Friday 27 September 2013

Christ without Christianity?

By Adam Hincks, S.J.

Thus by Tradition faith was planted first;
Succeeding flocks succeeding pastors nursed.
This was the way our wise Redeemer chose.

I have read nothing by Anne Rice and know little about her. One day, however, in one of those moments on the internet where one ends up after a few clicks on a Wikipedia page, I read a bit about her. I was particularly interested in her highly publicised renunciation of Christianity—a faith she had, it turns out, very publicly embraced as an adult several years before:
Today I quit being a Christian. ... It's simply impossible for me to “belong” to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. … My faith in Christ is central to my life. My conversion from a pessimistic atheist lost in a world I didn't understand, to an optimistic believer in a universe created and sustained by a loving God is crucial to me. But 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.
Now, I do not intend to address Anne Rice’s situation in particular; she herself has provided some more background for those who may be interested. Nevertheless, I take issue with her central claim. “Following Christ”, she insists, “does not mean following His followers.” Her words are a pithy articulation of a somewhat common attitude in our culture—an attitude that is mistaken for at least a couple of reasons.

In the first place, there is a simple historical fact that makes it quite impossible to follow Christ without following his followers: everything of substance that we know about Jesus of Nazareth has been transmitted by his followers. Tacitus and Josephus, the only non-Christian, first century writers to mention Jesus, merely inform us that he existed, was crucified by Pontius Pilate and can be linked to St. James the Just. But for sources on Jesus’s actual teachings and actions we possess only the writings of his disciples, most notably the books of the New Testament. Even the non-Biblical texts about Jesus, some of which have been rejected by orthodoxy, were written by people who considered themselves his followers.

Thus, to know anything about Jesus means relying on what his followers have transmitted. One literally cannot follow Jesus without following his followers, because there would be nothing to follow. The sole option for someone who refuses to trust at least some followers of Jesus is to claim ignorance about anything that Jesus might have been. Jesus himself was well aware that subsequent generations would only believe in him through the agency of his followers. In John’s Last Supper discourse, Jesus says, “My prayer is not for [my disciples] alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message.” (Jn. 17:20)

On the other hand, there may be some people who are content to accept elements of what Jesus’s early followers recorded, but not be content to associate with his followers today. (I suspect that this is what Anne Rice was getting at.) However, this suffers from a second and more profound misapprehension. In the same discourse cited above, Jesus continues praying “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you” (Jn. 17:21). He tells us that he is with his followers in a special way when they are gathered together (Matt. 18:19–20). In other words, Jesus himself seeks the unity of his followers—a unity which Luke emphasises existed in the early Church (Acts 4:32).

Further, the writers of the New Testament letters were keenly aware of Jesus’s desire for the unity of Christians. There are many examples, implicit and explicit, but the most famous is found in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. In this letter, he is writing to a local church torn apart by factions. After his greetings, Paul cuts to the chase and asks in frustration, “Is Christ divided?” (1 Cor. 1:13) He then spends the bulk of the letter addressing the community’s numerous points of division. Indeed, for anyone who might be tempted to romanticise the primitive Church, these are instructive chapters to read—to use Anne Rice’s very words, the Corinthian Christians were “quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious”. Nevertheless, Paul’s response is not to preach a “Christ without Christianity”. Rather, he presents the powerful image of the Church as a unified body: “For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” (1 Cor. 12:13) Paul’s solution to Christians who behave badly is not to retreat, but to call them to deeper community.

The necessity of the Church for the Christian life is one of Pope Francis’s favourite themes. For example, in a recent letter to an Italian journalist, he states with simplicity, “Believe me, without the Church I would not have been able to encounter Christ.” When asked during a press conference upon his return from World Youth Day in Rio what his position was on a sensitive moral point, his unabashed response was, “The position of the Church. I am a son of the Church.” And recently, in his widely publicized interview in America Magazine, he explained:
In the history of salvation, God has saved a people. There is no full identity without belonging to a people. No one is saved alone, as an isolated individual, but God attracts us looking at the complex web of relationships that take place in the human community. God enters into this dynamic, this participation in the web of human relationships.
At times it can be difficult to belong to the Church. At times we really are a “quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious” bunch. But we should not forget Jesus of Nazareth chose to spend his time with quarrelsome, hostile and disputatious people. He asks us to do the same. Following Jesus really does mean following his followers—and, to be honest, his followers are more often pleasant to be around than they are tiresome! Nevertheless, when the going gets tough, let us not throw in the towel, but rather remember the promise Jesus made to his Church before ascending to the Father: “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt. 28:20)


  1. I really like this, Adam, especially the last paragraph. The reality is that most of us, not being mystics, encounter God through our relationships with other people at least as much as we do through private prayer. I hear a lot of anti-church arguments from my evangelical friends.

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for the comment.

      I think in fact that the nature of “private” prayer, as you're somewhat getting at, can be easily misunderstood. All prayer, at some level, must be part of the Church's prayer, even when it is hidden from the world. I suspect that the great mystics are profoundly aware of this.

  2. The Church plays an important role yes, but we don't follow the followers. We travel with them. We follow Christ.

    1. Indeed, you are right that primarily we follow Christ, and the image of us travelling with the followers of Jesus is apt since it evokes the notion of the “pilgrim Church”.

      On the other hand, the reality of the Church cannot be reduced to a single metaphor. We are pilgrims together, but the body of Christ does have concrete structures within it (c.f., 1 Corinthians 12, as I suggested in the article). And if we primarily follow Jesus, this does not preclude us from following his followers in a secondary or derivative way. My following St. Ignatius and the North American Martyrs, for example, does not mean that I do not follow Jesus Christ. Rather, it focuses and intensifies my following of our common Master.

      There are biblical exhortations to this “secondary” following. If we return once again to 1 Corinthians, Paul urges the community: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (11:1; c.f., 4:15). When Jesus commissions the seventy-two, he tells them: “Whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me” (Luke 10:16). These are just two examples.

      I like your comment because it is a good reminder that we need to think more deeply about ecclesiology. Vatican II's Lumen Gentium is a great place to start. It talks about the Church both as pilgrim and as hierarchical … and much more besides!

  3. I just came across Anne Rice's renunciation. While I sympathize greatly with her frustration at being seemingly squeezed into a certain political and social outlook, I find it difficult to understand how she squares her attitude with the clear teaching of Jesus. Then I found your post which so clearly and compassionately outlines the Lord's teaching about his body. I hope that our fellow-believer but not fellow-traveller Anne will encounter it somehow someway.

    1. I am heartened that you found the post helpful. Even though Ms. Rice will probably never visit this site, she has articulated a common attitude, and it was my hope to address this attitude in a coherent way. I'm am glad that you found it compassionate at the same time. Thanks for leaving your comment!