When you fail at your religion, what do you do? Where do you go from there? These questions are ones I’ve sought to answer over the past decade and a half.
I used to think there were two options: be a religious zealot or be a militant materialist. No matter how much I tried at the first, some of the fine print of the brand of Christianity that was available to me didn’t resonate with me. My conscience couldn’t allow me to live peacefully with some of the core tenets of my (so-called) faith.
For example, I couldn’t subscribe to the idea that there is one right religion or spiritual philosophy and everybody not in that group was going to hell to suffer eternal wrath. This idea was probably easier for people to believe when globalization wasn’t a reality. Instant access to information and communication through the internet has made us conclusively aware that we are all humans. Also, international travel has become so common too. We just book tickets online and get on a plane. We go to other countries, experience different cultures, and realize—it’s all one world. After traveling to Thailand and experiencing a largely Buddhist culture, I was convinced that Buddhists have God inside them.
I couldn’t believe that God thought being born gay was sinful. You can give me Bible verses all you want, even though there aren’t many that address this specifically—but even so, I can give you some about shellfish and women not having braids or speaking in church. Every denomination of Christians picks and chooses what they think is essential to being a true believer and what they dismiss as “oh, that was cultural back then.” I remember once someone telling me that people couldn’t drink water because of lead poisoning and that’s why Jesus was making water into wine. It was a party—a wedding—and providing your guests with good wine was considered polite and fun. Religion and culture are integrated and affected by one another and always have been.
I couldn’t believe that God had pre-ordained gender roles (i.e., God wanted men to be spiritual leaders and women to be subordinate). I just couldn’t believe that an all powerful, all wise Being whose infinite knowledge transcended time and culture and space would set up the foundation for Truth on such culturally defined norms–and bad ones at that. Or on such seemingly arbitrary biological terms. As society was evolving beyond such negative norms (now known as prejudice) I wanted to be on the side of history that empowered the socially weak, not oppressed or excluded them.
Throughout my childhood, I didn’t have exposure to ideologies outside of evangelical or pentecostal Christianity; I went through high school just before having a computer and the internet was a common thing. So at age 19, I stepped into my first anthropology class and my heart and mind swooned. I finally found a more similar tribe of people. Social and cultural anthropologists!!
Finally people with doctorates from reputable universities were not only saying that gender roles were all cultural but also giving me studies upon studies that suggested evidence of such. The importance of culture and how that affected everything one thinks and believes and experiences— oh, they were such kindred spirits on so many levels.
Except in as much as most of these kindred spirits didn’t think we had spirits. As time went on, I realized that I diverged from some of my most respected professors in terms of spirituality. Most of my professors thought the very notion of God was ridiculous and a relic from when humans were still fatalistic and far more at the mercy of predators, natural disasters, and crops.
So, as I aged into my later twenties, and was at that time working for a philosophy association I tried on atheism for a while. This was only sometimes in my mind, though. I was far too fearful to admit this on a social level. I was afraid of what people would say and think of me. “Oh, she’s so deceived. So backslidden” I could imagine people would say. And honestly, I had always related to God and was in the habit of relating to God constantly. I kept praying without thinking and then I’d have to remind myself I didn’t believe in God; it was a lot of work.
I quickly realized that atheism didn’t work for me. It, too, took more faith than I had. There was too much of a spiritual place carved out in my life that needed to be filled with something more than just what we see and touch. I needed meaning to be more than just life and death here on earth; I needed purpose, and I needed love to be more than just chemicals. I needed something bigger than I was to hold onto when life got scary.
But, I wasn’t convinced of anything specific like my parents had been when they had radical conversions to becoming Christians. Most of the adult leaders in my life had been hippies or at least partiers in the 60’s and/or 70’s and so had these drastic “come to Jesus” experiences where they honestly became like different people because of authentic spiritual encounters with God.
But I was 3 when I became a Christian. I didn’t have much of a past—at all—let alone a bad one. I didn’t have any radical conversion moment that left me convinced when my mind started to really criticize and analyze. So once I became a critical thinking adult who wanted to truly step outside of the faith to get perspective on it, I realized that I didn’t know anything for sure about my authentic, volitional spirituality. I really didn’t know if I believed all this—or any of this—at all.
Admitting I didn’t know meant admitting I didn’t believe what I was supposed to believe. And that felt like failure. So much so that I couldn’t think past the failure. So I remained stuck in this state of feeling like a failed Christian. But knowing what you’re not is very different from knowing who you are.
But then, I moved to Topanga, an open minded mountain town in southern California known for being inhabited by eclectic and creative residents. Nestled in the dramatic Santa Monica mountains and overlooking the Pacific Ocean, it immediately captured my intrigue and quickly my heart. The open mindedness and vastness of opportunity there made it apparent that no one was going to care what I did or didn’t believe. It wasn’t going to matter to anyone if I wasn’t a Christian. And that was the first time I started to feel free.
There was no shame in Topanga. No shame. A culture without shame! How amazing. How freeing. As I started to really let myself live and be in this new reality without shame, I was able to move beyond what I didn’t believe and toward what I wondered. I was able to be curious. I was able to feel intrigued by the ideas and hypotheses I had about the Universe, Divine reality, and how humans fit into the greater whole of being. It allowed me to slowly feel free to leave the intellectual and spiritual prison I’d been remaining in for so long out of fear and shame. Just like the mountains and sparkling blue ocean stretch as far as the eye can see, the spiritual and cognitive space is also vast. And in that wide and open environment, I was finally able to emerge from my chrysalis of doubt and emerge into a state of curious, hopeful wonder.
Allowing myself to wonder led me to hold this thought in my heart and mind long enough for it to take root: what if we are all born with God in us? What if we all have a Divine spark inside of us? And what if, because of that, we also are born with an innate yearning to be reunited with the Higher source of that spark?
In Hindu religious thought this concept of innate Divinity and also a Higher Being is known at Atman and Brahman, God Immanent and God Transcendent. In Quaker religious thought, it is known as an Inner Light, or God within. In fact this very idea of God being within every person that comes into the world is what the founder of Quakerism, George Fox, suffered persecution to promote.
And that’s at the heart of my complaint with some sects of religious thought; religion, without love, can be exclusive and shaming.
Ideologies that focus on the depravity of the human soul are unhelpful at best. Shaming people about the core of their being is not an effective way to produce creative, inspired, and loving people. I know that for believers of Christianity, this way of thinking ideally all resolves in the good news that Jesus is the Savior. But it also implies an almost necessary self-hatred on the nature of one’s being.
I believe that there is light and dark, good and bad, in all of us. I don’t think we are born gods. But I do believe we have God in us and that if we foster that part of our being and find ways to plug into the God that transcends us and unites us all, then we can find Truth and Love and Life right here and now.
Richard Rohr calls this unitive source of Life the Cosmic Christ. And He is one of the only Christian-oriented writers and thinkers that I hear and think, “wow! I believe this! I can believe THIS!” He and many of the spiritual leaders from various paths that I respect suggest that the Divine reality, this transcendent Truth is all around us if we can only learn to truly see. And that’s the part I’m trying to learn now.
Dusting off and practicing my spiritual skill set (meditation, prayer, and transcendent experience), however, is not the easiest task. I’ve been able to connect intellectually with these ideas about opening my mind and heart to hopeful, curious wonder about God, but I haven’t yet been able to get the spiritual muscles, so to speak, back in shape yet.
So, as always, I continue the journey.