Does Belief Matter? by Carol P. Christ

carol p. christ 2002 colorIn 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



Categories: Abuse of Power, Ancestors, Belief, Bible, Family, Feminist Theology, General

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27 replies

  1. First, thank you for your reference to my previous comment.

    In response to your new post: the one really significant thing which the Catholic Church has done for women is to embed the Goddess of the ancient pagan world within her practice and teaching. Thanks to this, Catholic women (and many men) have always been able to pray to their beloved Mother, Queen of Heaven.In my own (admittedly somewhat unorthodox and doubtless heretical) family, both my mother and grandmother venerated Our Lady above all others, keeping altars for her in the home and honoring her with candles and flowers in church.
    I suspect that millions of Catholic women down the ages have done, and still do, the same. This ‘mariolatry’ is, after all, exactly what Protestants have repeatedly charged against Catholics. In my own experience most Catholic woman – certainly those outside the convent ! – will temper the advice of priests with a pinch of salt, but their love of Our Lady, a woman like themselves, is the backbone of their faith.

    Anyone who for a moment doubts the connection between the Great Goddess of the ancient Mediterranean and Levant and the Blessed Mother of the Catholic Church need only compare the image of Isis with that of the Madonna; or attend one of the great Maltese festas in honor of the Virgin and compare that to the written accounts of the veneration given the Goddess in the pagan world, to see the proof for themselves.I suspect that the reason many women stay within the Church in spite of everything is that they instinctively want to remain close to their beloved Mother and these millenia old traditions.

    I am not, of course, saying that all Catholic women women worship the Virgin: in the eyes of the Church that would be idolatry. What I am saying is that the Catholic cult of the Virgin Mary is the immediate and living legacy of the cult of the Great Mother of the ancient world and that this fact explains the profound love many women have for the Church in spite of everything.

    Of course, Catholic historians would agree that much of the imagery of the Virgin was adapted from the pagan world, but would deny that Mary is ever worshiped by Catholics. Well, I am totally lapsed and utterly unrepentant and will worship whomsoever I please. But I have no doubt that my love for the Goddess is something I inherited directly from my mother’s and grandmother’s deeply heretical ‘Catholicism’: and no doubt either that, were they alive today, they would recognize and approve the form my worship has taken.


    • I agree and wrote about inheriting my love for the Goddess from my Catholic grandmother. However as Charlene Spretnak has written many progressive Cathoiics since Vatican 2 have jumped on the anti-Mary bandwagon, including many RC feminists who view Mary through the lens of essentialism.


      • Yes, I read ‘Missing Mary’, but hardly recognized the Church I knew as a child. Of course, I left Catholicism many, many years ago and went through all kinds of spiritual adventures before coming home to my beloved Goddess. But further, I sense that the Church in America is rather different from in Europe – I wonder if this is something you find living in Greece ? European Catholicism is so intimately bound up with the cult of Mary that I don’t think the Pope himself could separate the two. My own feeling is that American Catholicism is somewhat colored by the Christian Fundamentalism all around around it – which hardly exists in Europe – so it becomes more puritanical, more literal, and more Old Testament based. I would be interested to hear your response to this suggestion.


  2. As usual, brava! Thanks for your thoughtful analysis of why some people stay in a church that regards everyone as sinful and in need of salvation (whatever that is) and why some people leave it. I grew up in a Calvinist church, but I’ve come to, as we say, live in the lap of the Goddess, who does not believe her creation is saturated in sin and depravity. We believe, as Matthew Fox (who was excommunicated) said, not in original sin but original blessing. Ya know, I think I must have a bit of that rebellious Huguenot gene, too. But I’m lucky. Several years before she died, I told my grandmother (my only living grandparent) what I believe. She didn’t even blink. Then I did a tarot reading for her.


  3. Dear Carol, you reflect my sentiments when you say, “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.” While I am not descendent of the Huegenots who landed on the South African coast and brought Calvinism with them, Calvinism nonetheless was my birth religion. The Huegenots may have moved out of France to escape external control, but in the “new world” they insisted on the patriarchal control of every member of the community and family. Its focus on sinful flesh, abstinence from any pleasure, and its inistence on guilt with its sermons on hellfire and damnation did not serve my womanbeing and as a young adult I simply threw my religion out with the bathwater, and for the following two decades I believed myself to be an atheist. After emigrating to New York, Jungian therapy and my own artwork led me to the Goddess. I finally understood the soul hunger and famine that Calvinism left me with, and slowly, in the process of re-membering Goddess (with the help of some really terrific books by yourself, Merlin Stone, Elinor Gadon, China Galland, Rosemary Radfor Ruether, and others, I began to articulate my argument with Calvinism and organized, monolithic religion as I created art works on the theme of the Sacred Mirror in which a own coming to consciousness it depicted doing so reflected by the divine feminine, herself. After 23 years in the USA I returned home to live on the Drakenberg mountains of South Africa where I built my studio. A few years ago, I broke my back and this halted my active studio work. So I turned to my books on feminism, women, religion, the goddess, the body… and found that through the pain in my body I could enter into the history and stories of the people who suffered bone breaking torture and extermination during the many centuries of the European witch hunts. This research led me to create a 20 yard long paper scroll populated with 52 figures, called Roll Call, that has all the names I could find of the victims, inscribed along the long line of figures. This is my vindication of those many lives. And I found in the doing of this artwork, my counter voice emerging around the restrictions and body loathing that my Calvinist upbringing virtually embroidered on the inside of my skin. While I threw it away long ago, my birth religion remains an on-going element of my work against which I create Goddess and restore to the body, its sacred connection to Her.


