At the very moment I decided I did not want to be a Christian anymore, the first thought I had was, “This is what Paul meant by freedom.” Paul as in the Apostle Paul, that is, and freedom...well, I’ll get into that soon. Before I do, two things: first, yes, analyzing my de-conversion experience in light of a Bible verse is pretty ironic. I get it. To a certain extent, orienting every decision and event in my life vis a vis God and the Bible is a habit I might never break out of. But those words I spoke to myself at the instance of my deconversion were more than a Pavlovian response. I felt it, and still do believe it: that, at least for those of us who grew up in the church, being “born again” and stepping into “salvation” might actually mean leaving behind religion; that, perhaps, choosing to walk away from Christianity was actually what God (if there is a God) wanted me to do. It felt so good to finally say “no thank you” to believing, how could it be wrong?
The second thing, which is somewhat similar to the first, is that I fully understand there might be no point in caring what Paul or Jesus or God think of me leaving Christianity when the act of leaving is itself a statement of disbelief in their authority and authenticity. Still, I reckon that exploring the subject of what Jesus was really leading people toward exposes a very significant issue for church-loving Christians: Jesus’ seeming apathy (even antagonism) toward the religious establishment in which he found himself (Judaism), and what that says about what he might say about the existence of organized Christianity today. And, since it was unresolved and even unacknowledged contradictions such as this one that left me no choice but to leave the church, I do feel that what Jesus’ goal really was for his followers is a question that merits examination in the context of this blog.
Now with those points covered, let’s move on to unpacking this Pauline idea of “freedom”. For those who had better things to do with the Sunday mornings of their youth than study and practice a completely anachronistic belief system, allow me to explain the reference in more detail. The Apostle Paul was a Jewish man who lived around the same time as Jesus. Jesus was of course put to death at a young-ish age by the Roman government, so Paul, as well as many other of Jesus’ followers, outlived Jesus by some years. Over the course of those years, Paul essentially founded the religion of Christianity. Yes, Christianity is centered around and takes its name from the man Jesus Christ, but it was Paul who wrote the book on it (quite literally). See, he had been spending his time actively punishing followers of Jesus because he believed Jesus to be a heretic, but then he had a kind of conversion experience just after Jesus was gone. After that, he did a 180 and started going around preaching about how Jesus’ death and resurrection were actually the newer, truer way to Jehovah instead. He also wrote a lot of letters about Jesus' purpose to various Jesus-worshipping communities in the near-East/Mediterranean area, and these letters became a big chunk of what we now call the New Testament. In those letters, he basically created the theology upon which the eventually formalized religion of Christianity was built. In other words, Paul interpreted Jesus for the masses.
One of those letters was to an early “Christian” community in a place called Galatia, located in what is now Turkey. That letter became the book of the Bible that is called “Galatians”, and in it Paul writes, “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery” (New American Standard Translation). In context, Paul was trying to convince Jews who believed Jesus was the messiah that the gentiles around them who also wanted to follow Jesus’ example did not have to convert to Judaism (i.e. get circumcised and all that) in order to experience salvation. See, many Jewish people saw Jesus as a part of their religious and ethnic lineage (because he was) so to truly follow him, in their eyes, a non-Jewish person would have to convert to Judaism. Makes sense, right? Jesus was the messiah for whom the Jews had been waiting; there was no “Christianity” yet--at least not in the way we think of it today, as a religion separate from Judaism. According to Paul, however, as we see in this letter to the Galatians, Jesus’ message (and God’s offer of salvation) was not bound by the Law of Moses, which is what he’s referring to when he writes “slavery”. On the contrary, Paul said, it is open to ALL people regardless of their belief system or culture of origin. What a thing! There are a lot of issues I have with Pauline theology, but this widening of the scope of God’s love and acceptance is not one of them.
