While appropriate labels for my current personal ideological state might include “agnostic,” “non-believer”, “secularist”, or even “atheist” on days I’m feeling particularly resolute and fearless, I often refer to myself as “ex-Christian” when describing this blog. I even include it as a hashtag when I send new posts out via Twitter (as in, #exchristian--you’d be surprised how many people use it).
In one way, the term doesn’t really say much in that it reveals nothing of what I do believe, only what I do not: I do not believe that a personal/singular god actually exists and/or created the universe, I do not believe that Jesus of Nazareth (if he existed) was literally divine, and I don’t believe that Jesus had no human father or that he came back to life after having been completely dead. I also don’t believe in an afterlife, a heaven or hell, but I suppose those concepts aren’t necessarily unique to a Judeo-Christian faith.
When put like that, it all sounds quite negative, but the creed itself isn’t really the point of saying “exChristian”. I think that only describing my present beliefs with no mention of where I’ve come from would be disingenuous in that so much of where I am now in terms of worldview is undeniably shaped by where I’ve been. Though I am sometimes a bit ashamed of how I thought and acted as a tragically sheltered Evangelical, to refuse to admit the existence of that stage of my life would, I am fairly convinced, create an unhealthy chasm inside me. I could not truly grow, I could not truly move up and on, with my history denied. To love every part of myself is what I want to do, and it is what the Christianity I experienced would not allow; so, in order to reject the practice of dissociation that the church enforced, it seems I must, somewhat paradoxically, accept the church, or at least the fact that I was a part of it.
To be raised a Christian--especially an Evangelical-ish one--means so much more than to have held to a certain set of tenets. It is truly a sub-culture, hence its significance in my life. There is not an ethnic identity tied up with the religion as there is in, say, Judaism, but there is a lifestyle one learns when growing up Christian that goes way beyond just memorizing doctrine. It is a way of being in the world, and thus, as I’ve said above, it cannot simply be decided against on an intellectual level. And, the fact is, even if it were something for which I could just flip a switch, it’s not actually a culture that I’m totally against. Yes, there was some seriously unhealthy stuff, like getting in the habit of having to perpetually take inventory of one’s sins and wrongdoings, or an incredibly naive and even perilous view of sexuality, but along with all that also came so very valuable lessons and customs that I appreciate to this day.
Intimacy was a big deal in the church cultures of which I was a part. Granted, physical intimacy was super sketchy territory, but emotional depth in relationships of all kinds was encouraged and regularly practiced in the Christianity I knew. We always went deep with each other, and as a result I learned to expect soul-baring openness from just about everyone I met. I found this quick closeness readily in the schools I went to and the traveling I did, but most of these contexts were also church-affiliated. It wasn’t until I struck out on my own as both a full adult and a non-believer that I realized that most ‘real world’ acquaintances are rather shallow. Is this appropriate boundary holding, or is it learned fear? (Also, is it just L.A.?) I don’t know, because it’s hard for me to gauge what’s “normal” given my upbringing, but I can say I do miss feeling known.
I also miss community service and volunteerism being a topic of conversation and a part of the schedule on a regular basis. For as much destructive behavior as people pull in the name of Christ in this country (and throughout history), most churches--at least in my experience--are constantly conversing about and acting on taking care of their neighbors. Serving the surrounding world in this kind of way is expected of Christians, as it is expected in many religions, and it is prioritized. In the secular world, volunteerism is expected of young people--usually in the interest of bolstering a college application--and that’s often where it ends. Yes, I know many many people who make great contributions in terms of time and money to a variety of social welfare-type endeavors, but I wonder if I happen to know them because I seek them out. I’m not sure what percentage of a-religious families raise their children to be constantly thinking about what good deed might be done in any given situation, and I’m not sure if that’s even a totally healthy attitude, but I do often marvel at how infrequently the topic enters into my conversations since leaving the fold.
Finally--though it’s certainly not the only other thing that springs from Christian culture--I’m grateful for the fact that I was trained to see the sacred in everything. Okay, not literally everything; there is certainly a dualism in much of Christian thinking that does not see all things on earth as holy or potentially holy, and I’m not talking about pantheism either. What I mean is that I was taught to use my Christian lens at all times, with every interaction or experience in the world, and thus I was taught to find meaning or significance in all things. Each long line at the grocery store was a lesson from a God trying to teach me patience; each gorgeous cloud formation a love letter to me from up above. Now, do I actually think that every single event or object in this life is a message? No. (I might have back in my church days.) But there is a kind of mindfulness to the Christian way of approaching life that I find heartwarming, and that served as a useful bridge into an exploration of Buddhism when the time was right.
The work of sussing out which parts of Christian culture serve me and which parts hold me back, which parts I want to continue to cultivate and which ones I want to let die, might end up being a lifelong task. But I think it’s not that different than the work a person might do in regards to the culture of their family of origin: it’s all about becoming the kind of person you want to be, and staying open and humble to the fact that wisdom in that regard might come from a variety of different places. To say so definitively that I am an “ex-Christian” is a type of severing, and it is also a type of holding on. Hopefully the holding-on part is healthy, at least for now. After all, while I write this blog for everyone who cares to read it, the audience that inspires me is not those who never had an attachment to religion in the first place but those who struggle to leave it behind because it means so much, regardless of metaphysical convictions. So to say I am an “ex-Christian” is to say that I have been there, and I haven’t forgotten what it’s like, and I’m willing to talk about the process of walking away, and I’m willing reminisce if that’s what feels right.