Friday, December 08, 2006

Christmas Wars II

Christianity as an Oppositional Identity

Let's not sleepwalk with the Christian soldiers | Comment | The Observer

The Italian journalist Antonio Polito defined what can happen when people with no religion worthy of the name feel their values are under threat. He invented the term 'theo-con' to describe secular and atheist Italians who nevertheless support the Pope as a defender of a Western civilisation which paradoxically protects their freedom to be irreligious...[T]hose who emphasise a Christianity so vague it doesn't extend to going to church, play into the hands of al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. They make a 'clash of civilisations' a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are the Islamists on one side and 'the Crusaders and Zionists' on another and no middle ground in between.

"Dog bites man" isn't news so, in a strange journalist twist, Nick Cohen argues that the real bad guys in the current Clash of Civilizations aren't convinced fundamentalist Christians--or, presumably, fundamentalist Muslims—but the great mass of secular Brits who nevertheless identify themselves as "Christians" and fuss about revisionary packaging for Christmas, the suppression of Christian religious symbols in the public square, and the like.

Cohen's reasoning is an argument to the best explanation: 71% of the public in England self-identify as Christians even though church attendance is in single digits. Why then do those 60 some odd percent of the public who aren't, by Cohen's lights, religious call themselves Christians? This is his take:

[M]ilitant Islam was on the march in 2001 and anger about asylum-seekers was at its highest. The census-takers then presented the public with a form that invited them to tick boxes from a list that included Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu and Sikh. There must have been a temptation to tick 'Christian' simply as a way of saying 'we're white and not Muslim'.

Christianity, he suggests, is an oppositional identity for them: they call themselves "Christians" and push to maintain the public presence of Christian symbolism in order to distinguish themselves from the non-white Other and make the statement that the UK is still Christian territory--their turf.

Empirically, this explanation doesn't wash. Even before mass immigration and the march of militant Islam, it was the same: Christendom has always been full of religious slackers, agnostics who weren’t willing to repudiate religious belief outright and the great mass of the indifferent who maintained a minimal, sentimental attachment to various Christian denominations but otherwise weren’t very interested. My bet is that if the census Cohen cites had included tick boxes for CofE, Catholic, and other Christian denominations rather than "Christian" the figure for Christians overall would have been even higher, and would have included even more non-churchgoers. These days "Christian" suggests "fundamentalist" or, at the very least, "intentionally committed and observant."

The secular culture-Christianity of the unchurched that worries Cohen is, and always has been, the religious norm at all times in most places. Strong religion is a special taste. For most Christians, and I suspect most Muslims as well, religion is a matter of participation in a culture where religious symbols, ceremonies and myths figure and rites of passage are conducted under religious auspices. This is not only normal religion--it is religion as it should be: religion that enriches life and satisfies human needs without imposing burdens or serious moral obligations. It is the kind of religion that Kierkegaard despised as mere participation in "Christendom." And it is quintessentially Anglican.

I'm all for it--and I am not being ironic. To reject Christianity as a source of serious moral obligation is not to reject serious moral obligation: ethics is independent of religion. We admire Bonhoeffer and Pastor Neimöller for resisting the Nazi program on Christian grounds. On the conventional view this is a recommendation for strong religion, committed Christianity, over mere participation in Christendom: a mere culture-Christian wouldn't have had the motivation or the backbone to stand up to the Nazi regime. Is that so? I would bet that there were quite a few mere culture-Christians and even flat-out atheists who resisted the Nazi agenda out of pure human decency. There is simply no empirical evidence that religious commitment makes people braver or morally better. Decent, courageous people who are committed Christians appeal to their religious convictions as the source of their moral commitment and behavior. The Church cheers them on as martyrs and confessors, advertisements for the ethnical benefits of religious commitment. But is there any reason to believe that they wouldn't have done their good deeds if they weren't religiously committed? There are certainly secular martyrs and confessors whose good deeds and courage are equally remarkable.

I am, in any case, for culture-Christianity. What worries me is that strong religion, religion that imposes burdensome rules, tight constraints, and tough moral obligations will drive out culture-Christianity. In the US this is already almost a done deal because here Christianity is already perceived as an "oppositional" identity: Christian symbols and ceremonies have become so tainted by association with strong religion, in particular conservative, evangelical Christianity, that we can't enjoy them as cultural amenities any more.

During the last anti-crucifix crusade at my (Catholic) university I asked one of the leading crusaders why she was ok with buddha statues in Chinese restaurants and the earth-god shrine at the entrance of our local Vietnamese supermarket, but not with crucifixes in classrooms, creches in the park or crosses on mountaintops. She asked, rhetorically, whether I would be comfortable as a Christian living in a place that was full of Buddha statues or Hindu idols (comfortable? I'd be thrilled--I like all religion and the more the better!). Like Cohen, she viewed Christianity as an oppositional identity and Christian symbols in public, or semi-public places, as a way of marking territory--sticking it to religious minorities that they were on Christian turf, on sufferance, that they were at best dhimmi. She claimed that students who were not Catholic, some 40% of our undergraduates, in particular Jews and members of traditionally persecuted minorities, were upset and felt threatened.

