Why I’m Not Religious

It’s been awhile since I’ve stopped telling people I’m “religious.” More recently, I began to simply respond that I love Jesus when someone asks if I’m a Christian. If another self-identified Christian starts talking enthusiastically about their church activities or their theological beliefs, I try to steer the conversation away from programs and precepts and toward talking about God himself. And if I can’t, I quietly change the subject. You see, my love for God is something that consumes my life. When I won’t shut up about Jesus on a first date, my dates often wonder why I didn’t identify myself as Christian in my online profile… God is an all-day-every-day-of-the-week presence in my life. But I’m not religious.

There’s the obvious reason, the one that seems to be getting clearer by the day: the politics, of course. I have more and more trouble identifying myself as part of a subculture that publicly promotes things that churn my stomach. Yes, we need to come alongside one another with grace toward each other’s faults. Yes, I believe in actively engaging with the church to try to produce change instead of dusting my hands off over every offense. But a church that denies assylum for the oppressed or that promotes “redemption” as a tool for elevating oppressors leaves very little space for grace to operate within its walls.

I used to think those kinds of problems were a few very vocal exceptions. That it was not a pervasive problem. I used to hear the horror stories like that and think, “Okay, but those aren’t the Christians I know. Those aren’t most of us. That’s just a few bad apples.”  Then a few years ago, I began to change my mind. Or rather, God began to work on my heart. It started with reading the Cross in the Closet five years ago. The author—a product of conservative American evangelical culture—posed as gay for a year and wrote about his experience. Say what you will about Kurek’s means for getting the material for his book, reading that book opened my eyes.  I began to understand that I couldn’t dismiss the bad experiences of my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters as exceptions. I began to see the hurtful things that had come out of my own mouth for what they were. And from that point, I started to look at my dearly held beliefs a little differently. With a problem that prevalent, it was harder to dismiss the growing concern in my mind that there was a deep and fatal flaw in my beliefs.

And then I got divorced, placing me firmly in another population of people who are routinely marginalized and harrassed by good, church-going “Christians”. I count myself blessed that I’ve experienced very little of that first-hand. At worst, for me there was an expectation on me to fix problems that weren’t really mine at a high cost to me personally in favor of the marriage. I lost a relationship with some of my in-laws. But it put me in a position to hear about much worse treatment other people have endured. Here’s one lovely story: a friend divorced her drug-addicted, abusive husband after years of helping him against resistance very strong pressure from her “god-fearing” in-laws to overlook the problems. One even told her, ““we all know what single moms do for money” and refused to help her one bit. I’ve long ago lost track fo the number of women I know personally who were told to try harder in abusive relationships because divorce is wrong, or who were otherwise judged or ostracized when they should have been helped.

Hearing stories like that over and over is enough to make anyone deeply cynical. I am no longer surprised by the news that 71% of evangelical Christians are happy with the job that president Trump is doing, or that some are vocally backing a pimp for political office. It’s harder than it was five years ago to dismiss what’s happening as a “few bad apples.”

The point I’ve come to is that Christianity doesn’t work as a belief system.

Yes, you read that right. I love Jesus, I love the Bible, but I don’t think Christianity works as a belief system. In fact, I think it may be one of the worst out there.

You see, any belief can become oppressive when it is elevated over a person or people. Think about it. This is true on a small scale and on large scales, from momentary selfishness to systematic tyranny. If my belief that divorce is wrong is stronger than my heart for that person, then it is easy to justify saying nasty things to bring them back in line (or, in the specific case I mentioned, to tell that person’s kids that someday you’ll explain to them the nasty truth about their mother). If WHAT I believe is more important than people, it is easier to justify (for instance) supporting inhumane immigration policies because I believe their obedience to the immigration laws is more important to me than their humane treatment. You may be able to balance the two, but when you come to the inevitable point where you have to pick principles or people, elevating principles will almost always take you somewhere bad.

Like I said, I think this is true of any belief system. To pick on something easy, there are a lot of things that are compelling about communism. Redistributing wealth so that everyone has what they need? I get that. But if the idea is more important than the people, you end up with the bloodbaths of the Russian and Chinese revolutions… you get the idea. Yes, sometimes it is simply despotic opportunitists (a few bad apples) hijacking beliefs in a volatile situation. Yes, sometimes the truths driving the action are inherently wrong (saying a certain race is inferior). But sometimes it’s simply good beliefs elevated above people. Dogma and despotism are not far apart.

If being a Christian is entirely (or even mostly) about holding, spreading, and enforcing specific beliefs, it’s not a huge leap to the place where I have to make choices between people and abstractions. It’s not a much bigger step beyond that to taking my beliefs and using them to protect my own insecurities and vulnerabilities. It’s just a few steps farther to where I use ideas as a hammer to try to get other people to do what I think is right at the expense of relationship and compassion, all in the name of Truth.

