I’ve been in therapy for a month now, trying to find a way to extricate myself from a life lived (and somewhat lost) in servitude to a religious body rather than a God. So far, the journey has been the cause of immense inner torment, coalesced with a paralysing loneliness and an inability to share with others how difficult the transition from existential certainty to uncertainty can be.
The cause for my formal exit from Christianity, specifically the Sydney Anglican sect, was triggered by rape. While travelling in late 2015, I "lost my virginity", my little golden ticket that I was predestined to cash in on my wedding night, promising ultimate sexual fulfillment. I was drugged, taken advantage of and left with my head in a toilet and blood on my sheets.
I was not mad with God. I was always taught that being a Christian did not mean you were exempt from sin and pain. It was all God’s ‘plan’ after all. Instead of being fueled by anger, my rape illuminated a world with purpose beyond the biblical messages I had come to understand.
I grew up in an apologetics-driven Anglican church. I would watch my mother lead the congregation in song with her arms raised while my Dad strummed an acoustic beside her, all smiles. If I wasn’t watching them, I was running around the back of the church barefoot, hoarding stolen morning tea goods and collecting all the pamphlets and newspapers because I loved the feeling of large piles of paper in my hands.
My father always taught me to ask questions, never to blindly accept what was preached at the front by a man who was ultimately, just a man. In the columns of my Bible many questions were scribbled, and some nights, when my father felt driven to sit on the end of my bed and pray with me, I’d launch all my questions at him, and we’d stay there long past my bed time discussing whether temptation was sin (for wasn’t the all-perfect God tempted?), and whether you were stuck with the Holy Spirit forever.
When I was old enough to stay home from church, my parents offered me a Get Out of Church Free card. While I was encouraged to join in with church activities, it was no longer compulsory. My parents were wary of inherited faith, and of forcing a religion onto their child who, in God they trust, would grow up with the wisdom and ability to make wise decisions about her spiritual beliefs. They believed their role as a parent was to produce an autonomous and responsible adult, and this extended beyond the realms of cooking and financial independence and into spirituality as well.
I returned to the church when I was 17. I sang, I prayed, I wrote notes in my wide-columned Bible. I remained until the age of 21, serving on the board of conferences and leading youth groups and doing the Bible reading up the front on Sunday nights. I could confidently speak of apostles, exegetical criticisms and the disparities between denominations. The 'Word' and 'He/Him' was always capitalized in my journals. I spoke about the Spirit moving within me and my brothers and sisters in Christ. I wrote of agape love, which was more than just love, love. I could say the Nicene Creed backward. I could spot a Christian in a room full of strangers a mile away, they had a certain way of talking.
Every Sunday a picture was painted of the life that the Christian Church had planned for me. I was to meet my lover in the row behind, or on a beach mission, or serving at a conference. He would be kind and full of grace, Godly and servant-hearted. We would date for a year, two years and questions were asked (‘What is your intention? Are you going to pop the question soon?’) and then we’d marry, the temptation of sex greatly impacting the timing. The wedding would be cheap, but full of members from the church, the people we’d served with on mission trips, those we met on camps and conferences and other churches when we visited those. We would have sex for the first time and it would be uncomfortable and weird but we would take comfort knowing that this was sinless and God-ordained. We’d fill our house with donations from church members and we’d have Bible verses in calligraphy framed on our makeshift shelves. We would pray before dinner every night, and read the Bible after every argument. We’d have children and we’d bring them to church. They would love children’s church, and we would love being on the roster for morning tea. We’d be aware of the hardships that come with marriage, but we’d embrace them, knowing that God’s grace is eternal.
But when I was raped, I took a step back from this perfect, harmonious picture, and realised I was standing in a never-ending hallway, where hundreds and thousands of other masterpieces were hung. The one I had been painted into at birth was titled ‘Sydney Anglican- Protestant, Christianity’. I soon learnt that I was welcome to stroll up to any of the other scenes in the gallery and peer in, wander around and even, God forbid (!!) find comfort in them.
I became immensely confused about the notion of God, no longer able to see Him limited to the Sydney Anglican painting anymore. I struggled to call Him a Him and I was exhausted by Christian dogma. I couldn't comprehend the unquestioning acceptance of the belief that millions of people from other religions who were striving to live their lives with love, kindness, and devotion were, for the most part, pre-destined to hell. My journal is littered with arguments with myself questioning learned behaviours and beliefs. How do I create new ones? How do I build a new structure after assault came and bulldozed what I thought to be Right and Pure and True?
The Church gave me everything human beings seek: social support, a coherent worldview, structure, meaning and emotional/spiritual satisfaction. To leave was to say goodbye to this comfort, to destroy the framework for my life and to enter what I’m labelling a 'permanent state of existential crisis'.
