I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve written and rewritten this post because, frankly, there’s no simple way to answer this question.
I’ve tried metaphors, arguments, moral pleas, even transparent streams of consciousness. I can’t even talk about the moment I left, because there was no specific moment that I decided to leave. I’ve had plenty of minor epiphanies on my journey — but none individually strong enough to warrant a full-on rejection of my lifelong faith. It’s more like — to use the post-christian parlance of out times — an ongoing deconstruction.
The truth is always nuanced, complex and difficult to communicate. While I can’t claim to speak it, I can certainly share my story. I hope it illuminates the path that brought me here. I hope it helps you understand your story.
The Torment of the Reformer
Once I hit my twenties, philosophy of religion became the primary focus of my collegiate studies, and I spent my days delving into deep theological perspectives. I know it’s fashionable to dismiss university as a liberally-biased environment, but I was studying under southern baptist scholars. And the more I studied, the more the fundamentals of my faith began to fall apart.
I couldn’t find a coherent foundation — logical or “Biblical” — for the strange, cultural-political Christianity I was raised in. The evangelical church seemed to believe there was a singular, coherent foundation to Christian practice that had existed from the beginning; the history of theology and two thousand years of developing Christianity suggests otherwise.
I realized I had no defense for my belief at all, but still did not feel comfortable rejecting my faith. I felt there was something very real and powerful at the core, but that it was being gravely misunderstood. So before declaring myself agnostic, I declared myself a Christian reformer (academically speaking, I qualified my position as universalist, or perhaps post-christian). As always, I wanted to champion the truth.
While that seemed noble, the demands of reform come with immense anxiety. In the name of good, you are forced to challenge the assumptions held by every church authority you have ever met, and everyone you have ever loved. And as a scholar of Christianity, you know the church has a deplorable history of dealing with its own reformers (death to the radicals, blasphemers, and all that jazz). I mean, even the namesake of the religion was crucified for attempting to reform his religion.
Reformers make everyone around them anxious, which makes them even more anxious in turn. It’s an odd feeling, being tormented by something you love — but as a Christian, I was already accustomed to feeling anxious all the time. I believed anxiety was godly, and defended it like any hard-working Protestant would.
I would have carried the torment of reform as proudly as a cross. But in time, my need for change started to feel less like truth and justice, and more like… something else.
Was it rage? Hard to say, for certain. But the more I insisted that theology be corrected, the more I started to despise those who remained resistant. I began to resent the people who taught me the indefensible truths I was deconstructing — the same people that condemned me to hell for doubting anything. I became stubborn, self-righteous, and insistent: I was starting to act just like them!
In my anger, I began to wonder if my altruistic intentions could have insidious origins. So, for a moment, I stopped doing what every bone in my body believed was right, and started really looking at myself. I did not see nobility, nor spirituality: I only saw yet another angry man claiming righteous authority, wagging his finger and pounding his fists. Like the church of my youth, I was demanding that the will of God be heard and obeyed, no matter the cost.
I’m not sure why that concept — the enraged man demanding obedience by threat of eternal damnation — has remained so pervasive in Christian culture. The gospels themselves seem to explicitly challenge that image of God, and honestly, it seems more akin to a devil. In any case, I regrettably played the part.
In attempting to reject fundamentalism, I somehow fell back on the fundamental attitudes I had learned. I was becoming the very image of the angry, patriarchal church leader — the very same archetype I was trying to defy. In attempting to reform them — even out of alleged love — I was somehow becoming them.
I had never felt so helpless.
I knew that reform was required — but if that process extended the same warped ideals of power and control, then how could I succeed? I could not accept them, but I hated who I became when I challenged them. I felt trapped, frustrated, and panicked.
I felt like I couldn’t breathe — but then, of course, I realized something obvious. I had been breathing the whole time. So, I resolved to keep breathing. I took one deep breath after another, and eventually, I felt a subtle peace and clarity. I was able to step back from myself and discover a space that I never knew existed.
I had been so ingrained in my battle that I failed to see its simplest resolution: I didn’t have to deal with any of this, at all.
I didn’t have to write a theology, embrace a religious tradition, or challenge one. I didn’t have to limit the world in that way — for or against, black and white. I could just walk away. I didn’t have to be a reformer, or a Christian, or even NOT be a Christian: I could simply be.
As I stepped away from myself, choosing neither to fight nor forsake, I watched a part of myself stay behind — still endlessly arguing and seeking the truth, eternally imprisoned in that unending and obsessive dialogue.
