Over the course of the semester, my friend and I have had a number of conversations about what it means to be a Catholic. Does Catholicism require a belief in every Church teaching, even those that are not said ex cathedra (from the throne of Saint Peter)? Does Catholicism require belief and acquiescence toward everything in the Bible from Genesis through Revelation? Is Joe Biden really a Catholic? It has been interesting to ponder these questions alongside Baldwin who also questions religion and his faith. I think these issues have been a central theme in my blog posts and I want to spend this last post fleshing them out further.
I am Catholic. I entered this course as a Catholic and I will leave this course as a Catholic as well. Yet, in thinking about these questions, I find myself aligning much closer with the Pentecostal-raised but ultimately distant-from-religion Baldwin. In stating my disagreement with some Church approaches to modern issues and defending Joe Biden as a Catholic (a ludicrous claim according to my friend who sees absolute opposition to abortion as a requirement for real Catholicism), I find myself approaching faith the same way as Baldwin—with love at the center. I understand Baldwin’s frustration with organized religion, which uses the Bible for its own means and too often chooses a policy of hate, discrimination, and division rather than love.
I continue to be struck by the scene Baldwin creates on the mantelpiece of the Grimes home in Go Tell It on the Mountain. On one side, the mantelpiece features a flowered motto, which quotes John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” Meanwhile, another part of the mantelpiece features a “malevolent” green metal serpent, its head raised “proudly in the midst of these trophies, biding the time to strike” (Baldwin, 26). This juxtaposition is the heart of Baldwin’s critique of religion. He sees Christ as a symbol of love, ultimate love that offers eternal life. Yet Christianity seems overly focused on the snake compared to the Word. In Baldwin’s time, the Black Church focused too much on the need to renounce the flesh for the sake of the spirit, emphasizing that the body is bad without highlighting what is good. Baldwin also thought about his father, a man whose understanding of love required keeping his children away from the serpent. Yet such love as this underemphasized the love of Christ by withholding true, active love from his children. If Baldwin makes anything clear about religion in his works, it is that Christianity should be about love not fear. Thus, isn’t love all it really takes to follow Christ? I said I am a Catholic and I reaffirm that statement; yet my Catholicity is not about blindly following teaching but centering the Word of Christ, the word of love. In this way, I guess I am a Baldwin Catholic.