Dear Anne Rice,
Your decision to leave the Catholic Church and to leave Christianity prompted the On Faith panel questions this week. I was preparing to write a response about the relationship of Christ to Christianity, about the distinction between spirituality and religion when I heard your interview on National Public Radio. The sorrow with which you made this decision touched me deeply. I could hear in your voice that this was not an easy decision. Your disappointment with the Church reminded me of Martin Luther King Jr’s disappointment with religious leaders expressed in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
As you know the letter was written in the spring of 1963 as a response to an open letter to him by clergy who were critical of his presence in Birmingham. They called his efforts to end Jim Crow segregation, America’s brand of apartheid, unwise and untimely. King’s response was “the time is always ripe to do right.” He thought the church ought to be a thermostat rather than a thermometer, an agent of change, rather than one that simply reflected the status quo. King lamented that not more church leaders were actively helping his cause. He wrote:
“I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious- education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking, “what kind of people worship here?” Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?”
He wrote further that his deep disappointment had caused him to shed tears of love. He wrote: “There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.”
King recalled the days of the early church when it was radical, when its commitment to the teachings of Jesus was so strong that people supporting the status quo saw the church as a threat. He grieved for the church of his day saying it was “a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound.” He decried an anodyne church. He wrote: “Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and even vocal sanction of things as they are.” He said the church risked becoming only an irrelevant social club.
King questioned whether or not organized religion is “too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?” He wrote of faith in “the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ecclesia and the hope of the world.” He thanked God for “some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom.” He calls the sacrifice and the witness of such people “the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times.”
Your decision seems to me to be such a break. When you say that your faith in God and in Jesus remains, it is clear that you have not broken from the inner ecclesia about which King wrote. You have become a member of the true ecclesia.
When I read your words on Facebook, I laughed. I have a sister friend who is an ordained minister. We often say that every religion would be perfect if it were not for the people who profess it. Christians corrupt Christianity. Muslims mess-up Islam. Jews junk-up Judaism. Hindus hinder Hinduism. Buddhists break Buddhism. The list could go on. I think this is why the Apostle Paul wrote: “I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:14) We are always pressing toward the goal to be better witnesses for incarnate Love today than we were yesterday, and better tomorrow than we are today. It is a matter of spiritual growth and maturity.
Spirituality and spiritual growth do not require organized religion. However, religion in its truest sense is the tie that binds us together in Love to divinity, to our fellow human beings, to nature and all of creation. When religion separates us rather than connects us, when religion causes us to stand in judgment of the Other, when religion fosters fear and hatred, it is no longer religion. In this instance it has become the worship of itself, and thus it has become idolatry. I think this may be what you see. Your alienation from such is understandable and laudable.
The good news is that you are not alone. Not all Christians, not all Catholic Christians are anti-everything progressive. When I taught at Andover-Newton Theological School, I had the great good fortune to be a faculty member of the PhD. ethics seminar at Boston College. Ours was a Catholic-Protestant partnership. My faculty colleagues and the students in the seminar were doing interesting and important work in moral theology. Their work is social justice work that challenges an unjust status quo. When I was there, they were working on war and peace, reconciliation in post conflict situations in Africa, the theological and moral rationale for the nation’s social responsibility to the poor, ministry to prisoners and to the elderly, a moral critique of American middle-class consumerism, work on environmental ethics, the role of moral theology in politics and public discourse, moral theology and beauty. And much more.
The public face of the Church may be one with which you do not want to be associated, but you would be proud of the young scholars at Boston College. I am certain there are others I do not know. Further, I want to encourage you to join a faith community that understands itself as the inner ecclesia in which King planted his faith. There are Catholic communities where women celebrate mass. There are open and affirming Christian communities that welcome everyone to the communion table, believer or not. All races, classes and sexual orientations are welcome.
I make an argument for equal justice for LGBT people based on Christian scriptures.
Now to answer the question of whether or not one can believe in Christ without being a Christian, I say yes. Further, since Christ is a title and not the name of an individual, I say that those who accept the responsibility of the anointing, the pouring out of the oil of joy, the unction of the Holy Spirit, those who are willing to wear the mantle of radical love and to walk in the will and the way of God who is love, then these people are each a Christ, whether they are Christians or not. The commitment to not only believe in Christ but to try to be Christ day by blessed day is Christ-likeness beyond Christianity.
Ms Rice, I am sorry to say that I have not read your novels. So many books, so little time. But, I intend to start reading some of the vampire books in the near future because I am interested in why at this moment in human history there is vampire mania in our society. I was interested to hear you say that in your faith you found what your vampire characters were looking for. You said that you now felt free to confess fear, doubt, pain, conflict and alienation. Respectfully, in Christ you already had this freedom. You said you were moving on and plan to use the pain of this experience in your work. I am glad to hear this; however, I do not think God wants us in pain. As a womanist thinker, I agree with womanist theologian Delores Williams when she warns against the notion of sacrificial pain. Pain is an indication that something is wrong. Our sacred work is to end the pain, ours and that of Others.
I pray that God will bless you in all that you do, that you will find a community that becomes your spiritual home.
Valerie Elverton Dixon