enduring attending a multicultural class at the university. The other night my professor initiated a conversation about religion, particularly on how we view our own religious identity. By the way, when someone from the political world talks about identity, he is referring to all of the various qualities that go into self-representation. This may or may not include ethnicity, culture, sexual orientation, and religion. It really depends on how each person chooses to characterize his particular identity. On the face of it, this makes sense to use the term in this fashion. I self-identify as a Christian. It is a huge part of my personal identity. That is, my life’s focal point centers on the resurrection and teachings of Jesus Christ.
However, this activity quickly revealed one of the pervasive problems underlying today’s culture (in my opinion). A recent poll shows that Americans still largely believe in God in spite of the fact that church attendance and religious affiliation is down. That may comfort some of us. But I think what this indicates is that sentimental attachments keep the word “God” on the hearts and mouths of many while stripping it of a singular meaning. In other words, sure, a lot of us believe in “God” but what that word refers to is now up for grabs. For a lot of people “God” can’t be Yahweh because He’s too restrictive and demanding in their eyes. So maybe “God” refers to a buddhist or hindu concept or to a deist figure or perhaps “God” refers to an ambiguous order to the universe (as I’ve heard some people suggest). In other words, our terms that once imported precise definitions have gone the way of the Slip ’n Slide. Not only for the idea of God in this country but for religion as well.
This was revealed through a rather stunning comment during the class activity. My professor asked for volunteers to discuss their experiences at which point one of my classmates raised her hand and said, “Whenever someone asks me what my religion is I always say that, ‘I’m a Christian and a Muslim and a Mormon.’” She went on to explain that her father is Muslim, her mother is Catholic, and her grandfather is Mormon. “So I have all of these traditions as part of my background,” she said.
Now, I’m entirely sympathetic to what this woman believes because my family is split between Polynesian and Arabic traditions. I grew up eating kibbeh and tabbouleh in a household that largely spoke Samoan and proudly hung a large tapa cloth on its walls. On paper that sounds weird but, you know, it actually worked! The problem with my classmate’s statement is that religious faith is not and should not be treated as merely a cultural or ethnic tradition. Unlike cultures and ethnicity, religion trades on truth propositions about the world. Christianity says that Jesus is one person of the Trinity and the way to Heaven is through repenting and putting your trust in Him. Muslims believe in Allah who is Unitarian (no Trinity) and requires being obedient to the Five Pillars in order to enter paradise. Christians believe Jesus is God and should be worshipped. Muslims believe Jesus was a man and should not be worshipped. So when someone says they are a Christian Muslim, they are essentially saying, “Jesus is God and Jesus is not God,” or, “God is a Trinity and God is not a Trinity.”
That alone should give one pause, except my classmate said she was a Christian/Muslim/Mormon; which really means that a person believes Jesus is God and is not God, that God is a Trinity and is not a Trinity, and that the Christian faith is apostate (according to Mormon belief) and is not apostate (according to Christian faith) all at the same time. So you see the problem with playing fast and loose with particular terms. These are all violations of the law of noncontradiction. Not only is it religiously gauche to suggest that you are somehow a religious hybrid, on a philosophical level it makes absolutely no sense. Words don’t just mean any old thing, especially when they represent entire belief systems that are exclusive from each other.
In class I respectfully challenged this notion and gave my classmate something to think about (I hope). Unfortunately, I suspect that her careless use of terms is indicative of a relatively new American religiosity emerging from the corners of our cultural shadows.