November 26, 2012 by panicpony
I think a lot about faith.
I don’t really know how to talk about it with people. I don’t particularly feel the need to talk about it. I find myself pondering it because I do a lot of work where faith is constantly being thrown in my face as a weapon, as an indictment, as an excuse. I see it used to justify hate, hateful actions, hateful speech. People frame and commit oppression around their subjective experiences with faith. It’s often the wall between an individual and reason, kindness, compassion, honesty. Faith seems like a scary thing.
I suppose many folks would say I am talking about religion, not faith. And I suppose they would be correct. For the religious, these two things are often the same, so this point doesn’t necessarily matter. It is quite difficult to discuss a separation between the two with someone who’s religion, rather than spiritual experience, defines their faith. This is not to dismiss the reality than many with a strict religion have spiritual experiences, but it can be impossible to determine if these are framed by the rules they follow or by a simple experience that transcends these man-made boundaries.
Thus is the ephemeral, abstract nature of faith, which makes it impossible to argue, to define, to dismiss.
My mother is a woman of faith, and I am sure she has her own deeply personal story explaining her ability to blend faith and reason, to be a woman with faith not just in a higher power but in the spirit of social justice. She is a powerful example that this can be a reality. That reality is something that is dismissed in a media that is ever hungry to portray a war between good and evil, between secular and spiritual; it’s also a reality dismissed by many, many people of faith, in unfortunately cruel and judgmental ways. I myself have been a skeptic since my earliest memories. This is the problem when you raise children to be critical thinkers (thanks Mom! That’s one of the best gifts you ever gave me!) AND take them to church. I am certain my mother talked about God when I was little, but my first memory of Jesus is of a trip to a Bible school at the church I would later go to until I graduated high school and left home. A woman told me briefly about Jesus, we all made red hearts with white letters spelling “Jesus” out of those little plastic beads that you then iron and they all melt together, and were taught the song “Jesus Loves Me” and were made to practice until we could sing it from memory. It wasn’t a bad time. The ladies there were nice, Jesus seemed nice, and I was too young to be given ultimatums. I trusted that Jesus existed, that he was a nice guy, but had no idea my immortal soul hung in the balance. With the advent of regular attendance to church, that all changed. Jesus still seemed nice; everyone else in the Bible, including his dad, seemed incredibly mean and pretty unreasonable about everything, and the sense of fear that I carried with me for a long time settled in. Even at seven years old, the whole situation seemed pretty fishy. I was trapped–I was smart enough not to take all this stuff literally, but emotionally confused enough to understand that NOT taking it seriously meant I was going to hell. My poor mother had no idea the confliction I had throughout most of my childhood.
As far as churches go, I could not have gotten luckier. My former pastor is actually a distant cousin of mine, and for the 80s and 90s in a tiny Eastern WA town, having a clergyman who was one of the first people to perform a gay commitment ceremony in that area, almost losing his collar over the ordeal, protests regularly for peace, and continues to advocate for marriage equality and social justice of all kinds, was the jackpot. It is a million to one chance that I, the skeptic, who believed in all the same things my pastor believed in when it came to social issues (even at 7!), lived in a tiny ultra conservative town, and was daughter to the town feminist, would land in this particular church. Even so, I spent most of my growing up believing it was boring, not worth my time, and irritated every Sunday morning as I was woken up and forced to put on pants that weren’t ripped. The truth is I was surrounded by many people who were filled with compassion, who truly cared about me and my family, who thought charity and love were more important than judgement and damning. I miss these people. It is impossible for me to deny that this didn’t have an impact on my life, and it has taken me this long to understand that regardless of how my faith, or lack thereof, has evolved, I was given a strong foundation that certainly informs my moral and ethical value system and how I live my life.
The kind of church I was lucky enough to grow up in is not easy to find, and is not particularly popular with the more severe, legalistic religious set. I remember going to other churches with friends, and immediately understanding that I was going straight to hell. I thought too much, I wouldn’t “give my life over to Christ”, and I didn’t raise my hands in praise and fervent singing. The idea of going to hell, which I was certain was my fate, wasn’t enough to allay my skepticism, or to get me to forfeit personal accountability for the ease of having a guy in the sky wipe it all clean. Most importantly, I knew I would rather burn forever than deny the inherent humanity of other individuals based on stories I knew did not fall out of the clouds from a omnipotent hand. The subjugation of women, the denial of humanity to gays, the inherent racism and celebration of colonization rampant in these churches I visited were not what I had seen in my church. While I stood firm in my refusal to take part in this, these other experiences were successful in scaring me to death and convincing me that it was either hell or justice. I chose justice as my faith, and the fear turned rapidly into bitterness and anger. I would go back to my church with the sense that it was a very nice place where most people were doing the right thing, but it wasn’t good enough. We were all going to hell.
