Being a (Practicing) Christian

There have been some interesting posts on religion at the Corner this morning.

John Derbyshire quotes and comments on a correspondent:

From a person who really should know, though he asks that his name and clerical status not be posted:

“Mr Derbyshire—-A basic phenomenon when dealing with Russians is that being Russian equates to being Orthodox in the Russian mind. ‘Sectarians’ (i.e., Protestants) are widely reviled, and Uniates (Roman Catholics using the Orthodox liturgical forms) are mostly confined to Ukraine and its environs.  When did you last hear of a group of Muslim Russian citizens refer to themselves as Russians?

“The upshot? It’s like Italians and Roman Catholicism.  The Italians all claim it, even if the piety and practice aren’t there.”

[Derb]  This issue of religious identification from cultural motives (as opposed to actual piety)  seems to need factoring into any discussion of how religious a population is.  It used to be the case that 99 percent of non-RC English people, faced with a box on a form labeled “Religion” would write in “C. of E.,” even in they hadn’t been inside a church for years.  I feel pretty sure that my father—a militant atheist, but 100 percent Grade-A English—did this.

A little later, Andrew Stuttaford responds:

John, your correspondent has a good point (as you recognize), and, as you say, the same applies in England. For example, with the exception of “hatches, matches and despatches” and, when the time comes, my own deathbed conversion, I never step foot inside a church, but I always describe myself as C of E.

The more interesting question is how much the distinction between ‘cultural’ and ‘actual’ religion really matters in practice in countries where the wilder excesses of religious enthusiasm have, thank God, faded away. If, in such countries, you identify yourself as a cultural ‘Christian’, your general worldview and moral outlook are, if only loosely, likely to reflect the way that that the practical teachings of that religion (who cares about theology?) have evolved in that country and will not be particularly affected by, for example, your view as to what may or may not have happened two thousand years ago.

What is more problematic (I seem to recall this was discussed in ‘The Closing of the American Mind’) is whether this cutural Christianity is strong enough to be passed on to successive generations. I’d argue that it is, but only in societies culturally self-confident enough to do so. Sadly, England no longer appears to meet that test.

I notice a couple of things here. First, over the centuries Christianity has been mighty successful at incorporating cultures into the church, so that Christianity seems so obvious that people take it for granted. You’re an Italian? You’re a Catholic. You’re a Russian? You’re Orthodox. Different views of how to be a Christian, yes, but each is a commonly and widely held conception in the given cultures. We see it all over what used to be called Christendom.

But I also see, second, that this Christianity doesn’t tend to function much like Christianity. There might be a belief system in place. There may be buildings and institutions scattered across the landscape. But as far as active, intentional, devotion to Jesus in worship and obedience? Not much.

Is this a good thing?

If you’re one of those who think all religion is about extremism and fanaticism, then you’ll likely think the movement to remove all content from the label “Christian” is a good thing. However, if you think Jesus was (and is) who he (and his followers) said he was, that his teachings are truly good for us, then the complete privatization of faith in the first generation and the loss of faith in the next will be seen as a failing, a bad thing.

Perhaps it is impossible for Christianity to completely capture a culture and remain Christianity. As long as we see Christianity as merely a phenomenon pertaining to individuals (the closest moderns get to an account of the church is the theory of voluntary associations), we will miss the cultural dimensions of the faith that drive a deep and lasting wedge between God’s ways and the world’s ways. If this is so, the goal of trying to build Christian America is at best a mistake, and at worst bound to corrupt the faith and kill it.

The question I’m most curious about, however, is what other options are there for the faithful, obedient Christian/Church?

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