Where does our story begin today?
It begins with me waking up at 6am with my best friend at the Hotel Minneapolis, where I stayed the night because I was in no state to drive. She’s been staying in Rochester with her dad for the next few weeks and came up to Minneapolis with another friend of her’s from Iowa. She just left her husband and decided to get some room to breathe, decompress and put some distance between her and her husband. So the three of us had dinner last night and then crashed in their room.
The sad thing is that they’ve been married eleven years, and have tried to do everything to make things work. Even sadder is the fact that up until last week, when she left, he thought things were at least starting to get better, though the truth was that she was the one doing all the work and the changing, and was emotionally drained from trying to keep him happy. She hadn’t realized how unhappy she was or how bad things had gotten until another friend of her’s asked point blank why she was still with her husband. So, last Wednesday, we spent most of the day while he was at work packing up her things and moving her out.
The hardest thing about ending a relationship is often the fear of letting go of the idea of what it was, of losing everything that was good about it, and of that part of your identity dying, especially if the relationship lasted several years. Like, eleven years.
In my last entry, I described the awfulness that ensued on my birthday that led to the loss of a good friend and my faith in God. Frankly, the whole business with Seth was only the final blow that knocked me off the fence and into facing the truth of my situation, which is that I’d basically been holding into a faith for the sake of being with him. He and some other friends are in the process of starting a church geared towards those who have been hurt or rejected by the Church, including GLBT Christians and those who are interested in the Christian faith but haven’t been afforded a place in the community. But the result of that conversation on my birthday made me realize that I haven’t been a Christian for a long time—possibly ever.
Driving back to my house this morning, I realized that this whole thing has felt like the death of a twenty-year-long relationship. At the age of eight I began to identify as a Christian, and since then the church has been my community. My whole identity has been wrapped up in the reality of God, of theology, and of a Judeo-Christian morality and ethic. My decisions have been made based on whether what I’m doing is the will of God, or whether a given activity or project would glorify God. It took me nearly ten years to finally come out because of what the Bible taught about homosexuality. So to turn around after nearly twenty years of living with this feels like the end of a marriage that hasn’t been working for a long time, and the children are all out of the house now and we’re trying to find a reason to stay together.
This honestly wasn’t a huge surprise. As early as 2006 I was beginning to question the validity of the Bible, whether it was true and if it mattered whether it’s true (and if it wasn’t true, what that meant), and really wasn’t finding satisfactory answers to these questions in my Christian community. In fact, quite the opposite. “Down that dangerous road lies emptiness and misery,” was the general response. So I shut up because it was easier than enduring the looks and the remonstrations about “enduring to the end” and “praying for faith.” When I came out, I started with the Bible and seeing what it really had to say about gays, because what God had to say about this was important and I wasn’t satisfied with the idea that I was broken or that God had given me these desires only to bury them. That’s a whole other post, but what I found wasn’t assuring, though not in the way I feared. I realized what a malleable and flimsy thing translation was, and how every Biblical translator has an agenda that works its way into the text. So how could I really believe anything that it had to say?
A few months ago while temping I listened to the This American Life episode “Godless America,” in which Julia Sweeney tells the story of her journey from being a committed Catholic to atheism, which is an excerpt from her show “Letting Go of God.” I’d heard the This American Life story a while ago, and at the time felt rather superior to her story. I went to a Christian liberal arts college; had a degree in Biblical and theological studies; studied and discussed theology; and had been going to church all my life and had even studied other worldviews in depth and was convinced in the rightness of Christianity. It offered all the answers to life’s persistent questions. Atheism was the ultimate cop-out, a failure to deal with layers of complexity, rejecting God rather than face the questions.
But if I had to be honest, in that smugness was also fear—fear that maybe there was something to her experience and what she was saying. I’d grown up my whole life with God, with Him being there, listening to and watching over me, and the idea of Not-God was, well, unsettling. It meant turning my back on everything I’d ever believed and been taught by my family, in my many years of Christian education, and by the Church. It meant that everything in life is just coincidence; that we’re here by chance and there’s no one minding the store. It meant that everyone at my church was essentially believing a myth; that there was no one looking out for or listening to people unjustly thrown in prison, or being tortured, or suffering. Worse, it also meant that this is all there is—that there is no afterlife, no Eternal Life, no salvation.
So on my birthday, Seth rebuffing me for the final time was the last straw. Since there wasn’t a future with him, there was no reason to call myself a Christian anymore since I was staying in it for him, which is a terrible reason to do anything. I felt like Anna Kendrick’s character in Up In The Air, having relocated her entire life to Omaha for a guy who ultimately dumps her by text message, and feeling completely adrift; or like George Clooney’s character in the same film, thinking he’d finally found the woman of his dreams and that this new vision of his life was actually going to work, and showing up at her door to surprise her—only to discover that she was married, with children.
One of the big things I’ve lost since leaving the church is the community. For as long as I can remember, the church has provided a central locus that gave shape and direction to my life, from the AWANA program as a kid, to youth group as a teenager, to adult choir and orchestra in church, to weddings, funerals and everything in between. It was a way to commemorate and ritualize the important moments in life, like chapter breaks in a novel that organize an otherwise an uninterrupted and nebulous blur of days and years and shifting memories. There really isn’t another community that offers that kind of stability—but that isn’t a good reason to accept an entire belief system, is it?
A few days ago I did some searching on agnostic groups that might exist in my area, and came across another site that I’d heard about, again, on This American Life—Meetup.com, a site that exists to bring together different groups of people interested in the same things. There was a group called “Former Fundamentalists” that met for coffee on Sunday mornings, so I decided to check it out this morning. That ended up not happening as I got completely lost due to some poor directions and ended up giving up and going to Caribou instead to write about this whole misadventure.
While driving over to find the little coffee shop, I started thinking about this new direction in my life. I’m always suspicious about my own motives, and have been questioning whether I’m choosing agnosticism for the right reasons—and mainly whether it’s because of Seth, the guy I’ve been foolishly in love with for the last year. After all, it’s equally absurd to reject a belief system because a man done you wrong as it is to stay in it for him. There, in my living room, getting ready to go out and meet up with these fellow agnostics and former fundamentalists, I had to admit to myself that, yes, I had decided to reject Christianity because of him; that I was angry at him, and am still angry at the institution of the church itself; and that I hadn’t found a church that was both accepting of gays and lesbians and also rigorous and uncompromising in its approach to faith and theology.
There’s also the fact that I really liked the church that Seth and my friends were putting together, and was really excited that it might be a place I could finally belong to. However, he was to be the senior pastor, and seeing as I still have and probably always will have feelings for him, I could never go there while he’s a mainstay. Seeing him hurts too much. But that’s life. An added bonus is that my dating pool is that much bigger for dating other agnostics and “nones” (as they’re called).
Sometimes it’s the right move to leave a relationship if it’s abusive or unhealthy, or if it was disingenuous to begin with. But what if you realize that you were the problem to begin with, or even that maybe you’ve been letting other voices alter and shade your perceptions of that relationship, making it appear worse than it ever was?
Le sigh. The pursuit of truth is neither an easy nor a comfortable road.