A God By Any Other Name

I’m currently reading through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. It’s a book I started for the first time about five years ago, but I didn’t get too far into it before I met the man who would eventually become my spouse and I got distracted. You know how it goes. In any case, I’m in the midst of some big life changes, specifically of the vocational variety, so I figured I’d give it another go. 

This time around, something struck me that I hadn’t noticed before. Something annoying.

Don’t get me wrong; I love this book. Every time I read even a small section of it, something good happens. Some sort of personal growth takes place, and, more often than not, I get a decent piece of writing going. But it’s not without its problems. 

What’s bugging me about it is the same thing that’s also been bugging me about what used to be my favorite podcast: the championing of the supposedly enlightened proposition that whenever people refer to “God”, what they’re really talking about is [insert generic idea about energy/life force/ineffable-but-benevolent-power-behind-the-universe here]. In other words, the idea that Person X’s “God” is always able to be switched out for Person Y’s generic energy/life force/power and nothing important is lost in the translation.

One example of this sentiment is found in the Introduction to The Artist’s Way. Cameron writes, 

When the word God is used in these pages, you may substitute the thought good orderly direction or flow. What we are talking about is creative energy. God is useful shorthand for many of us, but so is Goddess, Mind, Universe, Source, and Higher Power… The point is not what you name it. The point is that you try using it.

Similarly, in the podcast I mentioned above, the host--a former Evangelical Christian--has said a number of times in recent months that he believes (my own word choice, here and following) that when people, including Evangelicals, use the word “God”, they are ultimately referring to a force or energy that underlies and influences our world. If I remember correctly, he’s also said that what they mean is something like ‘the mystery’ behind things.

That’s a lovely attempt at some semblance of reconciliation between disparate worldviews, but it simply isn’t true. That’s not what Evangelical Christians are referring to, and this guy should know better than anyone. As for Cameron’s instructions regarding “the word God” that are quoted above, well, sure, a non-theistic person might use the suggested substitutions in the interest of making the Way work, but it’s also disingenuous to call the name God “useful shorthand” and to suggest that “God” is a name we give.

God is a name that is given to us to use; it’s a name that we are taught. I didn’t make it up or choose it, nor did I ever, ever use it as shorthand. When people say “God” with a capital G, they are referring to a distinct, unique being. That’s what--or rather who--I was always referring to, as were my fellow congregants. Not only that, but we would have been actively offended had you equated our God to a force or energy. Get out of here with that New Age liberal bullshit, Satan. 

“God” is God’s name. It’s not a common noun. Like any proper name, it’s a collection of sounds put together to indicate a specific individual, and you don’t just get to change the meaning of it in order to find some common ground with other humans who actually do believe very different things than you, or in the interest of unlocking some cosmic but nondenominational secret that will help a person figure out her life.

If you’re familiar with my work, you might be wondering why I seem to be so vehemently  defending and even angry on behalf of Evangelical Christians with regard to this issue. Do I really care about taking the Lord’s name in vain? Hear me out. 

What bugs me so much is not that a good number of Christians would be hurt or erased by this misidentification, but the implications and repercussions this bad habit has for the rest of us.

First, when we refuse to take those who believe in the ‘traditional’ Christian God at their word--when we refuse to be honest with ourselves about what it is they truly do believe--we are hurt, the world is hurt, because we sweep the toxic stuff under the rug in our attempt to present a tidy, objective world. 

When we say that what monotheists (especially those of the conservative Christian variety)  “really mean” by “God” is some impersonal, de-religionized force, it belies the fact that many of them do in fact follow divisive, even abusive doctrine. For many of these people, their God has very particular rules that need to be followed. For many of these people, their God will actually judge you and maybe outright reject you based on whether you followed those rules. 

So no, they do not really mean ‘flow’. They do not really mean ‘mystery’. They mean God, as in the actual being in the Bible. And it’s important that we stop offering them unsolicited (and definitely unearned) euphemisms just so we can feel better about what our neighbors are thinking.

Second, watering down or generalizing the meaning of “God” in direct opposition to certain Christians’ explicitly stated theology only adds implicit agreement to their habit of doing the same thing to those of us who aren’t believers. 

Any ex-Evangelical, ex-fundamentalist, or ex-Christian who’s been open about their departure from the tradition with those who are still in the fold can tell you what a maddening and dehumanizing experience it is to be told some version of either (1) you’re just lost/confused/doubting but Jesus is still in your heart so you’ll find your way back to the church someday, or (2) you must never have been a believer in the first place. 

