I looked at the altar through my father’s eyes, and it was rich and beautiful. I was baptized in this very church when I was one week old. In so many real ways, I cannot stop being a Catholic. Christianity helped shape my brain.
[But] I thought, “But I can’t rejoin this church. I would start listening to the words again and it would just drive me nuts. I do wish there were a beautiful building where I could mark the transitions in my life with ancient rituals and great art, but where what we know about the world isn’t ignored.”
– Julia Sweeney, “Letting Go of God”
I seem to have a penchant for one- or two-word titles. This blog started out that way, mostly, as a means of summing up the thoughts of the article or posting in a word; of really getting down to what I meant or was trying to say. Looking back on the last 28 years, that’s something I’ve tried to do all along—it’s an ongoing process of distilling, testing, struggling, and accepting.
Or, as Fiona puts it, “fighting, crying, kicking, cursing.”
Since coming out in 2008, I’ve gone through a second adolescence of sorts—born again, to borrow ecclesiastic language—experiencing psychological and ontological crisis that most people get out of the way in their teenage years. Only I’m experiencing it as an adult. In one of our “chats” last week, my dad made the observation that, since coming out, I’ve seeing the world increasingly through a primarily “gay” lens. My rejection of God and religion is, according to him, the result of letting that define my worldview. (That’s partly true, although my questioning of Christianity began years before that.) Homosexuality is also redefining my political philosophy, he says—also true, since politicians are making decisions that have real-life ramifications for me.
Coming out as an agnostic and rejecting the religion I grew up with and that defined me as a person in so many ways probably had a much more powerfully emotional effect on me. I’ve always been gay. That’s how I was born; it’s who I am. Coming out the first time was a matter of accepting what is true about me rather than what I wanted to be true. Religion, however, was something that was fused into my identity. It’s like a skyscraper that was begun the day I was born, that gradually I realized was built out of fear, superstition and ignorance. Rejecting that paradigm was akin to the shock Neo experienced of waking from the Matrix into the real world, turning life on its head in unexpected and unforeseen ways.
So you could say that I came to agnosticism as a wounded Protestant, which is what they said about atheists growing up (even though I’m not an atheist). And I’ve realized too what an angry agnostic I am currently. It takes very little to set me off on a diatribe about the evils of religion. There’s a lot of resentment, hurt and disdain for the Church and for Christianity. Evangelicalism is offensive, detrimental and bigoted (and I do want to make the distinction, because I know Christians who are not those things).
The Church does not like doubt. It doesn’t mind questions so long as the questions are bringing you closer to “the Truth.” They’ll say things like, “pray for faith,” or “trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” – as if silencing your questions will make them go away. As a kid, we’d listen to this cassette tape of Bible verses set to songs, and that verse, Proverbs 3:5, was one of them—the very definition of inculcation. It was easy then to believe then because there was nothing to question.
Once I started wrestling seriously with homosexuality and the Bible as a young Christian schooled in fundamentalist theology, and it started to become clear that the Church’s reasons for why it’s wrong are really based more on what Christians are uncomfortable with rather than what God says, Christianity seemed so much more fallible and tattered rather than the bastion of faith and certainty it was growing up.
I also began to see that we don’t apply the same standards of critical thinking to religion that we expect from every other discipline and field of study. You don’t take it on faith that your doctor went to medical school. You expect to see a degree, hear informed opinions that belie their training as a medical professional. And yet Christians accept “God said it in the Bible, so I believe it” as valid rationale. (Another post from February explores all this in greater detail. Actually, go there right now. It’s an interesting read.)
But that still leaves a huge void in my life where the Church, God and faith used to be – though to be perfectly honest, I probably never had much faith to begin with. It was really the sense of belonging that came with being part of that community. I had religious experiences, yes, but those are equally explainable from a psychological or neurological perspective as from the metaphysical. The scientific explanations seem more plausible.
At the same time…
Objective reality isn’t always the most pleasant prism through which to view the world. Maybe by using fantasy we allow ourselves to glimpse something greater than we otherwise would be able to. And let’s face it: truth is such a poor competitor in the marketplace of ideas. The love and the community in this church are real and potent, even if God isn’t.
– Julia Sweeney, “Letting Go of God”
I do take issue with that first sentence—that we should expect objective reality to be pleasant, and that religion softens and makes it more palatable (or bearable, at least). Objective reality is not pretty. It’s harsh and cruel and doesn’t need you or care about whether you’re happy or not. Humans have been on this earth for the equivalent of the blink of an eye. Eons of time existed before us, and there will be cold, empty eons after. We exist precariously on an oasis of life in a vast, seemingly infinite, impersonal vacuum. Why seek comfort from that? It’s remarkable and surprising that we exist at all!
While I miss the church from a social standpoint, I don’t believe most of the things the Church holds as truth, and take belief too seriously to hold it for such a shallow reason. Fact is, I don’t know if I believe in the resurrection of Jesus – if he was the Son of God – in the Immaculate Conception – the Holy Ghost – Original Sin and sinful desires (aside from hurting people) – in Satan or powers of darkness – or that God even created the world.
I’m a storyteller. If anyone would be skilled at divining truth from fiction, it would be someone who traffics regularly in that space between fantasy and reality. Like Julia Sweeney said, “by using fantasy, we allow ourselves to glimpse something greater than we otherwise would be able to.”
I do wish there were a community where the transitions in life were marked with ancient rituals and great art, where what we know about the world isn’t ignored, and where the will of God is intuited through science and rationale instead of some 2,000 year old book. But such a place does not exist, at least as far as I know. The closest thing to it would probably be SafeHouse, the church my friends are starting this Fall—and the church that Seth would be a pastor of. That I therefore cannot be a part of. And so remain alone.
So what’s the conclusion that we can come to from any of this? Or is there a conclusion to reach? After all the folderol and hauling over coals stops, what’s to learn? Just this:
I am likely to miss the main event
If I stop to cry or complain again.
So I will keep a deliberate pace—
Let the damned breeze dry my face.
— Fiona Apple, “Better Version of Me”