Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Difference Between You and Me: Or Is There One?

I mentioned last time that I've had several responses to the Screen Doors post that I wanted to address. One of the ones I really wanted to respond to was my friend Kate's response to Screen Doors.

She responded to my blog on her blog.  It is really good and asks a lot of questions that I am eager to respond to. (Response response response, can you say it five times fast?) I'll post snippets here as I reply, but please go read her entire post afterwards. Whether you are a Christian or not, I think it is very inspiring, honest, and furthers this amazing dialogue that is so rarely seen between believers and non-believers.

I'll begin with this:
“Most of the time I feel as spiritual as a plunger.” I worry perhaps a friend saw my sin, my depression, or my bad parenting and they knew I wasn’t being Christ-like. Did this help them turn away from those teachings we grew up with? ... I feel disappointed in myself and my lack of spiritual fortitude.
She was talking about her childhood friends whom she has seen since leave Christianity.

I can't speak for every single person who has ever left their faith, obviously. I am sure there are plenty of people who have left because of the hypocrisy or failings or bad behavior of believers. However, I can say that in my experience (and at least one or two of the friends she might be referring to), this was not remotely the case.

One thing that I do not miss about Christianity is the guilt. Oh, sorry, I mean "conviction".  If you've read my book, you'll know what I mean when I say I was a spiritual masochist. I turned everything inward, wondering if there was any part of me that was to blame for any undesirable situation. I believed this was cleansing me, making me more like Christ. I could not fathom anyone being a genuine Christian and NOT constantly rooting out the evil within them. I recognized my brokenness too deeply. I was ashamed of my poor witness. I prayed constantly to be made more like Christ, but I failed over and over again. This all basically comes down to me saying I relate all too well with Kate's concern.  I too wondered if my own imperfection was driving people away from God. I'm a crappy parent sometimes, I get depressed, and I never felt I was quite living up to the person God wanted me to be. I could be a hypocrite. As hard as I tried to be righteous, I messed up time and again. And I wondered, "Is my light so dim that no one can see Christ through me?"

The answer, almost certainly, was no.

I left the faith, and many, many others leave the faith, simply because we run out of faith. We started the race like marathon runners, but after the first 26.2 miles and the next 26.2 miles and the next, we started to slow down. We ran out of breath.  We hunched over, panting, trying to keep running. Finally, we collapsed. The faith that we either longed to have (but could never admit was lacking) or the faith that we held unquestioningly somehow just began to run out. Whether the burden of reason grew too great or the allusiveness of God too wearisome, losing faith in a religion is often a highly introspective experience. It's not caused by other people's behavior. It may be, but I'd venture to say a genuine loss of faith is usually very inward-looking.

People who care enough about their faith to worry that their imperfect lives may be causing others to stumble are almost NEVER the people who should have to worry about that. You are usually the best people around. You are empathetic, you are introspective, and you are genuine. You're the good guys.

Let me add before I go on that the greatest joy I feel daily is the lack of guilt and shame and brokenness. I thought I felt whole as a Christian, but now I realize I only felt fixed. It is only now that I feel truly whole, now that I realize I was never broken in the first place.

Another huge issue for me is my own unbelief. All Christians struggle with unbelief or doubt at times. I have gone through seasons of my life -sometimes even years- when I feel disconnected from the Lord and full of doubt. When I have a friend who outs herself as an atheist, a big part of me wonders if she is going through a similar season. And, to be very honest, sometimes you feel like your friendly atheist has made some excellent points and all your doubts coming flooding back to the surface.
Let me repeat the caveat - I can't speak for everyone here. Just myself and several people I know.

Yes, we all have our doubts, Christian or not. Sometimes they are huge and leave us in a pit of despair for far too long. And for some, that faith does return. I followed a blog for a while called Gakeat's Musings, in which the author ruminated on his crisis of faith. He eventually reconciled his belief in Christ (and has sadly stopped blogging - I'd love to hear his thoughts now that he is back on this renewed path!). Some people do go through a season of doubt and come back to their faith.

And some of us are beyond seasons. If you are an evangelical, you likely had some sort of turning-point moment that you could never go back from. I know I did. Whether that was the moment of "salvation" or just the moment where my spiritual journey took off like a rocket, I don't know, but it fundamentally impacted the next decade of my life.