Once I left home I barely gave church another thought. The sad reality was that the scary churches had a more immediate impact on me than the years I spent in my own. I sneered at faith, I assumed all Christians were bigots, and scoffed at the giant youth group on my college campus. Personal experiences didn’t help; a best friend “got saved” and rejected me so completely that there is an ache around that memory over a decade later. I still have no idea what, specifically, it was about me that her religion asked her to reject. I am sure it is as ambiguous and frankly ridiculous, yet absolutely concrete in her mind, as when Pat Robertson says such things as divorce is bad unless your wife gets cancer and can’t meet your needs. I don’t mean that as a jibe, but as an illustration of how utterly subjective and baseless these scary moral absolutes that isolate people from reality and kindness truly are. Spirituality is as hard to pin down as a dream; religion can be as solid and final as a piano falling from several stories right onto a passerby on a sidewalk.
It is far too boring and far too much effort to detail the zig zag of faith I have walked over my adult life, when I went out into the world alone to test all the things instilled in me as a child. As I grow more and more comfortable in my own skin, I have realized that the foundation I was given IS good enough; it was moral, it was ethical, it was right. I have never ceased to be a critic, and ironically, this has given me more faith. The more engaged I become in the struggle for justice on many fronts, the more I am confronted with the same kind of religion that made me feel so evil, so small. It makes me laugh; it makes me sad. It is selfish, it forces its adherents to reject their own intelligence, it asks them to put literalism over love. I rarely hear a remark from someone about their strict religious beliefs that isn’t at the same time an expression of hate speech. I have to be afraid of violent words and actions from the religious as I stand in picket lines, as I go get a pap-smear, as I stand up for myself to individuals. I say I have more faith now because all that skepticism gave me the will to educate myself, to learn the difference between faith and religion, to grasp the historical context of the Bible and the men who dictated it’s mythology, and to learn the difference between the words Jesus said and the tragic misinterpretation of them by history. I am still frankly baffled by this desperate need to be “saved”, to ignore everything except whatever perceived interaction with “Jesus” is occurring moment by moment, to give up accountability to a notion that nothing really matters because Jesus is coming back and he will just deal with it. I have never needed to be saved. I have never wanted anyone to clean up my messes, and I have never wanted to be separated from compassion. I have never needed to comb an ancient text for rules about when and when not to give. I recently read the testimony of a young woman. Her perspective about Jesus was complete disbelief over the unconditional love he was going to provide her if she did everything right. I don’t really know this person, and have no right to speak on anything except what I read, but with her words a light bulb went off for me.
I can conceive of unconditional love. I can give it, and with effort I can understand that others may want to give it to me. I am not baffled over the concept, and I understand that my life is not about earning that love from a higher power by following a hodge podge of weird rules written thousands of years ago, something that will keep me too busy to engage in reason, in reality, or responsibility to justice for my fellow humans. When reading this testimony, I felt I suddenly understood what has seemed so inexplicably selfish about the evangelical dogma that inundates Fox News, the anti-choice movement, religiously motivated bigotry, and just plain meanness. Somewhere along the line someone decided if you follow the rules that dictate these attitudes and behaviors, you will get Jesus’s love. What a sad statement on our treatment of each other that we so desperately want love we will engage in hate and untruths to get it.
I honestly have no idea what I believe. I am a spiritual person surrounded mostly by atheists, with a patchwork on my heart of the diverse spiritual interpretations that make up my family and friends. I know that in my most “sinful” moments I felt a presence letting me know I was ok and doing the right thing, and that every time I have tried to move away from skepticism a voice has pulled me back. Reason has kept me honest and I don’t need rules to be worthy of love. If there is faith to be had, it lies in our accountability to justice for each other and to ourselves for our own behavior, in an obligation to truth and not dogma, in an honoring of lived realities from all places and all faiths, in our desire to question.
I guess, ultimately, I believe that if there is any faith to be had, it stands in the certain acknowledgement of the grey areas, the existence of which is the only truth we really can ever count on.