In recent days I have been pondering the fact that some people and some feminists seem to see the issues of religious faith and belonging to be rooted in birth, family, and community, while for others the question of belonging to a religious community hinges on belief and judgments about the power exerted by religious institutions. What accounts for this difference in the way we view religious belonging?
Recently I watched The Secret History of Sex, Choice and Catholics, a film featuring Roman Catholic feminists and ethicists who dissent from the Roman Catholic hierarchy’s views on contraception, abortion, and homosexuality. At the beginning of the film those interviewed state almost univocally that for them being Catholic stems from having been born Catholic. These Catholic dissidents continue as Catholics, even though they disagree with major portions of Roman Catholic teaching. It may have been because they were not asked, but most of them did not name reasons of belief for remaining Catholic.
Thus the viewer did not learn the theological reasons these progressive Catholics stay in the church. I wondered: Do they believe that salvation occurs only through Jesus as the Christ? Do they believe in original sin? How do they feel about the God of Exodus and the prophets who achieves his will through violence or the Christian doctrine of hell? I also wanted to know how they justify being part of an institution that, as June Courage stated on these blog pages, is responsible for the deaths of women and children through its contraception and abortion policies just as surely as if it were bombing their homes in an unjust war.
I suspect that the answer these Roman Catholic theologians and ethicists would give begins something like this, “If we do not stay to challenge the church hierarchy, who would?”
I know that my answer to this question is: “I cannot. I cannot ally myself with a church that is doing so much evil in the world, especially since I do not believe salvation comes through Christ, that the world is mired in original sin, or that the Bible sheds any particular light on the problems the world faces today.”
Of my four grandparents, two were Roman Catholic. My recent genealogical research has revealed that three of my eight great-grandparents were Roman Catholic, while the other five were most likely descended from Huguenots. Huguenots were French followers of Jean Calvin who were driven out of France in the late 1500s. My presumed Huguenot relatives settled in Lorraine and Saarland in the Palatinate, in Belgium before moving on to Sweden, and in Mecklenberg, Germany, with another branch of them stopping briefly in Holland and England before moving to the British Colonies in America in the early 1600s.
Huguenot Calvinists believed in total depravity and divine predestination, doctrines I find repugnant. But they also believed in a more direct relationship between God and the individual than their Catholic forebears. They put their “belief” before birth, family, and community. They were willing to distance themselves from family and even to uproot themselves from the places of their birth, because of their beliefs.*
In this I am their heir. I have followed my own inner light and in so doing have cut myself off from home, family, and community. Belief and following my own inner authority are important to me. I do not believe in original sin or salvation through Christ, and I find too much to disagree with in the Bible to ally myself with it. My choices have sometimes felt lonely. But they are the only choices that I in conscience could make.
I wonder if there is a Huguenot temperament or a Huguenot gene** that I have inherited. If so, it is a gene or temperament that finds it difficult to compromise belief or to ally oneself with religious institutions with which one disagrees.
*Thanks to Cristina Nevans for a conversation that helped me to clarify which aspect of the Huguenot story I identify with.
**I do not mean there is a gene that creates Huguenots, but rather suggest that there may be enculturated or inherited tendencies to be uncompromising, to look for certain kinds of clarity, or to be unwilling to defer to authority.
Carol P. Christ is a founding mother in the study of women and religion, feminist theology, women’s spirituality, and the Goddess movement. She has been active in peace and justice movements all of her adult life. She teaches online courses in the Women’s Spirituality program at CIIS. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions. One of her great joys is leading Goddess Pilgrimages to Crete through Ariadne Institute.
This essay was originally published in Feminism and Religion