Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
-Rumi, 13th century mystic
This year (and so this hodgepodge of confessions) is now past the halfway point. I wonder how it will be, to look back at this year’s journey and see the shape of it better, from the other side. At this point, a little past the middle, I see that this is about a slow letting go, about giving myself time to be at peace with a monumental shift.
Some ideas take months to name, years even. Slowly, they take on a definition, over late nights and angry outbursts, apologies and silence, wine-softened conversations and stolen moments to think while driving, books devoured and stories heard.
I wrote the sentence I am walking away from Christianity in January, just to see how the words felt. I looked at the screen and couldn’t say that I meant the words completely. So I saved them in a draft and wrote instead what was honest and true right then.
That sentence brings up enormous questions, the kind you can’t answer without the perspective that time brings. What does it mean, to leave Christianity? Which one? I left fundamentalist, apocalyptic, demon-exorcising, repent-or-burn Christianity a long time ago, moving on to a lighter, evangelical, more in-the-now version. It was a relief to focus more on feeding the hungry and teaching children that God loved them, and less on who might be going to hell or how the devil might be trying to trick me that day (let’s just take a moment to laugh about that one). More compassion, less fear-mongering. That worked for a season, but then came the culture wars, or at least my increasing awareness of them.
I was dismayed to realize that even though I thought I had left fundamentalism behind, it was alive and well in churches that looked and felt a little more progressive. This is the part that still breaks my heart. I couldn’t, in good conscience, stay. I sought a new home in a progressive mainline church, in liturgy, in bread and wine and ash. These folks, I found out, are comfortable with questions and silence, and have a long tradition of welcoming LGBT, agnostic, and other marginalized people that evangelicals don’t seem to know what to do with. The pastor was slow to make declarations, thoughtful, faithful to the old rhythms while cultivating a mind that matched the times we live in. For the first time in my life, I heard the words I don’t know in a sermon where they weren’t immediately followed with a platitude. Just I don’t know. I think, if I didn’t have all the baggage from the other forms of Christianity, that I could have stayed and served there. I would have loved to. It was a short, sweet season, followed by a necessary break from all things church-related. I had begun therapy by then, and with it the discovery that I was responding to my spiritual past in the same way that people respond to major trauma. To my brain, there was no difference. This work took all of my energy. The pastor and I exchanged emails, and he surprised me by saying that perhaps what I really needed was to take a break from church, maybe temporary, maybe not. There was no pressure to stay or go. In a completely non-patronizing way, I feel like he gave me permission to leave, gracefully.
Perhaps this was the most Christian thing to do, in the quaint old-fashioned sense of the term, used when someone takes care of a neighbor.
Something has become more and more clear: with each shift to a different type of Christianity, more of my black and white beliefs fell away, and the emotional intensity of my beliefs lessened. The good news, for me, was that I no longer had to believe in hell, that I didn’t have to divide humanity into categories based on one of many religions, that I could talk to my friends without the formerly ever-present agenda of evangelism, that I didn’t have to try to reconcile conflicting Bible passages and ideas of God’s nature anymore. It has been such a relief to shake these weights off, one by one.
As a teenager, I read Lee Strobel’s The Case for Faith, which contains an account of his interview with Charles Templeton. Templeton was a co-evangelist and friend of Billy Graham who gradually believed less and less of what he had once preached fervently, until eventually he left Christianity altogether.
Strobel writes of his surprise when Templeton, an agnostic, then in his 80s,, breaks into tears while talking about great his love for Jesus:
I was taken aback. “You sound like you really care about him,” I said.
“Well, yes, he is the most important thing in my life,” came his reply. “I . . . I . . . I . . . ,” he stuttered, searching for the right word, ‘I know it may sound strange, but I have to say . . . I adore him!” . . .
