Friday, June 7, 2013

Why Do I Care So Much About Christianity?

Why do I care so much about Christianity when I am not a Christian?  That is a very good question and one for which I have a not so good answer.  If you would have stopped me on the street and asked me the question a few years ago, I probably would have given you a wishy washy off the cuff answer like - 'we live in a Christian world' or something like that.  But that is plainly not true today.  We live in a post-religious society.  The clearest sign of that is the same sex marriage 'statement' (it is no longer a 'question' at least culturally speaking).

So why think about religion if I was brought up in what was - for all intents and purposes - an atheist home?  The truth is that my upbringing wasn't entirely 'post-religious.'  I was the product of what most would call a 'mixed marriage' - a German father and a German-Jewish mother.  But in my household, German was German at least above the surface.  Beneath the surface my mother always reaffirmed my 'Jewishness' something which always seemed perplexing to me as my mother did not believe in God.  She was my window to Judaism.  Her and her father, and perhaps most importantly the ghost of her father who died when I was a young boy.

We were of an elite Jewish lineage I was told and being Jewish was good, if not the best thing in the world.  But Judaism was dead.  God was dead.  Nothing really mattered except survival.  Being Jewish was presented as using your wits to survive, being smarter than the other guy.  The Jews were always smarter, except those who didn't escape the concentration camps apparently.  My mother's great accomplishment, was the way she managed to outwit fate at five years old and get her and her mother past the immigration officials at the Swiss border in 1940.  No I stand corrected.  She would always say that I was her greatest accomplishment, which in a strange way put a massive burden on my shoulders.

Indeed this bizarre collection of dissonant beliefs became increasingly difficult for me to square as I grew older.  If the rest of the world were all nebbishes, where did that leave my father?  I couldn't say that my parents marriage was a loving one.  Like everything to do with my mother, it was about survival.  I was introduced at a very young age to ideas and concepts which were wholly outside the frame of reference of my peers.  I became my mother's best friend and confessor which again was way too much of a burden for a six or seven year old boy - especially when you had a mother who was basically on her own, surviving hand to mouth, since she was six or seven. 

Within this bizarre microcosmic universe, my only mission in life it seemed was to make my mother happy.  It wasn't that she was ever depressed.  She was just very 'volatile.'  In order to keep her from exploding unexpectedly she needed lots of attention.  My mother and I were a unit within a greater unit of the Huller family and the world at large.  As my father was a very private person the only way my mother could get him out of the house was if it was under the pretext of speaking his native tongue.  So it was that we as a family spent a lot of time at a German community center which happened to be associated with a Catholic Church.  This was strange on so many levels it is difficult to keep track of them all.

The gatherings weren't overtly religious in one sense.  No one ever tried to convert us.  It was after all a German club and we all spoke the same language.  But like my parents marriage it was readily apparent that there was a 'secret dimension' to our presence there.  We didn't belong.  My mother tried to keep her Jewishness a secret until the odd person brought up the 'good old days' of Nazi regime or questioned whether there 'really was' a Holocaust as bad as they say it was.  I don't remember what caused my mother to 'out' herself - and me by implication.  All I know is that it happened and - given that my mother was a character to begin with, being the son of a 'Jewish character' prone to eruptions in an exclusively - and morbidly serious - German club was like going from the frying pan to the fire. 

It would be easy for me to say that I was as certain as my mother about my own inherent superiority.  I'd mouth the words to myself and maybe I thought I believed it.  But the more I came face to face with this strange and exotic culture I became aware of things I didn't have.  On the very top of the list - that I didn't belong to a culture.  I didn't have any sense of fellowship with other people.  Like Helen Reddy said, it was at least 'You and Me Against the World' with my mother.  But this being a social club, there were lots of time when I was thrown into the greater pool of 'youth' - and in specific 'German Catholic youth.'  It was very odd to say the least. 