I find this hard to believe. I've never met a member of any religious minority who had this reaction to crucifixes or Christmas cribs--and it seems unlikely that anyone who felt this way would sign on at a Catholic college. During the Crucifix Wars at Georgetown, non-Catholics, including Jews and other non-Christians, were active on the pro-crucifix side. They argued that these religious symbols were part of the identity of the university, part of what they were attached to as students and faculty. It is, however, a preoccupation of secularists with axes to grind, which hardly endears them to the general public while supplying ammunition to the religious right.

Maybe I don't get it because I was brought up as a pagan. It used to surprise me, until I got used to it, that students who were generally credulous and sympathetic to various flavors of "spirituality" dismissed Christianity out of hand. When I asked them why they wouldn’t give Christianity a fair shake their answer was always the same monosyllable: "rules." They did not merely find the Christian "rules" inconvenient--to their credit, they objected to the rules they imagined were constituitive of Christianity because they regarded them as arbitrary and unmotivated. It took me a while to realize that we were not on the same page, and that the disagreement wasn't about what the Christian rules were or whether they were reasonable, but about the importance of rules of any kind in religious traditions, particularly Christianity. They saw the rules, primarily moral rules but also rules regarding religious observance, as the essence of Christianity—with all the symbols and ceremonies as a little bit of sugar to make the medicine go down. I saw the essential business of religion as myth and metaphysics, symbolism, art and cult--ethics optional.

This is the way I believe most people, most of the time, have viewed religion and it is why advocates of strong religion have almost always been isolated malcontents and prophets. This is the religion of Christendom that got Kierkegaard's knickers in a twist, the religion that the Reformation and all religious reformations were supposed to clean up, the religion of the masses--the religion of happy slackers. This is my religion though, it seems, only as a romantic fantasy--the fantasy of syncretic Hellenistic paganism: the libations and sacrifices, the mystery cults and the treasure-laden Ship of Isis (as described by Pater) floating out to sea. This is not mere aestheticism and does not trivialize religion: the core of religion is ineffable, or at the very least, highly controversial, like all metaphysics. The cultural packaging is all we can get a hold of. Apart from a very few orthodox theologians and philosophers of religion who spin out the doctrines, most educated practicing Christians are, effectively agnostics who believe that “there may be something there” and regard their cultural religious package as a way, however inadequate, of representing it and enjoying it.

Fundamentalist Christians and crusading secularists between them have all but destroyed the remnants of Christendom—a casualty of Culture Wars, in which ideologues with competing sets of rules fight for power and turf. We are not going to have the shrines and cults of 1000 gods happily coexisting, with people sampling their wares as it takes their fancy. We are not going to have those innocuous and lovely displays of public religiousity that everyone can enjoy as they please. New holidays and myths, symbols, ceremonies and shrines have replaced the old ones. They are genuine—Superbowl Sunday, Halloween and the Fourth of July, parades, block festivals and shopping malls—as rooted in the culture as religious processions carrying statues of local patron saints in Catholic Europe before it became rich and secular. I like Fourth of July fireworks and shopping malls too, but I like religious displays more—and they are doomed. That seems a pity.

It may be that even if Christian symbols and ceremonies hadn’t been tainted, and weren’t doomed to be casualties of cultural turf wars, the kind of religiousity that I enjoy might still be unsustainable. There are very few high church romantics like me who enjoy religious symbols and practices for their own sake. Most clients who keep the shrines in business, who engage in ceremonies which are appealing to me largely because they are gratuitous expect to get something out if their efforts—a normal pregnancy and easy birth or seasonable rains to make the corn grow, health, prosperity and a better shake in this world or the next. Most religious people who aren’t in the game for the rules are in for the magic: for them religious practices are no more interesting than balancing their checkbooks or going to the dentist. Religion is just more of that stuff you have to do to keep your life in order, stay healthy and get various material benefits. Without them, pilgrimages and icon-kissing would be nothing more than a vulgar, sentimental display—the childish game of self-conscious Anglo-Catholics like me—and churches would become museums or mini-themeparks. We high church junkies piggyback on the superstition of the naïve who give these rituals authenticity.

What a foul trichotomy if that’s true. Who is religious? Conservatives who want restrictive social rules promulgated and enforced; peasants who want the corn to grow; and a few silly asses, like me, who just plain like religion—cult, symbol, myth and custom.

In any case, I seriously doubt that Christianity is as yet an oppositional identity, much as both militant fundamentalists and equally militant secularists want to make it one. Laodician Christians are not interested in capturing territory or defending turf: they are simply sentimental, like those non-Catholics at Georgetown who campaigned to get the crucifixes back up. We want crosses on the hilltops and crèches in the park, along with chestnuts roasting on the open fire, Frosty, Rudolph and all the secular symbols of Christmas. We like cathedral evensong and the San Gennaro Festa. Thousands of happy tourists go to cathedral evensong to hear, and see, the boy choirs in ruffs without even realizing that they’re participating in a religious service. Thousands celebrate the San Gennaro festival, in honor of the annual (alleged) magical liquification of St. Janarius’ blood, at which a statue of the saint is trotted out and paraded around New York City’s Little Italy. You don’t have to be Catholic to enjoy that event any more than you need to be Italian to eat spaghetti or Jewish to love Levi’s Real Jewish Rye, as an old TV commercial had it.

