Easter, Religion, and my Georgian Family

So I have this dilemma.

Last year after Easter I was faced with the challenge of explaining to my students and coteachers that saying “Christ is risen” is a violation of the uneasy truce that exists in much of America over the issue of religious greetings, and is likely to be offputting to at least some of the guests that Georgia can expect to receive should the country continue towards greater social and economic ties with the world at large. I largely failed to meet this challenge, and I seem to have also come off poorly somehow in framing my dilemma such that some people thought I was being intolerant or disrespectful of Georgian religion.

When I was 17, I had what you might call a crisis of faith. I went to school in a very culturally diverse environment, and my friends came from a wide range of backgrounds and beliefs and represented a wide range of identities. At a certain point it became clear to me that I would be better off if I chose not to believe Christian moral teachings about these people – that their choices, their beliefs, and their lifestyles were evil – and furthermore I found that my conscience was actually urging me to make that choice.

Even still, it was unspeakably difficult to go against seventeen years of accumulated teachings for a number of reasons, not the least of which was because I knew that for me it was a package deal: if I chose not to believe in the moral teachings of the Bible, then I was also choosing not to believe in the epistemological validity of the Bible. Choosing to disagree with the Word of God puts one in something of a metaphysical jam.

That was fourteen years ago, and in the intervening time I have come to agree with the vast majority of the people of the world – with, for example, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, atheists, and many other modern Christians – in thinking that the Christian Bible does not represent a literally true account of historical events or a literal set of commandments from God about how to live one’s life. That includes not believing in the supernatural elements of the Jesus story – the virgin birth, the miracles, the Resurrection. Choosing to believe that those stories are literally true wouldn’t do anything to enhance my understanding of the world or how to act morally within it, and I have as my evidence for that claim the full and moral lives led by billions of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, atheists, and many other modern Christians who also choose not to believe that Jesus had supernatural or divine powers.

My family in America has dealt with this transformation in my views with a great deal of tolerance. I know it annoys them when we sit down to a family dinner and I don’t pray with them (because I don’t think Jesus gave us our food), but we all know there’s no use fighting about it, and so they just tell me every once in a while that it doesn’t matter what I believe, as long as I am a good person. This leads me to suspect that most of them have faced the same kind of dilemma at some point or another and come to approximately the same conclusion, which is that Christian theology isn’t necessarily the only way, or even the best way, to answer questions about how to live.

When it comes to my new family in Georgia, though, it’s a whole different ballgame. They didn’t see me struggle with this stuff. They didn’t see me go from wanting to become a Catholic priest to wanting to convert to Judaism to becoming passively resistant to any kind of profession of religious faith, over the course of twenty years or so. They just have to deal with this American in-law who, like most Americans, seems to have no beliefs and no traditions. Tea has explained to her family, in a vastly oversimplified way, about my desire not to participate in religious rituals. So far no one has ever brought it up.

But now we have Easter. Easter, in Georgia, is the one time of year when Georgians meet each other and exchange professions of religious faith – with friends, neighbors, acquaintances, teachers, and of course family. Now I will be confronted with friends, neighbors, and family members who will come up to me and happily tell me that Christ has risen, and they will expect me to respond that this is indeed the case. I still don’t exactly know what I am going to do in that situation.

Tea very much does not want her family and neighbors to consider me “godless”. I very much do not want to profess my belief in an event that I do not believe actually occurred. I don’t want to offend my new family, nor do I want to lie to them. I would like to be an example to them, the way my friends in high school were an example to me, that you can live a good and moral life without conforming to any particular system of beliefs and practices, and I can’t do that if I make false representations of my own system of beliefs and practices. I also don’t want them to prejudge me on the basis of my response to what to them is a perfectly normal and friendly holiday greeting. I don’t want to be seen as dismissive but I don’t have the language to explain why I’m not going to agree with them about the Resurrection.

Unfortunately, as I tried to explain last year, “Christ is risen” is a fairly confrontational greeting in terms of demanding some kind of response, even if the people who say it don’t mean it that way. Sure, I could pretend not to have properly understood, or I could pretend not to know what the proper response is, but both of those strategies, no matter how tactfully executed, are essentially deceptive and cowardly, and while that might be okay for dealing with strangers, that’s not how I want to conduct my relationships with members of my family.

In addition, eventually the topic of my son’s religiousity, or lack thereof, is going to come up in the family, and I would prefer if, by that time, they already have some experience with accepting people’s differing practices and beliefs with respect to religious (and non-religious) matters. Like I said, I would like to be an example to them of what kind of lives people who are not Orthodox Christians can live – and I would also like to be a model of how they can successfully interact with and relate to those people. I don’t want my son to face this same dilemma when he grows up.

