Sunday, August 20, 2006

Part I- from November 2004

This is a combination of two posts, you'll probably be able to tell where I pasted them together, written in 2004 and early 2005, and edited in early January 2008.  Both this post and the next one seem a bit gush-y and naive, even just four years later, but there aren't any major changes so I'm leaving them here.

My father is an ordained Southern Baptist minister, although he never had a church. He was a seminary professor, a college religion professor, and the director of an Evangelical retreat center and youth camp for many years, as well as a few other things along the way. He was from the Midwest, the son of a GARB (more conservative, fundamentalist Baptist) minister. My mom was raised in the South in a well-to-do home. She is as sweet and lovely a person as you can imagine, but she has her occasional rebellious streak (which I love), and one of her most amazing rebellious acts was to marry this Yankee with few prospects for success in the way her parents defined it.

My father is a theologian, by training and temperament. He loves to think about God and the nature of the universe and the beauty of the Christian scriptures. We had amazing conversations around the dinner table. For his time and his upbringing, he was quite progressive in his thinking. He was far less concerned about the externals of his fundamentalist upbringing, concentrating instead on the love and mercy of God, and how that can be expressed in our lives. I didn't always agree with him, but he was/is a powerful, charismatic speaker and it is hard to disagree with him. If I disagreed, I didn't say it. And if I said it, I caved in quickly, even if I still didn't agree. All in all, I was pretty happy with my faith, and I was sure it was Right. The Truth.

The turning point for me was when I went off for my freshman year of college at a conservative Christian school. It was far more conservative than the way I had been raised, but I was convinced it was going to be wonderful-- all those Christians together in one place? it would be like one big love-fest all the time, wouldn't it? Well, of course, that turned out not to be the case. There were cliques and popular people and snobs, just like at any other school. They just said they were Christian. I don't want to be too hard on that school, because I met some wonderful people there and had a great time. But I became increasingly uncomfortable with the larger picture, what was happening outside my group of friends.

So after two years, I transferred to a secular school on the West coast. I was in nirvana. I loved it there. Oddly, my new friends, none of whom were Christian, were so much more honest. There was no striving to be achieve the outward look of a "good" Christian. They were just good people, learning and growing and questioning like I was-- well, of course, they weren't asking the same questions I was, since none of them came from a similar background, but their attitude toward the search was similar. I was so much happier, and I felt at home. That was the first stage.

At the end of my junior year, I had a tiny experience that had large consequences. There was a housing lottery to see where we would live the next year. I don't remember exactly the mechanics of how it worked, but I remember what my prayer was: I prayed and prayed not for any particular outcome, but that I would get some sort of housing in the lottery so I wouldn't have to worry about housing over the summer. I prayed about it a lot, and I was confident that God would grant my request, as "he" had so many others.

But it didn't happen. My friends and I that had gone into the lottery together didn't get a spot, and were left without knowing where we would live the next year (which wasn't uncommon, I don't want to make this sound like it was a big tragedy, it just meant we would have to find our own housing the next fall).

But that little thing totally threw me off. It was like someone sticking a rod in the spokes of my bicycle. I had been trundling along just fine with a set of beliefs I had outgrown without realizing it, and suddenly there I was with a broken bike. What happened? The bible says, explicitly, that if you ask in faith, your prayers will be answered. I had asked with the same faith that I had had for many other prayer requests, but this one wasn't answered. Now, I know the standard evangelical responses to this dilemma, you don't need to reply and tell them to me. I could tell myself all the things I had heard all my life about why God doesn't answer prayer. And it seemed silly to be so upset about a prayer request that was so small. I wasn't the only person in this boat, there were hundreds of us who didn't know where we would be living in the Fall. But suddenly the logical inconsistencies of my faith were right there staring me in the face. When my prayers were answered, I took it as proof that God loved me and cared about every detail of my life and had a plan for me. When my prayers weren't answered, it didn't prove the opposite. I was supposed to just shrug and say, "I guess it wasn't meant to be." I decided at the very least that I had to stop believing that answers to prayer were proof of God's existence, because when "he" didn't answer, I didn't therefore believe that it proved God's nonexistence. It just didn't make sense. That was the second stage. But I wasn't nearly ready to break away. It was just another nail in the coffin.

But where I finally just couldn't come to terms with it anymore was over trying to convert people. I just could never believe the whole evangelizing thing. Sure, talk about your faith and how it works in your life. But this whole organized drive to convert people -- I just could never buy it, even when I was younger, and I was ashamed and embarrassed to be part of a group that would do it. They have ways of dressing it up so it doesn't sound anything like that, but that's what it is: manipulation, pure and simple. They can rationalize any tactic because after all, they're saving your soul from eternal damnation, right?

But it didn't take me three months out there in the real world to realize that a lot of people who weren't conservative Christians had spent way more time thinking about Christianity than I had and were perfectly capable of coming to their own conclusions without any help from me. Many of the non-Christians I met were far better people than I was, in terms of taking responsibility for themselves and their world, and relating openly and honestly with others. I just couldn't believe that kind of evangelism was what Jesus wanted, if he wanted it at all. It was such a huge lack of respect for other people and their beliefs and experiences-- to assume that I had the answer and that they were desperately in need of it (they just didn't know that, you see) was more than I could tolerate. So, with all these things and a bunch of others, by the time I was 25, my spouse and I left the Bible church we had been attending and I no longer considered myself an Evangelical.

So .. there were a number of intervening years here where I was sorting things out... but the next thing I tried was more liberal Christianity, which I loved at first (and it's where I've ended up, although there were some intervening things, as you'll see) (not sure why I had to give away my ending there, but this isn't exactly a mystery novel). It was absolutely amazing to me at first to find out that there were Christians who read the Bible as a book of wisdom and inspiration, but didn't seem to believe that it had to be taken as literally true in every single syllable. If you don't know much about conservative Christians, that might seem odd, but that is the single most important defining characteristic of being a conservative Christian: you believe the Bible is literally, word-for-word, capital-T True. It is the "inerrant" word of God: without error. Yes, it was written by human beings, but they were "inspired" by God to write what He wanted them to write (masculine pronoun used on purpose, since this crowd almost always sees God as male).

I had been raised with phrase after phrase of Scripture thrown at me constantly to reinforce every belief that I questioned or disliked. For example, it is easy-cheesy to "prove" that Jesus wanted us to go out and hit people over the head with Americanized Christianity if you want to: for starters, Jesus says right before he returns to heaven, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations," in the Gospel of Matthew. This is known, in conservative circles, as "The Great Commission." And then you can prove that women can't be pastors: St Paul says "I would not have a woman be over a man," and that's not even touching all the stuff about wives submitting to their husbands in the Letter to the Ephesians. These verses can be interpreted in lots of different ways, starting with setting them in their historical context, but when you're eight, nobody tells you that, they just say these phrases over and over until they ring in your head and the interpretation you've been handed is the only one that you can imagine.

So anyway, back to the Episcopalians (because that's where I went after I left the Bible church I had been attending). It was exactly the same Bible and exactly the same set of characters and basic outline of beliefs that I'd grown up with, but so different it literally astonished me. There was a woman pastor; I found myself moved to tears the first time I saw her in the pulpit and heard her preach. I still have difficulty putting into words how much it meant to me.

But then we moved, and the Episcopal church in our new location was not a good situation. So more searching ensued. to be continued.

I've eaten half a jar of dill pickles while I've been sitting here, how weird is that.

yours in a vinegar-y state,
Aunt BeaN

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