August 2nd, 2010
08:20 AM ET
Editor's Note: Brian McLaren, a pastor and speaker, is author of "A New Kind of Christianity."
By Brian McLaren, Special to CNN
Novelist Anne Rice recently made an important announcement: She has “quit Christianity.” Her choice and the reasoning behind it are far too interesting to simply be praised or blamed, agreed with or quarreled with.
Anne was raised Catholic, left the faith at 18, described herself as an atheist for most of her adult life, returned to Catholicism in her fifties, and then last week announced—via Facebook—that she is no longer a Christian.
She has concluded that she will never truly belong to the “quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group” known as Christians unless she becomes “anti-gay … anti-feminist … anti-artificial birth control … anti-Democrat … anti-secular humanism … anti-science … anti-life.”
That cost of membership simply isn’t worth it. So she’s opting out.
Tell that much of the story, and you have the sort of thing the news media love to report – another celebrity break-up, if you will. But this time, the celebrity is divorcing God.
But that’s not the whole story. Really, it’s not the story at all. Anne explains that, “My faith in Christ is central to my life.” She is still “an optimistic believer in a universe created and sustained by a loving God.” “But,” she says, “following Christ does not mean following His followers. Christ is infinitely more important than Christianity and always will be, no matter what Christianity is, has been or might become.”
And so, she concludes, “In the name of Christ… I quit Christianity and being Christian.”
Her brief announcement raises lots of fascinating questions. For example, when a person quits Christianity in the name of Christ, what do you call that person? If Christianity means “following Christ’s followers,” what do you call someone who wants to skip the middlemen?
Some might say you call such a person a Protestant: Anne’s reasons for leaving Catholicism aren’t terribly different from those of Martin Luther nearly 500 years ago.
But speaking from personal experience, being a Protestant doesn’t solve the problem. You can find as many “quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous” Protestants as Catholics, if not more, and they enforce the same list of “antis” as boundary markers. To more and more of us, the differences between standard Catholic and Protestant Christianity seem to pale in comparison to the differences between either of them and what many of us perceive as the radically compassionate way of Christ.
I reached a conclusion very close to Anne’s in my book A New Kind of Christianity: “I do not believe in Christianity the way I believe in Jesus. I am a Christian who does not believe in Christianity as I used to, but who believes in Christ with all my heart, more than ever.”
So I do not condemn or criticize Anne in any way. I’m glad she has followed her conscience and articulated the reasons for doing so. That’s good for her, and it may be good for the church, too. Sometimes, powerful people only listen when they see enough people voting with their feet.
I haven’t taken that step myself, though I think about it quite often. (As recently as last week when I heard about the pastor planning to burn Qurans on September 11. Sheesh.)
I hang in there for several reasons. First, if I want to be affiliated with any group of human beings, sooner or later I will be associated with bigotry, intolerance, violence, stupidity, and pride. In fact, even if I stand alone, distancing myself from every other group, I know that within me there are the seeds of all these things. So there’s no escaping the human condition.
Second, if I were to leave to join some new religion that claims to have – at last! – perfected the way of being pristine and genuine through and through, we all know where that’s going to lead. There’s one thing worse than a failed old religion: a naïve and arrogant new one. In that light, maybe only religions that have acknowledged and learned from their failures have much to offer.
Third, I’ve decided that if I’m going to have solidarity with one failed religion, I might as well have solidarity with them all. So rather than surrendering my identity as a Christian, I’ve redefined it so it doesn’t mean that I feel superior to anybody. Instead, it means that as a failed member of a failed religion, and I’m in solidarity with all other failed members of failed religions … and with people who have dropped out of failed religions as well.
Perhaps it’s this truly catholic (small-c) solidarity in failure that really counts most, for Catholics, Protestants, and everybody else. Those who leave religion and those who stay can work to expand that gracious space of solidarity, which, I think, is what Jesus called “the kingdom of God.”
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Brian McLaren.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.