The “Status Inconsistency” Theory: Further Comments
I indicated yesterday some doubts about the theory that certain people of social aspirations may have become Christians to cope with their experience of “status inconsistency.” That is, they were frustrated in their aspirations of upward social mobility/acceptance, and so turned to early church-groups as a venue in which they could satisfy their desire for affirmation.
One commenter opined this as an explanation/defence of the notion: “Because they derive their sense of self-worth with reference to other members of the new group they join rather than society at large where they find it harder to compete. It’s a case of preferring to be a big fish in a small pond.” Yes, this is essentially what the theory poses. But I wonder if it’s soundly based or sufficiently thought through.
For one thing we’ve learned over the last several decades of renewed interest in the many “voluntary associations” of the Roman era is that there were many, many opportunities for “status inconsistency” individuals to achieve this sort of “big fish in a small pond” success. There were other religious groups, such as Mithraism, and a whole raft of other kinds of groups too, in which one could aim for obtaining respect, prominence, etc.
And here’s the crucial bit: None of the other groups had any great negative side-effects or demands on your other social or religious activities and associations. You could freely maintain all your previous associations and activities, without suffering the suspicion, negative rumors, hostility, and potential ostracism that often accrued to early Christians/Christianity.
So, I repeat: Why on earth would you choose to become a Christian in particular, if what you were concerned about was your social standing? Why make yourself subject to the social consequences/costs of doing so, when it could all be avoided by joining any of a number of other groups?
It’s this failure to take a “360” look at the matter, the failure to consider the social costs involved in becoming a Christian in the first three centuries, that I try to address and correct in my Marquette Lecture (10 April). For those interested, Marquette University Press are aiming to publish the 28K-word essay from which I will distill my 10 April lecture, producing a small booklet in the Marquette Lecture series. They hope to have it printed in time for the lecture event.