Burdens of Identity: On Christian Existence in a Post-Christian World
We might as well admit it! We, Christians in Romania, are living in a post-Christian world. The dilemma facing our western brethren is our predicament, too. And this is so not because Communism has succeeded to eradicate religion from society, for it was only recently, at the 2011 census, that a staggering 93% of the citizens of Romania have declared themselves Christian. Nor is it caused by a lack of Christian elements (symbols and institutions) within our society, for ours is a veritable European heritage – a centuries old history of Church-State symbioses and the typical social and cultural Christian hegemony that gave our Vieux Continent the label of „Christendom”. Rather, I believe, it is the consequence of something deeper, something more profound. It has to do with the very definition of identity we provide.
Below I suggest that in spite of the changes we face as a society, we should neither reject our Christian roots, nor overlook the fact that Christianity is the very fabric of an authentic European identity.
To explain, we are a society characterized by a relativized value system, supplied by a postmodern consciousness, and a confused self-image, whereby old definitions of societal homogeneity are gradually being replaced with the „multicultural” persona ushered in by globalization. A society in which to be a „practicing” Christian would place one within a shrinking minority. A society in which the very essence of Christianity, that is, its story, is, at best, neglected, if not entirely forgotten. And herein lies the question posed in this essay: within such a context, what does „Christian existence” amount to? Is „Christian identity” a thing of the past? Or it is simply a matter that is up for redefinition?
Below I suggest that in spite of the changes we face as a society, we should neither reject our Christian roots, nor overlook the fact that Christianity is the very fabric of an authentic European identity. On the contrary, I submit that a redefined Romania should have at its core a truer understanding of Christian existence, one that is biblically based and thoroughly disseminated.
Towards Defining Christian Identity
There are various models to choose from when attempting a definition of Christian identity. For instance, one may choose to talk about institutions and structured religion, whereby affiliation would be an identifying norm. However, since appurtenance to a certain religious organization cannot be taken as proof of one’s Christian commitment, such an approach is wanting. Or, if focusing on what one officially stands for, stated Christian doctrines may be regarded as the important element in this identity definition. Nevertheless, problems arise in this case as well, for not only that belief cannot be objectively measured, but anyone in the least familiar with the Christian environment knows that varying, sometimes even contradictory, doctrines are affirmed by different Christian groups as fundamental truths. Yet another approach would be to associate Christian identity with certain customs and rituals. However, any attempt to identify the practices that make one distinctively Christian is doomed to fail as well; for as it is the case with the doctrines Christians affirm, so is the situation with Christian praxis – the customs and rituals are as varied as are the people performing them.
If this identity is threatened with extinction, cultural life grows correspondingly more intense, more important, until cultural life itself becomes the living value around which all people rally.
To say the least, it seems from the above that a definition of Christian identity is not as straightforward an issue as we would like it to be. This is, of course, a consequence of the fact that identity is a complex, multidimensional phenomenon (cf. Maalouf, 1998). It is a concept that has been the subject of discussion across various disciplines, and despite the enormous amount of literature available on this topic, the precise functions of identity at both the personal and the social level are still a matter of much debate (e.g. Alcoff and Mendieta, 2003). Consequently, theories regarding the way identity is formed, maintained, shaped, and re-shaped vary considerably. Here I take a socialconstructivist view, which argues that identity is the product of our minds, and is defined and propagated through the creative power of imagination (Anderson, 1991). In the words of Milan Kundera (1984, 97),
the identity of a people and of a civilization is reflected in what has been created by the mind – in what is known as „culture”. If this identity is threatened with extinction, cultural life grows correspondingly more intense, more important, until cultural life itself becomes the living value around which all people rally.
Furthermore, the capacity of culture to express group identity has been explained in a unique fashion by the Romanian philosopher Lucian Blaga (1969). He argued that a people’s identity is best understood as a system of cultural representations characterized by a specific „national style”. In this sense, a people have a unique discourse, which usually takes a visible form in the literary achievements of the respective culture. As such, identity is a matter of self-definition. The members of the group being described imagine it and it is the product of both conscious and unconscious mental processes.
This narrative intelligence, through which a group tries to understand its own past as a comprehensible and unified whole, and through which it searches for significance by pointing towards the future, is precisely the central element of their identity definition.
And how is such identity expressed? In his exploration of the concept, Ricoeur (1984, 1985, 1988, 1991) explains that identity has a narrated character; that is, it consists of the „story” we tell in answer to the question „Who are you?” As such, a people’s identity is constituted as the nexus of narratives telling the life of the group, it is sustained and transmitted through continuous re-telling and interpretation of such narratives, and it is developed through further narrative elaboration. This narrative intelligence, through which a group tries to understand its own past as a comprehensible and unified whole, and through which it searches for significance by pointing towards the future, is precisely the central element of their identity definition. In this regard Carr (1986, 128) observes:
A community … exists by virtue of a story which is articulated and accepted, which typically concerns the group’s origins and its destiny, and which interprets what is happening now in the light of these two temporal poles.
