January 16, 2009

Is Christianity Western?

I?m generally in agreement with Razib?s view of ?Judeo-Christianity.? But one thing we?re leaving of our discussion of these two Semitic religions is the faith of the indigenous peoples of Europe?paganism. (I?m sorry Kevin DeAnna can?t be here to add to the conversation, as he?s away rediscovering his Nordic roots in Iceland (and raising many horns of mead, no doubt)?expect a dispatch for Takimag shortly.)

Anyway, most are aware of the trappings of paganism that have found their way into Christian ceremonies, especially around ?Yuletide.? Mistletoe and the phallic Christmas tree were appropriated from Nordic folk traditions, and Christmas itself was a late Roman graft onto the Saturnalia winter solstice festival. And one should remember that (ahem) other kinds of rites were once performed on those alters that still figure prominently in every Christian Church.

Beyond aesthetics, the ?Europeanization? or ?Germanization? of Christianity?s theology and worldview was quite pronounced, and Medieval scholar James Russell has theorized that the Germanic peoples affected the religion so profoundly and radically that what became Europe?s faith bears only tangential connection to the Christianity that emerged in the eastern Mediterranean in the first half of the first century. 
I must confess that I?ve yet to read Russell?s book (it?s been on my list for a while; you can get a copy for yourself here), so I?m relying on a review of it by Robin Chapman Stacey that I found in the Bryn Mawr Medieval Review, and which seems to offer an accurate explication of Russell?s argument. 

At the heart of Russell?s study is a (in my view) Nietzschean conception of religion, in which he contends that the ?universal? faiths (specifically, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity) are the products of cultures that were either in distress or else comprised mostly of the downtrodden?the promise of a better life in the world-to-come being highly attractive to the world-wary as well as operating as a kind of ?up with the masses,? ?the meek shall inherit the earth? ideology for the weak and disposed. This is what Nietzsche would, in other contexts, refer to as ?slave morality.

Then there are the world-affirming religions of strong cultures, whose members worship gods as symbols of their own health, prominence, and power. It?s interesting to note that in Nietzsche?s discussion of Judaism in The Anti-Christ, he separates the Judaism of the original people of Abraham, which he associates with the ?Homeric? aspects of the Old Testament, from the latter ?world-rejecting? Judaism of the Jews who lived after the destruction of the Second Temple. For Nietzsche, the New Testament?s worldview is that of slave morality and nothing else. 

Here?s Professor Stacey again: 

Social or ideological structures particular to a given society may, he argues, incline that society to a specific form of religious expression; similarly, psychological factors (e.g. anomie or alienation arising from increasing urbanization or perceived “status dissonance”) may also affect the types of cult to which individuals and communities are drawn. Societies marked by alienation or despair, or in which the bonds of community or family are weak, are predisposed by these sociopsychological characteristics towards what Russell calls “world-rejecting” religions?cults which are, in other words, soteriological and/or eschatological in nature and “universal” in their message and intended audience. (Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity are all offered as examples of such religions.)

Conversely, societies which are relatively stable, enjoy a high degree of familial and communal cohesion, and deemphasize individual priorities in favor of group identification and interests, incline towards “world-accepting” “folk religiosities”?cults in which the locus of the sacral is the folk community itself.  (Confucian ancestor worship, Shintoism, Arabian tribal cults, and Celto-Germanic paganism are the main examples here.) Such “folk-religious” societies, Russell argues, have no interest in so teriological promises of redemption in another world. If adherents of “world-rejecting” religions like Christianity are therefore ever to succeed in converting persons living in such cultures, they will have to modify their essential message in order to “accommodate the predominantly world-accepting ethos and world-view” of those societies.

It was through its exposure to the vigorous peoples of Germania that Christianity was transformed into a heroic faith, and it was this ?Germanized? Christianity that gave birth to figures like St. George and whose spirit was captured so beautifully by Albrecht D?rer in his masterful woodcuts

Christ became the ultimate warlord and guarantor of earthly victory; saints were increasingly depicted as heroic warriors in the service of the faith. Relics began to be used in much the same semi-magical manner as the pagan cult objects they had displaced and grew enormously in popularity as a result.  Even more significantly, the religiopolitical unity of the Germanic pagan period found new expression in the “Christian” institutions of Eigenkirchen and sacral kingship. In this manner then, Russell argues, did Christianity depart from its essential nature in the early middle ages to become a syncretized, “Germanized” faith.

What does this mean for us today? Contemporary Christianity is, of course, marked by the doctrinal wishy-washy-ness and cafeteria-style picking and choosing of many of its adherents; however, on another level, the contemporary Christian worldview might actually be closer to that of those original downtrodden Christians of the Roman Empire. With the heroic, life-affirming, and ethno-centric aspects of Germanized Christianity deemed unacceptable in our feminized, therapeutic, technocratic, and democratic culture of Oprah, strip malls, and the megachurches, Christianity?s ?universal,? and in many egalitarian, inner kernel has reasserted itself. One can certainly see this is in the generally left-wing positions taken by most mainline churches on economic and immigration matters, as well the integration of ?human rights? concepts into their doctrines. For those of us skeptical of the ?egalitarian temptation? within Christianity, the prospect of a re-discovering Christianity?s Germanic, Western character is highly attractive. 


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