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Facets of identity

Facets of identity

These four terms – Christian, Anglican, Episcopalian, and post-theist – are how I describe my religious identity. I choose which term(s) to use on a particular occasion depending upon context and what I want to communicate about myself.


  1. Christian. I am a follower of Jesus who intentionally seeks to tread the Jesus path. Ironically, being identified as a Christian sometimes stereotyped me in ways that were wrong and uncomfortable. This occurred most often in Navy settings, where fundamentalists and evangelicals dominate the chaplaincy and sailors’ perceptions of chaplains.


Too often, Christian in our culture connotes an exclusivity that I believe is inimical to Jesus’ message of God’s all-inclusive love. Exclusionary passages in the New Testament (e.g., averring that Jesus is the only way to God) are best understood as expressions of love rather than as propositional truths. Declaring that Jesus is the only way is analogous to asserting that one’s spouse is the ideal mate. Both claims reveal the speaker’s feelings rather than stating objective, provable facts.


Similarly, many people regard all Christians as biblical literalists who probably also have conservative theological, social, and political views and values. The Romans executed Jesus as an insurrectionist and criminal. Jesus was a radical known for advocating peace and justice. He opposed military spending and favored feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and liberating the oppressed. Biblical literalism was foreign to Jesus’ Jewish hermeneutic and his teachings conflict with much of the political and social agendas conservatives advocate.


Christian now often exists in metaphorical Egyptian servitude, i.e., a label that signifies those who fear life in an unknown wilderness more than cultural bondage. Perhaps the Church needs bold prophets to declare that exclusivists and biblical literalists have actually strayed from the Jesus path. Maybe these prophets should emulate Jesus’ use of hyperbole, and enjoin the narrow minded to stop self-identifying as Christians. We do not need a reprise of hurtful debates over who is a Christian and who is a heretic, but definitional clarity is beneficial. For example, writing this essay has required useful self-examination and lured me deeper into the mystery at the center of the cosmos in unanticipated ways.


  1. Anglican. The Anglican tradition provides the context for my spiritual journey, informing and shaping that journey with a set of distinctive historic emphases. Inclusivity, sacramental worship, pastoral concern, and human dignity are among the more important of these emphases. I am thankful for the efforts of Bishop Curry and those who strive to maintain the formal ties between The Episcopal Church and the other Anglican Communion provinces. I hope and pray that their efforts succeed.


However, neither my Anglican identity nor that of The Episcopal Church (TEC) depends upon those links enduring. If the Anglican Communion were to break completely with TEC, Anglicanism’s indelible shaping of my religious identity, and that of TEC, would continue, just like the indelible and continuing influence of the Roman Catholic Church on Anglicanism has continued in spite of severing formal connections over 500 years ago.


Institutional unity is valuable. Integrity is more valuable. Other Anglican provinces trying to impose “consequences” on TEC for boldly and prophetically embracing the full inclusion of LGBT persons in the life of the Church represents a post hoc shift in the Communion’s rules of engagement focused on issues of secondary or even tertiary importance, e.g., marriage. This distorted focus has occurred in no small measure because disputes over sexuality generate more heat, draw sharper dividing lines, and attract more outside money than do underlying basic questions about how contemporary Christians can hear God speak in or through the Bible. Furthermore, in spite of personally appreciating definitional clarity and experiencing the flattening of the world, I very much doubt that most Anglicans in any Communion province really care what Anglicans in another province think or do. I do not want to harm my brothers and sisters. Conversely, I refuse to accept responsibility for harm that a third party’s self-interested meddling causes.


  1. Episcopalian. The Episcopal Church constitutes the institutional setting for my spiritual journey and in which I minister. During four plus decades of ministry, I have repeatedly observed well-intentioned attempts by Christians to be church while avoiding institutionalization’s inevitable and inherent limitations. In time, each of those naïve groups discovered that the bane of institutionalization also offered necessary blessings: mutually agreed processes and structures for making decisions; owning equipment and supplies enhanced worship and other programs, as did renting or buying facilities; and incorporating as a tax exempt non-profit eased financial transactions and complied with government rules.


