A subcurrent of recent conversation here and elsewhere has been the question of Christian identity. I myself work within the Christian tradition, and not solely as an “internal critic” — as will be clear once my dissertation is published this fall, I do constructive work from within the tradition as well, and so Christian identity is something that I still in some sense claim. I am also cognizant of the fact that everyone has to have some point of identification or other and that a “view from nowhere” is impossible. Nevertheless, I think it is appropriate to outline two general problems that I have persistently found in the way people situate themselves in terms of their Christian identity, which I will discuss in terms of the two words “identity” and “Christian.”
Identity: Often one will find Christian identity put forward as a self-evident goal in itself. One should follow the tradition primarily because it’s tradition, for example, or follow a given structure of authority because it’s the most authentically Christian form of authority. I believe that members of all traditions should be able to give reasons for their loyalty to their tradition. In the modern West in particular, everyone has the option of disidentifying with their roots or (in the case of converts to Christianity) remaining in one’s irreligious state: why the reference to Christianity, then? What keeps you coming back? Why is Jesus, or Paul, or Augustine, or whoever an attractive figure to you? Obviously no one can completely account for their motives, etc., and at the end of the day, the answer is probably going to be “this is where life has taken me” — but too often, people claiming Christian identity will jump much too quickly to the fact that everyone has to have some identity (i.e., the postmodern “at least it’s an ethos” argument). This overdefensiveness is reminiscent of when a conversation partner jumps to accusing someone who disagrees with them too strongly of not being able to tolerate differing views, etc. — in both cases, the short circuit from questioning of one’s particular views to the idea of absolute intolerance springs from the sense that someone, by questioning too much or too insistently, is somehow trying to “deprive” one of one’s point of identiciation. It seems as though this is an inherent temptation of any identity whatsoever, but it might be especially bad among Christians, for reasons I will now discuss.
Christians: It seems to me that the feeling of being persecuted is almost inseparable from Christian identity — I know that I am guilty of indulging in a persecution complex, even though I hold Christian identity more loosely than others. The historical roots of this Christian persecution complex are obvious, but its continuation into eras where Christians are actually the most powerful group has been absolutely toxic. In particular, once Christians are in power, there is a tendency to view the very existence of any other power center or point of identification as persecution — the fake controversies over the use of the phrase “Happy Holidays,” though obviously mostly a media phenomenon, provide a particularly vivid illustration of this thought structure. In connection with this identity structure, I have very often encountered self-identified Christians who regard questions — even something like “what do you mean by that?” — as a kind of persecution, as though the very fact of having to provide reasons or explanation is an intolerable burden. Here the Christian persecution complex and the inherent structure of any “identity” work together to create an exaggerated defensiveness that is very difficult for many to get past and has brought more than one potentially interesting conversation to an end.
Now just to repeat, I think that identifying with the Christian tradition is a perfectly justifiable choice — I still do so to a large degree (probably more than most front-page contributors here), and I also think it’s justifiable to identify much more closely than I do. There is obviously much that is good, promising, or at least interesting in the Christian tradition, and much that is attractive about Christian forms of piety, and that’s even leaving aside the family connections and friendships that probably bind the majority of Christians to the tradition in the last analysis.
There are good and bad ways of carrying one’s Christian identity, however, and I believe that the historical legacy of Christianity’s persecution complex and of the general structure of identity claims combine to create at least one bad way that is distressingly common among laypeople and intellectual Christians alike. Perhaps if the theology blogosphere becomes more conscious of these temptations, fewer conversations will run aground in useless defensiveness.