Author’s Note: The subject matter in this post is considered controversial by many, and, from some, would earn me the label of “heretic” (or worse). Therefore, I ask that, if you cannot be respectful in any comments you may make, if you do not like what you read or are made uncomfortable by it, please click the little red “x” in the upper right corner of your browser or surf to another page. I respect that some who may stumble across this do not share my thoughts and experiences, nor do I wish to press mine upon them, and ask that I be given the same respect in return as I express–and, by so doing, process–my thoughts and experiences. Please keep in mind that there is room in this world for many viewpoints on any given subject. For those who have found your way here and share similar thoughts and experiences, welcome. You have found a kindred.
Have you ever eaten something, gotten really sick from it, and been unable to ever eat it again, even though you know that your getting sick had more to do with a virus already in your system or the item having been mishandled or left out of the refrigerator too long, and not with the food itself? I have, with both meatloaf and stewed pinto beans. For my mother, it was pumpkin pie. For one of my good friends, that food was shrimp. Nearly everyone has one such food.
This is the way it has been for me in my complete avoidance, wherever possible, of all things Christian in the past year, though my questioning of and gradual separation from Christianity as it is commonly practiced began a very long time ago. Except, it has taken me a year to see that it is not Jesus or the Bible or God in and of themselves that made me sick, but how they were mishandled by the purveyors of my childhood faith. Because of previous experience and negative associations, I’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater.
A Little Personal Background
Like many formerly-Christian malcontents, I grew up in a very conservative, literalist sect. My childhood church separated from the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980’s because they felt the Convention was getting too liberal, and became independent. Now, if you know anything about denominations in the U.S., you know that the Southern Baptist Convention is not known for its liberality in theology or any other area of life. My childhood church believed that every word in the Bible was the absolute, complete, and literal truth and came directly from God with no interjections or alterations made by man. The one book that they regularly debate about whether it’s literal or figurative is Revelation, owing to the unlikelihood of Chapter 13 actually happening in a literal sense and much debate as to what the “mark of the Beast” is and so forth. (The consensus when I left was that parts were literal and parts were figurative.) Also, according to this church, the Authorized King James Version is the only true and correct translation of the Bible. Women and children are to be seen and not heard unless there’s a fellowship dinner or bridal or baby shower to be thrown, in which case that is entirely up to the women, being their areas of God-ordained expertise. Women can teach Sunday school, but can’t pray aloud in the sanctuary. They are required to wear dresses, skirts, or culottes to church, though they can wear pants outside of church, are permitted to wear jewelry and makeup, and are permitted to cut their hair unlike some other fundamentalist sects. (What difference does that make? I never understood that.) The primary purpose for women according to that church is to marry, care for their husbands, and bear and raise children. Children are to be absolutely obedient, to “honor their father and mother,” and preferably have no thoughts of their own. Political rhetoric and, at times, outright hatred and fear, was preached from the pulpit (and, I assume, still is). The theology espoused was of the sort I conceptualize as Fire Insurance Theology: pray our special little salvation prayer and get baptized so you don’t burn in Hell for all Eternity, because our God is a jealous and vengeful god. Even other denominations of Christianity–like Mainline Protestants, Catholics, and the Orthodox Churches–were denounced within those walls.
My questioning began when I was eight, shortly after I was “saved” and baptized as a result of things I observed, discrepancies between the Bible stories told in Sunday school–like the tale of the Good Samaritan–and the actions of the adults in church. In my teens, I started having nightmares about going to church. That is never a good sign, and the questioning was something I could no longer skirt around or shove aside. The questions were getting more sophisticated, more frequent, and more insistent.
The Process of Leaving It Behind
When I turned twenty, I vowed to never set foot back in that church for any reason, and I haven’t. However, I did promise my panicking parents I would attend a Baptist or Southern Baptist church at least while I was at university, which I did sporadically because I found a church where, even though I still didn’t agree with the theology 100%, I did love the people, and the people were open, welcoming, and accepting of far more than I expected. There were renegade (male!) feminist theologians among that congregation, and I still smile thinking about some of the confidential, conspiratorial conversations I had with one of them as he tried to talk me into switching my major to religion and going to seminary. These doctrinal renegades remained “in the closet” with their opinions on the role of women and the possibility of hints at a Divine Feminine because they thought the Convention wasn’t ready for that yet. (And they were right. It’s still not ready.) They didn’t leave because they loved the church, and rightly pointed out that the only way change would come would be from within.
