21 January 2009

religious self-identity . . .

Posted by at 6:22 PM Read our previous post

What determines whether someone is part of one particular religious tradition as opposed to another? What does it mean to be “Jewish” for instance, or to be “Christian“? This is a question I started asking myself shortly after beginning my studies in Christian origins. Perhaps more important to my thinking recently is: Who gets to decide? —that is, what criteria are involved in the categorizing process? These turn out to be very difficult questions to answer, for there are almost as many ways to believe as there are believers. Faith, being ultimately an individual experience, can be (and has been) expressed in countless ways (a prolific species we are). Our faith connects us to the stories that we tell ourselves in order to make sense of our existence. Symbols are not rigid entities; they are flexible, adaptable to our own individual experiences. We tend to see ourselves, personally, in the myths we adopt as our “sacred“ stories. But even when we bracket this uniquely individual aspect of faith, and we try to focus instead on the community of the “faithful” and how they identify themselves, we run into more variegation. Orthodox. Catholic. Reform. Heretic. Liberal. Fundamentalist. All claim their rightful place within Christendom.
Shia. Sunni. Sufi. Wahabi. All within Islam, no?

Can we condense the essence of our religious identity into a minimum denominator? Is there such a simple prerequisite? C.S Lewis attempted to do this sort of distillation. He called the resultant concentrate “mere” Christianity. Do other religious traditions have analogues to this approach? What is it about a Hassidic Jew that a Reform Jew can recognize and accept as genuinely Jewish despite any number of sectarian disagreements they may have with each other?

It’s a difficult enough question to ask from our mass-information and near-universal literacy perspectives, blessed as we are with access to modern conveniences. But the tragic dearth of relevant historical or archeological materials relating to Jewish practices in the first century C.E. makes this problem especially troublesome if we are to ask what made one a Jew (semantic anachronisms aside) during the centuries immediately preceding and following the First Jewish Revolt (66–70 C.E.).

This is one of the problems I have been meditating on lately.



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