Jul 29 2014
I’m 29 and have been in recovery from evangelical fundamentalism for a few years now. I’m still trying to assemble an identity and a life apart from God.
I was born in Philadelphia and grew up in a ministry family. My father served at churches and non-profits in different regions of the US with wife and two children in tow. We followed God’s lead, no matter how indecipherable the directions. Dad was the official recipient of the Holy Spirit’s messages, and Mom was dutiful but strong-headed. Uncertainty, pressure and tension followed us wherever we went. My little brother and I cycled between imaginative play and overt hostility, riding atmospheric waves of marital discord. Common features among our childhood homes were egg-shell floors and thin walls.
God was the real head of our household. Authoritarian and perfectionist, he was never pleased. Heavenly Father’s nature kept my Earth Dad feeling just shy of the mark in every endeavor. Dad wore the frustration and self-loathing on his sleeve, often reminding us: we humans are weak and worthless on our own; “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” (Isaiah 54:6)
Jesus was our counterbalancing comfort. I applied the warm salve as needed- an antidote to intrusive images of hell and demon-possessed Disney cartoons. Jesus alone could save me from an eternity of torture, for the price of one heart, one soul and my eternal consciousness. Never having bonded with my own heart or intuition, I considered it a small sacrifice. What’s the rest of my life on Earth compared to forever in paradise?
Throughout my teens, I sought to better understand and defend the doctrine by studying apologetics. As a naturally rational, literal person, I always fought cognitive dissonance when it came to biblical claims and miracle healings. But my rare moments of peace and reassurance all came from the Holy Spirit. God, in his three persons, anchored my intellectual, psychological and emotional experience. And I couldn’t imagine life without the Truth, now believing there was an air-tight argument for every Christian claim.
To reject God was dangerous self-delusion. But the fact that most people in the world were so deluded felt tragic. Does the bulk of each generation end up in hell? What did our God do to earn His monopoly on universal Truth? Why was this wasteful setup okay with Him? Of course, these were silly, petty questions coming from me. Who was I to question the Way Things Are? I knew better. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.” (Proverbs 3:5)
I sometimes debated with nonbelievers during my years at Vassar College, even as I enjoyed a new freedom to explore the taboo (philosophy, evolutionary theory, cheap vodka in plastic cups). Though I loosened up just enough to fit in, I remained decidedly chaste and avoided drunken flings in favor of the same innocent crushes I’d had since kindergarten. I was the sexually non-threatening good girl- not too uptight to party, but willing to stand strong in her faith when challenged.
My college friends’ carefree living and casual dismissal of fundamentalist beliefs had planted additional seeds of pesky doubt, so I opted for an evangelical graduate school (Regent U. in Virginia Beach) in an effort to get closer to my spiritual kin and re-cement my relationship with Christ. Immediately irked by some of my new schoolmates’ lack of intellectual curiosity, I gravitated toward the misfits who wrestled with doctrine and started debates in class. I was most at-ease with my small group of male friends; we’d stay up until morning talking, watching thought-provoking R-rated movies, and fishing for live lobsters from the tank at our favorite dive bar.
By the end of my Master’s program, one thing was clear: No one really had it all figured out. I started to entertain the thought that we were all just human, in the same boat, trying to navigate our way through life without clear intel. The people I’d expected to reassure me didn’t live as if they had the Ultimate Answer to Everything. I flirted with new terms- Christian anarchism, sola scriptura , liberation theology. Maybe my faith could be made more grounded, personal and practical. I applied for the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. They shipped me out to Los Angeles to work full-time at a non-profit, in exchange for room and board at a South Central home shared with four peers.
There was no better place than California to encourage the free-spirit contrarian in me. The vaguely Catholic JVC program and its functionally agnostic members had me more disillusioned than ever. That idealized, workable brand of Christianity now seemed elusive and pointless. During my first year in LA, I started to understand the concept of pluralism, and I met my first serious boyfriend- a former Christian with boundless curiosity and creativity. Self-directed and oddly at peace with the troubling conditions of mortal existence, he patiently prompted me to ask myself the tough questions whenever I began to evangelize.
Soon, I was allowing myself to consider the possibility of thinking more critically about my worldview. Before I knew it, I was at a point of no return; one foot was firmly out of the fold. I removed the other after a short-lived re-dedication to church and small-group bible study. The moment of epiphany occurred during a routine devotional in my room one afternoon. What if the Holy Spirit is in my head? The intrusive thought interrupted my silent prayer. Why must I continue to stoke this fire each day? If this is the unavoidable Truth, why do I spend so much time convincing myself? Before I could squelch the urge, I pried my laptop open to search the internet: “bible contradictions.” I wanted to see if the inerrant Word of God could be legitimately de-legitimized, and I wasn’t going to restrict myself to the apologists this time. I was a nonbeliever almost overnight.
Some aspects of religion were easy to let go of. The fantastical, impossible claims and ignorant laws became laughable even as they began to make perfect sense in light of their context of human authorship and archaic social structures. But in the years since my de-conversion, I’ve struggled to build self-worth and a strong agenda of my own without the help of an all-powerful personal Savior. No longer does an infinite God pause to make me feel like the center of the universe for a minute or two. No more warm, fuzzy Holy Ghost visitations or words of discernment. No more miracles or speaking in tongues.
Now, thrilling epiphanies and occasional moments of meditative peace and transcendence promise spiritual wellness apart from religion. I still struggle to trust myself and my own experience without having to fit everything into a box. It feels unfair to accept this peace without also accepting the unfortunate conditions of judgment after death. It feels weird to claim my life as my own. I realize the need to self-parent, to give myself permission to make mistakes without repenting.
I’m just entering a new phase of faith-based living, where I put trust in what I know to be real- natural cause and effect, the transformative power of hope and love, the efficacy of strong desire and hard work when it comes to pursuing goals. Residual shame and fear often keep me from being truly vulnerable with myself and others, but I now seek community with those who understand the unique predicament of a former child of God. I hope my story will encourage someone else to share theirs.