The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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What's in a name?

August 24th, 2007 · No Comments · christianity, culture, history

One of the greatest revelations I had during my intense periods of religious study centered on the use of a single word: Christian.

Much of my early exploration was propelled by my insistence that I was not, and would not be, a Christian. Now that I’ve come around to the far side of that journey, I discover that there is, in fact, nothing I can do that would not make me Christian. I follow no orthodoxy and openly worship pagan deities; I attend no church, and yet I am Christian. Even if I don’t want to be, I am.

At first, I thought the word ‘Christian’ implied a certain religious formula, a set of beliefs and practices that were sincerely held and traditionally validated. But there is no single set of beliefs and practices that can be universally applied to all who consider themselves Christian. Instead, there is a common cultural tradition to refer to the descendants of citizens of the Roman Empire as “Christian”.

If Sara says she’s a vegetarian, I can make certain assumptions about what I probably shouldn’t offer her for lunch. But it would be a mistake for me to assume that I know what her diet entails. Until I understand whether her diet choice was a cultural choice, a political choice, or a medical choice, I’m not going to know her capacity for variation or how she may feel about that part of her identity. Until she spells out her specific dietary restrictions and modes, I have no chance of guessing. Vegetarianism based on political or philosophical choices can often be far more ascetic and irrationally neglectful of nutrition than culturally or medically based diet choices.

At the same time, choices based on politics or philosophy can be strongly preferred in an individual, as opposed to cultural choices that are merely obliged. Sara may occasionally enjoy chicken or fish, yet she may still consider herself to be a vegetarian. Thus as a label, “vegetarian” says more about a person’s perceived group identity than what a person may actually do or think. The same actually goes for virtually every self-applied, group-identification label: Christian, Buddhist, Mormon, Thelemite, Atheist, Libertarian, Socialist… and so on.

The problem for groups who wish to limit their membership to folks who behave a specific way is to find a way to go beyond the label to codify belief. The early Church fathers focused on developing a specific creed to be universally agreed upon. Recitations of one’s creed was supposed to be the thing that proved that someone was Christian, thus insuring homogeneity of the faith throughout the lands. Instead, it provoked a thousand years of bloodshed in the name of “orthodoxy”, and virtually guaranteed schism and revolt. Throughout this time, it was never a question of what people really believed, rather one of accepting absolute Imperial authority.

I realized that, as a descendant of Western Europeans, living in a former colony nation, that I was, by fault of birth, a Christian — and that there was nothing I could do about it. The modern practices of the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant Christianities are simply the most recent incarnations of the Imperial Faith of the Roman Empire — something anyone within the borders of the Empire was automatically enrolled in.

Many centuries have passed since there was a single source of religious authority. So much time has passed, the Faith has diversified to the point where there isn’t a specific creed one has to believe or even profess, no specific act of faith that would be needed as proof of being Christian. My very language has never known a time without a monolithic Imperial Faith, and thus stands without the power of the ancient tongues to describe the complexities of human religious experience.

Not to put too fine a point on it, membership within “Christianity”, in Christian lands, is assumed for everyone, and further, most people assume that their particular flavor of the faith is the most correct interpretation. People don’t ask strangers if they go to church, they ask where. They freely invite strangers to their church, assuming that their variation would be acceptable to all. Why else would Atheism be so shocking? Why else wouldn’t Satanism be ludicrous?

Fortunately for me, modern Christian theology owes more to George Lucas than St. Paul. The common palate of belief is peppered with fancy and fantasy, cobbled together from comic books and situation comedies. Traditional Biblical tales are mis-remembered with epic dynamics of Hollywood inspired anachronism and the blandness of provincial modesty. The elements of faith I find most distasteful are often completely absent in the specific beliefs of average Christians: the angry, vengeful god; emphasis of Papal authority; even the maudlin histrionics of Revelations are forgotten by most. In the end, there is so very little to reject, that I have a difficult time maintaining my original distaste.

So I am Christian by birth, by culture, and by language. Even though I discard the superficial icons of the torture device and the anointed one, even though I disregard the creeds and catechisms, I am still Christian. It’s a term that describes my cultural heritage and identity more accurately than ‘white’, or even ‘European’. I have learned about every one of my grandparents back for eight generations — all were Christian. Not one was Hindi, Swahili, or Taoist. It’s not about what I believe anymore, and it’s not about where I attribute religious authority — it’s simply descriptive of my place in the greater swath of history.

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