Having been a person who was, for all intents and purposes, a “True Believer,” I think it’s important that I expound a bit on the stereotypes built up by believers about those who “fall away” from the Church.
I’d often hear growing up about people who stopped going to church and “fell back into sin.” The horrible catalyst would be something like a couple getting divorced and not coming to church anymore or a person leaving and getting involved with a non-church crowd, which undoubtedly meant that person was up to every form of debauchery. We’d assume this without evidence.
Now that I’ve become one of those people I would hear about and blindly judge in my youth, I’ve experienced that a lot of the struggle with no longer believing in what the Church believes is knowing that they think these terrible things about me that aren’t true. Sure, I could choose to keep a lot of those people in my life as friends, but it’s hard to be friends with people who think you are “choosing death” just because you can’t believe in something supernatural. It’s not that I dislike them or want them out of my life, but their beliefs are really just toxic to me now and don’t help me toward bettering myself and learning to love myself in the ways that the inherently self-loathing model of sin wouldn’t let me before. It’s hard for me to shut them out of my life because I know exactly how that looks to them. They see that I’m shutting them out because I hate God. I’m shutting them out because I’m ashamed of my sin and don’t need them to help me fix it.
Where is the balance? Do I keep them as friends and hold onto the guilt of letting them down? Will they ever see that “loving” a person doesn’t involve letting them know that they’re a piece of shit without “God”? What can I do to help the image of those who lose their faith?
What does it mean to me when my president acknowledges and respects my lack of belief in God? What does it mean to me when my president supports and wants to legalize my potential marriage to a woman?
At face value, those things mean a lot, but when I really sit on those questions for a while I start to wonder when acknowledgement can overcome the dissension. No matter how much one man respects what I believe and how I love, one man can’t assure me that I’ll gain what I feel like I deserve.
I sat reading tweets by my former pastor tonight and glanced over social pages of Christians from my past. They’ve all but forgotten who I am at this point. They shout words that would be daggers to my heart if I truly cared about their opinions anymore. According to them, their words are Truth–even further–Truth in love. These people don’t know love. That’s not to say that I do, but after having set up camp on both sides of this fence, I think I have a little better perspective.
I’m not sure how much faith I have in Obama’s administration. I like that he wants equality. That’s what I want, too. But I get antsy in waiting and discouraged by the power of religious indoctrination to completely skew a person’s understanding of love. I want a better future, and I want to help build it. But when do our “HOPE” and “CHANGE” banners peel from their 2D form and take a three-dimensional lead into our future? What is this world we live in that makes people on all sides look at others as though their ideas are poison?
Though I’m no longer a conservative Christian, I don’t like feeling like I’m now at the other extreme. I didn’t leave so that I could fight. I left so that I could figure out who I am and what is important to me. With that comes a lot of expectations still. How dare I not vote in this election. How dare I post opinions on the internet that upset people. How dare I be passive about anything that should be important to me. I’m sorry, everyone, but I am perpetually shellshocked. I’m too stunned by my empathy for all sides to really charge forth with my pitchfork. For all my inactive apathy and for all my contradictory opinions, the truth is that it’s all too much. And I care too much about everyone. I wish things could all work out the best for everyone, but I don’t actually believe that’s an option.
I’m going to be incredibly careful in this post because I don’t want to talk about my family in a disparaging way, but an important part of undergoing a massive shift in belief is working through the relationships that were so attached to the former belief system. Usually, this is family.
For me, it is family. My father was a pastor, and my mom is the type of devout Christian that could care less about logic and reason (not a criticism–just the way she’s wired). For this post, I note that my oldest sister is actually quite a bit like how I was as a Christian, and that’s what makes this whole topic rather intriguing. Lately, she seems to have gotten more and more into Christian apologetics and is frequently in a mode to call out “false teachers.” As her sister who cares more about maintaining a positive, albeit somewhat superficial, relationship with her than about expressing how much her viewpoint grieves me, I just sit and watch. And every time I observe, I’m taken back to some instance in my past when I felt that same conviction and knew that I knew the Truth. It’s not comforting for me to think that my sister is wrong or misguided. What I really think is that she is a product of her raising and is trying to live very true to her beliefs, which is something I can respect.