    • Majak, thanks. My mother’s grandmother converted to Christian Science from Calvinist Presbyterianism. I don’t know her reasons, but I do know that one of Mary Baker Eddy’s reasons was her rejection of the doctrines of total depravity and predestination; Eddy said, “God must be at least as loving as my own mother.” I imagine my great-grandmother agreed, as do I. Others of my Huguenot ancestors converted to Quakerism, perhaps for similar reasons, so in my history at least, a case can be made for the principle of putting belief first.


  4. I continue to be disheartened by women who claim to be feminists and still remain members of the Roman Catholic Church.


    • I would second that – but add that the same goes for any of the patriarchal religions – not just Roman Catholicism, but evangelical Christianity, Mormonism, Islam (with the possible exception of Sufism) unreformed Judaism, and the rest. But what really disheartens me, is not simply that women remain within these institutions, but that they continue to do so when they have the social, political, and legal freedom to leave whenever they want. I mean, I can buy into an Iranian woman too scared to leave Islam: but American and European women are free to leave and they still cling to systems that condemn them to second class status. In a response to another blog on these pages, I likened this willing subjugation to that of women trapped in violent marriages: it is the bad relationship itself which undermines the woman’s self-belief that she can and should leave. Similarly,within the Church (and the mosque and the synagogue): if an institution teaches a woman from the time that she is a little girl that she is unable to make her own decisions about her own reproductive health, how will she grow into the person who can take any significant decision for herself – including the one to leave the church ?


  5. Correction: read,
    …the theme of the Sacred Mirror in which a woman coming to consciousness is depicted doing so reflected by the divine feminine, herself.


  6. As a practicing progressive Roman Catholic, Carol’s question of “why stay in the church?” reverberates with increasing intensity. The actions of the hierarchy are a source of deep pain for me. I do not stay to push for change within the institution. I stay with my local parish community, because I continue to grow in faith there, in ways that I believe serve the larger good.. My faith is not based on belief in creedal statements but nurtured within, through relationships in a community of people, participation in meaningful ritual (albeit harder with the new missal), that leads to outward action — outreach to the poor, advocacy for justice, etc, all within the context of this local community. It has been my spiritual home for nearly three decades; for the time being at least, I feel called to stay, though I wrestle with this issue often. The day may come when I do heed the call to leave. Either way, I ask for support and acceptance from other feminists to recognize the profound difficulty of this struggle.


  7. Hi Peg, in a sense your comment proves my point–namely that feminists are using different criteria for our decisions to stay and to leave. When I was a practicing Catholic I loved the community and the ritual until I could no longer say the words of the ritual because I did not believe the theology behind them. I think those who stay may be able to bracket the question of belief in the words of the ritual. I am not saying being “uncompromising” about belief is necessarily a good thing–I am just pointing out what may be a difference among us in the way we decide.


  8. Hi Peg, I honor your honesty in the way you write about the struggle between your feminism and your deep need for spiritual community. It is saddening for me that in South Africa at this time and in the rural community where I now live, women, and least of all men, question the relentless patriarchal hierarchy of Protestant Christianity. To question the church here is like asking to be struck by a thunderbolt. I nourish myself with the wonderful words from this website and the honest struggles and diversity of paths they represent.


  9. Peg, a personal struggle, such as the one you describe, can only ever be between you and your God. It isn’t something others CAN support you in. If and when your struggle becomes political (as when a person takes a public and declared stance against what they believe to be wrong) you would have every reason to look for support. This may sound like a tough line, but how can any feminist support silent aquiesence to doctrines which destroy women’s lives ?


    • It’s difficult to convey the totality of one’s faith life in a response to a blog post. June, you have judged me negatively on the basis of one paragraph. I am not silent. For example, I openly express my views on my blog, and I demonstrated on behalf of the nuns. But my current reason for staying in the church is not because I am working to change it. I neither expect the church to change nor am waiting for it. Additionally, I find that I am called more to be engaged in ecumenical outreach ministries in a nearby urban neighborhood. My spiritual search also encompasses classes in Judaism and interaction with the vibrant Jewish community in my locale. But at least for now, my home base remains my longstanding parish because of the spiritual sustenance I find there. If at some point, I feel called to leave the church, I will. Perhaps we define “support” differently. Majak’s comment above felt supportive to me.


