I’ve had two conversations over the last few months that were more or less triggered (in a good way) by this blog. Both were with friends, and both were with friends who sympathize, to one extent or another, with my story. The conversations were quite different in terms of content, but similarly related to an overall theme: the unique and complicated nature of any given human’s personal journey. Of course, there are commonalities to the human experience that most if not all of us can relate to--if it were not so, art would be pointless--but there are also specific, important ways in which life turns out differently for each of us because of what we are born with and into. Those differences are what I want to look into now.
The first of the two aforementioned conversations happened soon after I published my post about why I stopped going to church. A friend whom I have known for about a year, and who is involved with a church, sent me a message saying that he expected this rejection of ecclesiastical connection would not be the end of my spiritual journey. He was very respectful with his language and made it clear that he was not writing with any intention toward proselytizing, only in the interest of sharing his thoughts based on his own experience. I agreed with his prediction--and do still agree--but only in the sense that, yes, I sure as hell hope this moment is not the final destination. I’ll be thirty-five this year, and that seems far too young to stop growing. However, I don’t think the next step (or any future step) for me will be going back to church. And not only do I not think I’ll be going back to church, I actively hope I don’t end up back there, too. For an empowered female who’s tired of spending time and energy worshipping a supposedly loving but also seemingly manipulative--not to mention unsubstantiated--deity, it would mean a kind of death of self that I don’t think is appropriate or progressive. Of course, that said, as a big-picture thinker I also want to be humble and realistic when talking to someone who is older than I, whose path is further trod. In any area of my life, including the religious, I want to know what I don’t know and be aware of the limitations of my vision.
The second conversation happened only a few weeks ago, and took place with a friend with whom I have been close since college. Though we have lived in different states since graduating more than a decade ago, she recently relocated to within a couple hour’s drive of my current city. Like me, she was a devout church-goer for a significant amount of time in her youth, and also like me, she has since walked away from certain aspects of the faith. We were talking about the damage that Evangelicalism can do to a person who is indoctrinated in their early years, such as shaping warped ideas of sexuality, or fostering a judgmental, legalistic lens through which to view the world. Then, a number of people came to my mind--people with whom she and I are both friends and who also continue to be dedicated church members. The people of whom I was thinking are all open-minded, impressively kind, extremely intelligent humans who, honestly, you would not necessarily have any clue are confessing Christians unless you aksed them. I mentioned these others to the friend with whom I was talking, and asked what the difference is between us and them, that they would continue to find such a fruitful life in the church and that she and I would not.
A couple of options came to mind. The first is that, for the most part, these other people are involved in--and in some instances, have been for their whole lives--the Episcopalian denomination, which tends to be quite liberal and oriented toward social justice. But, as those of you who have been reading this blog since the beginning know, I myself had been participating in an Episcopalian congregation for almost seven years when I decided to quit church altogether. Clearly, breed of church is not the only factor here. The other option, to me, is a bit of a compilation of reasons: differences in personality, upbringing, and general life experience that all add up to me not being able to stand a religious service anymore versus those friends still feeling the conviction, still feeling at home there in the sanctuary. Of course neither of these situations is automatically better or worse than the other, but humans do have an unfortunate tendency to read hierarchy into contrast, and thus I’m often left wondering “what’s wrong with me” after a conversation like the one described above.
“What’s wrong with me” is a question good Evangelical girls are trained to ask in a variety of scenarios, as opposed to, say, “What’s wrong with this situation?” Thankfully, I’ve been skeptical of the church for long enough at this point to remember to turn to the latter question when I catch myself asking the former. So, whether I’m figuring out how to respond to Christians who struggle to imagine having no desire to be a part of a religious institution, or wondering why some people I deeply respect and humbly admire remain devout believers as I sit over here worrying that my heresy is just stupid pride, I see so clearly (and therefore try to believe) that we really do each have our own path. It’s cheesy, but it’s true. This is not to discount the wisdom a person who has gone before us might have to offer, but it is to say that what seems like wisdom on the surface simply because it is precedent is sometimes not much more than an experiential knowledge of the way things have always been done. Thus evolution--the forging of a new, more well-adapted path--in the individual and maybe even in society might itself have a deceptive outward appearance of naivete, of a dysfunction or a gap in ability, when in reality improvements are being made to the system under the surface.
The lesson I see here for the ex-/questioning Christian is this: do not be swayed by those who would compare you to themselves, and do not be swayed when tempted to compare yourselves to others. Comparison is natural; it ensnares the best of us, and it even occasionally has its helpful place. Unfortunately, those of us who are deeply concerned with doing "the right thing" (a personality type particularly attracted to religious endeavors, it’s worth noting) are uniquely vulnerable to comparison’s unhelpful repercussions. Despite all of this, I am compelled to say: believe in the path you are on. Just because it looks and moves differently than others’ does not mean it is wrong. If it feels like freedom and smells like freedom and sounds like freedom, it is probably freedom--not necessarily for everyone else, but for you, and that’s what we’re talking about now. An oft-quoted verse in my home church was one straight from the mouth of Jesus: “It is for freedom that I have set you free.” Ironically--or perhaps appropriately, given that Jesus himself did not seem give two fucks about maintaining organized religion--those words were the first I thought of when I realized I was done being a Christian, and I knew that, despite how foolish it might have seemed to everyone else, I had never experienced this freedom like I experienced it when I didn’t believe in God anymore.