So ultimately it comes down to a communication challenge – a way to decline to profess to faith in a way that will foster mutual respect rather than mutual distrust. I need to communicate in an honest and direct way that my moral code does not permit me to make an insincere profession of faith and that the tradition I follow is one of skepticism towards events or phenomena that cannot be duplicated or verified in some way.

If there’s some kind of extremely short way of doing that (like a word or phrase I can learn by tomorrow) I’d be glad to hear it.

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19 Responses to Easter, Religion, and my Georgian Family

  1. Mzuri says:

    Personally, I don’t believe that offering a salutation to a person of a particular faith, in honor of a day important to that person’s faith, carries with it any endorsement regarding my own beliefs (or lack thereof). I wish someone a Jewish, Muslim, or [insert faith here]-related greeting out of respect for the person. I categorize such greetings as being polite. It does me no harm, and gives the other person pleasure. I try to embrace the concept of “easy does it.”

    • I believe that Mzuri made pretty clear statement. Being grown in these Easter-related and other traditions I was always thinking about this phrase as a salutation only. I think most people do the same. Its something like saying “madloba” instead of “da” even if you speak Russian with a Georgian person. Why bother? 🙂
      On the other hand it that still bothers you that can only mean you want clearly identify yourself apart from this tradition. And make everybody know it. It’s perfectly fine as long as you understand why. Do you want to start questioning somebody’s believes by rejecting to accept a salutation and make them start thinking? Or maybe you would want your kid to share your believes rather than others around yourself and you want to start the preparations? Or something else?

      • panoptical says:

        If I’m being totally honest, it’s the wording. I have a psychological hangup – as I said to pasumonok – about making a statement that is an outright lie in a context in which it will be interpreted as truth. No amount of assurances that saying “Christ is risen” is actually devoid of theological content will help because it seems from my basic observations that a lot of the Georgians who would say that to me actually do believe in the Resurrection and that they would interpret my saying “cheshmaritad” as meaning that I actually believed in it too.

        As for clearly identifying myself as apart from this tradition – I don’t think any Georgian looks at me and assumes that I am Georgian Orthodox. I’m already apart. As for the details, I have no problem letting most Georgians think that I am Catholic as long as I don’t have to actually say “I am Catholic and I believe in Catholic metaphysical teachings”.

        Finally for me, part of “live and let live” means not querying people’s beliefs and then reacting poorly when they don’t answer the way you wanted them to. I would like to demonstrate to Georgians how “live and let live” works in pluralistic societies where people of many different beliefs and backgrounds come together. That’s not because I don’t respect Georgian traditions, but because I was paid to come to Georgia to expose Georgians to other cultures and other ways of thinking and acting – and because I believe in that mission.

    • panoptical says:

      That strikes me as a very respectful stance indeed. I would like Georgians to grant me the same respect, and greet me appropriately based on what I believe in.

  2. pasumonok says:

    დაიკიდე. view it like a formal “merry christmas” and answer ჭეშმარიტად, without any religious sentiment attached. Be polite.
    otherwise,instead of being an example of diverse thinking, u’d be an example of godless american.

    • panoptical says:

      I was one of those kids who wouldn’t apologize to someone if I didn’t actually feel sorry for what I had done. It took me many years to shake the habit of answering honestly when someone asked me how I was, and start simply replying “great, how are you?”

      My point is, even if I could get into the habit of saying cheshmaritad, it would take me a long time (years) to be able to do it without emoting anger and resentment at having to lie for other people’s benefit. I was born without the instinct for polite fiction.

  3. “May the force be with you” is probably a good alternative.

    • panoptical says:

      Actually I already told my wife I would respond with “live long and prosper” and I even showed her the Vulcan hand thing, which, randomly, she correctly identified as being Jewish in origin.

  4. sarahcobham says:

    Hi I am reading your blogs with great interest – I think you are tackling quite possibly the most sensitive aspect of Georgian culture upon which everything that is designed to oppress the citizens is based. It was suggested by both my translator and the Georgian press that I change any references in my last blog to the patriarch, to the church for fear of upsetting people. http://sarahcobham1.blogspot.co.uk/2013_04_01_archive.html It was touch and go as to whether or not it would be published but then I pointed out that, in a democracy, free speech was the most important aspect so it went ahead. Imagine, having your work censored!! I am glad you are tackling issues around the way language is working and how ridiculous certain phrases like ‘Christ is risen’ are. I respect your honesty and tenacity and look forward to reading more of your work. Sarah Cobham

    Date: Sat, 4 May 2013 15:12:20 +0000 To: sarahcobham@hotmail.com

    • Mzuri says:

      “how ridiculous certain phrases like ‘Christ is risen’ are”?

