After my semester in Kazakhstan, one of the largest shifts I have experienced regarding how I perceive society and religion is that I have started identifying myself as Christian again. I don’t identify myself so much as a Christian believer but rather as affiliated with Christianity.
This shift, in large part, was because I had so many interreligious conversations in Kazakhstan where we would describe “how we do things”: the way people in our religious communities pray, eat, personally relate to God, and so on. Almaty is, in my opinion, a very diverse city of people who are proud of its religious, ethnic, and cultural diversity. During my time in Central Asia, I went to mosques and synagogues as well as Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches, and I had conversations with my host family, professors, and friends of various faiths.
While I met Protestant Christians in Almaty, Protestantism was definitely a minority in the Christianity that existed there. Many people did not know the term “Protestant,” and when I would say my family was Christian, I often had to explain I was neither Catholic or Orthodox. Therefore, the way I described Christianity was different from what a lot of people knew, and I found myself really getting into explaining the belief differences and practices between Christian traditions and why we do this, comparing it to conceptions and misconceptions of American or Chinese Christianity I encountered. Because so many of these conversations happened in Russian, a language I’m still learning, the detailed wording I would usually use to discuss Christian practices was pared and distilled down to very basic forms. Instead of saying, “The people that practice the type of Christianity I grew up with do this,” I found myself saying, “We Christians do this.”
About halfway through the semester, I was surprised by the realization that I would refer to Christians as “us.” I grew up in a devoutly Christian household and a small community and school, and my faith and beliefs have always been very important to me. In late high school, I stopped identifying as a Christian because my perspective on some tenets of the Christian gospel, especially the evangelical doctrine I was raised in, had drastically shifted. As a result, in the United States and in such religious communities, I stopped identifying as Christian because I was representing myself on a very personal, individual level. My shift away from identifying as a Christian in these communities was a very big step for me, almost like coming out, because to many people, faith affiliation implied a lot about who I was as an individual, what I believed and cared about, and who or what I supported. I found myself having to build a new identity and struggling to justify who I was, as someone who still deeply understood doctrine, theology, and beliefs—and as someone who recognized the good and bad of what I grew up with—but was still not considered “part” of it because of the absolutist belief-based division of saved and unsaved to which many subscribe.
In Almaty, however, I found myself representing a group of people, a way of life, and a religion as much more communal than individual. Part of this was definitely because of my position as a foreigner, and the role of representing a culture and religion that was often not present. However, part of this may also come from the culture I witnessed in Almaty: a more ethnically diverse city, where ethnicity is often tied with religion.
Many speak about religious “culture” as a way to affiliate with religion without the belief, such as “culturally Christian.” However, my representation of Christianity I felt in Kazakhstan carried beyond the merely cultural. For me, it definitely felt religious. I was not just explaining and speaking authoritatively about customs, practices, and values. My perspective is also deeply rooted in the scripture that is so heavily prized in my religion, the doctrinal debates, and the ways people committed to ministry or religious work, so many things that could be considered culture but also went far beyond aspects of daily life that secular cultures experience. I went so deep into it that I consider it religious. I found myself surprisingly identifying a lot with moral frameworks and values that I recounted, while also not feeling that identification and rapport with other parts. I have been in secular spaces familiar with evangelical Christianity or Christian spaces familiar with Western secularism, but for so long I have not been in a space like Almaty where I can represent that conflictual relationship myself.
I had anticipated learning so much from encountering others’ beliefs and how they differ from what I know, and the unexpected experience was relating to myself in a new way. I had come into the semester wanting to take up little space and listen and uplift others’ backgrounds, and I never expected that the way people treated and listened to me in this city would affect me so heavily. I don’t think I am what you would call a “secular Christian,” even if it’s the most intuitive label to give myself. Christianity is not what I choose; it’s just what I am.
Coming back to the United States, I don’t know how to identify as Christian without identifying as a believer, but for five years I have struggled to reconcile these sides of myself, and I feel a lot of hope for reaching that. I’ve often found myself in spaces where I see things through my secular lens or my Christian lens, but this semester in Almaty was one of the first spaces where I could be both at once.
Esther Wroth (SFS’24) is a third-year undergraduate student in the School of Foreign Service. She is majoring in science, technology, and international affairs with a concentration in energy and environment. She is also pursuing minors in Russian and theology. Esther spent a gap year studying at Tianjin Normal University before studying at Georgetown. She grew up in Tianjin, China, where her mother is from, and after she graduated high school her family moved to Arizona. She loves her family and spending time in nature, and one of her passions is intercultural and interreligious understanding.