Sunday, August 22, 2010

Is a 'Churchless' Faith Possible?

As one whose commitment to Christ and love for His Church has grown since leaving the pastoral ministry six years ago, it is pretty jarring for me to say that one of the most interesting and inspirational things I've read about faith comes from one who has left the organized church!

Anne Rice, author of 'Interview with a Vampire', accepted Christ and returned to the Catholic Church years ago. Earlier this summer, Rice renounced Church/Christianity - but not God or Christ.

"For those who care, and I understand if you don't: Today I quit being a Christian. I'm out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being 'Christian' or to being part of Christianity. It's simply impossible for me to 'belong' to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I've tried. I've failed. I'm an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else."

If you're like me and simply relegated this as some vaguely curious cultural 'white noise', you simply rolled your eyes and moved on to something else...anything else.

But this interview in Christianity Today, is an interesting and insightful apologetic regarding why Rice feels the way she does and has taken the action she has taken.

I don't agree with her actions but boy can I understand the rationale behind it. And it helps that there is no bitterness, no mean spiritedness in her explanation. This is not a harangue against 'organized Christianity'. But more than a few of us who carry on a 'lover's quarrel' with the church have been left shaking our heads at some of what has been seen among our ranks.

Here's an excerpt of the Q & A interview:

Do you regret returning to the Catholic Church in 1998?

No, I really don't. For me personally, it was a good, rich experience. I was brought up in the Catholic Church. I felt I needed to go back to this church and investigate what it was, what it stood for, and to leave it again.

What will it look like to follow Christ without being part of the institutional church?

The most important thing Christ demands of all of us is to love our enemies as much as our neighbors. That is the radical core of his teaching. If we do that, we can transform our lives.

Christ reaches out to us individually. He's saying "Come follow me; I am the way, the truth, and the life." These are beautiful things. I read Scripture every day, I study it every day, I'm mindful of it every day. I don't claim to have the right interpretation of every passage, but I wrestle with it, and that's what I think he wants us to do.

Within the larger church there have always been people with diverse views, since the history of the church is a history of contention for the truth. Why do you find it untenable to be a part of a church that is so very pluralistic in its very process?

I don't feel called to examine various denominations and decide what is the most comfortable or the best. I don't feel called to have to defend that kind of decision publicly. I feel called to declare that I'm a believer. I have my Bible, and I'm deeply committed to Christ. I don't contest people who do it the other way.

There may be a time in the future when I'll feel the necessity to join a community. Keep in mind that I am 68 years old. I live in a Christian household. My two assistants, members of my family, are believers, so I'm not isolated at all. I am with people for whom Christ is the center of their life. I also have a community online. Since I made the decision, it's become very clear to me that there are thousands of believers who have walked away from organized religion. The body of Christ is much bigger than any one organized church. The decision to walk away from the church is just as valid as shopping for a denomination that you feel more comfortable with.

My understanding of Rice's disaffection with the Church stems from the fact that I've had similar sentiments expressed by a number of church members since I'm no longer a pastor. And since I know longer have the same instinct born of the self interest of one for whom religion is both profession and calling, I can listen a little less defensively.
It's relatively easy to discern those who are frustrated because the Church doesn't wholeheartedly affirm their political or cultural ideology. It's not, however, as easy to dismiss those who are having difficulty in discovering the sense of peace and purpose that should come from the spiritual nurture the church is intended to provide. These are not people with a deep, formal theological context from which to deal with their frustration. They're not familiar with the scholars who address such issues. They are men and women with a yearning to make sense out of life, who feel that they've been blessed with gifts, talents and abilities and want to use them to make a difference. They feel, that the church should instruct, inspire, organize them to address issues of poverty and despair. Some are willing to address it systemically out of a faith conviction; others are willing to make a serious commitment of their time, talent and treasure to make life better for others and in so doing, learn more about God, themselves and their fellow man. Some are older people who feel the God speaking to them through the traditions and culture which they are so familiar, or to which they may have been recently introduced, are propelling them outward. They look for a fresh and prophetic word to under gird what they feel to be a calling on their lives.
But many of these people find the church engaged in irrelevancies they find distasteful. They are willing to listen to a perspective on the world that addresses sin as sin. They are willing to trust a pastor's conviction or a denominational stance that may even be different than their own personal perspective and wrestle with it in order to discover a truth to govern their lives. But they are weary of mean spirited attacks on those who disagree. Manipulative internecine internal political battles. Ecumenical wranglings and endless debates on 'how many angels can dance on the head of a pin'. There are some who do not mind conflict, but who simply don' want to waste their lives on an agenda that frankly they don't see to have anything to do with their lives.
Now, again, I still love and see value in the organized church. I believe that local congregations are legitimate expressions of God's Presence in the world and that they are invaluable communities in which believers find comfort, hope, security and maturity. As right as Anne Rice and many who believe as she does are, I think that they simply tend to forget, that organized religion is organized by flawed human beings. Human beings, whose failures show the need for something bigger than ourselves, but who, in spite of their flaws, are used to do incredibly good things, totally out of proportion to the limits of their humanity. Through those flawed expression of God's Power to reconcile a sinful world to Himself, we get a glimpse, every now and then, of what He will do if we commit ourselves to Him, and if we are patient enough with one another, we can grow to understand that, His Spirit operative among us aside, we are all a work in process.
What I would do, is ask of the Anne Rice's of the world, not to judge those of us who cling to our understanding of the venue through which the Love of God is passed onto the world, too harshly. And I would encourage those of us, who still love the 'institution' of the church to be equally as slow to be judgemental. Instead, I would invite us all to reflect on what St. Paul has said, in II Corinthians 13:5, "Examine yourselves to see if your faith is genuine...".
Ultimately, that's enough work to keep all of us busy for quite awhile...


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Gerald Britt said...
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