Hearing either of these responses sucks because they both presume to know better than I do about what’s going on in my own heart and head. It sucks because it is someone else saying, “I know for a fact that you were or are wrong about what you yourself believe,” which denies my intelligence and autonomy.

While I wouldn’t necessarily mind giving Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians a little taste of their own medicine in this regard, I don’t think it helps the rest of us in our own pursuit of being respected in this way. I want others to operate on the assumption that I am capable of knowing what my own beliefs are, so I will offer them the same basic respect. It doesn’t mean that I agree with their beliefs; it means I believe that they believe them.

Maybe there is still a part of me that’s defensive on behalf of my old Christian self. She wanted to be taken seriously, too, and it takes a lot of effort not to judge her using information she just didn’t have at the time.

There’s also a part of me that does think, albeit presumptuously, that all religions are myopic human attempts to picture the same huge, invisible thing and “God” as a concept is one way of doing that.

So I get it. I get the urge to do what Cameron’s doing, what this podcaster is doing, what I’ve seen and heard probably hundreds of people do. There is a wanting to understand someone else’s understanding, a craving to find common vocabulary, a desire to put together the all-inclusive puzzle, to see how it all works. But isn’t that just as imposing as the monotheism you refuse to acknowledge as real because you don’t agree with it? Or, maybe you’re embarrassed by it?

The Christians who are fundamental about their God, the ones who are most certainly referring to a single being in the sky--they have their own puzzle, and it necessitates, for most of them, the death and resurrection of Jesus, acceptance of the inherent unworthiness of humans, the omnipotence, omnipresence, and omnibenevolence of God, and so on. No matter your thoughts on how that belief system came to be or why, from a psychological- or anthropological-type standpoint, anyone would follow it, that is the truth of their perspective.

In light of that, can the name “God” mean anything we want it to? I’m not sure, but I am concerned that even if the answer is yes, we’re often too forgetful or dismissive of its most traditional (and still utilized) denotation in our culture.

All I’m saying its, let’s be honest about these things. How will we make progress in our debates, in our compromises, in our society (especially this American one that’s so heavily influenced by conservative Christians) if we are not aware enough and secure enough to acknowledge our reality for what it is?

What Is Love?

We act as if the definition of love is, to borrow words from one notorious explorer of the subject, a truth universally acknowledged. We say that all you need is love. We reassure each other that love trumps hate. I have the word “love” tattooed three times in a row on my forearm (having been taught that in Hebrew, a word appearing thrice in succession is a mode of emphasis indicating wholeness or perfection.)

And we all kind of know--or we assume that we all kind of know--what is meant.

In general, I think we do. I think there is indeed a collective, perhaps hackneyed but no less agreed upon understanding of love amongst folks in our society. It is rather indistinct, of course. As with many abstract concepts, if you were to ask a random person on the street to explain “love”, they would likely have an easier time using synonyms than settling on a denotation. Love is...care. Love is adoration. Love is loyalty, love is affection. Love is commitment, love is sacrifice, love is devotion. 

Love is something we understand, basically. To be sure, English is sparse on words that more precisely get at the different kinds of love one might experience (romantic love, for instance, friendship, and so on) but those of us operating in this linguistic bubble seem to be doing alright conceding to a string of somewhat anemic approximates for the sake of establishing common ground. It’s when we get out of the abstract and into the praxis, however, that things can sometimes start to get a little shaky. 

Thankfully, it’s probably more often than not that an action I take that’s intended to be loving is also felt as loving by the person who’s receiving it. I give my younger brother a big hug as a gesture of my affection, and he feels loved by me as a result. I buy my co-worker an iced coffee because I want her to know she is cared for, and when she gets the coffee, she does. This is all well and good. In these moments, we don’t sense any need to make our definitions of love explicit; we assume we’re on the same page, and it turns out we are.

But what about when we’re not? Sometimes, a person takes an action that they believe to be loving--that they would insist is them being loving, or expressing their love--that does not feel like love to the person on the receiving end of it. I think of a parent spanking their child, and saying that they do it because they love them (as my parents did with me). I also think of a church trying to cast the ‘demon of homosexuality’ out of a young man because they believe being gay is an abomination, which is something that has happened to more than one person I know. In both instances, disparate as they are, you have folks imposing a version of “love” that does not, in its manifestation, match the definition we count upon sharing. In fact, it is beyond a mismatch--it is the opposite of love; it is abuse. 

How can this be? How can a person use the word “love” as a label for something that does all harm and no good? How does a person not see that this violent action that they’ve convinced themselves is loving is in fact only an expression (and perpetuation) of their own fear and pain? 

