Is communal identity an idol for the church?

25 Mar



Some of you may know that I am presently looking at pursuing a Ph.D. (and as some of you know, there will be news in that department, one way or the other, in the next few weeks, God willing).   A number of impulses have motivated this pursuit, but many of those impulses can be summarized in the category of communal identity-formation:  how it’s formed, shaped, changed, etc.

Theoretically, Christian identity is rooted in Christ, beyond culture or location, instead of, as in other cases, religion being embedded in culture/society and actually serving its needs.  But history, unfortunately, far more often testifies to the latter case than the former. 

This reality has yielded some recent thoughts about the fact that stable community identities are a god.  What follows are some of the raw thoughts (leaving out many details) I’ve had about this:


[YOU CAN SKIP OVER THE HISTORICAL RAMBLINGS DOWN TO  “Thus our modern search:” IF YOU’RE PRESSED FOR TIME….or easily bored.]Smile 


Despite the modern myth that we act as individuals, at the end of the day humans want to belong to something bigger— a greater task and purpose, and a community.  This is a primary motivator of most group behavior—both for the leaders of those groups who are charged with maintaining that stability, and for the people who, at times, will take the trade-offs that come from that leadership for the sake of stability. 

[Calvin, I believe, saw this in part, when he called humans “idol factories.”]

The early church, seeing their new identity in Christ as a liberation from both the defeatism in their Jewish identity and the subjugation in their Roman identity, began to craft a new identity, under a new set of rules established by the “Kingdom (of God),” where subjugation and power and dominance were alien forces—and all (from every tribe and tongue) were welcomed to participate in their new society.  This created a destabilizing force that threatened Jewish and Roman power structures alike, although the strength of that force ironically grew with every attempt to destroy it.

But from Constantine onward, (particularly Western) Christian identity became inextricably tied to the powers that be, rather than being an alternative to it.  Religion, just as in most cases worldwide, came to serve the needs of the “identity-stabilizers,” i.e., the Holy Roman Empire, the Vatican, and various nobilities throughout the ages.  Yet the fear of the people was not merely that of intimidation or threat of hellfire (although these fears were certainly wielded by the powerful); it was also that their understanding of who they were in community, and thus their purpose and source of meaning, might be threatened if their overlords did not maintain their posts.

Various threats to stability gradually evolved into waves of societal movement, including the Renaissance (there is a reason why art and science were frequently condemned by the church), the Reformation, and the rise of Modernity and Enlightenment.  Freedom was rediscovered, and in the case of the Reformation, such freedom was once again appropriated to the Christian story. But, without the centralized structures of feudalism and religion to shape and hold community identity, fear eventually set in, and people began to form new community identities.  At the same time, people became almost addicted to the concept of revolution in various forms (forming whole identity-creating myths around the revolutionary stories of the past)- thus beginning an endless cycle of:   rebel—re-coalesce and redefine community—power abuse (real or perceived)—new rebellion.  [This is coupled, with every new rebellion, with a redefining of one’s group-identity, which leads to greater exclusion between sub-groups, defining one’s group as “not” like another.]

Protestant churches, therefore, are wired to continue protesting!—it’s in their ever-evolving community DNA.  The American individualism-mythology, coupled with its revolution-mythology, created an environment for the Protestant church that exacerbated this evolution—and thus a Christian landscape where splits, divisions, near-splits, or threats of splits, have become as commonplace as American flags inside our sanctuaries. 

There is an inherently instability to Protestant churches, who have a love-hate relationship with their sense of modern individuals rights and freedoms.  Ironically, modern individualism leaves in its wake the need for communal identity-stability—which, as history has shown, often leads to the suppression of individuals, and particularly the minority and the outcast.

Thus our modern search:   to espouse the irrefutable “right” perspective, have the “right” religion, have the “right” foundational beliefs around which one could structure their community lives, and belong to the “right” (i.e., the most powerful and influential) religious institution that will preserve all of this stuff for us, so that we’ll once again have stability, and everyone who disagrees with us will be able to SEE that we are right, because it will be obvious… and they will join us, instead of threaten our destabilization. Thus, also, came the need to preserve these institutions- through intimidation, and yes… the threat of hellfire. 

Which would be followed by, inevitably, someone coming up with a better “right” way.  Followed by another split.  Followed by another. 

Which (and this is what is particularly salient to my interests) has led to churches and other ideologies making identity as simple and as streamlined as possible, rooted out any threat of inconsistency or perceived error…. but as a result reducing their communal identities to such a degree that their sense of purpose and meaning is almost NULLIFIED—and their ability to exclude and subjugate has become AMPLIFIED.


What are we to make of all of this?  What IS the viable alternative?  We’re not going back to the abuses of medieval Catholicism; we can’t transport ourselves back in time to the early church; we don’t want to get away from the liberating aspects that modernity has brought us [despite modernity’s limitations, it has brought us art, science, technology, etc., that can and have indeed made the world better]. As it is now, we either have lords, or doctrines, suppress our freedoms in exchange for a stable communal identity…and if either get too oppressive, we just overthrow them and form a new communal identity [and create more division]!  But isn’t there a better way to think about this?

The postmodern world has produced much thought to help us navigate these waters—and versions of a “postmodern Christianity” have also arisen from out of these resources, as well as the frustration from the reduction from which modern evangelicalism, as well as virtually every form of Protestantism, suffers.

The more optimistic of us say…there IS a viable alternative: 

Learn our lessons from the past, and take them with us into the future.

Give up the idol of “stable communal identity.”  That is what “dying to self” means in the Christian tradition.

Christians, embrace Jesus and the salvation-narrative extending throughout the scriptures as the centerpiece of our identity…not to exclude others, but to choose to use a Jesus-colored set of lenses with which to view the world [using the stories of Jesus to challenge our perceptions, without trying to stuff every inch of scripture into your interpretive grid]. 

Live by the Kingdom of God…. with its new set of rules, and its forever-permeable borders…. the kingdom free of class distinction. 

YOU DON’T HAVE TO NECESSARILY THROW YOUR INTERPRETIVE GRIDS IN THE TRASH.   They can help us understand God, and yourself, better.  But let your grid be malleable, open to influence from other (even non-explicitly Christian) sources.  Be humble enough to admit that your interpretation is just that.  And if people don’t agree with you, well, maybe you can learn from them the best you can, and thus model openness to them.  

Let the stability and sense of community come from Christ and resulting fellowship with others; see all people as creations of God, treat them as such, and rest in that.  That won’t physically reunite the church in itself, and it won’t undo all forms of hegemony in the faith overnight…. but it’s a potential start, I think, towards a more united community, and a less reduced understanding of Christian identity. 

For those of you who made it this far…. am I off-base?

[This is an oversimplification on OH so many levels, and it also needs some solid, unbiased research to back it up.   It’s just something I’m wondering about, as the possibility for doctoral studies loom….]

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Posted by on March 25, 2011 in theology


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