      It’s not ridiculous to my Christian friend, a survivor of a genocide (and who lost family members and friends to same), who believes in this “ridiculous phrase” to her very core, and who believes her faith helped her survive both physically and mentally, and who does her best to walk the talk of her faith every day. And who embraces those who sought to kill her – because it is what she believes her faith requires her to do. A similar sentiment is not ridiculous to her Muslim neighbors, who helped her escape death in accordance with their mores. I *admire* their faith, not deride it.

      I’m an agnostic myself, for what that’s worth. (And for the record, I happen to believe that atheists who get exercised about people’s belief in a God – who want to convert the world to their point of view – just happen to be practicing a different religion.)

      As for expecting everyone to respect *my* beliefs – hahaha! – well, that’s not going to happen in this universe, and I can’t make all of my actions predicate on quid pro quo. I can only control what I say and do, not how others respond to them.

      • panoptical says:

        Just because religious beliefs sometimes appear to help people cope with tragedy doesn’t mean that they are the best way to cope with tragedy and also doesn’t negate any other positive or negative effects those beliefs may have. Yes, there are good people who happen to be religious, and there are strong people who have survived tragedies who happen to be religious – but does religion make people good or strong?

        What would be different if your friend believed that death was permanent and final? What would be different if your friend believed in reincarnation rather than resurrection?

        If the semantic content of someone’s beliefs matters – if it makes a difference whether Jesus was a divinity in human form who conquered death, or just a prophet – then at the very least, either your friend, or her Muslim neighbors, based their actions on an erroneous worldview and is woefully misguided. So who was wrong – your Christian friend or her Muslim neighbors?

        If, on the other hand, the content of one’s beliefs don’t matter – if all that matters is the kind of person you are – then there’s no real disadvantage to exchanging supernatural beliefs for beliefs that comport with everyday reality, which also have the advantage of allowing us to learn how to live better in the world we actually live in. This is what religious people have both been systematically doing for centuries by creating and pioneering scientific disciplines, by replacing, for example, the belief that sickness was caused by demonic possession with the belief that sickness is caused by chemicals and microorganisms.

        Most of us are horrified by Christian scientists who will not treat their sick children with medicine even if it would save their lives because they believe that the sickness is God’s will. And yet, we are told to respect the beliefs of Christians who say that their children should not be taught about safe sex, even though having unprotected sex is also potentially deadly. I will not respect those beliefs, because they are harmful and they are irrational and they differ from the Christian scientists’ beliefs in degree but not in kind, and I have serious moral concerns about anyone who does respect those beliefs or who urges others to do so.

        There are plenty of people who believe in God and also take a pragmatic view of the material world – who don’t let ancient superstitions get in the way of saving lives and making social progress, or even who marshal religious arguments towards these goals. There are others who profess belief and who use that belief to enforce social conformity, fight progress, oppress women and minorities, enrich the few at the expense of the many, and empower themselves.

        There’s no way to say “Christ is risen” without invoking the latter as much as the former. It is a phrase that enforces social conformity. Hearing it over and over again reinforces the trust that Georgians place in their Church and its clergy. Saying it is a way to encourage people to suspend their critical thinking capacity and cede their moral authority to a small group of men with an agenda that does not necessarily prioritize the best interests of the people. It is absolutely oppressive, and frankly, ridicule is one of the best ways to fight oppression.

        • Mzuri says:

          In all seriousness, I find seven paragraphs of negative words to be oppressive.

          All religions bring with them a code of living, of interpreting the world. People who don’t profess to a religion – like you – also subscribe to some sort of code of living. In many cases (probably most), the codes overlap. What one person might call Jesus as her higher power, another might call Allah, and another, “science.” I’m not going to get myself bogged down in names.

          I’m not Muslim (or Christian), but I like to say *Inshallah.* Although the phrase literally refers to God, it also refers to the more generic idea that what I plan this morning may be for naught, as the universe might intervene – and I need always to remember that.

          I subscribe to the belief that some of us have the God gene and some of us don’t (and I fall in the latter category). You can rail all you want against so-called stupid people for their so-called ignorant belief in a God (and really, is this part of *your* code of living – to be so contemptuous of others?), but your exercise is as productive as trying to teach a cat to bark.

        • panoptical says:

          If you view those seven paragraphs as negative words then you haven’t understood them.

          I am not interested in contempt, and I haven’t called anyone stupid or ignorant (and I’ve said in previous posts that shaming people for ignorance is unhelpful). But no reasonable person could look at what happened here on Friday and somehow imagine that Georgian society – or any society – can get by without questioning the moral authority of religious leaders – and the implications of religious rituals.