This definition of identity, then, brings powerfully in view the need for an understanding of Christianity in terms of its genesis and its teleological character. It is advancing the idea that Christian existence has to do with appropriating a particular story before moving on to praxis. What remains to be done below, then, is to draft up the contours of this „story” and envision a way in which it may become our story.
The Christian Story
In this way the Christian story can functions as basis for a community’s religious and intellectual life; and when given such a place, it becomes a constituent element of that community’s worldview.
Every society or culture is an enterprise in world-construction and world-maintenance (Berger and Luckmann, 1967). This is an activity regulated by, and involving the people’s world-view (Burnett, 1990), i.e., the system of assumptions they held as true, according to which they act, and through which they interpret all reality (Geertz, 1973). Within this world-building activity, „memories” of the past, especially stories about one’s origins, play a major role: they help locate reality within the boundaries of an imagined universe. Regarding the story of Christianity in particular, this is not any kind of universe; for, differently than other stories, it consists of both humans and the divine. It tells of God’s plan for humankind, from the beginnings at the creation, through recounting God’s actions on behalf of humans while choosing and forming a people for Himself, to the central point of God’s activity in history in Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection, and to the Church that was thus begotten and given the mission to be God’s agent in the world. At the center of this whole narrative there stands the historical Christ, thus making the story of Christianity a story „about something that happened”, about life here and now, for through Jesus „God’s future has arrived in the present”; and a story about God’s eternal purposes, for it „speaks of rescue from evil and death, and hence of new creation” (Wright, 2006, 78-100).
This blending of the divine and the human makes the Christian story a unique telling, one that creates a sense of „sacred space” (cf. Eliade, 1959) under the „sacred canopy” of God (cf. Berger, 1967). In this way the Christian story can functions as basis for a community’s religious and intellectual life; and when given such a place, it becomes a constituent element of that community’s worldview. As such, we might borrow Geertz’s language to say that the Christian story presents for those who appropriate it a „model for” and a „model of” reality (Geertz, 1973, 93ff). In this way, when an identity crisis occurs it is only natural that this sacred literature becomes a medium for self-identification and self-location. This is so because such an identity definition is not only describing, but also generating something; it is „constructing” a world that previously existed only in rhetorical presentation (cf. Searle, 1995).
How, in the context of a post-Christian society, can we re-appropriate a Christian identity?
Having said these, the last question to address here is: if humans interpret their experience through the prism of their world-view, how does one affect one’s world-view so that it will allow for new possibilities? In other words, how does one shake established ways of understanding and interpretation so that new ways become possible? How, in the context of a post-Christian society, can we re-appropriate a Christian identity?
I suppose that drastic changes in what one normally experiences may provoke a crisis deep enough to lead to questioning, and to changing one’s assumptions and accepted ways of thinking. In the case in view such a change may involve providing the community with new models of action, meaning, and values. Such an objective, I suggest requires that this story needs a proper mode of invocation – a ritual framework within which the world evoked by it is re-enacted into our world. Such re-enactment would make the story itself the „sacred space” within which the community exists; and since rituals have the function of re-organizing communities during moments of identity crisis (Gorman, 1990, 13ff), when thus appropriated, the principal role of the Christian story will be to introduce the community into the sacred realm thereby imagined. Only through re-enactment the elements of the story being re-membered will come to meet the four deepest longings of humanity: the passion for justice, the quest for spirituality, the need for meaningful relationships, and the enjoyment of beauty (cf. Wright, 2006).
Only through re-enactment the elements of the story being re-membered will come to meet the four deepest longings of humanity: the passion for justice, the quest for spirituality, the need for meaningful relationships, and the enjoyment of beauty
As for practical ways in which such re-enactment may be accomplished, I suggest, together with Wright that through worship, prayer and reading of the Scriptures, and through becoming a part of the community of Jesus’ followers, that community that is engaged in carrying out the mission of the Church, one will „reflect God’s image into the world” (Wright, 2006, 140). Such active participation is not motivated by rules and moral guidelines but by newness of life, a life whose echoes we have heard and whose signposts we have seen in the story of Jesus. Thus, being a Christian in a post-Christian society is to leave in the here and now according to the principles of the world to come; or, in Wright’s words, it is „practicing now, in the present, the tunes we shall sing in God’s new world” (Wright, 2006, 189).
Nota redacției: De regulă, nu publicăm articole academice, dar în acest caz am făcut o excepție, ținând cont de importanța temei și de faptul că o restructurare a textului în sensul simplificării lui ar fi amputat argumentația. De asemenea, este o primă experiență cu un text în limba engleză (așteptăm reacțiile dumneavoastră). Articolul a apărut inițial în lucrarea: Corneliu Constantineanu, Georgeta Rață și Patricia Runcan (coord.),Values of Christian Relationships, Puterea de a fi altfel 3, București, Editura Didactică și Pedagogică, 2014, p. 169–174. [T.S.]
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