Arriving at a conclusion about where I see Christianity in the scheme of the world is not simple, and I still struggle with it every day. For some people, leaving the church simply means no longer showing up on a Sunday morning, no longer needing to make up an excuse for not attending Bible study. Life resumes as usual; their microcosm keeps flourishing, shifting, flowing. But I have found it agonising, the kind that looks like a crumpled heap on the bathroom floor, shaking, drowning from the weight of sermons and prayers and follow-up emails asking whether I've 'found a church yet?'. I feel the gravity of guilt on my soul, I feel the hands on my shoulders from confirmation prayers, I feel the pity from a church who are saying 'it's a shame she walked away, isn't it?'.
Three months ago, I moved in with my non-Christian boyfriend. It was the loudest voice I could send to the Christian community: ‘I am not a part of this anymore’. It was impossible to articulate to my boyfriend how much fear and shame overwhelmed me because of it. Even now as I wake before him, I look over at his soft, resting face and feel immense guilt. This person who is kind, loving, generous. This person who makes me laugh and skip with delight. He makes me guilty. We are sharing a bed and we are not married. He is not my husband, this 'unbeliever', this man of the 'secular world'.
I thought of all the friends who would find out of my great dating sin through Christian circles. Some would cry, many would take my name back to their Bible Study of strangers and pray for me. I was destined for hell – I had fallen away from the church, I was lost! Many stopped talking to me because they no longer knew how they could relate to me. With others, I made the active choice to dissolve the friendship. What would we talk about? Our ideas of salvation were so different, our purpose in life no longer enlightened by the same vision. I was uncomfortable, I knew I was now on their ‘actively pursue this week’ list in Bible study.
These friends do it out of love, out of a sincere belief that my life will be dramatically affected by my lack of doctrine, so I am not upset. I know, because I used to be them. I remember breaking down on the concrete steps at a Bible conference when I found out that my first love left the church. It completely destroyed me, and oh boy did I pray.
So with this knowledge, paired with the nagging voice on my shoulder reminding me of the life Jesus had once ‘called me to’, I am left in a hopeless state of anxiety. Christians would say this is the Holy Spirit calling me back, but I don’t think it is. Psychologists certainly wouldn’t argue it either, for RTS (Religious Trauma Syndrome), a combination of PTSD and C-PTSD (Complex), exists in scientific theory regardless of which religion you associate with. I think sometimes people return to structured religion because to leave would bring too much pain mentally, emotionally and socially. Sometimes it’s easier to stay put in the comforts of familiarity (and how many of us could say the same about our partners and our jobs?).
While I still uphold many of the morals that (arguably) have derived from Christian teaching, I no longer publically refer to myself as a Christian. Why? Because I don’t hold all of the beliefs of Christians anymore, and I am poorly representing them if I choose to label myself as one. I get drunk sometimes. I believe in same-sex marriage. I don't think you have to go to church to have a genuine relationship with God. I believe women should be paid fairly and have an equal role in a church setting (let them preach for God's sake). I don't care about predestination because humans will never understand it, no matter how many debates and open panels we hold about it. And don't ask me my perspective on Jesus please, I know you'll say he's 'either a lunatic or is who he says he is'. I've listened to all the apologetics sermons and attended all the workshops. I can write down what you'll say before you say it.
... and yet, I want to protect Christianity. Why? Because for so many soul-searchers, it’s the place that ignites their spirit and connects them to something much greater than themselves. From my years in the church, I recognize that it is a beautiful place- one of the few that welcomes, with open arms, the broken. What a beautiful picture of the love that all people- Christians and non-Christians alike, should have for each other.
With the aid of my counsellor, I have started to replace scripture with literature, and a church building with an unaccompanied bushwalk service every Sunday morning. I am finding ways to keep the habit, but the change the activity. To dispose of both, at once, has proven to be impossible for me. I am on a path of disassociation and of healing. I am learning to take comfort in the unknown, in the fact that human beings will never truly know. For how are there winners and losers in this life, if we don’t know what game we’re playing?
Christians, particularly those who were born in Christian churches, who attended Christian schools and have gone on to be qualified to work in the church, I ask that you step outside your Bible-rimmed bubble every once in a while and ask yourself these questions:
Have I thought about my spiritual existence beyond the church?
Have I read other religious texts freely, without Christian bias?
Would I take Christianity seriously if I was born in a different context- in Iran, Nepal or in a family of atheists?
Would I inherit the beliefs of my culture?
Do I genuinely believe that God has chosen me to believe this narrative?
While I struggle with the leftovers of indoctrination, I feel liberated to build a personal connection to God that is separate from legalism and structure. I know that my mission, whether God-given, inherent or driven by my own sense of character is to love fiercely, to protect those facing injustice, and to respect the environment that continues to prove its immense power over all of humanity.
How to Get There – Michael Leunig
Go to the end of the path until you get to the
Go through the gate and head straight out
towards the horizon.
Keep going towards the horizon.
Sit down and have a rest every now and again,
But keep on going, just keep on with it.
Keep on going as far as you can.
That’s how you get there.