When I was young, I was taught that loving people meant telling them about the salvific power of Jesus. I believed that anyone who died having not accepted Jesus into their heart was guaranteed an eternity of terror and torment. So of course I, being a loving person, felt a great burden to share with folks the Good News (and to argue them into accepting it, should they find it ridiculous, as many of those to whom I proselytized did.) Again and again, throughout my adolescence, I mustered the courage to tell any unbeliever I could about the way to heaven. Were they annoyed? Often. Did I care? Not really. On the contrary, their exasperation only made me more desperate to convince them. I believed I was acting in love, that I was literally saving people’s lives. I believed that love could mean denouncing someone, and even threatening them with permanent condemnation, if I was doing it because I had special knowledge of what was best for them in the long run.

I’m embarrassed that I did those things. I try to make up for it now in some small way by writing about all of the religious foolishness I was caught up in back then. Much more difficult than understanding why I was such a pesky little Christian, however, is coming to terms with the premise from which I was working, the one mentioned above: “anyone who died having not accepted Jesus into their hearts was guaranteed an eternity of terror and torment.” What we have here is not just the idea that my love, as a believer, needed to look like evangelism, but that central to God’s love was sending people to hell if they didn’t accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Putting aside the fact that hell as it’s generally conceived of is not actually Biblical, if we’re working from Western society’s “hell” archetype--which is the theology I inherited--then what I’m saying is the Evangelical Christianity in which I grew up taught me that God’s “perfect” love necessitated that those who didn’t accept or believe in him would be tortured in perpetuity. 

Often this was framed as God “allowing” those who rejected the Gospel to go to hell. Somehow that was supposed to make it more palatable (of course palatable doesn’t really matter if you’ve been brainwashed into this so-called logic since infancy.) In other words, “love” meant giving the people what they wanted--if they heard the Word and still said “No”, then what they wanted was hell; love was giving it to them. This was also a nice way of affirming free will, which was a fairly foundational tenet in the tradition in which I was raised. And in your so-called free will, you were presented with a pretty straightforward choice: become a Christian to enjoy total forgiveness for all of your wrongdoings plus residency in heaven for time infinite, or don’t become a Christian and maybe have some superficially fun hedonistic years, but ultimately you’ll be handed over to Satan.

I believed this set-up was somehow love--perfect love. And for a variety of reasons (mostly having to do with being indoctrinated into submissiveness) I didn’t have the wherewithal to bring some serious inquiry to it until I was well into adulthood. When I finally got to that point, after years of brushing off the concerned and incredulous voices of non-believers, I started to wonder: if God’s love is the most perfect version of love, then shouldn’t it be exponentially better than the love of a human? And, if even wildly imperfect humans would not, if they could at all help it, allow loved ones who reject or ignore them to experience literal torture as a consequence, then shouldn’t God be infinitely more unlikely to act in such a way?

My conclusion was yes. Yes, this supposedly loving God should act in ways that we humans know to be loving, and should do it better than we could ever imagine. Hell is not compatible with love. I realized this, and the expertly-packed Jenga tower that was my belief in the Christian God lost an essential block. But I don’t want to get too far into the long story of the toppling of my faith in this post. My point here is that not everything that we call “love” is in fact love. Because of the nebulous nature of the concept, it can be easy to reason that there’s some relativity to it, and we (or at least I) tend to want to give people the benefit of the doubt regarding their intentions. But maybe, even if someone believes they’re being loving through what is actually a damaging action, it’s time to push back. Maybe we need to get a bit more strict about what we allow people to classify as “love”.

In 1992, Dr. Gary Chapman published a book called The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate. The premise of the text, according to the book’s website, “is simple: different people with different personalities express love in different ways.” When we learn about how we give and receive love, and how the people around us give and receive love, our relationships will “strengthen and improve.” Dr. Chapman proposes that there are five love “languages”--words of affirmation, acts of service, gift giving, quality time, and physical touch. Typically, each person has one or two languages with which they primarily express love, and one or two languages through which they feel most loved (or “receive love”, as the lingo goes). Figure out how you show love, how you feel love, and how the people with whom you’re in relationship do the same, and “you can learn to identify the root of your conflicts, give and receive love in more meaningful ways, and grow closer than ever.”

There is some merit here. After all, the book was and continues to be on the New York Times Best Sellers list, which doesn’t necessarily speak to its quality but does speak to its felt relevance. It clearly struck a nerve. I happen to know it well because it was big in the Evangelical scene (Dr. Chapman is a pastor and religious ‘counselor’, with 2 of his 3 graduate degrees, including his PhD, being from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) and the idea behind the book truly did have therapeutic power for me and many people I know. 

