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.