But why would I say Christianity is the worst belief system out there? Because of the demands its laws make. They are not just demands of behavior, but of the heart. Look at the ten commandments: Worship God. Don’t Covet. Don’t Lie. If you dip into the New Testament, love becomes an explicit requirement. These go well beyond reasonable social contracts. In fact, I think if you tried to really enforce them, the social situation becomes untenable. If Christianity is what we know about God and His universe, if it is about getting closer and helping one another obtain knowledge of an objective Truth, if one of the foundations for believing God’s laws in the Bible are superior because they are the best foundation for social contract—we are all screwed. (Jesus’ disciples got this. See Matthew 19:10)

“But, Amy,” you say. “But, Amy, we (Christians) have Jesus!” Yes, we do. “We have Jesus who died for our sins so we don’t have to live up to those rules.” Yes, also true. But I am not convinced that we Christians fully embrace that any more. Listen the next time you hear the gospel preached—it so often stops at “Jesus came to save us from our sins” without adding the absolutely critical, life-altering “SO THAT He could be with us. SO THAT we can have eternal life united with Him.” The cut-off version of the gospel runs a significant risk of telling us God saved us so that we can live better lives. If improved morality is the end point, salvation is an event that simply enables us to live the life we ought to. It does not relieve us of the burden of dogma and despotism, it (supposedly) zaps us with the power to meet their requirements. We still end up judging one another and ourselves when we fail. Eternal life becomes a reward rather than a restoration of the state we’re meant to live with God. We are left scrambling after a goal that is still unachievable (just maybe a little less so).

Do you see why I’m not at all surprised any more that the same culture that produced the Moral Majority in the 70s helped elect Donald Trump? It may seem inconsistent, but that is where elevating dogma over relationship—where believing that Jesus’ atonement zaps us with special powers to do good—will get us.

Some people see this as a reason to abandon Christianity entirely. If a religion doesn’t work as a belief system, what good is it? For my part, I have learned something different over the last few years. I’m learning to discard faith in beliefs for faith in a Person. I’m learning to read the Bible to help me recognize Him acting in my life rather than looking for truths that I could explain and validate. It’s the difference between knowing ABOUT someone and knowing someone personally. It’s the difference between an abstraction and a life lived alongside a Person.

Religion as we typically think of it today is about a What. About a truth understood in my head. About a way of living that serves as a solid social contract. It’s about a better life lived through precepts. I do not consider myself religious because I have faith in a God who claimed that a Person is The Truth, a Person is the Way, a Person is the Life. For me, loving God isn’t the What but the Who. Instead of dogmatically explaining all of the things I think I know about Him and what He wants by hanging the ten commandments in the courtroom or pointing out the specifics of all of the ways people have broken God’s laws, I can point the people I love to a Person who loves them, who wants to know and be known. I can set judgment aside because the One who has a right to judge died for them and for me. I don’t need to use beliefs as a hammer to show people God’s ways and get them to act right because they have their own path to experiencing the Way themselves.

I’m not religious because I believe in Christ. Christianity may very well be the worst religion possible. To try to follow its laws is to set yourself up to fail. To insist that others do it is oppressive. I believe in a Person who uses those laws to remind us that we need Him, as a persistent call to relationship rather than a hammer to enforce behavior. Who called us closer as He delivered those laws and who ultimately suffered and died for the sake of being able to know us as we are. Religion elevates a way of life as practice. It shows us what is required of us for a good life. Jesus fulfilled those requirements (and paid the price that failing to meet them exacts) so that He could be WITH us. If I’m a Christian, a “little Christ,” I have to constantly ask myself if I’m doing the same. And right now that means not being religious.

Just Ask

I’m at a writer’s conference in Homer, Alaska this week. I came here with no intention of going to all of the sessions. I’m getting enough conference to fuel my own writing time. The rest of the time I’m sitting in this very homey yurt writing, eating oatmeal and yogurt, and poking my head out every so often to enjoy the view from the oceanside bluff 15 feet away. This morning I skipped a breakfast cruise on a sunny day in one of the most beautiful bays on the planet to write. That’s how well writing is going. I don’t regret it.

This morning I looked at the day’s schedule and saw a panel discussion on how to get a literary agent. My first thought was, “I suspect that, when I’m ready, I’ll just ask for one.” I needed time off work to write, I asked for it, and I got it. I needed a reader, I asked for one, and I met a former Hollywood story analyst on Match. (Who even knew “story analysis” was even a thing? I didn’t.) The day I started writing, I wrote about humpback whales in nearby Turnagain Arm. When I’d finished writing about them, I went for a hike on a ridge overlooking Turnagain Arm and—guess what?—there were humpback whales. Humpbacks in Turnagain are an infrequent enough occurrence that there were news crews lining the side of the road to catch them on camera. The universe seems to care about my writing.

