08/04/2010 02:18 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Real Belief Is a Personal Search for Truth

Author Anne Rice said last week that she was 'quitting Christianity:' The once-lapsed Catholic wrote that she could no longer accept her religion's teachings on homosexuality, feminism, politics and birth control.
"In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian," Rice announced on her Facebook page. Can you leave religion and keep Christ? Can you be spiritual without being religious?

Faith lingers, one way or another, in every society. For those who have given up on Christianity, there's a newly coined term, "cultural Christian," to describe the half-hearted believer or the timid atheist who doesn't want to be labeled as such. Unlike being pregnant or dead, which holds no middle ground, fence-sitting about God is so common that it might even be the majority position. The question is whether being a cultural Christian, accepting the trappings of faith without the substance, is viable. Or must a person take stronger, more positive steps toward a different kind of spirituality?

Breaking away can be soul-wrenching. It was meant to be. Organized religion tries to convince us that it has the patent on God, some faiths more loudly than others. Buddhism has no central authority or required attendance, while at the other extreme the fundamentalist branches of Christianity and Islam mandate daily prayers and hold the threat of damnation over those who don't attend services. Fewer people are intimidated these days, however. Spiritual coercion seems to be on the wane. The number of regular worshippers has fallen sharply and continuously for decades in Europe, and although South America and the U.S. are considered more religious societies, the numbers are slipping there as well.

There have been other reasons to keep away from church and synagogue, especially the backlash over liberal theology. Christians gave up on massive guilt and a punishing God, replacing these with an all-embracing welcome from a loving God. This should have been good news for believers, but when Christianity was reduced to an ethical culture, it lost much of its mystery. The Kingdom of God has to be more than a donation drive for the needy. Good works cannot replace transcendence, and there's no disguising that Jesus offered not only transcendence to his followers -- meaning a world beyond pain, suffering, and sin -- but miracles and the blessed presence of God in their lives.

Fundamentalists looked upon this failure as itself a kind of sin, or at least corruption of the faith, which caused them to surge into power. But behind the promise of being born again and finding Christ as your personal savior, they delivered more of the old coercion, sometimes with more fire and brimstone than ever before. Still, it can be said that fundamentalists took mysticism and the resurrected Christ seriously, and they attracted the common people whom Jesus most loved. Their most pernicious effect, on the other hand, was to deny love to anyone outside the sect, leading to bigotry trumpeted as God's will.

If a cultural Christian adopts the xenophobia and harshness of the fundamentalist worldview, that would be a double tragedy, because the absence of God would be filled in with a false idol. The way to avoid this trap, and also the apathy of fence-sitting, is to use one's birthright in good faith. Anyone born into a Christian society can claim a lofty but heartfelt morality based on love and compassion, the central teachings of Jesus, if you must leave God out. On that basis one might add hope of the afterlife and the promise that sin can be overcome and atoned for.

Using those elements of cultural Christianity, one can build a personal faith. It's a beginning, at least. Ahead lies a lifelong journey to answer the great questions: Does God exist? Do I have a soul? Where should I place my faith? Organized religion gives the "right" answers to all of these, but throughout history real belief has required a personal search to validate the truth. To accept the truth blindly is the same as having no personal convictions of your own. By the same token, to say that you have adopted Christ without Christianity seems equally facile. The teachings of Jesus are staggeringly difficult to carry out in practice, as anyone knows who has tried to turn the other cheek or loved his enemies. But if you approach Jesus as a guide to higher states of consciousness, which is what he meant by saying that the Kingdom of heaven is within, then being a cultural Christian could open the door to true transformation in body, mind, and soul.

Published in the Washington Post

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