What is a “post-Christian”?

Below, you will find my attempts to define the term “post-Christian.” I have also included a number of examples of how the term has been and is being used, drawn from a variety of sources. Many sources, especially Christian writers, use “post-Christian” in a pejorative sense, or with a pejorative connotation; but these should not be taken as definitive definitions, for there are substantial numbers of persons who call themselves post-Christian in a positive sense.

post-Christian (post-kris’chen)

n. [20th C. back formation from Christian.] 1. Someone whom Christians would say is not a Christian, but whom non-Christians consider Christian; applied by Gary Dorrien and other scholars to Unitarian Universalism and other groups formerly considered to be liberal Christians. 2. A type of postmodern religion or spirituality with roots in the Christian tradition (also called “postmodern Christian spirituality”). 3. In certain cases, a non-theist or atheist who follows the ethical teachings of Jesus.

“Indeed, like the early Christian the post-Christian is ushering in a new era…” Ed. Bernard Murchland The Meaning of the Death of God: Protestant, Jewish, and Catholic Scholars, New York: 1967, 6.

adj. 1. Pertaining to or derived from the moral, religious, and/or ethical teachings of Jesus, but retaining an openess to other moral, religious, and/or ethical teachings. 2. Heretical, not adhering to traditional Christian creeds; especially including the heresies of unitarianism and universalism, which are still considered heterodox by most mainstream Christians. 3. Post-modern interpretations of Christianity. 4. Pluralistic and no longer dominated by Christianity, where Christianity formerly held sway; e.g., “a post-Christian society.” 5. Pertaining to one who tries to live according to Jesus’s teachings, but who choses to distance himself/herself from institutional Christianity by refusing to be called “Christian.”

“A question asked of Unitarians and Universalists again and again is ‘Are you Christians?’ I have spoken and written many times on this subject, but I have no simple answer to the question. Most Catholic and Protestant Christians, until fairly recently anyway, would have said that we are not Christians. Most Jews would think that we are Christians. When I told one Unitarian friend that Anglicanism’s Dean Stanley referred to Channing as ‘the morning star of the second reformation,’ my friend immediately concluded that Channing was heralding or prophseying a new era, and as Protestantism (resulting from the first Reformation) went beyond Catholicism, so the second Reformation would go beyond Protestantism; a post-Protestant, post-Christian era would begin. Numerous people believe that, or interpret Unitarianism that way. It is a plausible diagnosis, though Channing would never have thought of himself as the forerunner of a non-Christian faith. (For that matter, Jesus would never have thought of himself as the forerunner of a non-Jewish faith.)” — Dana MacLean Greeley, 25 Beacon Street, and Other Recollections Boston: Beacon 1971, 11-12.

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Additional examples drawn from a variety of sources:

“Tradition is perceived as a rich resource entangled in the politics of transmission and recognized as serving the interests of race, class, and gender. Postmodern spirituality suspends the notion of a ‘pure’ tradition and celebrates the diversity of interpretations. Religious spaces are also radically transformed in postmodern spirituality. The sacred space is no longer delimited simply by institutional power, but is rather contested and relocated according to the politics of individual experience (supported by shared values). Postmodern spirituality can be equally found in club cultures, the music industry and cinemas, as well as on mountain tops and in private homes. Postmodern spirituality also questions the traditional religious space and assumes a ‘spacelessness’ as it flows along information highways and becomes cyber-friendly…. In postmodern spirituality, the body is acknowledged as the key site (and sight) of religious knowledge, something given but not outwardly celebrated in the Modern period. In postmodern spirituality, the body and sexuality are celebrated as potentially positive forces for spiritual renewal, not least seen in the advancement of alternative therapies, such as acupuncture, aromatherapy, and body massage. Sexuality is also rescued in postmodern Christian spirituality….” Christopher Partridge ed., New Religions: A Guide, Oxford: 2004, 364.