No institution, including the finest and best ecclesial institution, is perfect. And I, for one, would not claim that TEC is the finest or best ecclesial institution. But it is the ecclesial institution to which I belong, the one that has formed me, and the one in which I choose to live and serve. Laments about our declining numbers have become tiresome and non-productive.


Instead, I view TEC as potentially well-positioned to serve a new generation of people who are spiritual but not religious. Engaging in mission requires that we learn to ask different questions and adopt a different focus.

  • We claim to be inclusive. Do we welcome persons who are spiritual but not religious? Do we welcome diverse and conflicting theological views and liturgical styles?
  • We claim to be pastoral. Do we value persons more than we value our buildings? Do we strive to align our resources with current demographics and human needs or does a diminishing remnant grow weary in striving to perpetuate our buildings and institutions as a testament of who TEC used to be?
  • We claim to be sacramental. Do we revere all creation as an outward and visible symbol of God’s presence and love? How do the basic human acts of washing (i.e., Holy Baptism) and feeding (i.e., Eucharist) people shape our sharing Jesus with a broken, hurting world?
  • We claim to respect the dignity of all. Is our attention and effort focused on those within the Christian circle or equally focused on all people? What is TEC, which in so many places appears concentrated on survival, saying to those who are over-stressed, underemployed, hungry, abused, sidelined, and so forth? Do we actually acknowledge strangers in our midst much less welcome them?


  1. Post-theist. This term identifies my theological orientation. I prefer post-theist to progressive, although the latter is not objectionable, the former adds content and is less politicized. Post-theist is also more meaningful than the terms such as broad church and Anglo-Catholic, which prior generations used to describe their theological or liturgical orientation.


Pope Francis has reenergized and popularized the papacy with his emphases on openness and mercy. But, like all humans, Francis is a complex figure. He combines fidelity to Jesus with pietistic encrustations more suitable to the Middle Ages than to the twenty-first century, e.g., his recent participation in the public extravaganza that welcomed the silicone-enhanced corpses of Padre Pio and Padre Leopoldo to the Vatican as exemplars of mercy. Regardless of the merits of these two saints, pietistic fascination with their relics resembles magic, seems weirdly out of place in contemporary Europe, and illustrates theism’s inability to incorporate scientific knowledge or move beyond antiquated Greek philosophy.


Thomas Kuhn in his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions argued that scientific knowledge advances through paradigm shifts, e.g., from Newtonian to quantum physics. Kuhn’s view of scientific progress sharply contrasts with the widespread, often unstated, and patently unreasonable presumption that knowledge of God is static. The New Atheists are wrong. Religion is not a dying anachronism. Instead, we are in the midst of a theological paradigm shift. Theism is dying. What will replace it? Do we most helpfully refer to the ultimate as consciousness, light, energy, or with another metaphor? Which symbols most powerfully convey an experience of ultimate mystery or depth to those persons whose worldview and epistemological presuppositions cohere with the scientific method? How can we speak meaningfully of spirit, illuminating the poverty of material reductionism? What insights about life and the ultimate can those who walk the Jesus path glean from the spiritual journeys of the spiritual but not religious and of those born into western Christianity who subsequently find spiritual fulfillment in an eastern religious tradition?



George Clifford is an ethicist and retired priest living in Honolulu, HI. He served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years and blogs at Ethical Musings.


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Shirley O'Shea

How does the the concept of God as the ground of being relate to the biblical name of God, “I am that I am,” which to me connotes pure, uncontingent Being and Personhood?

David Allen

Another way to express the ground of being is ground of existence. Everything with which we are familiar in our universe is dependent upon something else as its ground of existence ad infinitum through subatomic levels. Something that is its own ground of existence or ground of being isn’t dependent on any other ground of existence.

The ancient form of Hebrew אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה, rendered I am that I am in the KJV can be rendered many ways; I am who I am, I am who I was, I am who I shall be, I was who I am, I was who I was, I was who I shall be, I shall be who I am, I shall be who I was, I shall be who I shall be.* Which all seem to identify something which is its own ground of existence or being, and stands as the ground of existence for everything else. Rendered in the last part of the library, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”

*I borrowed these variations from a Wikipedia article.

