I believe I am the poster child for the struggles of a Christian who has finally concluded she is no longer.
My definition of a Christian is one who follows the teachings of Christ Jesus and believes in his deity. But as I have experienced life these past 59 years, I have come to realize that “God” is personal shorthand for one’s beliefs and the values we draw on to weigh our moral decisions. I believe in Jesus’ teachings, but I also am guided by other great teachers and prophets: the Buddha, Muhammad…anyone who speaks with wisdom, tolerance and love.
From my childhood, as a baptized fourth-generation member of the Missouri-Synod Lutheran Church, I thought of Jesus as my Best Friend, who loved me whether I was fighting with my brothers, or doing exactly what I promised last Sunday not to do. With him, I felt totally beloved, befriended, protected and pleasing. But to my religious mentors and teachers, I was much less so.
Even a child can understand why adults get upset for disobedience or violence. But what I couldn’t understand was why my continuous religious curiosity and questioning were so upsetting. I had to accept it all – whether I understood, or agreed.
At 22, I graduated from a Lutheran university where I minored in theology. It was there my horizons were significantly widened as to the breadth and scope of world religions and the scholars who struggled for sincere, painstakingly-formed adult beliefs. I also learned how both beautiful myths and bad ideas become absorbed and lived as truth, as religion.
I had always been taught that I MUST marry a Lutheran or our kids would risk the threat of being “unchurched.” One week after I graduated from college and moved to Connecticut, I met the man who would be my husband, a baptized and confirmed Swedish Lutheran. Bur with my husband’s lack of enthusiasm for formal religion, my own ambivalence, and the competing priorities of a working couple, our affiliation with a church was spotty. When I felt obligated to provide formal Christian education, I discovered that the local Episcopal Church was both geographically and religiously closer to my own evolving beliefs.
The Bible informs the Episcopal Church but does not control it as “the perfect and holy word of God.” The Bible is considered an important anthropology of thought, fiction, and history, a sacred text, but likely skewed by agenda-driven authors and editors. Such teachings provided me the exposure and courage to soar off into a completely personal definition of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
For the vulnerable (and aren’t we all), it can be a breeding ground for despair, guilt, powerlessness: Without God, a creator we don’t deserve, we are nothing. He sacrificed his son to be killed to save us, but still we are neither reformed nor grateful. Our whole lives are reduced to a constant longing for grace, which we don’t deserve or accept. A cruel cycle. A particularly horrific spiral for the neediest among us – women seeking love.
In deference to our families and Christian tradition, my husband and I made sure our son was confirmed in the faith, albeit the Episcopal Church. I knew our son was not happy about it, and determined not to let such passage influence his agnosticism. He went on to endure four years in a wonderful Catholic high school that ably prepared him for college and the world.
Our daughter was more defiant. Although a cheerful Sunday Schooler, she refused to confirm Christian beliefs, even after I did something I regret: I tried to bribe her.
To her credit, she still refused and let me know in no uncertain terms that she would make her own decisions about her beliefs. Years later, she graduated from college cum laude with a degree in philosophy and a wonderful tolerance, love and respect for the world. She also possessed the well-hewn knowledge to help her Mom sort through my own spiritual confusion.
I gave Christianity one more try when our nest emptied and we moved to Vermont. But by then I knew I was being disingenuous when I vowed, “I believe in Jesus Christ, His only begotten son, etc.” Perhaps others skeptical Christians can recite this creed without conviction. I no longer could.
Yet I remain a believer. I believe in Jesus, the man, the teacher, the paradigm. I love Jesus, in fact, as the finest example of how to love, despite the evils of the world. I believe in God, or as I now think to myself, “Universe” or “Spirit.” Words matter and these serve to remind me of how vast, universal and beyond human this powerful Source is. Not male, not father or judge. But Yahweh – The Great I Am.
My beliefs today begin with the radical notion that I am exactly who I am meant to be. I did not start out “wrong.” Through my egoic suffering, blessings, moments of shame or pride, I am. I am connected to the abundance of the Source which provides never-ending strength and possibility. I need no savior. And when I believed I did, I was pathetically vulnerable to all manner of self-doubt, exploitation and abuse.
This I believe today. We each have God and the knowledge of the Universe inside ourselves. Seeking a holy emissary in the form of Jesus is unnecessary – and all too often incapacitating. It robs us of our own unique character and beauty, our own perfect-ness, and leaves us throwing our weak selves on the mercy of someone “better.” It removes the power and responsibilities of owning our thoughts and actions and taking joy in the experiences that come out of them.
I believe that in the world of spirituality and religion, there’s no one better than you. You’re it. Because God is in you.
I am filled with gratitude for where my spiritual path has led – to an incredibly more active and whole sense of how all things could indeed, and I paraphrase from Romans 8:28, “work together for good to them that love, to them who are the called according to the purpose of the Universe.”