I had that same kind of experience when I de-converted. To go back now seems, well, unthinkable.

For some people, it is only a season of doubt. For others, this is our new (improved) reality.

As for the "friendly atheist [making] some excellent points", that's another, more difficult topic. Do I want to venture into it? Maybe later ... But for now, my goal is not to turn people away from their faith. It's only to share the view from the other side and to keep a dialogue going.

When I found out a friend was no longer a Christian I was full of questions and worries. ... How can this be? ... We cried together, and worshiped together. Or at least I thought we did. Was she lying to me? When did this start? Was she doubting her faith when she was praying for me when I was struggling last year? Was she just acting or bowing to societal pressure this whole time?
I'm not the friend she's referring to, by the way. So I don't know what her friend was going through. But if she HAD been talking about me, here's what I'd have to say.

Those moments you refer to were real, for both of us. For me, those moments were never put on or intentionally deceptive. Growing up (adolescence, young adult years), my faith was solid. I cried and worshiped with hands lifted high.  It was never fake. Christ was my center, my All In All.  When my faith began to waiver, though, I did hide it from most people. I was afraid of being judged. I didn't want anyone to know that this girl who led worship at church, who helped in the Sunday School, who facilitated the Prayer Wall, who had been on mission trips, was now starting to doubt. I didn't know if my doubts were just one of those aforementioned seasons or not, so to share them seemed premature. But I was ashamed. So at that point, I did keep it inside. But I wasn't acting. I was just hiding in fear.

If I'd been praying for a struggling friend during that time, those prayers would probably have been the most heart-felt prayers of my life, because I was living the struggle too. No one can empathize better than the person walking in the exact same shoes.

So much of my identity is wrapped up in my relationship with the Lord. When I found out that Jane had rejected Him, it is shocking because I feel like she is rejecting part of me, and in some cases, her upbringing ... I want to say, “Jane, do you remember that [time] when I went forward and received prayer at church? It was terrible and wonderful at the same time.  I felt so embarrassed when I cried and my nose ran and I was shaking as you and the others were praying for me. I hated for anyone to see me that way. I hated to make myself so vulnerable, but I knew you understood. Do you still understand or do you look back on that time and pity me and revile my weakness?”
Oh, my heart breaks at this point. You can't imagine what feelings reading those words brings up in me. Yes, we still understand. I'm not Jane, remember, but this could easily be asked of me. I have had so many of these moments; the vulnerability, the ugly tears, the weakness, the love and thankfulness I felt for my friends who held me and understood me and prayed for me. I can never forget my own moments like that; how could I ever revile someone else for theirs?

I speak for myself here when I say that even though I often feel embarrassed by the things I said and did as a Christian, and even though I sometimes feel regret and anger and frustration, I also have come to a place where I can give myself a lot of grace. Yes, grace is a word that's been co-opted by Christianity, but it's a good word. It's something we all need, regardless of who gives it to us. I am learning to give it to myself. But I never needed to learn to give it to others; for me that just came naturally. I'm way more forgiving of others than I am of myself. I don't look back at your weak moments and feel embarrassment or pity. Just love and grace.

One other thing to mention here is the use of the word "rejection". It's a commonly used word in this context; the atheist "rejects" God or even "denies his existence".  Yet that is an entirely inaccurate word for most people.  I don't think I know a single atheist or agnostic who feels they have rejected or denied God. We simply don't believe a god exists (or are not sure either way). I don't deny or reject Zeus, nor do I deny or reject Allah. I don't believe either exist. When it comes to our friends, we no longer share that thing we once had in common, true. But we don't reject it or you. However, I can completely see where you're coming from. I don't think that's a crazy way to feel at all. When your faith is your essence, then someone leaving that shared faith can absolutely feel like a rejection. But just please remember that it's not. Again, the loss of faith is highly internal. There certainly must be people who throw out the baby with the bathwater, or in this case the Christians with the Christianity, but I hope those people eventually see that this isn't necessary.  Just as we non-believers long to be loved and accepted by others, we should extend that same love and acceptance to our believing friends. Without judgment, without arrogance.

