Ringing the Bellhop

Christianity is a wildly diverse religion. Indeed, to say Christians think this or Christians believe that is pretty much to go off the rails before you even get started. There are all manner of Christians. Some believe in a militant Christ, some a pacifist Christ, some a judging Christ, and some a forgiving Christ. Some believe in a Christ who helps you lose weight. In many versions of Christianity this world is God's wonderful creation; in others it is a vale of tears. Some believers act on their Christian faith to reform society; others say we must avoid all contamination of the Earthly City.

You can find people calling themselves "Christians" who believe Jesus visited the native Americans after his gig in the holy lands, or that he's coming back any minute, or that whether he actually lived is irrelevant. Sure, they all worship a figure called Jesus, but that's about where the similarity stops. Christ is the ultimate Rorsach blot. People see what they want to see in him.

For every Pope Benedict, there's a liberation theologist like Gustavo GutiƩrrez or Oscar Romero. For every friend to the powerful like Billy Graham, there is a Christian anarchist like Dorothy Day or Jacques Ellul. For every mendicant friar in rags, there's a prosperity gospel evangelist who is certain that the Lord wants all of us to be rich (despite that whole thing about not serving God and mammon). But the astonishing malleability of Christianity is not a weakness. It's a sign of its vitality, although it sure leads to a lot of arguing. Heck, the historical story of Christianity is nothing but a long (and often violent) disagreement about the definition of the word Christianity. No other major world religion is as rent with schism among its practitioners.

Another point often overlooked is that there is a significant difference between Christianity as it is discussed or taught by the churches and the religious faith actually held by most Christians. In fact, the faith held by a great number of Christians is probably more akin to ancient paganism than to the doctrines of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther or for that matter the variant sect of first-century A.D. Judaism that Christ actually preached.

Take prayer, for example. In theory it is a serious communion with the Holy Other, a spiritual and transformative meditation upon one's relationship to God (what Martin Buber called the mystical I-Thou experience). In popular practice, however, it is often little better than the magical thinking that a primitive tribesman engaged in to bring rain, cure ordinary ailments, or assure victory in battle. Most people don't commune with God; they ring for a cosmic bellhop. It is a view that treats God like a child who has to be told what to do (as if He doesn't already know).

I know good Catholics who swear that they can sell their house faster if they bury a small plastic saint's statue upside down in their yard. (How does such behavior differ from burning an ox thigh for Zeus?) Don't get me wrong. These are wonderful, college-educated people. They just happen to believe that an eternal, omnipotent and infinite God takes an interest in the local real estate market. Christianity is shot through with accommodations to the simple faith held by most people. Many Christians, for example, cling to the wholly unscriptural view that they will be physically reunited with their dead loved ones in heaven. It's easy enough to understand why they think this. The average person is incapable of thinking of existence except in the way he understands it now (i.e., as physical, embodied and surrounded with friends and loved ones).

Historically, too, Christianity has been willing to accommodate such primitive beliefs. Even today, many churches preach the idea of a resurrection of the flesh at the last judgment, even though the great St. Augustine himself vehemently opposed it. And if your body is going to be in heaven, then so is your personality, your individualism. How different this is from those faiths that assume you will merge into a vast selfless oneness.

The absorption of folk beliefs and practices into Christianity has been the religion's great genius. Christianity did not triumph because it is a truth superior to all others. It triumphed because it was popular (and did what was necessary to maintain its popularity) with common people whose lot in life was for the most part toilsome, filled with sorrow, and fraught with uncertainty. As a doctrine, Christianity offered these people solace and a promise that all would be well despite the sins and suffering of this life. Not a bad message, not bad at all, but not especially unique or even particularly original.


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