I saw the priest every year albeit from a distance.  I saw how Christmas was supposed to be celebrated, up close and personal.  The weekly gatherings were held in a downtown church basement and we lived in the suburbs.  I can remember the dread I felt going to these gatherings, but to be fair I can't recall whether they were my own feelings or just beliefs I absorbed from my mother.  My father really never had a chance to shine except at Christmas.  Indeed it wasn't just St Nikolaus who came out at this time but but my father too.  Despite being an avowed atheist, he maintained every nuance of German Christmas celebrations albeit without any reference to God, Jesus or the Bible.  The older I got, the odder this began to seem. 

It should surprise no one when I say that I was confused child.  There was a perplexing rational dissonance in my upbringing which I could recognize at the time.  But it drove me as a teenager to the writings of Nietzsche to help gain my bearings.  Nietzsche was like the reassuring grandfather I never had growing up.  I remember my grade twelve history teacher - a cool Italian guy - trying to get me to admit that I didn't really read these heavy philosophical writings.  'Come on, Steph, you just carry this book (the Will to Power) around to look smart.'  No, I really read these books - all of them.  I can only be accused of using Heidegger's Being and Time as a fashion prop in university because of its stark black and white cover. 

I found a Zen-like calm with Nietzsche.  A soothing voice of a German male affirming the greatness of being Jewish.  For Nietzsche intermarriage was his 'solution' for the German race.  It would make them better, more 'spiritual.'  So in a sense, Nietzsche confirmed all of the beliefs that I had originally absorbed from my mother only now under the guise of an approving male.  If I was the living embodiment of this nineteenth century 'cultural ideal' - a new type of nobility as I understood Nietzsche to mean - I really didn't have to do anything.  I was immaculately perfect from birth, just like Jesus, by just being me. 

This is certainly an oversimplification of my thinking back then.  I was certainly also attracted to Nietzsche because everything was cut and dry - even as he extolled the 'grey areas' in life.  Above all else Nietzsche helped me escape the overwhelming sadness that lay dormant in my house.  The war had forever shaped my destiny even though I was born decades after its conclusion.  My parents were very much 'survivors' in the modern and specifically Jewish sense of the word, only in my family the roles were reversed.

It was my German father who was the concentration camp victim, five years in Siberia, and my mother who had escaped the gas chambers fleeing Paris for the safety of Switzerland with her mother at five years old.  My parents were only united by suffering, anxiety and disappointment.  Nietzsche my parents strange relations - and by inference my life - sensible.  Of course there is only so long that one can live within someone else's world - let alone the artificial world of a nineteenth century madman.

It is hard to remember how I got from there to here, but this is as close as I can get to any sort of explanation.  Who didn't get throughout high school?  But getting high already intoxicated on Nietzsche trying to become a normal person, that's really something.  I think I spent my teenage years trying to sort out my parents and then the rest of my life just trying to make sense of me.  For me at least, Nietzsche was that basic building block my parents couldn't provide me.  In hindsight I am not so sure that was such a great idea.  But who can change things now?

Nietzsche despised academia.  Like all things in my youth, I adopted his antipathy for his nineteenth century peers as if I was entitled to those vitriol.  In a strange way, I think it was only natural that I started reading the writings of the Church Fathers.  They, more so than the gospels, were the real building blocks of Western civilization.  Interpretation always matters more than original source material when you are interested in greater 'cultural relevance.'  I think if Nietzsche introduced me to Christianity, it was Morton Smith who more than anyone helped provide a historical framework to understand the tradition outside of the stark 'metaphysical' - for lack of a better word - terms of Nietzsche.  

But by the time I developed a scholarly interest in early Christianity I had already liberated myself from my past.  Was it too much, too little, too late?  Maybe.  But the question of why I became interested in understanding Christianity is at least worth exploring - at least for me.  I think it really was the completion of the understanding of my understanding of myself and my place in the world in a really, really bizarre.  All knowledge is personal knowledge as they say.  This personal knowledge however is probably inaccessible for most other people.  Yet it is essential for me. 

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Stephan Huller's Observations by Stephan Huller
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