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On the first of the two days I had set aside to think through my status as a Christian (without speaking to Michael) I chose to email one of my Christian friends whom I knew quite well and had been my sort of “go-to guy” with my theological and related questions. In the past few years we’d exchanged countless emails on topics in Christianity and its expression. I wanted to bounce all this off of someone who had known me for more than a few weeks, who wouldn’t panic and try to drag me back, who would listen and give me blunt and honest answers as he always had before.
In these last posts of my story I will be primarily quoting emails I sent him (as well as a few I sent Michael) during this time since they most accurately portray the way I was processing things right then when everything was a big mess of thought and emotion. I will try to give a bit of an introduction though, because a lot of them were written quickly (and because, for privacy reasons, I won’t be posting their side of the conversation).
My leanings right from the start of these two days was away from my belief in Christianity. A certain topic was bothering me a great deal. This was the topic of hell, which I had found myself skirting around in my mind in the past because thinking about it directly would force me to think about the unpleasant fate of some of my favourite people in the world. Why would these people who, just like me, are going through life, trying to do what’s right, what makes the most sense based on their experience, have to go to hell just because they neglected to be born into a close-knit Christian community? And why would my good friend who’d been such a help to me in the past few weeks (Michael), who demonstrated a genuine pursuit of truth with a willingness to sacrifice for it, because his experiences and pursuit of truth lead him away from rather than toward Christianity have to experience eternal punishment?
This is what I wrote to my Christian friend on October 22nd, 2010:
Here are more thoughts that I’m rambling to myself…I’m sorry for throwing this all at you but the place where I find myself is entirely unfamiliar to me and I think that right now you probably have a more solid understanding of who I am than I do…
I’m considering the prospect of losing my faith. It’s appeal is growing in me. It would be freeing to no longer adhere to the Christian faith. I would no longer be obligated to believe in hell. I wouldn’t need to believe that 90% of the people that I encounter in a day are going to go to hell, even the ones who are kind and well-meaning. I wouldn’t have to feel as though I’m constantly not doing well enough as a Christian, that I’m not following “God’s will” enough, that I’m not praying enough, reading my Bible enough, loving people enough, being humble enough. I wouldn’t have to feel like I always need to justify my actions to other Christians so they don’t judge me. I could love and help other people because I want to, not because I feel that this is what I “have” to do. I could see humanity as a beautiful thing. I could appreciate the different worldviews and beliefs. I could hold a deep respect for the experiences and decisions in people’s lives that lead them to where they are. I could accept their decisions and not worry about feeling an obligation to convince them of their “error.” I could be there to help them along if they’re feeling discouraged. I could see myself as an equal part of humanity, as another person just going through life, making decisions based on what makes sense and what has happened in my past, ready to learn and grow and be humbled. I could believe in what is good, according to what I “know” to be good without requiring an absolute justification, as I already know one can’t be found. I could love my Christian friends and [my home community]. I could appreciate what they stand for and believe. I could accept them and not look down on them in any way for the decisions that their lives led them to make.
The next day I wrote:
[…]I honestly have no idea what’s going on in my mind, but I know that I am very very much on the verge of doing something really stupid, or maybe really smart. I can’t tell right now. So I’m resolving to just rant and ramble at you because you are a Christian whom I have a great deal of respect for who knows me well and who will be completely honest with me. I’m really close to letting some guy that I’ve known for 4 weeks (Micheal) and met 3 times profoundly influence the rest of my life. So rambling is what I’ll do. And if you don’t want to listen, well, too bad, you have to because it’s your Christian duty 🙂
Yesterday and today I allowed myself to consider what the world would look like if I was no longer a Christian, what I would value, what people would mean to me, what I would be motivated by. I thought about how I would go about telling my parents, about how Christmas would be painful,[…]. I also thought about being able to see the people I pass on the street as not being hell-bound, but as human beings just like me making decisions based on what makes sense to them, living and getting by as best they can. I thought about the freedom of being able to help people without knowing that, no matter how much I may have uplifted them, if they don’t “accept Christ as their saviour” they’re going to burn in hell. I’m really on this hell theme, aren’t I? I think that is actually the core issue I have right now. I simply cannot bring myself to believe that [FriendA], [FriendB], and [FriendC] are going to hell unless they adopt a different world view. These are people I’ve come to respect and admire and I have to say, I don’t really want them to become Christians. I like who they are, what they stand for. Is it not entirely arrogant of me to maintain that they need to change? Why them and not me?
Interesting that you mentioned authenticity. That was exactly what I was thinking about today (well I was thinking about a million things, and that was one). I am completely sold out on authenticity. That’s why I became a Christian and decided to be baptized. Based on what I had experienced up until that point, it made sense to me that I should be a Christian. I believed in God, even talked to him. Christian theology made sense to me. I had all the cute anti-atheist arguments lined up. I had the cute little sadness to discovering God and finding peace process. At the time it was a very authentic move. I KNEW that’s what I wanted. I didn’t feel one nerve walking up in front of the church to give my testimony because I was so completely certain of my decision.
Now, I feel that “authenticity” might just be getting the best of me. I don’t really believe in God, or I don’t know if I do. I don’t believe in hell. I don’t believe that reason or logic can get anyone anywhere, therefore making it impossible to prove the truth or validity of any world view whatsoever, or any concept of morality. The idea of asserting that MY faith is THE faith and that I need to impose it on other people seems completely arrogant to me. I want to be able to say “I don’t know” when I don’t know. I feel that it would be a more humble move to simply say “this is what resonates truth to me, but I’m not going to impose it on you because I am aware of the fact that I could be wrong and that your experiences might make something else make more sense to you.” Feels funny hearing myself say that. Am I saying there’s no absolute truth? No. I’m just saying that I don’t pretend to have access to it. All I know is what resonates in myself as truth, or as valuable.
