Are we all Hindus?

31 08 2009

Over at the OrthoCuban blog, Father Ernesto cites a Newsweek article on how the religiosity of most Americans more closely resembles Hinduism than it does traditional Christian belief. He cites how more Americans would agree with the line of the Rig Veda, “Truth is One, but the sages speak of it by many names”, than they would with the idea of “you shall have no other gods but me”. The Orthodox cleric adds his own reflection saying:

Any of us might claim that we are not Hindu. But, if we are really honest, we need to admit that we chose which part of Christendom to follow rather than letting the Church tell us how to follow. If we are honest, we all need to admit that we probably hold some beliefs and opinions that contradict the “official” beliefs of the group of which we are a part. And, in that contradiction, and in the refusal to change our opinion despite the contradiction, we show the effects of a “cafeteria” view of Christianity.

Perhaps I am missing the point of Father’s analysis, but I found what he was trying to articulate a bit superficial, not to say naive. Firstly, I have to stick to our very Western view that being a bad Christian doesn’t make you a heretic. It just means that you are a sinful human being, and we all have to struggle with that. The difference between a sinner who has a faith and a sinner who doesn’t is the difference between a person who has a life saver in the middle of the ocean and one who doesn’t. Whether or not he choses to use it is immaterial to that distinction.

Secondly, to say that we are “Hindus” is stretching it a bit. Hindus believe in all sorts of stuff that we Westerners would not touch with a ten foot pole. And for all the talk of the Vedas being tolerant, tell that to the Muslims and Christians who have to suffer the fanatical riots of Hindu nationalists. If anything, the author of the Newsweek article should have sought analogies for how Americans think closer to home, in the Platonists, the Epicureans, and the general cynicism of the ancient Roman intelligentsia towards the state religion. But they don’t teach that stuff in American schools, I guess. Looks like the Newsweek author was getting her history out of the New Age section at the Barnes and Noble.

As I keep saying, Christians in the context of modernity seem to have a very myopic view of history and culture as it relates to religion. Most people who have called themselves Christians have had no say as to what flavor of Christian they were: cuius regio eius religio. It wasn’t so long ago that even here Catholics were not considered “real Americans”. Religion determined the identity of the body politic, and having the right religion was akin to being “native” as opposed to being a “foreigner”; being “civilized” as opposed to being a “barbarian”. People in the United States cannot quite comprehend how for many of our neighbors down south, particularly amongst the political right, being, “católico, apostólico, y romano” is akin to not being a “red” or a “fairy”. Societal pressure usually meant that people did not really have a choice as to what faith they would follow. So the idea of a Cuban-American Orthodox priest or an WASP convert to Catholicism is a novelty all in itself.

As for our beliefs deviating from the “official belief”, this has ALWAYS been the case, as it should be. I cannot speak for Orthodoxy, but I have always found the genius of Catholicism is not how much it can get right (though it does get more right than other religions), but how much it can take into itself and still stay afloat. Over the last half century, this has been tested, but in general, Catholicism is the Ark, and it can hold some very interesting, very magnificent, and very smelly beasts. Even though there was the whole nasty business of the Inquisition and the general wet blanket attitude of the Counter-Reformation (replaced by the even wetter blankets of the “enlightened” refomers of Vatican II), Catholicism has always sought to throw the widest net possible without compromising the integrity of the religion. That has meant sanctifying pagan groves, baptizing questionable numinous spirits, and building over the ruins of ruined temples. This has also meant not stifling intellectual discourse and discussion (within limits) and not saying that something is black and white if shades of gray are definitely involved. While this attitude has been eclipsed in Catholic history at certain points, this has been the general tenor of Catholicism when it approaches the mystery of God. My recent posts on Jansenism are a good example of this. If the contrary were the case, we would not have half the things in Catholicism that make the average white bread American Protestant cringe.

