Saturday, March 21, 2009

Why I do not identify myself as a Christian any longer

I don't know who even cares about this except me, but I do care and also, if I were one of the people who knew me on Facebook either from college or law school, I would be curious as to why a person who was a very devout Christian, really, in some ways, up until 2000 was now a pagan/epicure according to Facebook.

I went to a Christian college, Wheaton, where I got a seriously good education. I went after an evangelical upbringing, in which sin and hell were serious concepts presented to pre-schoolers as something that may well be in their future. Very bad. I was threatened with hell for not working on The Great Commission. But more on that later.

Before I got to Wheaton, I began to embrace a much more liberal Christianity I had to to reconcile all the drinking and smoking I was doing out on Santorini the summer before. But still, when I arrived, and when I was there, I believed completely in God and felt like I experienced God through worship. I also was indoctrinated -- unconsciously by any one person but as a cumulative effect of living in the culture -- as a raging homophobe, a rabid unthinking opponent of protection of abortion rights, anti-Darwin. You have no idea. The student body of that college voted 95% Republican in the 1988 election.

It was not really me, and I retaliated by being the nightmare student in theology classes raising her hand insistently to ask whether the professor really thought every buddhist, taoist, jew and muslim on the planet was going to end up in hell. I was critical of the religion even while I was there. But I still found enough in the core doctrines and the words of Christ to hang on. So much so that when I went to law school after college, I taught Sunday school in an Episcopal church in Porter's Square in Cambridge, Mass.

William Weld, the governor of Massachusetts, attended the church - it was called, like, St. Peter's or St. Paul's. But either way, during the prayers of the people, the congregation members would stand up and pray. The prayers seemed very strange to me until I understood they were praying to Weld:

"And lord, when bill number 1-7-0-8 appears on the governor's desk for signature between the 13th and 18th of March, please, God, give our governor the wisdom to sign it . . .

I didn't care. Not only was I a church member (my ability to show up to church after staying up all night drinking was the tiniest bit legendary at 6 Exeter Park) I was the poster girl for Christianity on the Civil Rights - Civil Liberties Law Review. I wrote an article about the theology of civil rights, how Christ taught the essence of Christianity is not coercion but allowing people to choose that path they want to follow, and how protection of this principle should stand true in our governments as well as our religions. I spoke at gay rights rallies about how Christianity had no basis in the words of Christ for turning away gays (how little most Christians care about that point). I prayed. I was into it.

And then after losing a big trial in 2000, I went to my parents' for Easter. My brother came too. I attended Easter Vigil and then struggled all night with the horrible thing I had realized at the vigil: that I didn't buy it. That the birth and resurrection of Christ had no more claim to the truth as the Muslim scriptures regarding the holiness of combat, or the Buddhist scriptures of the enlightenment of Buddha. When I appraised my own beliefs that long, icky night, I was forced to conclude that what I truly believed in and the tenets of Christian doctrine - like the Apostles Creed - were really, really not the same thing. They weren't even overlapping circles.

The very people I loved the most in the world had been badly victimized by Christianity - homosexuals. Despite its sublime history as a religion willing to engage with great thinkers, Christianity seemed to be getting more and more stupid. And its take on art (terrified of modern dance, heavy theatre censorship) was maybe even worse than Communist Russia. At least the Russkis had some style.

I also felt The Great Commission too strongly. The Great Commission is a Christian doctrine that holds that it is the responsibility of all Christians to go out among non-Christians and hustle up some converts, pronto. They laid The Great Commission Porn on strong at Wheaton, all those chapels devoted to the worship of idiots who called themselves missionaries and got themselves killed by the local heathens for being annoying. This was a path to heroism.

So by the time I got up Easter morning, I could not go to Church and pretend that this resurrection had any special meaning that put it above any other religion. Doctrinally and scripturally (if not actually), Christians believe their beliefs superior to others. This is too short a path - just add a few words- "Christians believe themselves to be superior in beliefs (and therefore superior) to others." I know this is not always the case - yes, I know that. But it frequently is. Too much for me to waste any more of my life energy trying to reconcile what I wanted to believe with what I was supposed to believe.