“The Unitarian Conference retained its minimal tie to the faith of historic Christianity, but in a way that marginalized the faith language of Christ as Lord and Savior. Unitarianism produced several notable liberal Christian leaders in the succeeding generation, including Harvard social ethicist Francis Peabody Greenwood and Harvard philosopher Charles C. Everett, but as a denomination the Unitarian church gradually relativized its Christian identity. Parker’s neo-Christian theology was a marginal position in the Unitarian church at the end of his life in 1860. A half-century later, in a cooler voice, it was the mainstream Unitarian perspective. The Transcendentalist philosophy of Parker and Emerson became passe, but their implicitly post-Christian religious humanism reconfigured the church of Channing and the Henry Wares. The Unitarian church liberalized enough to become a comfortable home to a wide continuum of liberal Christian, neo-Christian, and non-Christian ethical humanists.” Gary Dorrien, The Making of Liberal Religion: Imagining Progressive Religion, 1805-1900, 2001, 109.

Postchristian adj.: occurring after definitive departure from christianity in all its religious and secular forms and simultaneously with entry into New Time/Space” Mary Daly, Wickedary, HarperSanFrancisco: 1985, 88.

“In the post-Christian era (beginning c. A.D. 2000), the values and beliefs of a person raised in America are shaped by a global, pluralistic atmosphere. This person has instant exposure to global news, global fashions, global music, and global religions. There are many gods, many faiths, many forms of spiritual expression from which to choose. In a postmodern atmosphere, a person grows up learning that all faiths are equal but that Christianity is primarily a negative religion, known for finger-pointing and condemning the behavior of others. In this atmosphere, the Ten Commandments aren’t taught and the Bible is simply on of many religious writings. Ethics and morality are based on personal choice, as families encourage their children to make their own decisions about religion and to be tolerant of all beliefs. A major influence on a postmodern person’s ethics and morals is what they learn from the media and what is accepted by their peers. Although relativism is more of a norm in a postmodern world, most agree on some absolutes, such as the wrongness of excessive violence, murder, or evil like the September 11 tragedy. In a post-Christian world, pluralism is the norm. buddhism, Wicca, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or an eclectic blend — it’s all part of the soil.” Dan Kimball, The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations, 2003, 59-60.

“During those years of my Pagan sojourn, I never lost a sense of Christ’s presence with me. Over time it led me back to the Episcopal Church, one of the only Christian traditions in which I felt an appreciation for its ritual aesthetics and its theological elasticity. This should not be read, however, as a re-embracing of the parochial mindset of institutional “churchianity,” with its doctrinal rigidity, spiritual imperiousness, and moralistic oversimplifications. In that sense, historic Christianity is, in many ways, little more than a repressive instrument of the spiritual and societal status quo, a hotbed for the germination of the seeds of homophobia, and a theological dinosaur which has to be dragged kicking and screaming into the realities of the 21st century. In returning to the Episcopal Church, I most emphatically did not re-commit myself to such a perverted, religious monstrosity. The Christ whom I adore is far more expansive than the humanly forged strictures and idols of Christian traditionalism. For that reason, I can say that I am, in a paradoxical sense, a post-Christian believer in the luminous Jesus who transcends the religious niches that both culture and the Church have attempted to place upon him.” Maury Johnston, on the blog “Father Jake Stops the World” 7 April 2006, accessed 234 February 2008.

12 thoughts on “What is a “post-Christian”?

  1. Suzanne

    Well, I’ve been wondering what to call myself within the UU church — post-Christian it is! Thank you for putting this together for me and for countless others who share these traits. Glad I found your blog! I’m going to share your Guerilla Marketing advice with my congregation’s Membership Coordinator.

    Peace!

    WorkInProgress

  2. DadH

    I still remember when, about 40 years ago, a new hire at my place of employment asked me about churches in the area. I told him that I attended the local Unitarian church and thought it had a good minister. In reply he said, “Why you aren’t even a Christian.” Obviously he was a fundamentalist christian, and he was not willing to accept the concept of a christian being a person who follows the teachings of Jesus. Perhaps the name “post christian” is appropriate. This comment is by someone who is somewhat older than baby boomers, and who attended the church at which Dana Greeley was the minister.

