I’ve been pondering one of the recent reports from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Many Americans Mix Multiple Faiths, for a while now. (There’s also a pretty good newspaper article about it here.) This seems to be another one of those areas in which my cultural childhood formation rode the leading edge of a wave that has now become normative. I’ve certainly explored and practiced many beliefs over the course of my life. My normal approach to a proposed belief or practice, if I find it appealing, has been to live and practice it as though it were true and see what happens. As a result, what I do or do not believe has always been somewhat fluid. It’s an approach that those who perceive reality in more rigid and sharply delineated ways have always had a hard time comprehending.
So I understand much of the ethos and practice that seems to underlie the data in the report. I truly do. And yet, on an another level, there is a degree of incoherence that is striking even to me. It really stands out in the context of the report’s exploration of belief in reincarnation. Roughly a quarter of the general population (and the same general proportion of Christians) believe in reincarnation. A tenth of conservative, white evangelical Christians believe in reincarnation.
Now, I have nothing specifically against a choice to believe in the transmigration of souls. I’m not singling out that question in the report because of any animus toward it. I have personally held variations of that belief within the context of different frameworks over the course of much of my childhood and adult life. I understand it well and if I were ever to decide that Christianity were untrue I would almost certainly return to some sort of framework that included some sort of belief in reincarnation. Other than the Christian narrative, I believe that perspective offers the only other lens on the nature of reality and what it means to be human that I ultimately find palatable.
However, the fact that so many people simultaneously say they are Christian and that they hold to some sort of belief in reincarnation tells me that they do not truly understand what one or both of those two perspectives say about reality. For they say very different things, indeed. Now, I have less difficulty than some at simultaneously holding thoughts and even beliefs that some might find … incompatible. But even I cannot reconcile and simultaneously hold those two perspectives. It makes me wonder what people are thinking.
While there are a variety of frameworks within which a belief in the transmigration of souls can comfortably fit, they do necessarily share some attributes. For instance, they obviously must hold that whatever it is that we define as ‘you’ (or ‘me’) is in some sense distinct and separate from our material body. In other words, to the extent that our body has any true reality (and that can certainly vary according to the particular framework), it houses our true self or essence. Our bodies are not what we are. They are something we have or wear, instead. The true you, then, can inhabit many material forms over the course of the ages, and yet remain distinctly ‘you’.
But that is not what Christianity has always said. We do not have a body (or the illusion of a body as the case may be). We are our body. That is to say that we are inextricably tied to our bodies in such a way that only our bodies and spirit together can truly form a living soul. We were not created to die and death is the ultimate enemy. The promise of which Christ was the first fruit is the promise of Resurrection. We are held and sustained within the life of God as our bodies sleep in death until we receive our body (renewed and recreated as Christ’s was) once again in the Resurrection of the Dead. The whole point of Paul’s great treatise on Resurrection in 1 Corinthians is that you can’t believe in Christ’s Resurrection unless you also believe in our own. Resurrection tells an utterly different story about who and what we are than reincarnation does. I don’t see how you can simultaneously hold both stories as true.
It boggles even my mind.
I also noticed that those constructing the survey did a poor job in their effort to capture a non-Christian belief in ‘ghosts’. It seems to me that, the way the question was phrased, it could easily be interpreted in a manner completely consistent with the very traditional Christian understanding of the communion of the saints. After all, we profess that those of us who are in Christ will never die, even though our bodies ‘sleep’. We’re the ones who say the nature of reality changed when Christ came out of that tomb. However, the Christian belief has nothing to do with either the ancient pagan or the ‘New Age’ practice of communing with the dead. We do not believe that those who have fallen asleep in Christ are truly dead, even if their exact state remains something of a mystery. As a result of the poor phrasing, I find it unsurprising, for instance, that a high percentage of Catholics answered the question positively. Now, I’m sure some of those probably had modern ‘ghost’ encounters in mind rather than a Christian experience of the communion of the saints. But it seems to me that there is no way to distinguish the two groups in the results.
In light of these results, I suppose it’s not surprising that editor of the SBTC Texan has written an opinion piece that essentially defends Christian pluralism, denominationalism, and division while excoriating those who don’t actually know what they believe. Of course, the argument that the sort of Christian pluralism the modern age gave us is simply inevitable is not supported by the actual history of the Church. And the argument that it is somehow a “good” (or necessary) thing contradicts the Christian Holy Scriptures. I suppose I generally agree with him that it’s better to know what you believe than not to the extent that that’s possible. I also agree that the distinctives of Baptist faith and practice diverge so much from historical Christianity that they could only exist within some sort of context of Christian pluralism. I do not, however, agree that the radical divisiveness of modern Christianity is or has ever been inevitable, necessary, or good.
I guess I’ve become some sort of out-moded and out-of-date pluralist made obsolete by the modern crest of pluralism that doesn’t suffer from my restrictions. Nevertheless, it looks … shallow … to me. I guess it’s time to go yell at the kids to get off the lawn or some other crotchety act. 😉