One close friend told me that he realized his unbelief was a bigger deal for me than it was for him. ... I’m worried about his soul ... but he isn’t.
Yeah. I think this is probably true. For a lot of people, de-converting is fairly uneventful. Especially when it was a largely intellectual affair. For me, it was highly emotional, but this not normally the case. Most of my religious-turned-nonreligious friends had a harder time emotionally with losing friends and family than losing their faith.

Finally, I must address her last thought. This is truly the crux, if you ask me, of the entire subject.
I wonder about my friends who don’t have the Lord in their lives. How do they make it through the day? How do they have the strength to be the mom their children need? How do they stay married? I doubt they would say they have everything figured out or that they are better than me. They are taking it one day at time as well, but I cannot comprehend how they are still functioning. This raises all kinds of confusion within me. I am less a capable woman than them? I am just trained to be dependent on the Holy Spirit because of my upbringing and beliefs? Are they failing miserably and not telling anyone? Am I a horrible person with unfathomable depths of depravity that I need help overcoming while they are just normal functioning people?
My answer cannot be summed up succinctly or in some quaint, quirky, poetic little sentence. Here's the thing: We ALL struggle. Constantly. We are all human.

How do I personally make it through the day? When I was a Christian, I truly believed God was bringing me through. I believed he had his hand on my life and was guiding me, protecting me. When that faith began to disintegrate, I had no idea how I could cope without him.

I'll never forget the day I realized that not only could I go forward on my own, but that I'd ALWAYS been on my own. When you come to realize there is no almighty god guiding you and protecting you, you eventually make the connection that such a god didn't just disappear leaving you in the lurch but never existed in the first place. Therefore all those years before HAD been on my own. And I survived. The feeling of empowerment and strength that moment afforded me is inexplicable.

Wait, I know EXACTLY what you're thinking. How presumptuous of me! How arrogant! I seriously deserve pity now that I've come right out and said "I can do this on my own without god!" Oh boy, am I the classic Kevin Sorbo character atheist now! But hear me out, if you can.

The way I see it, you and I are no different. You and I both struggle. We have bad days, we have bad months, maybe even years. We get depressed, we get angry, we fail miserably. Yet we both find the strength to get out bed (most days) and push on. We both look at our children and think, "You are worth me trying to do better." We look at our marriages and think, "This is worth fighting for."

Your strength rises out of your faith. I admire that. I think that if faith in Jesus Christ gets you out of bed and makes you a better person, then that is awesome. Regardless of whether or not I think your strength actually comes from inside YOU or comes from God, the fact is you are strong, and you are making the world a better place for yourself, your children, and everyone else around you.

I don't have that strength anymore. Not from faith, that is. Nor do I want it. Faith no longer has that rosy fragrance drawing me to it. Now, I have a different strength.  What gets me out of bed in the morning is the realization that life is short, so very short, and I barely have any real time to put my imprint on it. I want to live every moment as a totally alive person, making the short lives of others as meaningful as possible. I want to do better for my kids so they can do better for their kids. I want to fight for my marriage, because life is too short to be alone and sad, and I've been so lucky to find someone I'm desperate to share my short life with. Since realizing that there is no afterlife in which to make up for whatever I missed here on earth, my concept of time has radically changed. Like a heart attack survivor, I've got a new lease on life. To use someone else's words - because they are so much better than mine:
I suddenly felt very deeply that I was alive: Alive with my own particular thoughts, with my own particular story, in this itty-bitty splash of time. And in that splash of time, I get to think about things and do stuff and wonder about the world and love people, and drink my coffee if I want to. And then that's it. -Julia Sweeney, "Letting Go of God"
So, no, back to your original questions, you are not a horrible person who needs God to overcome your failings while the rest of us go on functioning normally. You have tapped into a source of strength. So have I. Many people have not tapped into a source of strength yet, and for those people, I do wonder how they get through life. I hope everyone finds a source of strength, as long as it is not in something destructive. For those who find their strength in faith, I ask only that they do not use it as a weapon also. Same goes for anyone who finds strength anywhere - within themselves or externally. We are all prone to weakness, therefore we all have a responsibility of empathy. We should use our strength to lift the weak up, not beat them down. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your comments here. I am not ready to resume blogging at this point. Actually, right now I have major doubts about the existence of God, or gods. But, at the same time I do think that there is more than the observable Cosmos too. We all, whether theists, atheists, or somewhere between, should respect each other, especially if we are of good will.


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