Watching my own behavior from afar, I was forced to ask: what purpose does that man serve? How is this obsession helping him, or helping anyone? I had no answer. Perhaps he was never even a part of me; perhaps he was someone else. In any case, I resolved to leave him behind. Finally, I was free of myself.
For the first time, I had let go of all I had known of God and religion, of what must be and what must not. After years of struggle, I had stopped looking and found faith.
I left the fold, and I was born again.
The Path of the Reclaimer
While the space I found from leaving the fold felt like salvation, it also felt, somewhat, as a shirking of responsibility. For a time, that may have been true. I basically spent the last ten years of my life avoiding Christianity like the plague (it was one hell of a decade).
While I reveled in that freedom then, I do have one major regret: that, out of fear, I had decided to conceal my newfound light instead of simply letting it shine.
I was afraid that others would not understand, that I would be left excommunicated and unloved. Many Christians dismiss that as an irrational or even selfish fear. Of course, those are the same people that taught me, as a child, I would burn eternally in hell for questioning them. They may have showed me love, but they also threatened to cut me off from it forever.
I didn’t want to confront them because I didn’t want to hurt them. I didn’t want them anxiously fearing for my soul (and their “prayers” for me feel like horrible threats). I honestly thought it would be better for everyone if I stayed in hiding. Incidentally, that was also the easiest way to ignore my relentless shame.
By concealing my life, I was ignoring my own suffering and the suffering of others. I was fortunate to be able to work through my faith in a comforting environment, several states a way from my upbringing. Many other misfits were not so lucky. Many didn’t know how to express themselves at all, and chose to hate themselves instead. I was fortunate enough to find healthy-ish ways to work through my emotional pain; others, tormented by the guilt and shame, died in the process.
I was hoarding wisdom that could have alleviated the suffering of others — or at least let them know they were not alone. Through simply expressing my perspective, without demand or argument, I could have subtly loosened the taut fundamentalist ties of friends and family, aiding those who felt persecuted in their environment without persecuting anyone else.
So, as an apology, I’m here now. I’ve stopped running from my complicated history with Christianity, and am ready to embrace and address it. I’m finding the good I left behind, and expounding on the old problems I encountered.
Most importantly, I’m returning to my history as something different than I was before: I’m not here as a reformer, but a reclaimer. I have come back to champion all I have ever learned to be good, and show the world what it means through my actions. I’m running a blog, I’m recording music, I’m creating and I’m listening.
I don’t have to argue with you, or convert you. I don’t have to research and develop some new theology to institute in the church. Even if I did, it would still inevitably pale in comparison to the vastly infinite reality — or, if you must, God — beyond the limits of language and perception, whose name is too nuanced to ever be pronounced. I’m less concerned with that entity, and more concerned with you.
In returning to the journey of faith, I am re-encountering the most beautiful concepts the church had to offer: love, hope, faith, grace, charity, joy. These are our most sacred concepts, and they outshine any and all theology. Like the actions of Christ himself, they defy the tenets of orthodoxy and order. Even better, they bond us together.
I now believe — loosely, of course — these concepts are the culmination of Christian history, the most precious lessons we were intended to learn. Progressive Christians, post-Christians, atheists, agnostics, and Unitarian Universalists have come to similar conclusions. But I don’t care about that. I don’t need a religion, a brand, or a name.
I have seen love. I know that it takes many forms, and is represented by many false idols. But as for love in itself, who would reject it? What greater truth could there be than love?
I may have left the fold, but I will not abandon love.
So that’s the end, right?
Not exactly — love is the both the end and the beginning!
My mission, for now, is to share in a way that explains my actions to the community I came from, but also empowers and embraces those rejected by them. My words and music will speak to this however possible. The “agnostic gospel” song below is a start. But first, a few closing words…
If you struggle with Christianity, know that you are not evil and you are not alone. But even as you fear the church, I implore you cherish its greatest concepts — to separate the wheat from the chaff, as it were. Consider that the culture is neither absolutely good nor absolutely bad, nor demanding in any way of the absolute mentality it taught you. Fight it if you must, but remember how easily you may reinforce its most oppressive elements. Christianity may feel like your enemy, but remember, it is not only your enemy. It is filled with people deserving of love. And, if ever you need a breath of fresh air… remember that you can just walk away, for a moment or for a lifetime.
And if you are still a proud Christian — then I know you understand the values of the love I am espousing. I know this because you taught me how to love. But I hope you can understand why so many of us struggle, with you or against you; I hope you understand how your light can be clouded, how your love can be held ransom. I may have “left the fold”, but that’s a bit of a misnomer: for following that fold is exactly what led me here. And out of all the concepts you taught me, the greatest of them was love.
That love is God, and always will be.
Enjoy, and live in love.