Beyond Dynamic Conceptions of Religious Identity
By David Metcalfe
August 27, 2019
Saints and Sinners
I think that, as a child, I was raised to have a certain amount of hostility to “non-believers”. It’s something implicit in Christianity- dividing the “saved” and the “unsaved”. It’s the same kind of “saint/sinner” dichotomy formed in many ideologies- communism’s “proletariat/bourgeoisie”, 18th century America’s “white/black”, Nazism’s “Aryan/Jew”, etc.
If a certain group of people know ultimate truth, and are getting rewarded with eternal paradise, and another group of people are lost, and are getting punished with eternal damnation, there’s no possible way to view the two groups as equals; there is a clear hierarchy there.
So there was that implicit hostility from the religion itself, but then there was also a socially constructed aspect of hostility. There was this idea that you don’t really want to form close relationships with “those unsaved people”. After all, “those unsaved people” were lost, and looked for fulfillment in drugs, alcohol, and sex (we were told, anyway).
But these “saint/sinner” dichotomies are hard to sustain, simply because they aren’t true, and enough exposure to reality will put an end to them. Bourgeoisie were not inherently greedy, predatory, selfish capitalists. Black people were not inherently dumb, subservient savages. Jews were not conspiring to destroy Germany. And “non-believers” are not inherently bad, unwise, or lost.
The fact is, people are just people, and dividing people up into strict categories- as if they’re entirely different from one another- doesn’t work; morally, racially, or spiritually. And every categorization seems to have its “saints” and its “sinners”- which is which depends primarily on which group the people making the categorization happen to belong to.
Forming The Dynamic Conception
Something I was told, and was abstract minded enough to hold fast to, was this idea that the core of a person’s identity is their religion. Your religion determines every aspect of who you are and how you live your life: your personality, your interests, your sexuality, your career, your family, etc.
I think the idea is well represented by the popular hymn, “All To Jesus, I Surrender”:
“All to Jesus I surrender
All to Him I freely give
I will ever love and trust Him
In His presence daily live
All to Jesus I surrender
Humbly at His feet I bow
Worldly pleasures all forsaken
Take me Jesus take me now”
The concept here is that you surrender your entire life and identity to being a follower of Jesus. Apparently, Jesus is trying to trade eternal life for your very soul. The two most significant lines are “in his presence daily live” and “worldly pleasures all forsaken”. What would it look like if you constantly existed in God’s presence? Probably a HUGE difference to regular life. What would it mean to forsake every pleasure in the world? A HUGE lifestyle change.
One might think, then, that Christians are almost a different species than the regular human population. But just like any false dichotomy, exposure to reality puts that idea to rest. What you’ll find is that Christians have normal careers, normal hobbies, normal, well, everything, compared to “regular people”; “constantly existing in God’s presence” looks a lot like what normal life would be, apparently. What you’ll find is that Christians enjoy good food, a comfortable bed, a fun vacation, a good movie, etc. just like anyone else; there are very few “worldly pleasures” being forsaken.
All my life, Mormons and Muslims had been labelled exclusively by their religious identity. Those kinds of people were not invited to our home…ever. But as I spent time getting to know Mormons and Muslims, I started to find that they were far more than just their religion. They also enjoyed sports, movies, music, had normal careers, had the same struggles, concerns, hopes, etc. that any person might have. They weren’t “lost” or “brainwashed” into their religion; they were just as intelligent, reasonable, and grounded as the Christian people were.
I still labelled them by their religion, but I was amazed to discover how dynamic their identity was- how religion was the central core but beyond that there were so many other things. All people were fundamentally different, due to their different religious views, but superficially the same- due to their similar exterior qualities.
Beyond The Dynamic Conception
But over this last year, as I’ve come to understand a lot of things better, I’ve realized that people’s religion hardly defines much about them at all. When I joined the Mormon church a couple years ago, people were worried that I’d be entirely different. But the fact is, if we weren’t specifically talking about religion, there was very little different about me (I said “no” to coffee and alcohol more often than I used to, I suppose). But my sense of humour, my favourite movies, my social demeanour- everything people knew about who I was as a person- remained essentially the same.
If a certain individual changes their religious views, there may be major or minor exterior differences, but they are fundamentally the same person. Zealous religious people do not like this idea, because they are obsessively fixated on the supposed drastic change that everyone who joins their religion experiences (and the supposed “horribleness” of those not in their religion).
But, like I said at the beginning, any categorization we try to apply to people only lasts on a superficial level, and gets disproven on a fundamental level. We can categorize people into different races, for example, and it is true that some people have darker skin than others, but how much does that define them in a fundamental sense? Well, not at all. Religion is like that- views are superficial, and hardly effect the innate qualities of the person.
Does This Conflict With The Christian View of Identity?
I don’t think so. In fact, I think understanding people as fundamentally the same is a central concept in Christianity. We are all created in the image of God, endowed with a God-given soul, a moral conscience, intellectual faculties, and a physical body. When Jesus died on the cross, he died for all people.
The idea in being a created being by God is that no matter who you are, what you believe, what your personality is like, where you’re from, etc., you are an image bearer of God, you are loved by God, you are sustained by God, and you are valued by God. “There is no distinction among you, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”, as Paul says to the Galatians.
If the response to the grace offered by Jesus is “I’m now better than other people”, I think that is a tragic misunderstanding of what it means to accept grace. Grace is a gift- undeserved, given freely, and accepted with gratitude. The response should be one of humility, of “God is so great to have given this to me.” The approach to unsaved people would then be “they are just as loved and valued as anyone else, and I have no ‘special status’ over them just because I happen to have this knowledge”.
So, that is to say, I don’t think Christianity has to create “saint/sinner” dichotomies, but I think it often gets used that way. I think a large part of the reason is simply wanting to feel better than other people. You can find people who try to do that in any worldview.
I don’t think human equality is negated by religious differences, and I don’t think there is such thing as “fundamental change” in a person. I think there are people created with innate value and purpose, and all of us are on a journey to discover that value and purpose internally, through the people around us, and possibly, through a relationship with God himself.
There are two things I find tragic: people who do not effectively discover their value and purpose, and people who accuse those people of having “less value” as a result.
People who act badly towards others, who struggle through life with addictions, who never find anything they feel passionate about, are not less valuable or purposeful, but they are simply off track of where they are supposed to be. Effective evangelism is not in telling them they are terrible, but in informing them of the good potential in store for them and helping them get there.
Drawing false dichotomies through “saint/sinner” categories sets up a justification for thinking of others as “lesser” and one’s self as “better”. Instead, understanding that humans are all fundamentally the same provides an effective philosophical justification for also thinking that they are worthy of kindness and love.