I love to travel and even though I personally seek out wilderness and secluded places my journeys usually bring me into contact with a diverse array of people. It is common for the conversations I have with these people to eventually turn to philosophical topics and religious beliefs. I’m not sure how this happens, but being a teacher of philosophy and religion I might have something to do with it. When during the course of these dialogs I am eventually asked what I believe or what is my religion? I have found myself answering that I am a California Christian. Part of the reason I have begun doing this is because if I just say I’m a Christian most people already have a preconceived idea of what that is and unfortunately, more often than not, they are ready to change to another topic. When I add California to Christian, however, most people want to know what I mean, and then the conversation can get in depth and interesting rather quickly.
So what is a California Christian? To begin with it is helpful if you know what California Cuisine is for it is to food what California Christianity is to religion. “You hear a lot about “California cuisine,” but 40 years after it started to creep into our consciousness, no one has yet been able to define it. I suppose, to paraphrase former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, we just know it when we eat it. That’s probably as it should be, argues Joyce Goldstein, one of the pioneers of the movement, in her new book “Inside the California Food Revolution” – because just as there is no single Californian, there is no single California cuisine. Instead, in her telling, it’s more defined by an open-mindedness and a willingness to try new things, and that can mean something very different depending on the region, the city and even the chef.” (Russ Parsons http://www.latimes.com/food/dailydish/la-dd-the-early-days-of-california-cuisine-from-an-insider-20131021-story.html) Another aspect of California Cuisine is the fusion of diverse produce and styles with an openness and toleration to new ideas while retaining the best of its immigrant traditions. (If you want more of an explanation this is a helpful link http://hubpages.com/hub/california_cuisine) You have probably eaten California Cuisine for years even if you didn’t know it, and these California fusion dishes have spread across the entire country and beyond. Popular examples would be California sushi rolls, California style pizza (think Thai Chicken Pizza), Chinese chicken salad, and even the humble Cobb salad are all examples of what I am talking about. So what does all this have to do with defining a California Christian?
A California Christian like California Cuisine is beyond definition, labels, or even rules. It is more of a feel, an ambiance, an experience to be had. It is diverse and paradoxical, often mixing things together that would be unthinkable in other places and other times. It is forward looking and open, but sees the value of the past. It is innovative and playful, full of hopes and dreams. It is diverse, from simple and reserved to imaginative and daring. It is no wonder that both modern Fundamentalism and Pentecostalism began their present manifestations in Los Angeles the City of Angels. Yet, California Christians are notoriously individualistic, and will pick and choose based on their own taste or spiritual appetites what to retain from the past and what to let go, what new flavors to add, and which clash with their religious palate.
California Christian can mean everything and nothing. It can take as many forms as there are people in this most populous state of the union. Even Californian Catholics are often quite different from the Catholicism just south of the boarder, or even that found in the other states. Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus are affected by the cultural influences of the Golden State and they often morph and transmute into versions of themselves that are unique in the world. The power of Hollywood and the Silicon Valley as dream makers and reality changers is profound. California is more often than not the trend setter for the rest of the country and its influence has worldwide impact.
“It’s the edge of the world
And all of western civilization
The sun may rise in the East
At least it settled in a final location
It’s understood that Hollywood
Red Hot Chili Peppers, Californication
California sits on the Pacific Rim and its eyes are turned east for it is as far west as one can go. The old world is not forgotten but is more of a distant memory. It is Asia that holds California’s gaze rather than Europe and even though it’s early colonists were Spanish, Italian, and later the English it now has no ethnic majority but has become an amalgamation of minorities. The same holds true for California’s religious affiliations, there is no majority sect or denomination. Even though those labeled as protestant make up around 32% of the population, there are more Mormons in California than Southern Baptists, which is the largest protestant denomination, and Mormons only make up 1% of the population. The next highest group is Roman Catholic at 28% followed closely by non-affiliated or “nones” at 27%. Even though Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism all come in at around 2% or less respectively, California has as many Jewish congregants as the Mormons and Southern Baptists combined. California also has the largest Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim populations in the United States.
There is also the “other” category which makes up 2% of the population, but remember in a state the size of California that is close to 2 million adherents. The category of “nones” includes 4% who identify as atheists and 5% who identify as agnostics. The remaining 18% could range from disinterested to “spiritual but not religious.”
Many of those who identify as “spiritual but not religious” fall under the umbrella term of New Age Spirituality. New Age Spirituality, however, like California Christian and Californian Cuisine, defies definition. It is an eclectic mix of eastern and western religious traditions, mysticism, metaphysics, Native American religions, and more.
“The New Age movement includes elements of older spiritual and religious traditions ranging from monotheism through pantheism, pandeism, panentheism, and polytheism combined with science and Gaia philosophy; particularly archaeoastronomy, astrology, ecology, environmentalism, the Gaia hypothesis, psychology, and physics. New Age practices and philosophies sometimes draw inspiration from major world religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Chinese folk religion, Christianity, Hinduism, Sufism (Islam), Judaism (especially Kabbalah), Sikhism; with strong influences from East Asian religions, Esotericism, Gnosticism, Hermeticism, Idealism, Neopaganism, New Thought, Spiritualism, Theosophy, Universalism, and Wisdom tradition.” (Lewis, James R. (1992). “Approaches to the Study of the New Age Movement”. Perspectives on the New Age. James R. Lewis and J. Gordon Melton (editors). New York: State University of New York Press. pp. 1–12. ISBN 0-7914-1213-X). (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Age)
Throughout the 1970s and 80s New Age bookstores, retreats, and conferences could be found throughout the Golden State. Even mainstream bookstores had large sections devoted to New Age interests from channeling to healing with crystals. In the 21st century, however, even though New Age establishments can still be found if they are searched for their numbers and influence seem to be so reduced that it has caused me to wonder, “Where have all the New Agers Gone?” The answer, I believe, is they have become so integrated into California culture at large they no longer need to identify as New Age, they simply are the thought of this age.