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  4. Bill Hicks

    I have a comment — question. I believe in universal salvation — if salvation, as such, is really necessary. If we are all children of a heavenly father, we are not condemned in the first place. So, salvation from the penalty of sin is not needed. In fact, to me, the message of the gospel is Peace (with God) and (God’s) good will toward men — as Luke put it (w/ my parentheses). The dynamic of my life is the words of Christ: “Neither do I condemn thee. Go and sin no more.” My question would be your comments??

  5. Administrator

    Hey Bill — You want my comments on your comments? Well, I’m a Universalist (meaning I affirm universal salvation, however you want to define that), so while you and I might quibble about details and wording, I’d say I basically agree with you. But in the context of what it means to call onesself “post-Christian,” for you it might boil down to my basic definition of “post-Christian”: “Someone whom Christians would say is not a Christian, but whom non-Christians consider Christian.”

    If you are finding that Christians are telling you that you’re not a “real Christian” — and if this has gone on long enough that you’re ready to agree with them (maybe along the lines of “If they’re gonna be that way about it, I don’t think I want to be one of them”) — yet you still want to affirm what you see to be the core of the Christian tradition — well, then you might want to call yourself a post-Christian. But it’s totally your choice, and I’m not going to tell you what to call yourself.

    (For me, as a Universalist, the core of my life is in another of Jesus’s sayings: treat your neighbor as yourself….)

  6. Jean

    Hi Dan -
    For me, there’s something about the term “post-Christian” that seems a little defensive. As in, “I am TOO a Christian.” Why not find a new term altogether? If what you really mean is following the teaching of Jesus, and I’m all for that, why not call yourself a follower of Jesus? The terms Christ, Christian, doesn’t this mean something that you don’t mean? The term “post-Christian” may be widely in use, but it strikes me as more about the veneer of a faith than the actual faith, and that aspect seems to be postmodern, not genuine. But what do I know. I’m arguing with the language, not the concept. I just don’t like the term “post-Christian.” What it points to — the real meaning — needs a new word entirely. For me, anyway.
    Still — interesting ideas, as always, on your blog.

  7. Dan

    Jean @ 7 — “why not call yourself a follower of Jesus?” — Mostly, that’s what I do for myself personally. And when you come right down to it, names often just get in the way when it comes to spirituality and religion….

  8. shaktinah

    If Unitarian Universalism is “post-Christian,” is Christianity “post-Jewish”?

    I recognize the desire to come up with a term that pays tribute to our Christian roots yet also makes it clear we’re now more pluralistic. But it seems to me that “post-Christian” has the same potential for offense as does “Old Testament.” It could easily suggest that we think we’re “beyond” Christianity.

  9. Dan

    shaktinah @ 9 — It all depends on whether or not you buy into the notion that Christianity is somehow a successor religion to Judaism. I don’t buy into that notion, just as I wouldn’t say that Islam is post-Christian, or Baha’i is post-Islam, or that Buddhism is post-Hindu. However, if you come from a supercessionist frame of reference where Christianity is seen as superceding Judaism, which is typical of certain specific Christian theologies, then it would be a problem. As is true with so many post-modern conversations, it all depends….

    Interestingly, there are some folks who call themselves “post-Jewish,” and of course they are not at all Christian — they are people who feel some affinity with Judaism, but are moving away from what is generally recognized as Jewish religious practice.

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  11. Ralph

    Interesting, but it seems that you are trying to say that Jesus is just a teacher and since he is just that, you can accept any teacher into the Unitatarian view. Why follow just the “teachings of Jesus” and not accept His claims of divinity?

    True Christianity is not about “fingerpointing” and not about an institution, it is about a personal relationship with God. Jesus said “I am the way, the truth and the light. No man cometh to the Father, except through me”. He also stated that “God judgeth the Heart”. Christ also said “Many will come to me (on that day of Judgement) crying Lord! Lord! We have prophesized in your name, healed in your name! and I will say get away from me ye workers of iniquity – I know you not!”. He is saying – you need a personal relationship with Him, not a personal interpretation of Jesus’ teachings.

    You can philosophize and “lean on your own understanding”, but I believe God does not change, neither does His message. Christianity is not “post-Judaism”, but the revelation of Jewish prophesy.

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