  10. peg, further to my comment above: my point is, a person doesn’t have to leave an organisation to protest its policies; and those who stay but protest and try to change things from within have every right to ask for support. But how is it possible, practically or morally, to support a position of silence – unless, of course, in a situation where speaking out would put a person’s life at risk (as in certain theologically totalitarian countries). And if your only choice is between leaving or silence, isn’t that itself a reason for protest ?


  11. I don’t think there is any question that those of us who leave are often without support provided by ritual and community. Alternative ritual groups are difficult to sustain.


    • One of the challenges of living as a pagan in the 21st C is that, to some extent, we have to make it up for ourselves. New ways of articulating our spiritual lives; new forms of faith, of worship; new communities, new beliefs. But in all of this, much of the old tradition goes with us.

      It was, of course, exactly the same for the early Christian Church. Christians took much from pagan ritual as they began to leave the older faith behind: and among their borrowings were many of the forms as well as the trappings of worship (the robed priest, the use of incense and lights, the choirs etc etc) already sanctified by ancient use.

      The children of the Book have it so drummed into their heads that they can only approach the Divine through the intercession of a priest/rabbi/mullah, that they are often inhibited from taking some of these forms of worship and adapting them for their own use. But if some part of your Jewish/Christian/Muslim faith is meaningful and beautiful for you, there is nothing to stop you taking it with you when you leave.

      Ritual can be as private as the prayer you utter every night to the stars, or as public as the wine and cakes passed round between friends in honor of the Goddess. It is yours to make as you like. No-one has the copyright on the use of candles and flowers, and I offer them to my Goddess in rituals which become ever deeper and more meaningful the longer I practice them.

      The most important difference for pagans, is that our cycle of worship reflects the wheel of the year – the solstices, equinoxes and quarter days of the old Neolithic calendar. But in that, of course, our traditions are even older than those of the religions of the Book.That the celebration of Christmas falls close to the old pagan equinox is common knowledge. Like my Christian and secular friends, I, too, will decorate my house and bring in the holly and ivy, and light the candles and share the wine and the food over the twelve days of celebration; and at the magical hours of the night, we will raise our glasses and make a blessing for all – of every faith – that the New Year may bring good things to each and everyone of us.


      • !!! Correction !!!! I should have written …. ‘that the celebration of Christmas falls close to the old pagan SOLSTICE…. ‘ !!!! The equinoxes are, of course, the the two times, in spring and autumn, when the days and nights are of equal length.
        The winter solstice marks the shortest day, the longest night, and the return of the strengthening sun. The Christian legend that, at this, the darkest moment of the year, a little child is born who is the Light of the World, is a solstice symbol
        enduring beauty, mystery, and power.


  12. Peg and Carol. Yes, it is difficult to leave if your deep needs are for ritual and community. It is easy for us who have left to simply say, leave! And as Carol so rightly puts it, alternative groups are difficult to sustain. For myself I use the sanctity of my studio to create the rituals/artmaking, and the prayers/artworks to fill the place where a circle of like-minded people is not. My grandchildren live with me, and their comments and instinctual insights into what I am doing, are my blessings.


  13. I do not have anyone in Lesbos with whom to create ritual. My community are ecological activists and the Greek Green Party. Luckily I have the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete which is my ritual community 2 times per year.


    • Carol – we get so used to the idea that ritual must be a collective or communal event that we forget just how powerful solitary ritual can be. The phases of the moon can and are celebrated by women working alone, as well as all the seasonal markers. (see my earlier comment). My own belief is that working at solitary ritual generates an intensity and focus which can be even more powerful than group work. It certainly enriches any ritual practice done later with others.

      Apart from which, it seems important to me that pagans bear witness in the same way that, for example, Christians do. Let your friends in the Green Party know about your faith, and invite them to enjoy its celebration: you don’t have to be a paid-up member of the coven to enjoy the cakes and wine, nor to honor the blessing given before you share them round !


  14. PS Goldiocks, the kitten who came for Thanksgiving — crying so loudly in the street that I could not ignore her, is now sleeping on my lap under the laptop. Community comes in many species.


  15. June, I cannot comment on Mary in Europe vs the US post Vatican II. The Panagia is very much alive and well in Greece.


  16. June, while I acknowledge a longing for ritual community, I do have it on the Goddess Pilgrimages to Crete, and in my heart. Today it was decorating my Solstice tree and loving my new kitten and my doggies. I agree, longing for community was not enough of a reason for me to stay in a place where the words of ritual did not express the longings of my heart and my beliefs. The Green Party is also a home for me, but I don’t expect the Greeks to join me in ritual just yet… But I am happy to share my values with the other Greek Greens! Sustainability, social justice, no violence, participatory democracy are the Green values–to which I add, love for our Mother Earth!



  1. (Essay) Does Belief Matter? by Carol P. Christ - Return to Mago E*Magazine

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