I feel that, right now, being authentic would be admitting that I am not a Christian. I’m really not, if I don’t believe in God, hell, or salvation. I don’t really read my Bible anymore. I don’t pray much, certainly not meaningfully, haven’t in a really really long time. I go to church, which might be the only thing holding me in.( I love The Meeting House. Everything Bruxy says just makes sense, even when nothing makes sense. It’s uncanny.) I don’t go to my home church (bible study) anymore. It just doesn’t mean anything and makes me angry. I find myself doing all the same things I did in [my home community], analyzing, critiquing, taking issue with everything, thinking it’s all “inauthentic” and people are hypocrites, that it’s all just sunday school answers dressed up in fancy words, then beating myself up for thinking that way, telling myself I’m just proud, then not knowing how else to think, not being able to think any other way. Just don’t feel like dealing with it anymore. It just makes me angsty and feel like crap. So I don’t go anymore.
This Michael character presented me with something phenomenally intriguing. His character is completely rock solid to the point that it scares me sometimes. There are certain values he stands by so strongly that it puts me to shame. I always expect to find that really it was all a facade, that he’s actually just insecure (though he has those too obviously) and there’s no ground to what he says. I really don’t expect a lot out of people, especially guys, especially acclaimed atheists so I naturally look with a wary eye at his every move. But he’s proven himself trustworthy time and time again. He basically tells me I’m dirt (aka true character analysis, not in a demeaning way, just honest), but that he’s willing to be a friend if I want, but if I don’t and just walk away that’s fine too. He’s done that multiple times. He’s NEVER pushed me to do anything. He always just says “here’s what I think” or “here’s my offer of friendship, take it or leave it.” If you want to be a Christian, I support you in that. If you don’t, I support you in that. If you want to mope around, sure. If you want to stop talking to me, so be it. But I’m willing to be your friend no matter what. And he means it. He’s shown it over and over again.
I’m shaken by the knowledge that I was born and raised in a Christian community. Of course I’m going to adopt Christian views. I don’t really know much of anything about other religions, and all that I learn about them is filtered through my “they’re obviously wrong and I must not be deceived by their deceptive evilness” goggles. It doesn’t seem so clear to me anymore. I’m seeing something else that resonates truth more than my Christian faith, something that embodies truth, humility, and other-centered love more than it does. Something that I could perhaps feel more authentic adhering to.
Why do Christians run to Bible schools or on missions trips or just get married to their second cousin and raise a cute traditional Christian family? Why are we so scared of “the world” and its “deceptive schemes?” Are we so uncertain of what we believe that we have to hide from those who believe other things? What if we would find out that they don’t need our “Saviour,” that they’ve found something better? What if we were humbled, admitting that we don’t actually know all that we thought we did? Why do we target children and the emotionally unstable in our “missions?” Why do we avoid those who are content and thriving (or convince ourselves that such people don’t exist, unless they’re Christians)?
I am unconvinced, debating whether I want to become convinced.
The back of my mind says that I’m just doing what everyone feared I would do all along. Go to big bad university, fall prey to all the evil deceptive atheist schemes and fall away from the faith. Or I’m just going through that “prodigal son” phase where I go off and do stupid things that I’ll regret for the rest of my life, coming back later with my tale between my legs, admitting that I really am just a pathetic guilty piece of dirt, even more so than I am now. Then I’ll have to spend years “healing” from that.
Maybe I’m just hurt, and don’t want to admit it. Maybe I’m tired of feeling like I can’t be a “good enough” Christian, that everyone’s always looking at me like I’m “doing it wrong,” like I should get with the program and go on a missions trip, that I shouldn’t study evil secular philosophy, that I should be “nicer” and more social, that I should stop being so quirky and questioning everything. I’m tired of trying to justify myself, but I don’t feel that I’m free to really say “I don’t care what you think” because I should accept “edification” from other Christians and smile and nod and admit that I’ve been a “bad Christian” and need to work on this or that thing. I don’t feel free to just “be.” There’s always something that I need to be doing more, or less. There’s always something I should be feeling guilty about. I’m tired of apologizing for myself, tired of trying to justify myself.
I spent this last summer beating myself up for everything I did in Grade 12 (and earlier), the way I treated people, the way I closed off the possibility of friendship with almost every last one of my class-mates, the way I came off as judgmental and proud. I now communicate with almost no one in my grade and every time I do it’s like stabbing a knife through me, reminding me of who I was and how I failed. There’s a lot more pain there than I realize. I always felt like dirt beside everyone else, not going to try to deny it. Never really got over it, apparently. Now being in [my home community] is like pouring salt on a wound. Everything reminds me of how I’ve failed. I was never the “good Christian,” good friend/encourager, the gungho “Jesus-loving” go-getter, etc. I was just the obnoxious judgmental flea. Maybe if I came home as an atheist, they could feel guilty for once.
Now that just sounds like me being insecure and melodramatic. But it’s me being honest. It’s not fun, feeling as though you completely screwed up the first 19 years of your life in an irreparable way.
I am so tired. Mentally, emotionally, spiritually exhausted.
I think it might be wise for you to take me seriously. The atheist in me is fighting hard, and I’m not always fighting back anymore.
But I’m talking to you, so that must mean something.
And now since I’ve exceeded 2500 words in this post, I’ll leave it here. (next post)