27 March 2008

All Look Same?

Scene: a Russian Orthodox cathedral, sightseeing with the visiting German girl and two Russian babushki. The babushki were buying candles to place in front of the church's icons.
One babushka said: "Girls, are you going to buy candles too?"
The other said, "Of course not! They're Catholics!"
I automatically replied, "I'm not Catholic, I'm Protestant!"
She replied, "Pfft, what's the difference?"
At that, I got a little defensive and said, "There's a big difference!"
She dismissed that with a wave of her hand and the pronouncement, "Well, you're all Catholics to us!"

At first I wanted to write about how annoying that was, even though I know that expressing annoyance at things like that is counterproductive. But I let it sit for a few days and now I feel much less annoyed. However, I'm still a little confused by it.

I understand why the babushka, and Russians in general, go for religious pigeonholing; to most Russians, Orthodoxy is a heritage as much as a belief, and something like 90% of Russians identify as Orthodox even though only a few percent actually practice. So it's understood that giving someone a religious label isn't actually a comment on their personal belief.

I also understand why she, individually, labeled us as Catholics. The Russian popular conception of Christianity is that it's divided into two camps – Orthodoxy and Catholicism. I mentioned this earlier, when people kept referring to "Catholic Christmas." (The funniest thing to me is that Russians often refer to America as a Catholic country, which is pretty ironic when you consider the stigma and labeling of "otherness" historically attached to Catholicism in the U.S.) So her conception of us as "white girls = Christians; non-Russian white girls = Catholics" was reflective of the average Russian view. (Unfortunately, Russians, especially older ones, often seem to forget that not all European-looking people have Christian heritage; that, I think, is the fault of a long history of institutionalized anti-Semitism.)

So what confuses me is why Protestantism is missing from the picture in Russia. I mean, you could argue that very few Americans know anything about Russian Orthodoxy, but I'm not sure it's really a parallel; the Protestant Reformation was a pretty major event in European history. In fact (correct me if I'm wrong), it seems like you couldn't really study European history without learning about the Reformation. Plus, it's not exactly recent news. So how has Russian society apparently failed to notice that it ever happened? Why do Russians seem fuzzy on the idea of what a Protestant even is?

I'm sure this ignorance is partly an effect of Soviet atheism. But it's interesting to ponder why it's manifested itself in this particular way: not uncertainty, but absolute faith in a completely incorrect fact. Then again, maybe that's just human nature.

The last thing the woman said to me still seems kind of rude. That's not so much a Russia thing as a babushka thing, though; since babushki have lived longer than the rest of us, they get to say whatever they want. At least that gives the rest of us something to look forward to about being old!


Celine said...

Hey cathlic girl ;-)
OK, here's my theory: the whole world (not, but you know) was catholic until the schism. After that, there were two streams, catholic and orthodox. I guess to the orthodox, it didn't really matter what happened on the other side of the line anymore... They separated, so who cared? Besides, don't ask most protestants or catholics about the different orthodox streams. Mostly they don't get further than Russian and Greek... Coptic? Serbian?

Katie said...

That's really interesting! In fact, it seems to me that you could easily turn that into a short article that we'd like to publish in our new journal of religious life and theology. You should let me know if you're interested; we take anything from academic papers to shorter, more informal personal pieces. (Apparently, we recently got a three paragraph submission discussing God=water, as in liquid water and not a metaphor, though we may not publish that...)
I'd be happy to send you more information or a copy of the first issue.

Lisa said...

I guess I'll answer this from my non-Christian perspective. To be honest, growing up, I couldn't tell the difference between Protestant and Catholic either. At my school, you were either "Christian" or "Jewish".

Most of the Christian kids could tell you what denomination they were, but couldn't tell you why that was different from any other sect, so they were mentally clumped together for me. I don't think I knew the distinction for Catholicism until probably high school.

I guess I can sympathize w/the Babushki a bit...


Leslie said...

This awakened the memory for me of childhood in my hometown, which was predominantly Christian and had an unusually high percentage of Catholics (at least for Ohio; I think because our part of northern Ohio was settled by lots of Bavarian Catholics, but I could be totally wrong on that). I remember having discussions on the school bus where we'd ask each other if our families were "Catholic or Christian." Yeah... we didn't have the terminology quite right, which is amusing in retrospect. I guess the idea of grouping into relevant binary terms (for us, Catholic/Protestant; for your school, Christian/Jewish; for Russians, Orthodox/non-Orthodox Christian) and obscuring or misunderstanding the features of the "other" group and its subcategories is the same everywhere.

dan said...

This reminds me of a quote from the Simpsons (but then, everything reminds me of a quote from the Simpons or Seinfeld). I think it humorously reiterates the point that people have trouble thinkig about multiple religions in detail. Here it is, from Homer the Heretic, courtesy wikiquote:

Rev. Lovejoy: [God] was working in the hearts of your friends and neighbors when they came to your aid. Be they Christian [points to Ned], Jew [points to Krusty], or [points to Apu] ...miscellaneous.
Apu: Hindu! There are 700 million of us.
Rev. Lovejoy: Aw, that's super!