I mourned for a long time my separation from the Church. I posted this very sad entry on http://www.exchristian.org/ ("Poster Girl For Christianity"). I am sure that even now I am not over it, I do love what Jesus had to say, and I love Rudolph and The Grinch . . . I am very, very fortunate to have a husband who is essentially an atheist, and it is great to be able to take religion out of the equation. For a long time, I thought that even as an ex-Christian I could still respect my religion, and some Anglican parishes I truly can. But I can't respect any sect that does not accept every single person. And not many do.

If Christianity really was the best Christianity I ever knew: the brilliant writings of Frederick Buechner, the strange and powerful Joe McClatchey, the strength that comes from faith in the resurrection . . . the huge appetite for uncertainty and intellectual challenge, well, I would still be a Christian. But those things have become the least of what Christianity is about. So much so that I had to say good bye.

If someone could come up with a version of Christianity that featured no hell below us, above us only sky and the intellect of St. Augustine, then maybe I could sign up. Oh, wait, isn't that Star Wars?

2 comments:

  1. Your story is oddly similar to mine; raised Catholic, but not staunchly. Still, I believed in the bible as the inerrant word of God and even asked on countless occasions, via prayer, if I was meant to devote my life to the ministry. As I discovered other religions that seemed to have as legitimate a claim on the hereafter as mine did I began to question if I was on the right team. Probabilistically I wasn't. Further investigation revealed that all the good parts of the Bible weren't original to the Bible. In fact they pre-dated the Bible by hundreds if not thousands of years. Even the more spectacular parts (virgin birth, resurrection, etc).

    As a parent, and as a consequence of going through all of that as a child, I've taken away a valuable lesson: don't pretend to know things you don't know. I believe that one day telling your kids things you have no good reason to believe are true will be no different than physically abusing your child.

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  2. Rachel,

    Two of my most vivid memories (if I get to see a montage of my life before I die I'm sure they will be included).

    First, the day Mom and Dad gave me the Stonecroft ministries track and had me sign and date it as evidence that I had accepted Jesus Christ into my heart. We were in the library, you were in the living room, I came and told you afterword at Mom and Dad's prompting.

    Second, that Easter Sunday when you told me you stopped believing in God. I will never forget it.

    I still have the Stonecroft Ministries Bible Track that I signed when I was nine years old. I keep it in my top dresser drawer, as I always have. When I was younger there I kept it because it was the only tangible piece of evidence I had that I was not going to burn in hell (other than the amount of highlighting in my NIV Bible). The booklet says (direct quote). "this booklet will serve as a reminder of the moment when you accepted Jesus Christ as your Savior and thereby received Everlasting Life"

    But now I keep it so that I can look at my nine-year old handwriting and be reminded that I was just a child ... and that many of the concepts virgin birth, hell, the trinity, are just downright inappropriate to explain to a naive and trusting nine-year old.

    I have to remind myself that I can't be faulted for believing this any more than I can be faulted for believing in Santa Claus.

    I think parents telling a kid that "Once in the annals of time a Man came from beyond outerspace to earth. This momentous event was planned by the Triune God -Father-Son-Holy Spirit - and announced thousands of years prior to his arrival" (direct quote from the pamphlet), is quite frankly, insane.

    And I think forcing a nine year old to make that jump in belief based on his trust in his parents and the threat of hell is paramount to brainwashing.

    So I say all this to say that in my case I don't know if I would say I 'Stopped believing', because I never made and independent decision TO believe that wasn't tainted by my childhood experience.

    I regret some of the things I did in the name of Christianity, and it's easy to blame myself.

    And certainly when you don't believe any more it gives you pause about how reliable your gut, (instinct, or whatever you call it).

    So it's important for me to remind myself that there is nothing wrong with my instincts, that the nine year old in me might come to very different conclusions about faith if he had been left to his own devices .....

    It's not that I stopped believing, or made a mistake ... it's that I was never given the opportunity to follow my own path and listen to my own soul.

    I'm excited to see Owain and Liberty grow and develop and believe or not believe and develop and grow. They are beautiful and I love the pictures you post on facebook.

    David

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