So, that’s Paul and that’s the letter and verse from which my first post-deconversion thought came. One of the reasons that phrase came to my mind is that that verse about Christ’s offer of freedom is a common refrain in the Evangelical church. Over and over and over again, throughout my childhood and young adult life, I heard the words, “It is for freedom that you have been set free” (or, “...that Christ has set you free”, depending on the speaker) thrown at me passionately from the pulpit. But what was meant by it in my contemporary context, especially given that it was rarely--if ever--discussed using its historical context? Honestly, I had no idea. That being a Christian meant being happier than non-Christians so put on a smile, I guess. Or, that we should rejoice because God was more easily able to forgive us for breaking the rules since Jesus died. Okay, I could see that, more or less. But there's still the question of what we were free from. What was the metaphorical (if hyperbolically so) “yoke of slavery” to which we need not be tied, since by now Christianity has been separate from Judaism for so long that the issue of conversion to Judaism is largely irrelevant? Well in the churches I grew up going to, this “slavery” was interpreted as The World--sex, drugs, and rock and roll. “Slavery” was the temptation to do wrong, to go against God’s will, the sticky spider’s web of self-destruction and darkness that one gets caught in by default when one doesn’t know God. Thus, when we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we are suddenly free not to sin, whereas when we do not have Jesus, we are unable to control our evil ways no matter how much we might want to stop.
If that idea seems a little confusing, it’s because it is. But just as it was with the rest of my decades of brainwashing, my young mind found a way to make it make sense, to take it at face value. I couldn’t--and can’t--quite explain it, yet I glommed onto it and repeated it regardless. Except, of course, for one glaring thing: the people I knew who were not compelled to follow the rules of the church did not seem “enslaved” to their “sinful” behavior (unhealthy habits and addictions aside, of course). Rather, they seemed to be the free ones. And they did not seem free simply because they were not subject to the same list of rules on paper; they seemed free in a larger sense, because they were living without the belief that a strict and powerful super-being was always watching them, that existentially there was something they were “supposed” to be doing or not doing as the case may be. While we Evangelicals were assuming their revelry and relative contentment was all an act to cover a deep well of Satan-based suffering, they were feeling sorry for us because we were tight-ass killjoys. And we were! We pretended to have fun, with our version of ‘music’ and our non-alcoholic drinks and our performances of chastity, but we cared too much about the most profoundly insignificant things. We were--or at least, I was--not free from anything. I was bound to a law-lined narrow path, holy as it was.
Given that, what was it that actually felt like “freedom” when I finally took the plunge? You guessed it: leaving Christianity. Because Christianity, as a religion, in my opinion, is ultimately irrelevant. It’s not that it can’t be enjoyed or prove meaningful for anyone, but one doesn’t need to belong to it to do the right thing; and, quite frankly, I find that it’s kind of an obstacle to enjoying life. At least the version that I grew up in is. It’s just riddled with guilt and judgment and restrictions and walls--the kinds of walls, it seems to me, that Jesus did not give a fuck about when he was walking this earth, other than when he went out of his way to tear them down. Evangelicals like to talk a big game about fighting against the power of the Pharisees (the religious zealots of Biblical times), of “hanging out with the prostitutes and tax collectors, like Jesus did”, but Evangelicals ARE the Pharisees of today. It’s really pretty obvious, and it has baffled me for years now that they can actually, with a straight face, use language that implies they are not.
Paul said that it was for our “freedom” that Christ died and was resurrected, that Jesus did that so we might be free. In context, Paul meant free from the demands of the Judaic religious law, and from its traditional, rigid path to salvation. What is the religious law from which one needs to be liberated if one grows up in the modern Christian church, though? I think it's Christianity. What, ultimately, was the thing that was ensnaring me? Christianity. What was simultaneously making me think too highly and too lowly of myself? Christianity. On the other hand, where was the freedom to love myself and others without judgment or boundary? Outside of Christianity. And where did I find the sense of liberation that I had been hearing for years was supposed to come from the church but never quite came for me? Outside of Christianity.
So, maybe it doesn’t matter what Paul thought of how Jesus’ message could be accessed when neither of those men hold any significance for me these days past the academic. And when I say that leaving the church was my way to “salvation”, of course that word becomes silly without faith to give it weight. But justifying my rejection of Christianity via Christianity lends the transition some psychological lubricant, which is no small thing given how tightly entwined I was in the church community and what it’s cost me to walk away. Perhaps there is someone out there living with the inkling that they’d be happier outside of religion and too scared of doing the wrong thing to take the leap. I understand, completely. And, I also want to offer the possibility that the goodness and freedom you keep waiting to find in the institution might just be waiting for you outside its very walls.