Sometimes, I try to express clearly what it feels like to be in the midst of a faith crisis. My atheist friends lean their head sideways, squint their eyes, and sort of nod slowly. Sometimes, I think the only way they can liken my experience to any of theirs would be the time they figured out the Tooth Fairy wasn’t the one giving them their money carefully under their pillow while they peacefully slept. So sometimes, for the fortunate intellects, I’ll say something like, “its a bit of an existential crisis”— and that’s not even all together true. It feels embarrassing explaining myself to other post-fundamentals my age, who already figured out the church was a bag load of shit by 21, but I was too busy dreaming of leading worship and starting my own bible study at 21. I wanted to be one of those with-it church people– the kind who drank, smoked, and swore and led people to “encounter the extraordinary love of God.” My Christian friends think I am in a season, and they haven’t fully grasped how actual and real this is for me. I am no longer the Mary that dreamt of a life of mission work, faithfully attended bible groups, and was a devout Jesus lover, because I know more than anyone there was a a big part of me that was playing a long, laborious, very untrue role, and I can never ever return to that again.
How do I convey any of this to anyone with or without faith while not sounding like a lunatic or someone suffering from severe multiple personality disorder (these are both still possibilities)?
So begins my attempt.
There’s an insurmountable amount of grief. I’ve been forever severed from something that completed my sense of identity for my entire life: loved by Jesus (I can hear my Christian friends and family saying, but you’re always going to be loved by Jesus, and its comforting to know they will always believe that. It really is. Sometimes, I tell myself that). That missing portion rears its head especially on the worst days when something goes wrong, and my instinctual feelings scream,” but this wasn’t supposed to happen because– Jesus.” I have to stop and recognize that that’s what it is, a lot of the time, but when I do, there it is that gruesome space that was once filled. The grief lays away in the midst of life’s aches, bruises, and fears. There’s a searing loss of hope that can lead to hopelessness if I’m not careful.
Anger. It was rage in the beginning, but now it flashes through me only every now and again. I can hear out calloused scriptural rhetoric and not just nod and bear it, I can genuinely respect their perspective. The church has a lot of mindsets that irritate me, but its not all bad. I think I would love the version of church I was wanting to emulate in my early twenties– even now. Three things probably still make me lose my chill. 1. Lack of empathy. That’s a human irritation, but I would say that religion does a great job of giving people a free pass to lack empathy. There always seems to be this innate reaction to give it over to God instead of feeling bad feelings and deeply caring for someone. Letting the shit unfold. When I encounter a Christian with real empathy (and I’ve been lucky enough to) I want to kiss them because when it happens, its really special. 2. Along with lack of empathy comes this acceptance of insulation from human normal feelings. There is this common idea that the bad feelings are a sin/a way to keep you from your God. There’s so many things with this idea that bother me, I could go on a long rampage, but I’ll just say this– this kind of thinking keeps people from being people. I don’t get why that would be a desire for anyone, but it seemingly is one. 3. Acceptance of social injustices. I guess the bottom line is: lack of empathy– and maybe its more frustrating to see those ideas spread within the church because its an entire construct built on teachings regarding loving others. Its like what? When did the point become patriotism? Or whatever else the evangelical church is pushing these days.
Freedom. Let me just tell you since 24 I’ve been on a long journey of shedding so much fears, layers of brain washing, and ultimately all the things inhibiting me from being the vulnerable, passionate, and empathetic woman that I think I am today. Don’t get me wrong! The church and Christ’s teachings will always play a role in how I devote my time, energy, and consciousness to social justice, but what I find beautiful is that I can do this outside of scripture and faith. I am human and full of wrong choices, despite that I strive to do better with the help of the people I love. That’s all there is to it, and within this simpler reality I’ve become much more comfortable with myself. The good and the bad.
Then there’s death. Its crazy that the biggest thing about Christianity outside of it is the death part. I never gave it much thought how comfortable I was with this incessant fear of hell fires. I’d say that fear could have guaranteed the trajectory of my life as a devout believer. It isn’t spoken about much between Christians, but its there— it’s like, are we really sure? I remember the first time I no longer believed in any kind of hell, It was after I had been listening to a pastor challenging the entire belief of eternal damnation, and I thought to myself, “well if there’s no hierarchy here then what’s the fucking point?” That probably was a cue crisis moment, but there were numerous of those because unraveling an entire religion is a lifetime of micro-crisis’. I remember the first year I could finally be honest with myself that I don’t buy it. I don’t buy any of it the Bible, the God, the church, the deity of Christ, any of it— the first plane ride I took was traumatizing. I kept thinking, “There’s nothing after this if I die! I’ll be nothing!” It was the scariest plane ride of my life. Fear of death humanizes us, and its strange how Christianity contorts that very exquisite, human, and connecting thing. Death haunts me more than it ever did at 7 years old, but when I feel it— its so new to me, I relish it, I am just like everyone else in this way, and that’s good for now. Mortal. Fallible. Human.
Community– or lack thereof. This is a biggie. The church is a lot of things that I cannot stand, but when things were good, and there were points where they were for a while, it was good. In university it was extraordinary, my friends and I had this grassroots and organic approach to the Christian life. We’d get together demand vulnerable subjects, pray, and deeply connect to one another. It was special, and those friends will always be dear people to my heart. I always have said that I wouldn’t have remained a Christian by my senior year if it weren’t for those meetings with those friends. What I see now is that connection and community are vastly, magnanimously, important to survival. Not just get-together’s or happy hour, but real raw heartfelt community and support seems wildly non-existent outside the church. Sometimes, I consider returning to church just to reprieve myself from some of the lonely aches even for just a little while. Additionally, there’s just a practiced amount of making intentional and rather intrusive connections with other people if you’ve been in the church long enough. I can’t seem to lighten my intensity and need for authentic deep conversations always and in part, that’s my personality but its also all those bible-studies.
So with all of that has been said, I am still Mary. For a while there, I wasn’t sure who I was and felt that I had lost all sense of me, the Mary that my friends and family knew and loved. The good parts. The parts that were irrationally passionate to cultivate change in her surrounding community, always willing to strike authentic relationships with anyone I encountered, deepen my understanding for the world around me, the desire for passionate love and how to do so when it is difficult, and the curious need to understand both the good and bad in others. All of this is still here within me it just is done without fear of failure, without fear of sin, or at least I am now on a journey toward that kind of person.