I learned that there are different ways of loving--genuine loving--that we can be open to, and maybe should be open to. I came to understand that some combination of our innate personalities and the environments we grew up in will mean we don’t always express ourselves, our love, in ways that immediately make sense to those with whom we interact. But if I can recognize that, say, my partner folding my laundry for me is them showing me love, even if I would have felt love more immediately had they told me something they really appreciate about me, then I can avoid going straight to the place in my mind that is insecure about their motivations. It is important to partner with someone whose love languages are compatible with yours--I would think, assuming there’s any truth to this idea--but we can also, through this lens, learn to have more compassion for those whose actions are mysterious to us. 

This is also where the danger creeps in, though. In our desire to understand each other and be understood, as evidenced by the Love Languages phenomenon, we can become a bit too broad with what we accept as love. Or maybe I’m veering into victim-blaming here. Maybe I should say that there are people, sometimes whole groups of people, who take advantage of our eagerness to come together and embrace each other in all our subjectivity. While it can be helpful to validate a variety of love expressions, as the idea of Love Languages does, we have to remember that, at the same time, not all expressions of “love” as defined by the actor are valid. Who’s to say that someone’s not using that word incorrectly? It can’t mean just anything. Even the person-on-the-street definitions that I threw out earlier all fall under a wide but decidedly bounded umbrella of interpretation.

So then, what is love?

This is where I get stuck, because my first thought is, somewhat ironically, Who am I to define it? I immediately go back to its subjectivity, despite all that I just wrote about the dangers therein. But then that just leaves space for others to define it in ways that are toxic, which is the problem.

And it’s true that love is not always pleasant for the one being loved. Young children have good but frustrating boundaries imposed on them all the time by people who want them to stay safe and unspoiled. When a close friend calls us out on our ignorant or unkind behavior, it stings, even if we want to know the truth. I’m not saying that if we’re going to call something love, we’d best make sure it’s an action that everyone enjoys. What I am saying, I guess, is that we don’t have to agree. 

Consensus is nice; tolerance is nice--in a certain way of thinking. These are virtues in a liberal society. But they are also often used in the interest of maintaining the status quo, a surface-level peace, which then ends up obscuring a multitude of sins. All I know is that I and so many people in this world, especially people who have encountered Evangelical Christianity in one way or another, have been deeply damaged--and I mean significantly harmed--by people professing love but acting out abuse. This isn’t unique to some segments of the church, of course; it is core to abusive systems: telling someone that the nefarious thing you’re doing is love. Wherever it comes from, it thrives on silence, on people being too nice to stand their ground and say, “That’s not love.”

I am often silent because I dread the thought of making someone feel bad. I’ve also been silent for fear that I won’t find healthy love somewhere else. I have settled for insufficient love again and again because at least someone was saying they loved me. At least someone was accepting me, as long as I accepted the terms of their “love”. I’ve thought that I should take what I can get, because what if I walk away from it to look for something better but something better never comes along? What if that idea of love we’ve all agreed on, nebulous as it is, is just too good to be true in the end?

There are a lot of reasons to settle, to be scared, to not speak out. It’s easy to give up on holding strong boundaries around what is acceptable love. We become exhausted fighting off those who, aware of what they are doing or not, keep trying to take advantage of its semantic elasticity. But it just so happens that I have the energy right now, so I will take this opportunity to say that I may not always be able to articulate exactly what love is, but I do know what it’s not. 

Love is not ignoring people’s autonomy. Love is not threatening people into obedience, or forcing it through violence. Love is not demeaning people’s intelligences by insisting they don’t know what’s true or good for them. Love is not rejecting and condemning people’s natural identities, especially those related to sex and gender. Love is not seeing others’ selves as things to be conquered or won. Love is not telling people they’re inherently bad, and unacceptable to their creator.

We do not have to accept these things as love, nor do we have to agree to perpetuate them. If it feels off, the version of love you’re being told you must receive or you must enact, it probably is. 

You do know what real love is, in your heart or in your mind--I think we all do. And we need to offer it to ourselves as much as anyone else. Care for yourself. Adore yourself. Be loyal to and affectionate with yourself. Be committed and devoted to what’s best for you. Be forgiving of yourself when you do these things imperfectly (because you certainly will), and don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you have to accept a “love” that does the opposite of these things, to you or anyone else.

