10 gail philbin on 10.09.08 at 2:03 pm

I just happened upon this as I was looking at your facebook site. I really enjoy your writing style and your take on life and religion and spirituality. Hope all is well with you and Peggy and Erin.

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