When I graduated university with less than $200.00 to my name, I had to move back home with Mom and Dad, get a job, then set about saving money to finance a move out of my hometown (a goal I’m getting ever closer to reaching), and for a while we had regular go ’rounds about church. I began attending a more modern church than the one my family attended, still in the Baptist line, with Mom. It was actually her childhood church, and I could tolerate the sermons there because they were more academic in tone and subject matter than many, and the pastor did not feel the need to yell or brow-beat the congregation for a half hour every service, though every service still ended with the hallmark of his profession as a Baptist minister: the altar call. So began the official exodus of my mother and sister from my childhood church. I unwittingly opened the gate. However, Mom decided that this church had become a little too modern for her comfort, and we started attending the little Baptist church up the street from our house as a familial compromise, it being a patch of Baptist middle ground between the now-modernized church my mother attended as a child and the one that I was brought up in.
The same theological questions that had haunted me for most of my life followed me to every single church I tried within my family’s guidelines. In my heart, I left the church long before I stopped going, unable to believe wholeheartedly in its stated tenets about God, Jesus, Hell, and day-to-day life. I also had a thirst for knowledge about other religions and spiritual traditions. I looked into other Christian denominations first, and still came up without a faith home, at least not locally. I couldn’t say that Christianity was the only “right” religion, couldn’t profess the generally accepted view of God as male, or state with certainty that I believed in the Trinity as it is generally understood, which are fairly standard professions for most Christians, and definitely for those in my area. I couldn’t reconcile a God who supposedly is Love, who declared its creation “good,” with one who would condemn to eternal suffering anyone who didn’t profess one specific creed, and, furthermore, one that would design such a system in the first place. Nevermind the questions and revulsion that came with examining–scratching the surface, really–of church history.
Many more factors came into play, more questions, and ultimately I gave up even the pretense of going to church, which I was sure would cause an all-out war in my family, but it hasn’t yet. (Though I think they think that I really just like having that quiet time, because it’s the only time it’s quiet in the house, and because they think I will eventually come back.) I took a vacation from the Bible and its troublesome contradictions and inscrutable passages. I threw myself into learning about other belief systems that interested me: Buddhism, Paganism, and the spiritual side of yoga among them, which I am still doing. Honestly, I could probably spend the rest of my life studying the world’s religions and spiritual traditions if for no other reason than I find them endlessly interesting and the study fulfilling.
What I Believe Now
At this point, I subscribe to the “golden thread” model of religion and spirituality: that there is a golden thread that runs through and connects all religious and spiritual traditions, which thread is comprised of shared practices and beliefs. To me, if people and cultures from all over the world in all faiths can agree on something, when there are so many things that even members of the same faith cannot agree upon, that is worthy of belief. The Dalai Lama has pointed out that there are over 6 billion people on the planet, and as many paths to the Divine, and I am inclined to agree with him. I don’t feel that any one religion or spiritual tradition has all the right answers, nor do I think any of them are 100% wrong. Likewise, it is unlikely that I will ever commit to any one belief system exclusively.
Looking at Christianity with New Eyes
Now, back to feeling like I’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater in regard to Christianity.
I noticed that I have no problems reading the sacred texts of other religions figuratively, or placing them in their cultural and temporal contexts in determining what they mean for me. I have no problem reading other sacred texts with an eye to metaphor, myth, archetypes, and fables to extract the spiritual core, rather than taking everything literally.
Why should I feel that way about Christianity? Because that was what I was taught? I’ve left most of the particular beliefs of what I was originally taught behind, why not also leave behind the view of the Bible I was taught?
There are a lot of great things Jesus and other people in the Bible had to say and teach, a lot of truths there that overlap with the world’s other belief systems. Jesus was a rebel, religiously speaking, in his time. He was often seen in the company of, spoke with, cared for, fed, and healed social outcasts that the other religious elite in his time, geographical area, and culture would not even be seen with, for crying out loud! There is a lot of beauty in the Psalms, and, even if read literally, the Divine Feminine sneaks in in the form of Sophia, or Wisdom, in Proverbs.
It hit me that I don’t have to look at Christianity with the same eyes I was taught to view it. I can look at it from the same perspective that I look at the world’s other belief systems. I can respectfully pan for the nuggets of resonant truth, and leave behind the cultural prejudices and personal prejudices of the writers of the Bible, those who chose the contents of the canon, and those who first taught religion to me. There is a Middle Way between what I learned as a child and completely discounting all things Christian. As Easter nears, it is my intention to explore that Middle Way.