I am struck by how often people describe their reasons for belief in terms of an opposite – in terms of what they are avoiding or distancing themselves from. It is often the center of soul-winning theology and camp meeting: I embraced the ways of the wicked world and it brought me to ruin, I turned from that and got saved. I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind, but now I see. The main evangelical variant, of having grown up in a conscious faith community, is not that different. The community defines itself in contradistinction to the secular world and its values. I don’t say that in accusation. It at least partly describes my own belief. And Peter’s. Jesus asked the twelve whether they would go away. (John 6) Simon Peter answers “Where else would we go?” Which suggests to me that he had considered this before. It is rather a “I am here because I can’t there” theology.
It works the same in the other direction. Atheists*, agnostics, and those in historically Christian countries who embrace other faiths frequently spend the entirety of their energy telling you why they aren’t Christian, often with bitterness or condescension. There are a hundred versions, because we are all rather various. Some people don’t like the parts where Christianity claims there’s only one truth, others dislike the behavior or social acceptability of some Christians. The positives of their own belief seem secondary at times. I come away thinking “someone has issues, as we say.” They may think the same of me.
Jews only partly fit that description. There is certainly the community consciousness, of being in a tribe that is not like the other tribes. But this is used more to describe why we do things this way, rather than Why I Am A Jew. But at this point I must beg off, as I am describing Jews of my own age and older. I can’t say if things have changed in later generations.
I have known a few followers of eastern, native, or new age religions who look at first as if they came in for more positive reasons, curious and attracted by either novelty or a particular quality they hoped to acquire. Even an occasional wiccan doesn’t seem to be focused primarily on the delicious oppositeness of her practice and community. Yet I find that one doesn’t have to let people talk all that long before telling you what they don’t believe, and who they don’t like starts sucking up all the oxygen in the conversation. They didn’t want to be common, or like those others. They want to indentify with underdogs, which necessitates talking a lot about top dogs. Or they want to identify with the wise ones who stand above their culture and see around all things, not the blind followers below.
Political religions are awash with it. I am seeing it more now that the bumper-sticker theologies and anti-theologies of FB cross my screen every night. Ain’t they terrible? Ain’t they stoopid? Ain’t they evil? Ain’t they prejudiced? (Ain’t we great?)
Perhaps we can do no better, none of us. We may have a drive to belong to a small exclusive tribe and can rise out of that only by great effort – or by grace.
*There’s some generalisation here; there are variants of atheist as well.