Saturday, April 9, 2016

My Definition of a Christian & a Thumbnail Sketch of the Implied Theory of Religion

A Christian is someone who limits her- or himself to a particular aggregation of symbols, concepts, doctrines and teachings which are then held to be exclusively sufficient to express and describe the most important elements of human nature and existence.

Any Christian stumbling upon this blog would undoubtedly object that it's not about the symbols, concepts, doctrines and teachings but faith, Jesus, and His Redemptive Acts. That may all be true, but for the sake of this definition that speaks to questions of motivation for the self-limitation referred to in the definition.

Rather that get into questions of truth, authenticity and historicity, this definition brings a social element of being a Christian to the fore.  Even though I arrived at this definition by ruminating on Section 15 of The Antichrist, it could be just as easily be derived from Wittgenstein's language-game (Philosophical Investigations, Sect. 1-7).

Defining religious adherence in this way, also makes strikingly clear that Christians are no better than the rest of us. As if the fact of child molesters, thieves, adulterers, and breakers of the various Commandments didn't already make this clear. This definition also puts front and center the sometimes comical efforts of Christians to describe all kinds of things using exclusively Christian language: hatred toward minorities (anti-LBQT doctrines and legislation) all the way to Christians committed to Social Justice for the poor, the downtrodden, and other misfortunates. It also makes discussions of whether Christianity "really" supports slavery or libertarian economics moot.

Lurking behind this definition is a theory of Religion. Defining religion in terms of deities and belief ignores the most salient feature of all religions: community. Gods, rituals, sacrifices, angels, nymphs, buddhas, avatars, etc are means and tools for creating community: we are the ones who .... For Westerners brought up in the shadow of Christianity, it is difficult to understand that seemingly solid concepts like God, race, sin, guilt, Jesus, etc do not have anything at their foundation other than people talking and behaving in certain ways to other other people. The picture I have is of each generation walking in on a conversation already in progress and trying to figure out what the conversation is about: explanations are made for what's been said so far, which in turn are the raw material for the succeeding generation. After a certain point, how the conversation really started is unimportant for the participants. Historical events and their meaning are rarely, if ever, unambiguous, except within religious histories.

But I digress. I'd like to offer a history of religion in a nutshell. Pagan, pre-Christian religion was centered around the experience of participation in a group activity. This group activity could be hunting, harvesting crops, being members of a city, sailing, and so on. It is important to remember than pre-Christian religions have their own, even if largely unrecorded histories, stretching back millennia. What is seen in antiquity is already ancient beyond human reckoning. In late antiquity, many pagan religions became centered around fellowship and feasting. However tenuous the connection, ties to the old Nature religions were still maintained in urban centers.

As all this was happening, there was an underclass of slaves and mixed ethnicities in the Empire. Especially among the slaves there was no common practice and community. Communities and fellowship rooted in the experiences and lives of slaves were lacking. There was also a problem of resources: no temples, no resources to finance feasts and celebrations. Slaves are typically poor and lacking in leisure time. Given the religious history prior to Christianity, this is not promising ground for religious life.

At some point, Platonism and Judaism began to blend. Fellowship came to be grounded in answering ritual questions together. We are the ones who believe X, Y, and Z. Communal recitation of the Nicene Creed ought to make this abundantly clear. Judaism provided much of the content and Hellenic philosophy gave Christianity the language of propositions, Truth and belief. The founding moment of Christianity was the discovery that fellowship and community could be grounded in recitation and linguistic rituals. Everything after that was negotiating the contents of those recitations and rituals.

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