” . . . Everything good I know, everything decent I know, everything pure I know, I learned from Jesus. Yes . . . yes. And tough! Just look at Jesus. He castigated people. He was angry. People don’t think of him that way, but they don’t read the Bible. He had a righteous anger. He cared for the oppressed and exploited. There’s no question that he had the highest moral standard, the least duplicity, the greatest compassion, of any human being in history. There have been many other wonderful people, but Jesus is Jesus….’
“Uh . . . but . . . no,’ he said slowly, ‘he’s the most . . .” He stopped, then started again. “In my view,” he declared, “he is the most important human being who has ever existed.”
That’s when Templeton uttered the words I never expected to hear from him. “And if I may put it this way,” he said as his voice began to crack, ‘I . . . miss . . . him!”
I remember sharing Strobel’s surprise when I read this. I get it now.
Does a loss of belief mean a person has a hard heart, or a lack of emotion? Does it mean a person forgets the world within a world that he inhabited for years and years? Does a person forget what she used to believe with all her heart? Does a person forget the words of the hymns she sung as a child, or the feeling of peacefulness after prayer, or the thousands of other memories accrued?
Of course not. It is all there, intertwined with first kisses and essays on Milton and The Periodic Table and how to play chess and the time she almost threw up on her prom date and skinned elbows and early morning band practice and the moment she gave birth to her first child and her husband sobbed.
It’s all part of who I am.
If anything, a loss of belief shows how soft a person has let his heart be. It comes on the heels of serious consideration, the agony of deconstruction, the exhausting task of trying to find a way to make it all work and make sense again, perhaps repeated over and over. For me, this process has taken the better part of ten years.
Templeton remained a full human being, religion or no religion, as do I, as do the many people who find themselves unable to believe what they once did. He had his grief and he had his conscience, and it seems to me like he chose to go where his conscience demanded.
There are incredible folks, dear friends I know in real life and people I only know from their written words, who have found a home in various streams of Christianity. I continue to watch them and read their words with great interest, even with the sense that this particular path isn’t for me anymore. I admire how they are trying to affect change from the inside, and applaud their creativity. I still care about how Christianity navigates its way through different seasons of thought. There are so many good, precious people, and I never want to forget that. I never want to reduce something as wide, varied and rich as Christianity to less than what it is and has the potential to be.
There are no sides–there is humanity and the quest to make things better for all. There is kindness, and there is cruelty. There is hunger and there is food. There is ignorance and there is education. There is the trap of poverty and the hope and struggle for ways of escape. When humanity moves forward, away from a stubborn insistence on our differences and toward a realization that we have to take care of each other, that is truly good news.
I admire the kind of Christianity that participates in this process.
I have much to learn from Christianity still, as well as other systems of faith. I remember many things with tenderness and gratitude.
I sleep more soundly now, and pay greater attention to the world around me, and feel things I didn’t have space to feel before. I put trust in my intuition, and I’m more comfortable affirming myself and my children than before. I feel more connected to the rest of humanity. Doesn’t it make sense, that when you suspect this life may be all we have, that you savor it all the more, that you want to make the most of it, that it becomes of greatest importance that your people know of your great love for them?
There is sadness, but oh, there is relief.
I have to think more deeply and look more closely and feel more uncomfortable feelings. There are no pre-packaged explanations. There are unknowns, waiting to be known. I feel like I have to use a set of muscles that I didn’t even know existed until recently, and I notice that they are getting stronger.
Am I saying that I’m no longer a Christian? I suppose I am, in a plain and surface sense. But not to the extent that I no longer admire or learn from the life of Christ or the love of his followers. Not to the extent that I deny the part of my humanity that longs and aches and hopes for more. The part that wants to be connected to every living thing and see its purpose. The part that must kneel and kiss the ground, that must extend thanks to the great, wide out there. And most importantly, the part that recognizes that very same thing in my fellow human beings, whatever faith they practice, and longs to sit with them at one big table where there are enough seats for everyone.
That person? She has existed all along. I am only now discovering more of her.
(Your story, however it looks, is welcome here, in case you are of the mind to share it.)