Shirley O'Shea

Thank you for this – extremely interesting. I do believe that this Being does muck about a lot in human affairs, although not nearly enough, again, imho.

Bill Carroll

I’ll look for your expanded piece. I really do intend to give it a charitable reading. I don’t see how the term could move us beyond what is already present in the apophatic reservations of most theologically literate theists. If so, the term is superfluous. If a more thorough rejection of theism is intended, how is that consistent with what we affirm as Anglican Christians committed to the truth of the historic creeds. Analogical language, yes. But true in a realist sense. Faith need not be understood statically, but it clearly is a noun grammatically, one tied up with dispositions and actions. I’m with Lonergan about a dynamic state of being in love without restriction. Fairly close to the state (again, a noun) of being ultimately concerned in Tillich.


Please follow our comment policy in the future, posting using both your first & last names. – ed

Bill+, in Koine Greek, the noun πίστις occurs around 50 times while its verb counterpart πιστεύω occurs over 300 times. “Faith” was not merely a noun – clearly the emphasis is on action. “Trust” might be a more helpful translation to get to the concept of faith as a verb given the limitations of the English language.

Bill Carroll

I’m aware of the words and the distinctions. The verb form is customarily rendered either believe or trust, depending on the context. Pistis clearly carries both senses.

George Clifford

I like pro-faith, but suspect that you and I may intend different meanings for the word. Faith, correctly understood, is a verb and not a noun.

I reject the idea of a simple dichotomy between theism and atheism. Post-theism is an effort to map a third alternative. Thanks for the charitable reading – I need all of the grace I can receive for this undertaking, something I am not doing alone yet an endeavor that has found it difficult to gain traction even as pews continue to empty. Something is lacking in our ancient conceptions of God, concepts tied to anachronistic Greek thought and rejected by most moderns.

Leslie Marshall

I am faithful. My faith is in God, who through his Word (the Son) remains shockingly state-of-the-art & pellucid.

Jay Croft

Faith is a verb and not a noun?


I have never seen “faith” used as a verb. Not even among fundamentalists who use “fellowship” as a verb.


Please follow our comment policy in the future, posting using both your first & last names. – ed

In the Greek texts the word translated as “faith” occurs as a verb over 300 times in the New Testament. It is the limitation of the English language which relegates it to only a noun.

Bill Carroll

I’m willing to be as generous as possible in reading what George is trying to affirm and deny by this term. From where I sit, to say that one is a post theist is heretical on its face. Either one believes in the God whose story is told by the Bible and summed up in the creeds or one does not.

David Allen

That’s the typical response usually from rabid conservatives of the biblical inerrancy stripe, “Either the Bible is 100% literally true or NONE of it is true!”

What if it’s time to take another look at the creeds as well?

Bill Carroll

I usually define fundamentalism (in its Christian form) as evangelicalism + personal rigidity and cultural paranoia. Insisting on the Creeds isn’t fundamentalism: it’s the Anglican position. Look at the Quadrilateral. We allow a broad diversity of belief and practice within a framework of “mere Christianity.” I fully understand that individuals struggle with one or more aspects of the generous orthodoxy we uphold as a fellowship within the one holy catholic and apostolic Church. From the time of Jewel and Hooker onward, we have been clear that we intend to uphold the Faith of the undivided Church but not fight so much about the details. There’s a big difference between making room for seekers and not getting heavy handed on heresy hunting (our position) and anything goes (the Unitarian position). I’m happy to serve with post-Christian and non-Christian friends and to welcome those who are exploring Christianity for whatever reason. I’m not willing to call Christian a confession that is opposed to the historic faith. I utterly reject David’s baseless contention that we need to jettison the Creeds to become relevant. Jesus, whose story is told in the Scriptures, and summed up in the Creeds, is always relevant. And we testify to the faith we have received.

