Guest Post: Poisoning the Well
Today's guest post comes from one of my favorite people, Grace. Grace is a former evangelical Christian, recovering academic, spouse to a pink-haired musician, and mama to a wise-cracking 4-year old. She's the founder of the religion and gender blog Are Women Human?, and a writer and commentator on media and culture from a black, Nigerian American, queer feminist perspective. Say hi to her on Twitter at @graceishuman. _____________
My spiritual history looks like a classic evangelical cautionary tale. I was raised in “bible-believing” churches that were extremely conservative, politically and theologically. By the time I graduated from college (a “secular” school far enough, at least, from home,) I was a political moderate and emergent-ish Christian, pretty close to universalist on the question of salvation.
A year later, my husband and I were attending mass and on our way to officially joining the Catholic Church. After a few years as devout and liberal Catholics, we both went through a period of intense spiritual doubt, triggered by becoming parents, and realized - though not quite at the same time - that we no longer believed in God at all.
To some, our story is confirmation of all they fear about “liberal theology”: that it is, as Erasmus Darwin once said of Unitarianism, a “feather-bed to catch a falling Christian.” We didn’t head down the slippery slope to apostasy so much as tumble to the bottom at breakneck speed.
From where I stand, though, this path was created not by my exposure to different Christian traditions and other faiths. It was created by the rigid, exclusionary faith I was raised with - one that left little room for growth, adaptation to new information about the world, or questioning. Underlying all this was the image of a God who demanded “love” in the form of fear and complete obedience, and whose “justice” meant harsh punishments for minor, arbitrary sins.
In retrospect, my spiritual wanderings were an attempt to make sense of the inherent contradictions in what I’d been taught about God. The more I learned about myself and others, about the world, the less I could reconcile fundamentalist claims of divine love and justice with the actions and consequences claimed in their God’s name.
I guess things began to get shaky when I started attending public school, in 9th grade. I can already hear the knowing comments - public schools are cesspits of iniquity and lefty brainwashing, after all. But the challenge wasn’t liberal indoctrination; I was quite set in my beliefs. No, the problem was that I made friends who weren’t Christians, or the right kind of Christians, for the first time, and they were nice people. Many of them seemed to embody real kindness and love better than I or most “bible believers” I knew.
How to reconcile this with the dogma that they were all condemned to eternal torture because they believed the “wrong” thing? I couldn’t. Instead, I found comfort in a theology of salvation cobbled together from Lewis and L’Engle. A loving and just God would want salvation, not hell, for as many people as possible. He would honor a good life, lived in good faith, Christian or not.
Each successive step outside my Christian bubble chipped away at the image of God as judgmental patriarch. My very first night at college, I met someone who was openly lesbian for the first time. Much to my confusion, she was also a devout Christian. Another puzzle. I met all sorts of people I’d been taught were “worldly,” incapable of true good, enemies of the family, haters of God: Muslims, liberals, feminists, atheists…It didn’t take long to realize I had been egregiously lied to about who these people were. And it made me wonder all the more if I’d been lied to about who God was, too.
My faith looked very different by the time I finished college. I no longer believed in demons - folks who grew up Pentecostal know what a big deal this is. I was iffy on the Devil. I was pretty sure God condemned very few people to hell. The Hitlers and Stalins of the world, sure. But everyone who wasn’t a “true” Christian? No. More than that, I was certain that love in action and treating others as I wanted to be treated were at the heart of the Gospel. And a God who wanted people to live according to this Gospel would be more concerned with whether people showed love to others than with, say, who they slept with.
In a sense, Catholicism allowed me to keep my faith for a time. It seemed to resolve the contradictions between worshipping a Christian God and my growing convictions about social justice. Whatever else one says about the Catholic Church, they have a robust, diverse social justice tradition that allows liberals and progressives to continue to call the church their spiritual home even as they disagree strongly with some of its leadership.
I ultimately left the Church, not because of any particular issue with it - though I certainly had serious disagreements on LGBT issues, and on gender justice more broadly. Rather, the birth of our daughter brought up, for both my husband and me, memories of our religious upbringing in conservative churches. We both remembered being terrified of God, terrified of hell, just terrified in general. We didn’t want that for our child. But somehow the idea of raising her to believe in a truly loving and just personal God didn’t make sense. I could no longer sustain the belief that such a God existed.
I’m not talking about scientific probabilities, though I think the odds that a personal God exists are vanishingly low. What I mean is that the God I wanted to believe in, a loving, kind God who was slow to judgment, was still haunted by the God I was taught to believe in. I couldn’t shake off the message drilled into my head as a child, that people abandon “difficult” and “challenging” faith in a divine judge because they want a God who signs off on whatever they do.
I knew, intellectually, that this wasn’t true. Neither my one-time faith as a liberal Christian nor my current agnosticism came out of a search for a philosophy that would allow me to indulge my whims. I was in search of a God who was truly love, not just the assertion of it. But the longer I tried to hold on to belief in God as Love, the more it felt like a cop out. Like I’d made for myself the kind of God I wanted.
The God I was raised to believe in was an abuser wrapped in the trappings of divinity. I couldn’t believe in him. But I couldn’t believe in a God who was anything else, either. The faith handed down to me was a house of cards that threatened to blow over if any single tenet was less than entirely true, and its cornerstone was a poisonous image of God.
I don’t wish I hadn’t been raised Christian. This might surprise some people to hear. I wish I’d been raised with a more expansive, less fearful faith. The cramped, narrow Christianity I was raised with ended up killing my faith in God. That’s the danger in what you teach your kids about who God is: they just might believe you.