I sat down to read a book by an atheist the other day. What better way to validate my religious hesitations than by reading someone who vehemently opposes the core of Christian teaching?
I briefly mentioned my desire to expand my reading in a post recently, and a religiously affiliated person commented that while external reading, or more specifically, diverse forums of discussion might be what I think might be helpful, it is not what I need. (What I need is Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Bible, etc. etc. etc., duh.)
Friends, I gotta tell ya, this seriously infuriated me. This is one of the fundamental issues I have with the church, and something I think a lot of Christians fail to understand when their friends or congregational members reconsider the doctrine that is preached on a Sunday morning. I want to engage in conversation because I care. If I didn't care about the concept of God or spirituality as a whole, I would not be writing this blog. I would not be answering emails. I'd simply be giving the church the finger and going on my merry way. I need this dialogue. And when you say it's not what I need, you are, in effect, telling me I'm not strong enough to handle it.
I am reading widely so that I can make an informed decision about something as huge as faith with every view considered. If Christianity is right, then no matter what I read, no matter how convincing the opposing arguments, I will come back. I will make my choices with confidence rather than with guilt or ignorance or comfort. I trust in me and I trust in whatever higher power that exists to lead me there.
So, what better place to start than with Sam Harris, a renowned philosopher, neuroscientist and criticiser of organised religion? Yes, the Devil was crouching at my door, but I was willing to let him in for a bit.
One evening, after a glass of wine and a hot bath in the dark, I built up the courage to open ‘The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason’. I curled under my doona and switched on my bedside lamp and turned the first page.
Truth be told, I was scared. By page 2, my anxiety had well and truly flared. Despite my very public rejection of the need for organised religion and the Christian church, my hands shook as I dared to read a book written by someone who was, as far as Christians were concerned, destined to hell (and wanting to take me with him).
At the very core of my anxiety there was guilt and it was permeating in all its insecure glory.
I felt guilty for questioning and actively seeking answers and this made church as a whole seem dangerous and close-minded. I felt like I was reading a secret that had been kept from me by the rest of the world, and maybe even by the leaders of the churches that I had attended.
Why do I feel so goddamned guilty whenever I deviate from the path that was set for me by organised religion? Why haven't I been encouraged to read anything other than a Christian's perspective on things?
From the pulpit, I was encouraged to question my faith, but the church never facilitated the ability to comfortably do so in congregational discussion. How often have my Christian readers sat through ‘Question Time’ on a Sunday? I mean sure, ask questions in Bible Study, talk about it in detail (but watch the time, we need to make our way through all the questions in our study book!), but do you think people who are questioning religion really want to go to Bible Study AND church every single week?
So with all these thoughts flying through my head, my anxiety and guilt making the read more strenuous than any uni reading ever was, I put the book down. I decided that I had moved from one extreme to the other too quickly- from the Bible to an atheist’s manifesto. I needed to start slow. I needed to grapple with my own spiritual trauma first, before I read into other belief systems.
I haven't picked up Harris' book since.
I started listening to a podcast called The Liturgists, recommended by my good friend Sally. They describe their team as one which has 'an unwavering commitment to creating safe spaces and conversations that explore reality from the perspectives of art, faith, and science.' They're ultimately Christians, but not in the way that post-Christians cringe at. They are devoid of trigger words- 'God's Will', 'body of the church' and 'saved by grace'- the stuff that makes us mad or roll our eyes during our exit from church.
I listened to their episode called ‘Spiritual Trauma’ with clinical counsellor Hillary McBride, trauma psychotherapist, yoga and contemplative practice teacher Teresa B. Pasquale Mateus and Reverand Carol Howard Merritt. It’s a 2-hour episode, but for those interested it’s worth it.
Teresa wrote a book called ‘Sacred Wounds: A Path to Healing from Spiritual Trauma’ which I purchased to understand my pain and move on. She addresses 11 steps familiar to many who have lost their way:
1. Recognise the inconsistencies in your faith system or with the persons within your faith system
2. Begin to question
3. Seek outside input
4. Leave your spiritual home or faith of origin
5. Begin your own pilgrimage into the spiritual desert (or, 'my spiritual runaway phase')
6. Enter angry stage of grief and loss (often accompanied by spiritual/philosophical nihilism)
7. Explore other beliefs, ideas and opportunities
8. Begin to reintegrate meaning, values and belief in some way for yourself
9. Begin to trust in individual and communal relationships again
10. Move toward the 'middle way' and away from absolutes
What is important here is that often, people who have experienced spiritual trauma must LEAVE THEIR SPIRITUAL HOME in order to reach a stage of enlightenment, wherever that may be. And yes! There's an angry stage! Oh man, it's not just me. I can slot myself right into this journey and maybe some of you can too.
I think this journey is important to think about for people still very much involved in organised religion. When friends are 'leaving the faith', we need to respect and love them through that journey. Friends, the Bible bashing or outright rejection of their worth as a friend when devoid of Christian teaching does more harm than good (and is frankly straight up judgemental). Stop hustling them on absolutes. You know the ones, the age-old 'you can’t sit on the fence', 'you’re either moving forward or moving back', 'Jesus either was who he said he was or batshit crazy' and 'figure out your answer in church instead'.
If you want to hustle, hustle by shutting up and listening.
Yes, sometimes you need to provide Biblical support- you believe it is God's Word and it would be naive of me to think that wasn't the first port of call. But sometimes you need to let them go and trust in their journey and the God you believe in instead.