A fundamentalist preacher once said, “If you want to start an argument in an elevator full of Jews, ask ‘What is a Jew? Is it a religious person, an ethnic person, or a citizen of Israel?” Before anyone screams “racist”, it isn’t racist – he happens to think Jews are the “people of God”, which is a tenent of dispensationalist fundamentalism, which is what that was.
But he has a point. What the heck does being Jewish really mean? You ask different people, you get different answers. And for all the sort of “well, there is some consensus” that people try to pass off on us to calm things down, that seems sort of like a cover for real and serious disagreement, which if you’ve ever lived in an international city which includes all kinds of Jews, you get immediately.
In the same way, this word “Christian” is thrown around so much, and by people who can’t get along, that you get the impression that it’s not one thing. Here again, peacemakers do what peacemaking personalities do in any context – they try to smooth it over – “well, but there is some consensus” – no, there’s not. Not by a long stretch. You get someone saying “we pray to the same god” (do we? some of us think the god described in Sunday School is imaginary.) or that we agree on the essentials (what essentials? some of us don’t think there is such a thing as essentials).
Critics of “Christianity” do the same thing (it’s so easy to be a critic – you don’t have to be religiously literate – don’t have to really know anything – you just have to have a kneejerk response to the worst examples of what you’re criticizing – of course, in debate, the man with integrity selects the best of his opponents, not the worst). Critics talk of “Christianity” and “Christians” as though they concur with those who smooth things over – that we’re talking about one thing – which is convenient, because by simplifying it to that degree, you can dismiss or criticize it more easily.
The fact of the matter is that most of what passes for “Christianity” in media, in public culture, and in any visible way, isn’t even vaguely related to historic Christianity at all (“salvation” as accepting something, getting your own “personal saviour”, the rapture and all that crap, and even the “Bible”, which didn’t exist in the early Church – and, if you listen to TV or some Sunday School, has become a collection of “books” to be “studied” so you can “come to the truth” – gone is any sense that these were ever purely liturgical works meant to be sung (what are those choir-instructions in the Psalms about), not collected into a single “book”, and certainly not read in your lap in some auditorium as you squint to get answers to personal religious riddles, like a Ouiji Board or a Magic 8-Ball).
Furthermore, if you listen to “Christians” you’re led to believe that there was Jesus and the Apostles, and then corruption set in, and then Constantine politicized it all, and then 1200 years of ‘darkness and dark ages’ until Martin Luther unchained the “bible” and you get Jerry Falwell. Really? It’s amazing how many critics of “Christianity” (no wonder) have actually accepted that story as real, in varying levels of sophistication. This, despite the fact that decent historians of the period would tell you (e.g. Joseph Strayer, Norman Cantor) that the so-called “dark ages” didn’t exist. Some of the most complex works of architecture, literature, learning, and culture were created during this supposed blank spot, and it’s not true that the Roman Catholic Church controlled all of it, by any stretch, or that people lived in a kind of destitute, blind slavery. You could make an argument about the city or Rome itself, after the Goths, but Jeez, that was a backwater of Europe – it’s like saying the U.S. is Hildale, Utah. Heard of the Hagia Sophia? It’s one of the architectural wonders of the world. And that’s just getting started.
If I raided your closet, dressed up as you, and went around being taken seriously as you, doing and saying things you’d rather die than do, wouldn’t you expect anyone with any acumen to eventually learn the difference? Well all right, that’s if it was you. What if it was Elvis? Ever seen an Elvis impersonator on a Vegas stage or TV or at your cousin’s birthday party and thought it was the real thing? If he was drunk on stage in Vegas, would you go home and say “Elvis is a drunk. I don’t think I can listen to his music anymore.” Reductio. The thing the so-called Christians have done that screws it up for everyone, including people who might otherwise know something about it, is that they’ve made it so anyone can say they’re a “Christian”. What, all you have to do is “accept” something, right? And maybe “believe” a few things. So that’s what Christianity is? Badger puke. So for the last 1000 years or so, anyone can claim to be Elvis, so to speak, and the thing is *you* the critic are just as much a believer, because you took that premise seriously. You actually listen and call these folks “Christians”, despite readily available historical information to the contrary.
The point is, some of us who know that history, and might be tempted to talk about Christ very differently, are thinking, ‘Jeez, if these people are Christians, then I’m nothing of the kind, and vice versa.’ and ‘Whatever god they are talking about doesn’t exist.’ and ‘This rapture crap is stupid -there’s no such thing.’ Now, it’s easy to claim that “all religion is made up, and none of it is real”, because that keeps you from needing to know anything about the “all” you’re talking about. Blanket statements simplify things, all right. Might as well say Elvis never really existed, or you don’t exist, since I stole your clothes. And yes, anyone who has listened to amateur critics go on about “religion” in general (is there such a thing?) in a coffee shop, has heard argument by definition (“all religion is x, therefore religion is y”) – e.g. “all religion is the speculation of one man who invented it”, “all religion is man-made”, “all religion is a belief in magic and the supernatural”. And the “y” invariably means, therefore “crap”. Well, certainly what passes for “religion” in the equivalent of the tabloids, that stuff schlepped out by anyone who can open a storefront and accept donations is crap, but some religious people aren’t telling you anything, don’t need you to join, don’t hand you any literature, and don’t make it a point of explaining to you what they’re doing or thinking about it. Some religion isn’t a belief system at all, and I’m betting, if you’re one of those coffee shop critics, you don’t know whit about it.