In general, however, Catholicism has not gauged the well-being of the Church by how much the faithful assent line by line to the ethos of the hierarchy. Lay Catholicism, as I have repeated over and over again, always had a different flavor, a different view of the world, often left over from the views of past elites now discarded. Thus, a peasant woman in Mexico (I keep going back this example because it is the one I know best) may go to Mass every Sunday, and in general follows everything el señor cura says. But she may also have deep belief in the healing power of the herbs of the countryside, how they need to be picked at the right time, and how the right prayers need to be said while they are being ground into powder. These beliefs have not been “cleared by the Vatican”. They have no imprimatur, and they are not the result of the debates of scholastics arguing about the minute details of a particular doctrine. People have always been praying to criminals buried outside of consecrated ground, they have always been frightened of the souls in Purgatory haunting the night, and they have always had practices that may echo the Catholic sacramental system, but cannot be found in any book. Are these people Hindus because they do not follow Catholicism “by the book”? I would argue that what they do is not contrary to the sensus catholicus; it is the sensus catholicus.

What phenomenon do we have in modernity then, and how is it (dis)continuous from what came before? I have used the term “Pop Catholicism” to explain the remnant of lay Catholicism as it has manifested itself in late capitalist society. Pop Catholicism, as I have defined it, is folk Catholicism with money; it is not based on necessity but on personal choice. When the modern person asks what religion he should belong to, he seeks first the best outlet for his self-expression. In other words, he has no fear that he will be struck dead or his crop will be eaten by locusts if he makes the wrong choice. In folk Catholicism, there are consequences to your belief. Not completing a promise to a saint, for example, could be worse than not having your petition granted in the first place. Pop Catholicism, then, is the what occurs among the laity once society, and by extension, the cosmos, have been secularized and brought under the subjection of the “rational rule of law”. And as I said, this crosses confessional lines, and partisan lines within confessions.

In the end, however, we have to be realistic about belief. “Hierarchical” Catholicism is not necessarily purer than its “popular” counterpart, and I am not so naive to think that “hierarchical” Catholicism corrupts the simple faith of people in the pews: a sort of Catholic version of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s noble sauvage. I will say that we are human beings dealing with a human religion, wrestling constantly with the Spirit of God to keep the Faith until the Parousia. Answers are rarely simple, and seldom definitive. Authentic Christianity (Catholicism, ahem) is ironically a lot like pornography: it is hard to define, but you know it when you see it.



2 responses

31 08 2009
Fr. Ernesto

“In general, however, Catholicism has not gauged the well-being of the Church by how much the faithful assent line by line to the ethos of the hierarchy.” Actually, neither has Orthodoxy. I suspect I did not make myself clear in my post. Orthodoxy has also tended to be less “official” than Catholicism and there is less separation between the “elite clergy” and “popular Orthodoxy.”

I was thinking more in terms of major pronouncements, such as the Catholics who believe in and support women’s choice in direct contradiction to major Catholic teaching. There are many doctrines on which neither Orthodoxy nor Catholicism have firmly pronounced themselves as needing to be believed. As a result, there is also much variety in Orthodox belief. Nor does Orthodoxy concern itself with every folk practice or belief, we have plenty of them ourselves, and we even celebrate some of them (such as the blessing of grapes at the Transfiguration, the blessing of meats and cheeses at Pascha, etc.).

But, when one picks and chooses among doctrines that are part of the basic skeletal framework of your group’s belief that is a quite different matter.

Your point is well taken about reporters and shallow analysis, though I would argue that you might be minimizing the influence of the Far East in post 1960’s America.

31 08 2009

I think that in the US at least, religion has always been a way of asserting one’s individuality. While this tendency seems more obvious today, it’s not that hard to see it 50+ years ago. The most obvious example perhaps is that of groups like the Nation of Islam or the Moorish Science Temple of America, where urban blacks adopted pseudo-African/Arabic identities in an attempt to create a positive sense of self apart from white racism. Radical 19th century religious groups such as the Shakers, early Mormons, or the Oneida community were also built around similar notions of creating new identities through religion. During the periods of religious ferment in the 19th century, there was also a fair amount of denominational hopping, as people went from one church to another, trying to find the one that most resembled their conception of the perfect New Testament church. Because Americans operate under the assumption that personal autonomy and belief trumps all, it shouldn’t be surprising that religion becomes another way of self-expression, like clothes or tattoos. In comparison, it seems that in Europe when Jews became Christian, it was generally to gain social status and economic opportunities; for example, in “The Diary of Anne Frank,” Anne and Peter (neither of whom is particularly religious) discuss the possibility of becoming baptized after the war, so they won’t have to worry about anti-semitism anymore.

Also, I like the jab about “el señor cura.”

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