on responsibility and the ‘christian identity’

Pictured (left): Door to the Basilique St Martin D’Ainay, XIIth century. Lyon, France. (C. Lardy 2017)


Yesterday I attended a conference by  Rémi Brague, a French philosopher and historian of Christian, Jewish and Arabic Medieval thought.

The topic of the conference was “L’identité chrétienne”, but as far as I was able to tell, this title had been chosen by the organisers, who sat around the philosopher and set the ‘tempo’ of the conference through five question prompts; and not by Brague himself. Indeed, when the third question enquired after his opinion of the ‘Christian identity’ of France or Europe, he only replied by stating that,

in general, it’s bad news when you start asking yourself who you are. Better to ask what you can do. The Christian identity of Europe, of France? Or should we ask, what can Christians do, what must Christians do for Europe, France, the Occident?

Refusing to use the imagery of ‘roots’ – because roots are fixed, and they are a part of us which cannot be chosen – Brague suggests that we consider our cultural heritage in terms of ‘sources’ and ‘references’. One must go to the spring in order to drink its water, and references must similarly be searched for and deliberately acknowledged. In this, he rejoins celebrated anthropologist Margaret Mead, who, in a seven-hour-long public conversation with poet James Baldwin in 1970, concluded a discussion on identity (do we create our identity by stating what we are not? are our ancestors part of our identity?) by this suggestion:

The one thing you really ought to be allowed to do is to choose your ancestors. […] We have a term for this in anthropology: mythical ancestors… They are spiritual and mental ancestors, they’re not biological ancestors, but they are terribly important.

And Mead’s point (I recommend reading Popova’s series on Mead and Baldwin’s ‘Rap on Race’ conversation) in turn can be folded back into Brague’s concepts of ‘excentric identity’. In La Voie Romaine (1992), Brague argues that European culture sees itself as emerging from two traditions, both of which satisfy the idea of ‘secondarity’: on the one hand, our Roman heritage stems from – surpasses, yet is endebted to – the preceding Greek culture; and on the other, Christianity both completes and is dependent on Judaic history. Moreover, both traditions are ‘excentric’ to European nations: Greece has only recently started considering itself as ‘European’, and Jerusalem is obviously in the Middle East.

In responding to this prompt about European identity with a discussion of European culture, Brague ultimately sidestepped the original question – are European Christians European and Christian? Or is a certain Christian heritage a subset of European identity? A member of the audience later suggested that two ‘Christian identities’ should be distinguished. One is Christian in a spiritual sense, and is indeed an ‘excentric identity’ modelled on the figure of Christ, the figure of the poor man, the figure of the other who should be loved as oneself. The second is Christian in a patrimonial way, the product of millennia of culture and society and architecture being shaped in order to allow the first, spiritual, identity to be lived – in this sense, growing up in the shadow of a church spire constitutes a ‘Christian identity’, but this one is local and self-centred.


Catholic guilt is the subject of many joking comments among Catholics and non-Catholic Christians. Most of the time, this so-called ‘guilt’ is explained as: Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s command, which was a sin, and brought them to know and understand sinning, and so Catholics now feel guilty for this Original Sin and all following sins they commit themselves. There are many layers in there – do we feel guilt for something another person did, or we did? something in the past, or the present? Margaret Mead and James Baldwin discussed guilt at length in their ‘Rap on Race’ conversation in 1970, and eventually linked it to the feeling of responsibility:

MEAD: There are different ways of looking at guilt. In the Eastern Orthodox faith, everybody shares the guilt of creatureliness and the guilt for anything they ever thought. Now, the Western Northern-European position and the North American position on the whole is that you’re guilty for things that you did yourself and not for things that other people did. […]

BALDWIN: I’m part of this society and I’m in exactly the same situation as anybody else — any other black person — in it. If I don’t know that, then I’m fairly self-deluded… What I’m trying to get at is the question of responsibility. […] I am responsible not for what has happened but for what can happen.

MEAD: Yes, that’s different. I think the responsibility for what can happen, which in a sense is good guilt — which is sort of a nonsensical term —

BALDWIN: Yes, but I know what you mean. It’s useful guilt.

MEAD: Responsibility. It is saying I am going to make an effort to have things changed.

Baldwin backtracks later by suggesting that perhaps we are, in fact, also responsible for what has happened – even if we tried to stop it – because “everybody’s suffering is mine”. Mead disagrees:

MEAD: Everybody’s suffering is mine but not everybody’s murdering, and that is a very different point. I would accept everybody’s sufferings. I do not distinguish for one moment whether my child is in danger or a child in Central Asia. But I will not accept responsibility for what other people do because I happen to belong to that nation or that race or that religion. I do not believe in guilt by association.

