The following is a letter that I just sent to (Father) Brent who had encouraged me to take his catechism class, although, having belonged to four churches, I wouldn't join another one unless I had been going there for years. Besides, I became an Episcopalian at age 23, so I wouldn't need to join the national body, and I wouldn't have to take the class to join the local parish. I think my letter might qualify as blunt, but sometimes I just don't know how to soften things without diluting their meaning. Perhaps, if I sat on it for weeks, but I don't have weeks, and I've already worked on this letter over a period of three days.
I know you're awfully busy, so I hate to burden you with a fairly long letter, but I find it necessary.
I was surprised to hear people in our catechism class speak of struggling to believe, because in the church of my childhood, no one would have admitted as much. Is it not the case that people need never struggle to believe that which they know to be true, and that to do so suggests the triumph of need over integrity? I don’t know what I can be to such people other than an obstacle to their “faith,” and therefore an object of their hatred, and this raises the question of why you wanted me in the class.
The catechism (not you, the catechism) takes me back to my fundamentalist childhood in that the preachers I knew then also addressed difficult questions with smug authority, as if their answers were meaningful, obvious, and incontrovertible, when they were anything but. I see little difference between the fundamentalism I knew then and the fundamentalism of the catechism and creeds, although my childhood church disavowed both as “the works of men.”
I said nothing in our recent class because I could see no benefit in questioning every point—something that I came very near doing in the first class—that is unless I imagined that answers were to be had, which I did not. While I appreciate the fact that you encourage “hard questions,” I still imagine that there is a limit to the number that I, as a nonbeliever, might in good faith ask, and as you said during our last class, if someone isn’t open to learning from the material, then he doesn’t belong in church. As I wrote to you on the day we met, I’m an atheist, and as such I’m not open to learning about the characteristics of a supernatural deity except inasmuch as I can interpret them metaphorically, and I see no way to interpret the catechism and the creeds metaphorically. My attendance at church has been solely a right-brain endeavor through which I had hoped to find some peace with religion. By contrast, the catechism and creeds are entirely left-brain.
I regard the catechism—and the creeds it supposedly elucidates—simply as the position of the side that won; the side that canonized the Bible; that wrote the creeds; that excommunicated, persecuted, tortured, imprisoned, and murdered those who held other views. As if all this weren’t enough, they did everything they could to destroy the writings and the memory of those whom they persecuted. So, I’m to be open to their writings, to imagine that men with blood on their hands were inspired by God! I’m hardly less open to the Islamic State, the main difference being that these “Christians” successfully carried on their program of control through terrorism for well over a thousand years, and are still doing it right here in America to the extent that they’re able (I write this as one who spent 37 years in the Bible-Belt).
I’m ever aware that for most of the history of Christianity, I would have been tortured and killed in the name of Jesus, and that right here in America, people whose views are considered heretical are still losing their jobs, being disowned by their families, having their pets poisoned and their children bullied. While Jesus had his faults, I never imagine that he would have approved of people who use viciousness to support their claim to having a corner on the truth, but this is what the creeds represent to me.
The creeds don’t even pretend to encourage love and acceptance, but are instead tools for enforcing propositions that never made the first person kinder or more moral. You say that they need not be taken literally, and that the word belief doesn’t have to mean intellectual acceptance, yet people were once murdered because they didn’t take the creeds literally (how easily the church forgets its crimes). When I read those creeds, I hear the screams of people being burned at the stake, and their screams are no less anguished for having happened hundreds of years ago. When I’m in church, I simply tell myself that I’m hearing the mythology of the people among whom I have come, so I will take whatever of good I can from it, and leave that which I regard as bad. It is the best that I can do, the best that anyone with integrity could do.
When you said that the creeds were an anchor to the church, I remembered the time from my childhood when I stepped on a plank and a nail went into my foot and was held there by the sole of my shoe, because that too was an anchor of sorts. Given your statement that the biggest complaint that Episcopalians have about church is the creeds, maybe I’m not alone. Since the entire class won’t be about the catechism, I would like to continue if you still want me, and can help me figure out how to make it work, because just as questioning everything didn’t go well the first time, questioning nothing didn’t work any better the second time.
Despite my atheism, you told me that there was a place for me at Resurrection, and I have tried to believe you. Now, I don't know what to think, nor do I know what you think in light of what you said about the necessity of remaining open to that which I told you from the outset I didn't believe. It's as if I'm suddenly back in the Church of Christ where the heart means little and the acceptance of authority everything. In case I have somehow failed to make myself clear, I don't accept the creeds or the catechism as having any authority. Those writers whom the church silenced produced far more profound and beautiful writings than these.