While reading about the experience of an American Catholic who’d gone to Rome (check out this post), something in particular struck me. Although the setting was in the 1960s, the author noted a truth that is still with us: Americans take religion much more seriously than do their parent bodies overseas. This may be true elsewhere in the world as well, but those of us in this former frontier know that American isolation means religion developed here in a way different from much of the rest of the world. To get a grip on that we need to realize that Christianities in America are largely of European origin. That’s important because the roots of these traditions lie elsewhere and the question of how they measure up against the religion started by a Galilean peasant bears close scrutiny.
First of all, if we take what we can gather from the Gospels the things that Jesus might’ve actually said, we find contradictions. This isn’t unusual. Nobody was writing things down as he said them and Jesus probably taught off the cuff (not the maniple). These traditions were recalled a couple decades after the crucifixion. Try remembering exactly what you said just a year ago and you’ll get a sense of the difficulties. Paul of Tarsus took this teaching in a new direction, both in doctrinal and physical senses. Christianity became a European religion. Fast forward by a few centuries and we find its much-changed Protestant forms inspiring people to go look for a place to practice it their own way. Politics never follows far behind religion and so the American Indians became victims of those seeking religious freedom by fleeing from home.
Meanwhile, back in Europe, much of the fire that had led to sparks flying over here had been banked. The Enlightenment and its application to these various traditions had shown that literal interpretations were historically unlikely. Indeed, Americans trained on the frontiers by clergy with little education had taken Christianities in entirely new directions. Literalism was often assumed, although its expressions varied wisely. When you look closely at how religions develop you learn that the rank and file believer is out of touch with “official doctrine” and those who specialize in it find they can’t course correct without looking hypocritical. The book I was reading had Vatican officials complaining Americans too Catholicism too literally. It seems this is the fate of any faith that allows itself to become a mere religion.