Thing is, logic says the “all of these people, or all of this thing” simplifications are shite. First, you can’t sit on theological illiteracy and claim you know the basis of “all religion” based on dime-store reasoning, any more than I can speak of “all football fans” being violent, or “all Americans” being slobs. If you don’t know, you don’t know – it’s like claiming “the US is the greatest country on earth” when you haven’t ever lived anywhere else, let alone everywhere else. Some religion is based on history, which actually happened, and is distinct from religious philosophy, which is a form of speculation (i.e. ‘someone thinks it might be so’). Some religion is historical, in other words, and some ahistorical. If you’re not even making that distinction, it’s like saying “evolution is proven science!” or “evolution is just an unproven theory!” without even getting the difference between macroevolution and microevolution, and what’s actually been done in the real of experimental science in this area, and what hasn’t.
And yeah, any sophomore can say “history is just what someone thinks happened – you weren’t there” (neither were you, but there’s more evidence for a lot of historical events than a lot of current ones – were you there when Osama bin Laden died? Which of the four times?). Saying things like that means you’re not taking your own reason seriously, let alone anything else. Subjectifying all history means your comments are even more subjective – i.e. you’ve removed the ground of your own argument, since that would include everything you think you can describe about what religion really is, or what happened instead of what didn’t happen. That’s the problem with armchair criticism – it’s all fun and games until someone actually thinks.
Not everything critics say is without merit, of course – and, it can be hard when different groups seemingly calling themselves the same thing are at odds about whether that’s in fact, true. But easy answers that say, “well, they’re just arguing with themselves, they’re all the same thing” are just as made up and oversimplified as a lot of the criteria you hear coming out of the least intelligent voiceboxes on TV. Hasn’t your own career even been oversimplified to the point it made you disgusted with the ignorance, or your region of the country, or your country, or your cultural preferences, or any number of things you take seriously? But aren’t some of the people who do what you do actually some of the reason it gets stereotyped that way? We owe it to each other to be a bit more liberal, and try to understand distinctions, and not just say all Republicans are Ollie North and all Democrats are Barney Frank, and be done with it. That’s cave man thinking.
My solution to this stuff doesn’t get wide approval, but I really don’t care – it works exceedingly well for me. If someone asks if I’m a Christian, I tell them no. It’s quite simple – what they think of when they mean that word is imaginary to me, and is a system of religious philosophy, and I’m not a believer in religious philosophies – I’m not even a ‘believer’ in systems of belief. Orthodoxy isn’t primarily a belief system – it’s an ascetic activity – it’s something one does, like Yoga or photography. You might need to think about it, but it’s not primarily a system of thought. Some Orthodox don’t agree with me, but I think my way of doing it is the most honest, when people are looking for a simple answer, not a conversation or deep analysis. If someone asks if I believe in “god” I usually say “no” because, again, I think what they’re talking about in most cases is imaginary – the guy in the sky, Charlton Heston, that guy Pat Robertson talks about – these, to me, are like comic book superheroes, in a weird kind of world where nothing is cool and no one has fun. Nope, I don’t believe in the tooth fairy or Easter bunny, either. More on this, in a sec.
Even if someone wants to debate “religion”, to cater to that assumes religion is one thing which, again, is ignorant, or if they want to debate belief in “god”, then to accept the ground of that, one has to accept the premise that “god” is a describable philosophical construct, a ‘something’ of religious philosophy, a concept of speculation, and that he has attributes the way a human being ascribes attributes to a thing or other human beings – he is just, he is kind, he is good, etc. But I’m an atheist in that regard – such a god doesn’t exist. We have a people among the Orthodox called Hesychasts who keep us in mind of that. They teach us to remove all false images from our minds and conventions of speech, because all such constructs are idolatry, are constructions, are invented, are man-made, are thought of. If there were a “god”, he would be unknowable, and beyond being unknowable, because unknowability too is a construct. Therefore, the Hesychasts do not so much believe as act. This is not a course in religious history, but a little wouldn’t hurt, from what I hear out of most critics.
The “god” people describe is, inherently, a speculation (= made up = imaginary). It’s a circular argument – a god who can be described couldn’t be “god”. If they want to talk monotheism, I point out that Orthodox people are not monotheists. We do not believe in (or in our case act because of) a countable “god”, of whom we can say “there exists one of him”. And we are more ready to say that God does not actually ‘exist’ in the sense that people can think of existence – God’s “existence” is the last thing we could believe in. One could talk about this at length, and I’ve done so elsewhere, but that’s not the point.
The point is critics who try to bundle everything for simplification don’t have the answers they think they do about “all religion” or even about “Christians”. To “hit” something, logically and rhetorically, in your conversation, you have to at least know it. And lumping things together, invariably, means you don’t know. This is why we call it “ignorance” when people make hasty generalizations about “all Jews” or “all white people”. It’s just, with “religion” or “christianity” or “christians” somehow we miss that it’s just as philosophically primitive.
One last illustration. Just because there’s no Santa Claus, doesn’t mean St. Nicholas isn’t a real person. And if you can unpack that, it pretty much answers oversimplifications and ignorance with a logical construct that is truly simple, but not simplistic.