Now, it’s easy to point this things out flippantly, and I’m a bit ashamed to say that I’ve done that. Maybe even more than once… Need something? Just ask God. He cares about your desires and your needs more than you do, especially if you’re on His path. JUST ASK. Your words have power! I mean… whales, amiright? But as I thought through what it has taken for me to be prepared for those requests to be filled (or to be worthy of them when they are filled), I realize just how much work and change on my part these prayers have required. Before I ever asked my boss for time off work, I’d had a strange inkling two years earlier that I should learn to live on less. I worked toward that. For two years. Before I ever understood why I’d want to do it or even had a desire to ask for it. That’s a case of God preparing me to ask.

Then there’s the Reader… I asked for one, thinking I needed someone to help tell me if my writing was accomplishing what I wanted it to. Of course, he can do that well, but what he’s REALLY done for me is help me uncover my real purpose in writing. I thought I was going to get advice on craft, he’s helped me uncover the meaning I was going for. When you’re writing a memoir, that is a difficult and often painful process. It’s not just about figuring out the real subject of my book, it’s figuring out the meaning of events in my life. I didn’t know it when I asked for a Reader, but I needed someone to ask me pesky questions so I could understand myself. As he says sometimes, “You needed someone to read YOU.” It’s been nine months working with him of really brutal soul-searching (which includes a lot of writing things out that will never see the light of day) to get to where I can finally write the thing that was in my heart, I can finally SEE it for myself. After a year and a half total of writing, I’m finally writing things that may actually make it into a book. Maybe.

I’ve found that when God reveals or provides something, it is not usually a resolution to a problem. Or, it may resolve the obvious problem, but it is a gateway to uncovering the much more complex underlying problem that I didn’t even know was there. It’s not the end of the story, it’s the beginning. My pastor likes to say that God never does anything that will make us less dependent on Him. If I asked for a candy bar and He gave me one and I skipped off to do my own thing… It doesn’t accomplish anything besides me having a candy bar, and that’s just not usually the way He works. He’s never done that in my experience. Even my infamous red boots—the ones plastered all over this blog, the ones He turned red just for me—I had to PAY FOR THOSE with a couple hundred bucks I probably would have used for other things if He hadn’t done that. I literally bought into—invested in—His response to my prayer. And they weren’t the end of the story. They were the beginning of me asking more and more boldly, of learning to push toward the answer when it doesn’t come right away. They opened a whole vista of possibilities in prayer that I had no clue about.

Jesus said, “And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” (Luke 11:9) I think we read those words expecting God’s solutions to be simpler than our own. We figure out what we want or need and how to get there, and then we ask. We expect the heavy lifting to be in the completion rather than in the execution of the solution. We ask Him to do the task we think will put the last nail in what we want, assuming our job is to figure out everything else (Maybe that is what Jesus meant when he said we “ask amiss”?) I have found that His answers are much more complex and nuanced than I could imagine on my own, and they usually require a lot of learning and growing on my part. He doesn’t just put the roof on my need, he works with me to build the house from the foundation up.

It’s funny how that verse is followed by one that sounds repetitive if you’re not reading carefully: “And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” (Luke 11:9-10) The first verse is about the actions of asking, seeking, and finding. The second is about BEING someone who asks, who seeks, and who finds. Actions vs character traits. If I let Him, God uses my request to turn me into something new.

Those verses are preceded by a story about getting what you ask for if you are persistent (Luke 11:5-8). I’m starting to think that persistence pays off because it gives me opportunity to grow my heart and enlarge my mind to prepare me for God’s solution. Every time I repeat my request, I am a different person from the one who asked last time. They are milestones on my path to becoming an Asker, a Seeker, an Opener. Whenever I ask, I’ve rounded a bend in the path and I can see more. I’ve heard the C.S. Lewis quote all my  life, “It [prayer] doesn’t change God. It changes me.” I think I am finally starting to understand that.

So, I will ask for a literary agent. I will ask now, and I will keep asking. I will acknowledge that in asking for a “literary agent,” I may get more than I bargained for. My path to being ready for one might include panel discussions on literary agents, but it might not. I know that, when I ask God, the path is a whole lot less about strategy and a whole lot more about asking and letting His guidance change me. I expect that I will get an agent, and I also expect to be a different person by the time I do.

Forgiveness: The Story We Tell Ourselves

A few weeks ago, I took an all-day train and boat trip to see some Orcas in the wild. (Side note: sometimes I read the sentences I’ve written about my life and I have trouble believing how magical it is. I love Alaska.) When I wasn’t gawking at the scenery going by (mountains, glaciers, moose, bears… Oh my) I was reading. Two books, both a lot to chew on: Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey and The Emotionally Abused Woman by Beverly Engel. I kept alternating between them because each one was a lot to handle at once. They made for an interesting combination. Two kinds of empowerment, side by side.