So where is the beef? I suppose the problem is that lots of people simply can’t imagine liking religion as such either because they’ve been brought up in a strong religion that killed any pleasure they might have gotten out of it, or because they’re so remote from religion that can’t fathom what there could be to like. More’s the pity. The altars have been stripped, the churches are closing, the ceremonies and processions that remain are becoming mere tourist attractions, and the religious symbols, ceremonies and sentimentalities surrounding Christmas—the Star of Bethlehem, the ox and ass in the stable, the angels singing Gloria, the carols, candles, and hymns, the midnight mass—are slipping away and the world will be poorer, colder and duller for it.


Anonymous said...

This puts me in mind of the below selection from H.P. Lovecraft's short story "The Silver Key". I don't know that it adds much of substance, but I've always liked the story (and, I'm ashamed to say, Lovecraft's turgid prose).


In the first days of his bondage he had turned to the gentle churchly faith endeared to him by the naive trust of his fathers, for thence stretched mystic avenues which seemed to promise escape from life. Only on closer view did he mark the starved fancy and beauty, the stale and prosy triteness, and the owlish gravity and grotesque claims of solid truth which reigned boresomely and overwhelmingly among most of its professors; or feel to the full the awkwardness with which it sought to keep alive as literal fact the outgrown fears and guesses of a primal race confronting the unknown. It wearied Carter to see how solemnly people tried to make earthly reality out of old myths which every step of their boasted science confuted, and this misplaced seriousness killed the attachment he might have kept for the ancient creeds had they been content to offer the sonorous rites and emotional outlets in their true guise of ethereal fantasy.

But when he came to study those who had thrown off the old myths, he found them even more ugly than those who had not. They did not know that beauty lies in harmony, and that loveliness of life has no standard amidst an aimless cosmos save only its harmony with the dreams and the feelings which have gone before and blindly moulded our little spheres out of the rest of chaos. They did not see that good and evil and beauty and ugliness are only ornamental fruits of perspective, whose sole value lies in their linkage to what chance made our fathers think and feel, and whose finer details are different for every race and culture. Instead, they either denied these things altogether or transferred them to the crude, vague instincts which they shared with the beasts and peasants; so that their lives were dragged malodorously out in pain, ugliness, and disproportion, yet filled with a ludicrous pride at having escaped from something no more unsound than that which still held them. They had traded the false gods of fear and blind piety for those of license and anarchy.


H. E. said...

Foin wroitin, it is, though not to my taste. My husband's a Lovecraft fan though and recall one story in which a dreamer goes ever deeper into nested dreams, dreams within dreams. I use this in class to explain proof strategies in which conditional proof sequences are nested one within the other, what-ifs within what-ifs, fantasies within fantasies--cautioning them that they've got to get back out to Reality to finish the proof.

Jim said...

I think I agree with you. The mysticism/spiritual "questing" aspects of most religions are attractive - and the Christmas story is still a good one for all that. But as a survivor of a fundamentalist Lutheran (oh - they exist) upbringing where anything approaching real joy/emotion was devil's work, I sprint away from any organized Christian religion. Oh, I wish I could have those all those Sunday mornings back that were wasted listening to moribund doctrine and dogma. Basically, I got the feeling from my church that everyone was really, really sad - and I want to be part of this why?

It does seem that the fundamentalists ruin it for a lot o' people don't it...

H. E. said...

I seriously considered bring my kids up unchurched because it seems to me that a religious upbringing turns people off of religion permanently. A fundamentalist upbringing certainly does, but even being brought up in a mild, mainline Protestant church culture puts people off: the Sunday School construction paper projects, kiddie Jesus stories and boring services give people the idea that Christianity is puerile and dull.

I once used the term "Christian mysticism" in class and students were shocked: one student piped up, with murmers of approval from the assembled body, "You don't associate Christianity with mysticism." Yet there is a deep tradition of Christian mysticism--and high art. When my oldest kid was an undergraduate he went with friends to a performance of Handel's Messiah in a church and told me that one of his friends was amazed that it was church music, that something like this would be done in a church. Years of boring Sunday School and boring services obscure all the juicy bits.

One would hope that there would be some equilibrium. People raised in religious traditions raise their own kids secular and kids raised secular rediscover the juicy bits, as I did so that religion skips generations--like knitting. Most girls I think pick up knitting from their grandmothers. Knitters (like me) try to teach their kids to knit and fail--the whole thing seems to be a bore. But their grandchildren pick it up as something new and interesting.

It doesn't seem to work that way though. Most spiritual questers, whether they're been brought up religious or not, turn to non-Christian religions or commercial New Age products because Christianity has been so thoroughly poisoned--by joyless, puritanical fundamentalism or by the sheer tedium of liberal Christianity. I wish it were otherwise.