Too Good For Grace

    The words in the second half of this sentence will likely induce a little laughter in those who know me well, but the truth is that I’ve never seen myself as a perfectionist.

   To me, perfectionism is not being okay with getting a 98% on a test, whereas I have always been fine with whatever gets me an A, even if that score is less than 100. To me, perfectionists keep a clean room, and a clean car, and a clean lap when they’re eating. I am messy in all of these areas, and pretty much clumsy in general. I do need to be seen as capable, as among the best at work or school, but I’ve never been conscious of needing to be seen as actually perfect. “Perfect”, to me, has never felt achievable.

    That said, as an Evangelical Christian, I was also never okay with actually needing grace. I’m not sure how many of us truly were, or are. Yes, the whole religion--or vague-ish sect, if we’re talking specifically about Evangelical theology--is based on our fundamental need for God’s saving grace. “Saving” in the literal sense, of course, for without it none of us is capable of being good enough to earn entry into Heaven. And yet I was also regularly bombarded with intense guilt trips about how my sins either angered God, broke God’s heart, or, my personal favorite, nailed Jesus to the cross one more time.

    It was a strange dichotomy: I knew I wasn’t capable of being perfect, but it seemed like I wasn’t allowed to mess up, either. No matter how many times I was reassured of God’s unconditional love, the message was belied by a very vocal focus on all we could possibly be doing wrong, and making sure we were constantly asking for forgiveness, which was apparently a necessary part of the “unconditional love” equation.

    Somewhere along the way, probably very early on, my goal became to need as little of God’s grace as possible. I was not conscious of this, either; I just didn’t want to feel bad. I didn’t want to carry the shame of needing grace at all, and it was shameful to be a messed up human in the Christian church. On the other hand, if you were a good disciple (no premarital sex, no law-breaking, no cussing, etc., etc.) you were commended and thoroughly accepted by the group. Over time, never having to apologize became my highest priority. Of course, being raised female I was apologizing right and left for every silly little thing, but that was more socialized manners than real repentance--and, in fact, being willing to say “I’m sorry” for things that didn’t actually require an apology was a pretty effective way of keeping myself in good standing with the world.

    I never wanted to owe anyone anything, because I had never learned that it was possible for people to still love me if I wasn’t getting things right. I was too scared to take the risk of finding out. I never learned that my imperfections actually weren’t that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things, and that, in general, people are understanding of a lot. Basically, I never learned that it was okay for me to screw up. I had no idea that I had value beyond being dependable. To this day, I still struggle to believe that I do.

    I wasn’t until I left Evangelicalism, and Christianity on the whole--until I got out into the real world, that is--that I noticed that plenty of people were living lives that depended on others’ being okay with their flaws and annoying habits. People were saying mean things sometimes, and missing things at work sometimes, and making selfish decisions sometimes, and they weren’t pariahs; they just had to be okay with needing their friends and family and co-workers to forgive them, and they had to be assuming, on a certain level, for the sake of getting on with life, that they needn’t be perpetually ashamed of being less than good.

    One day it dawned on me: I, as a Christian, was so much less accepting of grace and so much less willing to rely on it than these heathens I'd been taught were living in perpetual terror of dying unredeemed. I was the one living in terror, despite having a worldview in which the joy of my salvation was supposed to be my greatest strength.

    How pathetically ironic, right? Even worse, how hypocritical. But it wasn’t my fault, I don’t think. Forget whatever loving acceptance your local congregation is pitching on its church sign. The dark truth is that those of us who grow up in conservative communities are taught not to be okay with being less than pure. We are shamed. The pain and sorrow and weight of Jesus’s crucifixion is handed over as our burden to bear, regardless of how antithetical that seems to the whole point of God’s sacrifice in the first place.

    The truth needs to be told: we weren’t offered unconditional grace. And we were bullied into being the enemies of ourselves. We were taught to self-scrutinize without mercy, to dig around for all the manifestations of our inherent evil. We were taught that we were not lovable unless we earned that love. And the only way to earn that love was to never screw up.

    But here’s the thing, and here’s my reason for writing about it at all--it’s a lie. I want to tell you, fellow raised-Evangelicals, that I jumped the fence and found a place where folks know that nobody’s perfect, and they think it’s ridiculous to expect anybody to be. Where as long as everybody’s allowed to make a mistake now and then, and as long as you’re willing to learn from it and apologize, it’s all good. It’s called ‘not Church’. It’ll take a while to unlearn all the bad habits, maybe even the rest of your life. That’s okay, though. As Lewis Carroll wrote, “We’re all mad here.”