Shirley O'Shea

David, What I mean is, having been compelled to attend a fundamentalist church from ages 10 to 18, my understanding of fundamentalism is that it goes even further than insisting on the complete historical accuracy and adherence to an unchanging understanding of its particular interpretation of scripture. It’s a whole set of attitudes and dispositions about God that are not even necessarily supported by scripture, as well as attitudes toward the natural sciences and social sciences and all sorts of human endeavors, a most regrettable conflation of jingoism, laissez-faire economics and Christian faith, none of which may necessarily be inferred, imho, from Bill Carroll’s post – even the part about believing in the God whose story is told in the Bible. That statement is open to interpretation, I think.

Bill Carroll

Poppycock. Jesus and the Gospel are always relevant. The Holy Trinity is always relevant. So are the Eucharist and the apostolic succession and the living Word of God.

The thin Christian identity of many of our liberals harms the cause of Jesus and the Kingdom at least as much as the reactionary social teaching of some of our conservatives. Ill conceived appeals to relevancy won’t save the Church. The Church doesn’t need saving. If we do our job and bear witness to our Savior and his life-changing love out in the streets, whether the Church lives or dies, God’s Kingdom wins.

David Allen

And that may be the line of thinking that makes the Church irrelevant one day.

Bill Carroll

A misunderstanding of the sacred texts? To say that God is involved in history and contingent events, both as Lord of the covenant and as the incarnate Word. This seems to be fairly non-controversial as an interpretation of the narrative arc of the Scriptures as we have received them. I would think that it would be an impossible burden to sustain the claim that the Holy Scriptures must be or even can be interpreted in a post-theistic way, if by that term one means a non-personal, non-interventionist God.

David Allen

Or moving on from a version of The Church based on a misunderstanding of the sacred texts and a rebirth of Christianity with a new understanding beyond theism.

Bill Carroll

I don’t think I said that those who don’t yet believe should go elsewhere. I said the Church may not abandon the Creeds. The extent to which individuals adhere to the Faith of the Church is a mystery of conscience. None of us do perfectly. But the Church, corporately, must confess the Nicene Creed, as we do in our liturgy, in our public witness to the Gospel, and in our ecumenical position. To reverse this confession or fail to make it would be to invite disintegration and loss of our identity as Catholic Christians.

David Allen

How so Shirley? I have encountered conservative sects (usually from the US) for decades in Mexico with that very argument. Folks of the same “faith” as Franklin Graham. Folks who spout that if you don’t believe what they believe, you can’t possibly be Christian.

Bill C has just used that same script twice, if folks don’t believe what he believes they can’t possibly be the Church. Who are the Church? Christians. From that logic, if someone can’t be the Church, they can’t be Christian.

Shirley O'Shea

I think you’re painting with a little too broad a brush yourself, David.

Bill Carroll

Rejecting the historic creeds would simply be to abandon the Christian faith. People are free to do that. The Church is not. To do so would be to reject who we are. In the Creeds, we are dealing with irrevocable acts of ecclesial self-definition. Abandoning them is to cease to play the (life-and-death) game that Christians play, and to cease to be the Church.

George Clifford

I look forward to exploring post-theism more deeply in a subsequent contribution to the Cafe. Among issues that have led to my theological shift from theism to post-theism are: if there is a God (which I believe passionately that there is), then God must be bigger than any one religious tradition; advances in science are rapidly squeezing traditional theist conceptions of God out of the picture, yet any God knowable by humans must inhabit or permeate the cosmos; problems of evil, e.g., the origin of evil, why God appears to answer some prayers for help and not others, etc. Increasing secularism in Europe and the US underscore, at least for me, the need to move beyond theism, which, after all, is only a human attempt to understand the ultimate mystery.

Jerald Liko

Thank you for clarifying. My guess about what “post-theist” meant was not correct at all, so I sincerely appreciate the additional information. I look forward to your future posts on the subject.

Leslie Marshall

Rather than post-theist…would you consider ‘pro-faith’ as a way to describe yourself?

‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…through Him all things were made & without Him nothing was made that has been made.’ JN1.1-3.

I agree that God is too big for ‘traditional religion’…but he’s not too big for Jesus. [And that’s where Christians come into the picture.]

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