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indi wrote

your picture of christian history is pretty generalised....

Oh yes, I freely admit I was speaking in very hand-wavey terms, and focusing particularly on the major American denominations and ideas of what Christianity broadly "looks like" to the average English-speaker. I wasn't really trying to make a point about the nature of Christianity or Christendom, I was just trying to get at the idea of "affiliation".

The idea of "affiliating" with a church or religious group is very much a Western, and mostly American, idea, probably going back to all the inter-denominational strife and endless "schism-ing" in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. I'm constantly amazed at how well most Christians can identify their particular branch of Christianity (reminds me of that famous Emo Phillips joke); that's not something adherents of most other faiths can do. (I wasn't even a Christian, but I knew to say I was "Anglican" to some people and "Pentecostal" to others to avoid headaches.) While some strains of Zen Buddhism do have "official" hierarchies, that stuff is only of interest to the most devout - mostly the people intending to become part of the hierarchy themselves; most adherents would look at you confused if you asked them how to "join" their religion, and probably answer with something vague like: "You just sorta... do it."

I don't deny Zen Buddhism is a religion; it undoubtedly is. I just don't agree that the concept of "affiliation" makes as much sense with it as it does for most forms of Christianity.

For sure there are plenty of Christian denominations that don't really fit the standard mould, but are just as much Christian.

As for baptism, it's not usually something that's required to join, but it's often part of the process - especially if you're not coming from another Christian tradition. And if there's not a literal baptism with water and all, a lot of traditions have the notion of a "metaphorical" baptism - baptism by the Holy Spirit (such as with Pentecostals) - or they talk about being "born again", or "accepting Jesus into your heart" or whatever. There isn't always a literal, physical joining ritual, but there's almost always the idea that you need to "do something" to really join the congregation, and there's a some kind of delineation between people who are "in" and people who aren't, whether taken seriously or not.

I have to describe these things in very hand-wavey terms, because there are so many different forms, and many churches will happily welcome new members right off the street (if only to grow their numbers, or in the hope of fully converting them later) and don't really take the literal word of what's in their theology all that seriously (for example, allowing communion to the unbaptized). Covering all the various practices in anything but the vaguest terms would be too much. Much easier to just generalize what the biggest denominations (Catholics, Pentecostals, etc.) do, and hand-wave away the less common variations.