The Emotionally Abused Woman was illumating when it comes to uncovering pain. And, as my friend and fellow traveler (physically and metaphorically) pointed out, what woman hasn’t been abused at some point? The number of women I know who haven’t is very, very low.

It’s a good thing to uncover pain, to lean into it, explore it, get angry about it. The first few chapters covered that, but then the author had this to say: “The entire healing process would likely take quite some time. During this time, you would be working on becoming more self-reliant, learning to trust your own judgment and perceptions, and raising your self-esteem…” She goes on to recommend psychotherapy, group therapy. Years of both.

Maybe I’m a dreamer, but… why does that have to take time? I don’t buy that.

Lies are the foundation of abuse. Lies that stick, lies that we start repeating to ourselves over and over. I will agree that it often takes time to realize I’ve been lied to. Abuse imprints the lies so deeply into my psyche that I confuse them for Reason, Conscience, Truth. I begin to see my world through them. If I have lived in that cloud for years, it can be difficult to learn to discern what is fog over my eyes and what is True. The world clear of fog looks unnatural and scary. It doesn’t look Real because it’s been so long since I’ve seen it. That takes time.

But there are two ways to deal with that. One is to clear the fog with a borrowed story specific to the pain. Engel follows her statement about the lengthy healing process with a recommendation for twelve-step programs, specifically Adult Children of Alcoholics and Codependents Anonymous. I have quite a few friends in recovery. Some have embraced the recovery identity, and they are amazing people who have saved countless other lives. I have nothing but respect for them. But there are others who have stepped beyond the recovery community. They feel like the constant reinforcement of the Addict identity is too limiting, that its ability to empower has a ceiling. I tend to agree with them. I don’t want my identity to be Addict/Abuse Victim/[Insert Weakness Here]. I want my identity to be Amy, Beloved Daughter of the Living God.

The power of recognizing pain is that it shows me that I need to be healed. Like the blind man in the Bible, I need to recognize the pain and WANT healing before it can happen. But borrowed identity that focuses on the pain point only addresses one wound at a time (or several). If I build my armor for each flaming dart that comes at me, I will spend my life constantly building new defenses. “My name is Amy and I’m a…[fill in the blank]” only battles the [fill in the blank].

It’s a mentality that builds an artifice around each wound. It comes up with rules that help us battle the thing that hurt us before. “Never again!” I won’t belittle myself again by repeating insults in my head, and here’s how. I won’t marry someone like that again, and here’s how. It acknowledges the power of the thing without overcoming it. If I don’t transcend the fog—if I only borrow some lenses that help me see through it —it has limited effectiveness.

I want to learn to shine in the fog instead of waiting for the light to come to me. I want to be the lighthouse instead of listening for the foghorn. Could it be that this is what Jesus meant when He called us the light of the world?

That is the second way, to BE the thing rather than to borrow it, to tell myself a big story instead of small one that’s pain-specific. I recently told a story at a local story-telling forum about a necklace my ex-husband bought me. As I put it on for a date, I remembered some odd things about when he gave it to me. The past took on a new meaning, and as I unpacked the new story, the necklace became something different for me. I sat in that for awhile, feeling bad for myself. And then I decided enough was enough. And I rewrote the story—the meaning of the past—with the Truth that I know deep in the core of my being.

The thing is, the past doesn’t change. What has happened to us doesn’t change. How it affects us does change, and we have a tremendous amount of power over that. Forgiveness is an incredibly powerful thing for everyone concerned. Lifechanging.

I’m not recommending glossing over the bad things that have been done to us. Forgiveness is not saying, “It’s okay,” or “they didn’t mean it.” It’s not swallowing the bad things others have done to us. It’s not keeping quiet about them, either. I think real forgiveness requires feeling the pain—REALLY feeling it. We have to see and feel the pain before we can look it square in the eye and decide that it will not define us.

The best definition of forgiveness I’ve heard is that it is deciding that the sin done against you will no longer affect you. That you will not try to compensate for the loss by hurting others OR YOURSELF. There may be layers of things to uncover that we need to forgive, but as we do, the decision to forgive at each step in the process can be a quick one. It’s deciding that who I am is not about what has been done to me. It’s a decision that may need to be made over and over, but every time it comes up it can be a quick one if I learn to tell myself the right story.

Isn’t that what Christ taught us? His blood paid the price and we are now God’s children, no matter what we’ve done or will do? I can forgive because I’m forgiven. My identity no longer depends on what I—or others—do. I can suspend my “right” to judge because there is nothing anyone can do that can take away my right standing before God. If I can tell myself that story, wrongs turn into learning experiences. I can give away my cloak and I can turn the other cheek.