          Conversation, and satire, and ridicule, and argument, are productive and positive and have the power to make positive changes in the world. I can’t imagine wanting to live in a world in which I had given up on people – in which I had decided that genes are destiny. In many ways that would be even worse than living in a world ruled by mysterious and capricious omnipotent forces beyond human comprehension.

  5. tcjogden69 says:

    I was more hostile to your opinion last year pretty much because I agreed with something another gentleman has already said – why not just reply to their ‘Christ is risen’ if only to keep them happy? This year, however, I’m a bit more sympathetic, probably because I know you better and perhaps because this is my third year in this country.

    I agree with a lot of what you’ve said here, if not for the same reasons. I’m a man of faith, but an incredibly loose one; I’ve not lived a godly or religious life, never attended church, and have sinned with the best (or worst) of them during my time, and if I apply a little introspection I can honestly say I believe simply because the idea of something after death is a lot more appealing than nothing. But even so, I don’t solely identify with Christianity; I think every religion has something to contribute, and I feel especially positively about the Sikh, Hindu and Shinto faiths.

    I joined the Georgian Orthodox church basically because my wife kept badgering me about it and we’d had far too many arguments over something so ridiculous, since the differences between Orthodoxy and Protestantism are negligible. Her problems were far more to do with Western culture, though she didn’t realise or admit it. I’ll admit I caved in, but only after I’d made it clear to her exactly why her desire for me to join her church made me so irate. As far as I’m considered, faith doesn’t play a huge part of the lives of Georgian people; religion does. That’s why the same Georgia bicho who crosses himself will then stare at the bare skin of any female over 15 that walks passed or happily go and find himself a hooker on the weekend. Or indeed the Georgian maid who is ‘deeply religious’ will marry a man old enough to be her father with a belly the size of Dresden simply to take advantage of his financial assets.

    Anyway, the reason why I was so against my wife’s requests was because it felt like she was trying to take the Britishness out of me. I’ve never been a church-going man, but when she’d talk about the Georgian faith, it made me think of the ancient English churches that sit in the rural areas where I was raised, and that then prompted thoughts of home, and the idea of conforming to Georgian culture in such a defining way (as far as they’re concerned, anyway) was highly unattractive, especially when I took into account the social hypocrisy which is so rampant in this country.

    While I don’t personally think that the ‘Qristie Adsga’ is culturally insensitive, it does get incredibly annoying when Georgians are pushing their faith and their culture. I remember after I did my Orthodox baptism, people were telling me ‘Oh, so you became Christian?’. Since I’d been born and raised Protestant, I was hardly a raging Muslim Ayatollah or an Hasidic Rabbi beforehand, but as far as they were concerned, I’d only become a Christian just then. I think it’s an English thing; we just go along with events just to make it easier, and I didn’t really care. I feel absolutely no different after I’ve had some water poured on my head which somehow transformed me into an Orthodox person than I did before. I now have a godfather of debatable intelligence whom I never see, though, but my wife doesn’t like to be reminded that I will always consider my uncle my true godfather.

    I’m not sure what a lot of Georgian people expected from me after I became Orthodox. Much to their disappointment, I am still pro-abortion, I still don’t go to church or bother to see my godfather (who, as far as I’m considered, is still just ‘some bloke my wife knows), and I still refuse to apologise for living the Western life when I was younger, having sex before marriage and enjoying myself; the kind of life which Georgians condemn but secretly wish they could openly jump into with a cry of ‘Me too!’.

    Even now, I don’t attend Georgian church, I don’t cross myself, and perhaps most of all whenever people start to talk about Christianity and miracles and whatever, I feel deeply uncomfortable. It also bothers me how Georgians are so ignorant of other religions, particularly other branches of Christianity, but then, we know Georgia by now after all these years, so it’s just to be expected I suppose. That was longer than I thought it’d be, and I’m sure there’s a few things I forgot to mention, but ne’ermind. Tally ho old chap.

  6. Gio says:

    I wouldn’t give the response that I didn’t believe in. I also understand that you don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings but you can just say “happy easter” or “gilocav” to them to be polite. If you choose to lie about your feelings, you will feel bad about it yourself and also give false idea to people that you share their beliefs.

  7. Hmmm..... says:

    You can just say “gilocav am agdgomis dgesascauls” when you first meet someone. Then they have no choice but to say “gilocav” back and “upali gparavdes” etc….
    No one says “kriste agsgda” after that, in my experience. Just make sure you say it first.

  8. Andrew says:

    One of my sixth-form pupils said it to me in class and my co-teacher translated it for me. She explained the customary response, but I didn’t pursue it. To me it was just a perfect opportunity to demonstrate the English present perfect tense which we had just learned. Rise-rose-risen: Christ has risen. Moving on …

    • panoptical says:

      Yeah, my classes are more about getting them to say “risen” with a short i instead of a long i. 🙂

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