The two of them eventually narrow down the time period concerned: we are not responsible for what happened a thousand years ago, much like, as Mead had said earlier, we should not take pride in our ancestors – we had nothing to do with their accomplishments or failings. The ‘now’, however, is our responsibility, as is the future.

BALDWIN: And whether or not I like it, I am responsible for something which is happening now and fight as hard as I can for the life of everybody on this planet now.

[…] MEAD: The more one wants to be an activist the narrower the time is.

[…] BALDWIN: We are responsible —

MEAD: For the future. For the present and the future.

BALDWIN: If we don’t manage the present there will be no future. […] We are responsible; so far as we are responsible at all, our responsibility lies there, toward them. We have to assume that we are responsible for the future of this world.


In 1970, Mead and Baldwin agreed that it is ‘our’ responsibility to prepare the way for, and protect, the children – even the unborn, whom Mead mentions several times. They suggest that anything which goes wrong in the world – racism, terrorism – can be felt as a personal responsibility: we are each guilty for not stopping it by constructing a context in which it would have been stopped, and we are responsible for building this context for the future.

In 2013, French Catholics took part in public political protests – against same-sex marriage, against surrogate pregnancy – and justified those engagements by arguing that they were protecting the ‘Bien Commun’, the ‘Common Good’. The media only ever portray Catholics who dogmatically focus on abolishing gay marriage and abortion rights, of which there is an undeniable proportion. Who is right, who is wrong? The Catholics, who clumsily express their desire to take time to reflect when creating tomorrow’s society by rejecting gay marriage, thereby rejecting and damaging an entire part of society? The media, who showcase the rejection but skip the justification, whatever it may be, thereby further sinking all Catholics in public opinion?

In 2017, yesterday, after the Brague conference, Catholics expressed a feeling of resentment, that they are ‘the only ones left’ promoting the Common Good, the unborn, and nature: the question is much bigger than gay marriage and abortion, but even the Catholics themselves struggle to express why they care, why they get involved. Why their specific guilt prompts a feeling of responsibility vis-à-vis a wider society who, in fact, rather violently refuses for religions to publicly take part in political debate.

Maria Popova, who wrote a series of articles about Mead’s and Baldwin’s ‘Rap on Race’ public conversation, explains that hers and Baldwin’s stances on religion in the public sphere coincide:

The point — Baldwin’s point in saying this, and mine in resurfacing it after all these decades — is that religion is merely a technology of thought, and like any technology it can be used for noble purposes and it can be used for vile ones. The point, above all, is to remember that no doctrine or dogma will ever provide a shortcut for the critical thinking and moral wisdom for which each of us is responsible in how we contact this world.

Yesterday, Brague argued that there is no Christian identity, and neither is there a ‘Christian moral’: rather, there is a Christian interpretation of moral, which says: “Thou shalt not kill, and thou shall be polite to your parents, but I’m not teaching you anything new, am I? This is what it is to be human in the first place. But if you do sin, then our interpretation of this breach of human moral is that: if you repent, and ask for forgiveness, you will move on and receive God’s grace.”

Missing link

I can see how the following strands tie together:

  • that there is no single Christian identity, and no Christian moral, but that Christians strive to create a society in which one can grow with a Christian interpretation of human moral
  • that constructing one’s identity around the ‘outside-of-oneself’ image of the Christ, and of the other, can help in framing one’s responsibility to society – both now and for the future
  • that Catholic ‘guilt’ can be an un-named motivation to participate in public political debate around societal and economic topics

I cannot see how the following point fits:

  • that the identities, morals, and feelings of responsibility detailed above should prompt Catholics to get involved in debates about gay marriage, of all things.

If we agree with Brague that a Christian identity is not about ‘who we are’ but rather about what we can do for France, for Europe, and the Occident, then surely reducing our input to a balking-donkey stance on gay marriage is both stupid and counterproductive. I am a Catholic, and pro-gay marriage, and pro-same-sex adoption, and unsure about where I stand on surrogate pregnancy. What can I do for France? Perhaps, since I can understand the drive to envision the future of society as a whole (and, why not, the common good), that is what I can insist on and contribute to public life, when it seems like laws are piled haphazardly upon one another in matters of society and economics.


  • Brague, R. 1992. Europe, la voie romaine. Paris: Criterion.
  • Mead, M. & J. Baldwin. 1971. A Rap on Race. J.B. Lippincott.
  • Popova, M. 19/03/2015. A Rap on Race: Margaret Mead and James Baldwin’s Rare Conversation on Forgiveness and the Difference Between Guilt and Responsibility. BrainPickings.

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