Evangelicals, Catholics, and even atheists and agnostics have incorporated yoga, meditation, and positive visualization into their quest for self-improvement and interconnection with those around them. The focus on holism, farm to table eating, feminism, rejection of binary gender roles, ecology, community, and self-guided spirituality have been incorporated by all of these groups to one degree or another. Even though both Evangelical and Catholic apologists spoke out against the “false spirituality” of the New Age movement in the 80’s it is not uncommon to find yoga classes, guided meditation, and an incorporation of esoteric spiritual disciplines practiced by these groups today. What was seen as fringe and foreign in the not too distant past has become commonplace and valued in Californian culture as a whole and as a result has influenced California Christians and other religious and non-religious groups alike.
California Christians are partial to trance like mantraesque worship music where the same phrases are repeated over and over through a series of chord progressions leaving the devotees in a state of transcendental bliss. Nature retreats, veganism, animal rights, protection of natural resources, anti-development, tree hugging, gender equality, and diversity of sexual orientation, etc. can all be found within California Christian circles where only a few decades ago they would have been rejected as liberal agenda items. Ancient rituals, asceticism, the Jesus Prayer, labyrinth walking, and a host of smells and bells have permeated Californian Churches and religious communities. Many young evangelicals have been drawn to the more formal practices of the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions or even the allure of Messianic Judaism to fulfill their need of aesthetics to supplement their theology. The New Age movement emphasized the value of plurality and how it could bring about a holistic unity. A theology based on reason and absolute truth began to give way to a theology of intuition and personal relationship. Subjective experience became the foundation, and personal insight the compass to direct one’s quest. California Christians where no longer content to just know about Jesus, they wanted to know him personally.
This shift from absolutism and objectivity to relativism and subjectivity is part of the postmodern spirit of the age. Evidentialist truth claims from either science or religion no longer hold the same authority they garnered in the past. The post-moderns want to feel as well as to think, to experience for themselves what others have claimed to be true, and to unite the head with the heart. An individual’s subjective truth through personal experience becomes the foundation by which to evaluate all other truth claims. It doesn’t mean other truth claims are wrong, they are simply no longer universal or binding to those who have not experienced the same truth. Knowable truth is subjective, not that universal absolute Truth doesn’t exist it is simply beyond the epistemological grasp of individual human beings. This plurality of truth has allowed for Californians to be incredibly tolerant and open to diverse ways of thinking and living. It also allows for inclusion or exclusion based on one’s personal tastes or beliefs. Toleration and acceptance have become the standards of social etiquette and all are welcome, all that is except for the intolerant and bigoted.
Does this mean that all Christians in California are New Age Postmodernists, relativists and social and political liberals? Certainly not, in fact there are many Fundamentalists and Pentecostals in California who would be horrified by what I wrote and would certainly, and justifiably distance themselves from any such associations. Yet, I would suspect that even these two groups would stand out among their likeminded brethren of other states and regions as being just a bit peculiar and vibrating at a slightly different frequency. Yet, the label California Christian and how it has been described even though it couldn’t be defined applies to many who claim the name of Christ, but the culture of California.
So what is a California Christian? It is everything and nothing, it has more of a feel than a dogma, a mantra rather than a proof text. It is a vibrational frequency and a way of interacting with God and man. It is tolerant, yet judgmental, it is holistic, yet exclusive, it is diverse, but synchronizing. Jesus was a first century Jew and lived in accordance to the sacred writings of His people. Jesus kept the law perfectly, but often flaunted and intentionally broke the laws, traditions, and customs of men. It often makes me wonder how Jesus would live in 21st century California. I’m sure he would be perfect and righteous, but what he would wear? What he would drive? What he would eat? And where he would hang out? All of these questions could be speculated about wildly. Christianity even though it started as an offshoot of Judaism and had close ties with Jewish culture, quickly synchronized with Greco-Roman Culture, and then with all the various cultures to which it spread. The protestant work ethic of the Puritans is a far cry from the laid back eclecticism and good vibrations of modern day California.
I find the term California Christian helpful, in that it allows a dialog to take place that otherwise might be cut short because of people’s presuppositions. I find it unhelpful, in that it can mean so many things, that it doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Is this New Age, postmodern phenomena unique to California? Most likely not, but California loves to push the boundaries, and is progressive in its outlook. I want to explore this topic in more depth and to show the regional, ethnic, and socio-economic distinctives of California and how it affects those who identify with Christ. For now it at least allows for the conversation to begin, and I would love to hear from you and how you perceive your particular type of Christianity especially if it happens to be Californian.
Religious Composition of California
- ►ExpandEvangelical Protestant20%
- ►ExpandMainline Protestant10%
- ►ExpandHistorically Black Protestant2%
- ►ExpandOrthodox Christian1%
- Jehovah’s Witness1%
- ►ExpandOther Christian1%
- Non-Christian Faiths9%
- Other World Religions1%
- ►ExpandOther Faiths2%
- Unaffiliated (religious “nones”)27%
- ►ExpandNothing in particular18%
- Don’t know1%