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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

A Problem of Identity

Published Monday, April 5, 2021 By John Ehrett

As a general rule, I try not to make a practice of writing about “wokeness” or “political correctness” controversies—the genre is burned-over ground, and much of the time these clashes are simply reducible to sheer polarization between the American left and right. Every so often, though, something distinctly theologically significant is at stake.

While reading an account of one such spat recently, a particular linguistic formulation in the 12-page “Inclusive Language Guide” published by the private Grace Church School in Manhattan caught my eye. Like many such documents, this Inclusive Language Guide enumerates examples of outdated language, or phrases with negative connotations, and proposes alternatives. Some of the guide’s recommendations are inoffensive, even commendable (“Instead of ‘is adopted,’ at Grace, we say ‘was adopted.’”). Others are more eyebrow-raising (“Traditional Family —we actively try to undo notions of a ‘typical’ or ‘normal’ family structure, each family is unique”), but fairly par for the course for this sort of progressive-private-school language guide.

What struck me the most, though, was an inclusive language recommendation I’d never seen before in any such document: “Instead of ‘what religion are you?’ say ‘[a]re any religious/faith traditions important to you?’” To treat these two phrases as substantially equivalent, it seems to me, reflects a very particular—and distinctly modern—understanding of personal identity, one that’s worth unpacking at greater length.

Specifically, there’s a major gulf between this way of thinking and the traditional understanding of what it means to actually be a Christian. To ask whether any “religious traditions” happen to be important to me, rather than to ask about any religion to which I may adhere, implies the existence of a “me”—a separate self—that stands behind or apart from the identity which I am given by my Savior and to which the practices of my faith awaken me. On this view, “I” am not an entity marked or characterized by anything that smacks of religion; faith and its associated ritual practice is something I can put on or take off as it suits me.

There are shades here of Tara Isabella Burton’s characterization of millennial spirituality in Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless Age—a fundamentally syncretic blend of metaphysical commitments all oriented in some sense toward self-help. Perhaps, along the lines of what Burton describes, what may be “important to me” is a mishmash of spiritual behaviors—attendance at midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, regular tarot readings, earnest attentiveness to my horoscope, and something superficially resembling Zen meditation.

But this is quite far from the experience of many people of faith. For my own part, “Christian traditions” are not “important to me”; I am Christian. Meaning: I am bound into the people of Christ in a way that cannot be undone if ever I happen to lose interest or cease to openly practice my faith. As 1 Corinthians 6:19–20 puts it, “You are not your own; you were bought at a price.” And so too through baptism, I am incorporated into the unity of the people of God in the community of the church.

In the end, to embrace the view that religious practices are somehow incidental to one’s true, free, autonomous self—rather than reflections of a reality that transcends and precedes any one person—is to adopt a metaphysical position that is entirely alien to the historic Christian tradition. But that is, nonetheless, the view of reality that the Inclusive Language Guide appears to implicitly endorse. Curious indeed, coming from a school that evidently understands itself as “an Episcopal school” with an “Episcopal identity.”

And it is this metaphysical view that, unfortunately, tends to seep into news coverage of many public debates over religious liberty. To leaf through the New York Times or Washington Post is to notice the consistent framing of persons of faith—whether progressive or conservative—as, at bottom, clinging to a particular set of beliefs and traditions that form a sort of fairytale veneer over the indifference of the world, a therapeutic narrative that doesn’t “carve reality at the joints” in any meaningful sense. On this view, the argument for religious liberty (such as it is) boils down to a kind of tolerance of eccentricity; the real clash over religious liberty is about how much eccentricity a “grown-up” society (that derives its sense of itself from scientists and university professors) can reasonably accommodate. To put it bluntly, on this paradigm “good” religion takes the form of personal therapeutic practice; “bad” religion is more comprehensive. SoulCycle and Instagram mantras and essential oils don’t hurt anyone; state laws motivated by traditional views on human sexuality do. And it is this paradigm that, by reducing religious self-understanding to a set of private observances, the Inclusive Language Guide quietly endorses.

Now, at the end of the day I’ll grant that Grace Church School may have a bit of a point: “what religion are you?” is a bit clumsy, and doesn’t reflect the fact that—any way you slice it—the “nones” constitute a large and increasing share of the population. Far better, to my mind, would be a simple revision: “Do you belong to a faith tradition?” To the extent that such phrasing sneaks in its own metaphysical assumption—the notion that a tradition can in fact have a salient claim on those who espouse it—that assumption is perfectly consistent with how religious persons have, for millennia, thought of themselves. Indeed, this can likely be justified on the Inclusive Language Guide’s own terms: if the authenticity of a group’s lived experience is a criterion for what recommendations make it into the Inclusive Language Guide—and I suspect it probably is—such a change far more accurately reflects the way in which people of faith truly understand their deepest convictions. To be sure, this is probably a fairly small-ball issue in the grand scheme of things. But if the language we use to describe ourselves indeed matters—and it does—those of us who profess the name of Christ ought to recall that, over and above any freedoms we may claim to enjoy or categories within which we may locate ourselves, we first belong to Him.

John Ehrett is editor in chief of Conciliar Post, an online publication dedicated to cultivating meaningful dialogue across Christian traditions, and a Patheos columnist writing at Between Two Kingdoms. He is a graduate of Yale Law School and is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Religion at the Institute of Lutheran Theology.

  • John Ehrett

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