But what I mostly have been taking from all of this is how much observing her makes me glad not to feel that conviction anymore. I know she would be hurt to hear this, but it is so incredibly true and so incredibly refreshing. Unlike my family, I no longer have to be prepared to explain why I believe what I do. I sit in the “I don’t know” and watch them “know.” There’s no pressure and no urgency. I take my time and allow myself to be skeptical and confused most of the time without desperately clawing for assurance or God’s approval. Freedom–true freedom–does not exist with contingencies. With freedom, there is no submission and no expectation. Freedom honors individual integrity. It is optimistically autonomous. The package of “freedom” seen in the Bible relies on adherence and forms a paradox with submission.
And so, I’ve chosen to be truly free. That is me, the optimistically autonomous. The Jones family anomaly. The antithetical offspring. Always pleased to make your acquaintance and never with the hope that you will bend to my beliefs.
There was a time when a separation from the world seemed right. From what I understood through Scripture, God treasured his people, which meant he treasured me. It was wholly within his character to hold me near and guide me through the difficulties of this world, those difficulties being a result of sin–human sin–my sin. I never truly felt the weight of my sin. Sure, I felt guilty when I did wrong things, but that is pretty natural. I’d apologize to God before apologizing to the person I wronged, and the burden sometimes lifted then, for sin is first and foremost against God. This is what a relationship with God looked like for me. I didn’t really fawn over God or speak about God in romantic, girly language. But I loved God, and I respected God. And most of all, I knew that God loved me.
College days were my separation from the world days. That was when I found peers who I really loved who also loved God, and my love for God started to become very real to me. The realer that love became and the more I found “true fellowship” with my Christian friends, the more aware I was of our special separation from the world. I was challenged by notions of evangelism and felt occasional guilt over how rarely I shared my faith with any non-Christian friends and acquaintances. My best friends were my Christian friends. I could expose my whole, true self to them, and I could talk theology with them for hours, knowing the conversation would flow from a deep, spiritual, sacred connection we had as believers. This was amazing. Shared spirituality was amazing. True fellowship was amazing.
What crept up on me was just how not amazing this all started looking when I realized the types of people I knew I couldn’t be close with. Gays, lesbians, hardcore partiers, and others who appear to be “living in sin”. I didn’t hate these people, and I was friends with them to an extent. But I wasn’t best friends with them. I didn’t share deep, spiritual connections with them, because they weren’t part of my sweet, fulfilling community. The notion of this eventually became a bit nagging. I realized that I held myself to a standard that I didn’t expect of “the world.” And very gradually, this started to seem wrong. Arrogant even.
I’ve titled this little reflection of mine, “Toe in the Water,” to pull that metaphor into how I perceive evangelical Christianity. When evangelicals look at and experience the world, they stick a toe in the water. Sometimes when they stick a toe in, they find the water either way too cold or way too hot and retreat. There is this constant forced separation because they were told that water that is too hot or too cold is not water to swim in. It is impure.
Ever since I did take that plunge, if you will, into the too hot/too cold water, I’ve found that it’s not really what I thought it was. I never thought the world was scary, but I knew that there was evil in it. No longer do I suspect that these are shark-infested waters. People are people, and I’ve discovered that I can make true human connections with Christians, non-Christians, partiers, gays, lesbians, and everyone with any sort of passion that reflects my own. I’ve found that when you’re passionate about Scripture, it’s sometimes harder to share passions with people of the world. But when you’re passionate about the world, love is more beautiful and more natural and more bountiful. The world is raw in a great way and more vibrant. Turns out the salvation experience didn’t happen for me when I was eleven like I thought it did. It happened when I turned twenty-three, and it continues as I’m going on twenty-four.