Understanding Christian Nominalism: Rethinking Christian Identity

Abby Day

in Believing in Belonging

Published in print October 2011 | ISBN: 9780199577873
Published online January 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780191731143 | DOI:
Understanding Christian Nominalism: Rethinking Christian Identity

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Propositional beliefs, where people believe that something may or may not exist, are giving way to the emotional, value-laden expressions of what people ‘believe in’ and where they locate power and authority. Those often described as ‘nominal’ Christians may not share a set of theological propositions, but reflect dispositions and attitudes that are expressions of ‘belonging’. Such identities are compounded in public discourse where, for example, Christianity is a component of British identity or American patriotism, and where even the acclaimed atheist Richard Dawkins says he is a ‘cultural Christian’. This is where we see the apparent boundary between ‘public’ and ‘private’ belief disappearing.In particular, three types of ‘belongings’ are explored here: ethnic, natal, and aspirational, with each embedded in a social context, collapsing hard boundaries between public and private. Ethnic nominalists express beliefs rooted in people and place, where ‘Christian’ often means a specific nationality and culture, be that English, American, or Scandinavian. Exposure to people with apparently clear and public religious identities, such as Muslims, may exacerbate latent longings to belong to a perceived religious tradition.Natal nominalists take their Christian identity from their parents or grandparents, although notably the concept of ‘family’ is self-constructed; depending on qualities and differences in relationships of belonging. For ‘aspirational’ nominalists, being ‘Christian’ confers goodness, respectability and a sense of belonging to those for whom they long.Through cross-cultural comparisons it is argued that a more nuanced understanding of the complexities and varieties of Christian nominalism helps explain the apparent contradiction in western industrialised countries between affiliation, belief, and religious practice.

Keywords: belief; belonging; nominal; performative

Chapter.  6557 words. 

Subjects: Religious Studies

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