“For ridding oneself of faith is like boiling seawater to retrieve the salt — something is gained but something is lost.”
― Zadie Smith, White Teeth
I remember when my partner first introduced her closest friend as “Post-Christian.” While probably not the most salient identity marker for most Americans, it immediately told me much about Brenton. I hadn’t played with the term before, but after a pause I reached out to shake his hand, echoing that I was probably post-Christian as well.
Both of our partners were still Christian. Jaded, disobedient, exhausted, but capable of passing an evangelical litmus test. Trinity? Check. Atoning death? Check. Bible authority? Check. But we resided somewhere else.
Rewind five years and I had been in the beginning stages of ordination. I’m not sure what happened in the years between. None of my loved ones died. No clergy abused me. No atheist out-debated me. But something shifted in the dark.
When I first came across Peter Rollins’ “omega course,” a literal or hypothetical course that helps believers exit Christianity, I found the idea thought-provoking. But these days it feels more pressing. I find myself longing for such a shepherding community.
Exiting evangelical life isn’t straightforward.
Once one of my dearest friends accused me of being in “a polyamorous relationship with atheism and a benevolent, personal deity.” You could even substitute “Jesus” for the benevolent, etc part. The accusation is especially fair if you hold onto ethical non-monogamy’s value of both partners knowing about the other, and finding pleasure in my enjoyment of them.
An atheism that’s fond of my residual Jesus. A Jesus who’s tender to my atheism. I can probably live with that.
Once, when visiting the seminary I had graduated from, I sat with David Bazaan (formerly of Pedro the Lion) as he played songs for a couple hours, mourning, talking, answering questions from brash first-year seminarians. In one response, he identified himself as a “non-practicing evangelical Christian.”
He also used an ableist metaphor to describe his theological thinking. Then added “these things take a long time for me. I want to reserve the right to pass judgement on these questions as long as I can. Perhaps indefinitely.”
He was, by far, the most Christ-like person in the room.
Another time I sat in a dear friend’s one room Seattle micro apartment as they welcomed friends back home. The group had all graduated from an elite, private, evangelical Christian high school that cost as much per semester as my seminary had.
They had composed the school’s “Geography Club”. Ostensibly for students with enthusiasm regarding geography to gather and share in their common love. In practice, it was the school’s underground group for closeted queer students. Where they were two years after high school graduation was remarkable. Evangelical repression was no match for sexual orientation, authentic gender identity, or the temptations of kink, it seemed.
The circle batted around thoughts about the Bible. New lenses they had found to read it with. Room to respect its identity without contorting it into the terrifying shape of the literal, inerrant, word of an ancient G-D. But the most sensical, most grieved voice of the night pushed back, “Why should I spend one more minute engaging a text that was used to traumatize and shame me? That’s still weaponized against my existence? I have no obligation to redeem the Bible.”
It would make sense if that was everyone in the room’s stance. And yet it wasn’t. Some of us, maybe, are capable of this sort of clean divorce. But for many of us, it doesn’t seem that easy to walk away entirely.
Once on NPR I heard an excerpt from the book Tiger, Tiger:
And when it’s over, for people who’ve been through this, it’s like coming off of heroin and, for years, they can’t stop chasing the ghost of how it felt. One girl said that it’s like the earth is scorched and the grass won’t grow back. And the ground looks black and barren but inside it’s still burning.
Those words have haunted me for a long time. The empty feeling. The imagery of the forest fire still burning underground. Author Margaux Fragoso wasn’t talking about evangelical Christianity though. She was talking about the victims of pedophiles.
There was this girl who said it’s as if the pedophile lives in a fantastic kind of reality, and that fantasticness infects everything. Kind of like they’re children themselves, only full of the knowledge that children don’t have. Their imaginations are stronger than kids’ and they can build realities that small kids would never be able to dream up. They can make the child’s world … ecstatic somehow.
For those of us who couldn’t commit the intellectual, emotional, sexual suicide that evangelical Christianity required of us, there is still this religious fantasy world that we can no longer interact with in childlike earnestness. But we also can’t shake it off, like a vivid dream that lingers for decades… ecstatic somehow.
I don’t know that any of us as people know precisely what we believe. We have the illusion of a well-ordered theological system, one that can be written down and signed. But the waters are dark down there. The blatant certainty of Dawkins and company is as crass and hollow as the zealous sureness of evangelical circles. Neither able to acknowledge the quiet, organic nature of belief, or the deep spectrum of ways-of-knowing that descend farther into our subconscious than any of us can trace.
It doesn’t feel like the sort of mystery that agnostic walls can close off. It’s not that we can’t know what we believe. But so often, we truthfully don’t know what we believe. And whatever it is, it’s clearly shifting, growing, evolving.
Many of us are left with a complex relationship with evangelical Christianity itself. A deep sense of knowing that the world of Hebrew and Christian scriptures are, in a consequential way, true. An angry, stumbling, ancient G-D. Bewildered community. Mysterious hope that defies logical explanations. Tent pegs through the skull. Innocent animals cut to pieces. Cities laid waste.
A burning tower of fire that won’t go out.
There is the haunting sense of these stories being more real outside the dull, lifeless, literal, framework of the churches we grew up in. Away from the training wheels of a systematic theology that provided bumpers for their dangerous edges.
A demigod who was tender with women. Kind to sex workers. Unafraid of disfigured, contagious bodies. Unafraid of the Empire. Unafraid of death. Who saw more in us than any of us ever seem to see in ourselves. A demigod unafraid of our sexual shame, unafraid of our most grotesque failures. Unafraid of anything.
Holy ghosts animating our dreams, our tongues, our primal instincts. Communing with the eternal, with the transcendent, with the cosmos.
These stories speak to Jungian realities that we can’t seem to access through other means. Things we still know to be true. Contours of life that the most groundbreaking of streaming TV and poignant of Super Bowl ads can’t seem to gesture towards.
Stories that we aren’t sure how to explain to others.
So we light up when we find one another.
“You grew up Evangelical too?”