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The Unbearable Lightness of Not Believing

obey

A guest post by Brian

God so loved the world that he gave his only son to die… This idea is foundational in Christian belief and something that has troubled me from childhood. I did not understand it and was told in my Fellowship Baptist upbringing that I did not need to understand the deeper matters of God’s Love, only obey without question, only serve the Lord.

Before I could muster two digits in my birthdays, I was taken into the depths of Hell in my dreams and witnessed what was going to happen to me because I was a human and not saved… Oh don’t get me wrong, I believed and I was terrified of what I believed but I had not walked to the front of the church during an altar-call and formally asked Jesus Christ to be my Savior. There is a very specific protocol involved in becoming the right kind of believer and there is no choice of styles or colors. At such a young age, there is only the pressing demand of family and church and of course, nightmares. For me, the nightmares finally tipped the balance and I decided it was time to brave the walk.

As it turned out, on that particular day, my preacher dad decided to focus on the urgency of the call to salvation and that this could very well be the last day of the offer. Tonight could be that night or even within minutes, seconds. God loves us so much that he puts off what we rightly deserve and waits for us to come freely. If you have any memory of what sheer terror was as a child, you are in the right ballpark here. When I look back, this was how freedom was defined in my life. I was free to choose alright. Either I do the walk and talk the talk and reallllly believe it or I am truly fucked. I knew this before I was ten and I chose. This is a poem I wrote about it half a life ago:

Just as I Am

Ten-year-olds

a dozen of us lined up

at the front of the church

because the world

just might end today

and we have all sinned

Romans 3, verse 23

our fisted, hounded hearts

and the preacher

offering one last chance.

Streets paved with gold

stream liquid

through amber

stained-glass windows.

Some of us softly weep

awful doubt in ourselves

our Baptist Jesus

and the preacher walking

our line and shaking hands

as if we were grownup

and big enough to deal

with being caught

between heaven and hell

on a Sunday morning

and our walking right

into the arms of it

idiot-faced

crying along with the music.

It is not easy for people to understand how devastating it is to a child to know that you have been the cause of the torture and death of the best man to ever be alive and to know that you are the one who is really guilty and will have to burn in a special place of forever-torture because God is great and will not be mocked.

I realized late, in my twenties, that I was truly brainwashed from the womb, that I was trained up and put through the routines just as soldier is and for the same reason: To create a one-track mind that obeys orders unto death. Onward Christian Soldiers marching on to war…

In my twenties, I began to ask ‘why’ a lot and look at issues that plagued me, the father God giving his son, and the example of Abraham and his great legacy blessed by God.

I lived in contradiction; unable to understand why I could not simply let go of doubt and why I began to feel angry with God for Jesus, dying and angry for Isaac; feeling a undercurrent of rage against a father who would give his own son…

I was not close to my father and he was not a man who had friends. He was an island, a preacher who spoke much when in a pulpit but very little any other time. He had no personal life to pass on or share with his children, only the way of Christ a la the Baptist church.

When I began to realize I was truly an unbeliever, I could not bear it and began a fruitless search to find the right church. Later I realized that I could create a Christianity that was my own and agreed with me and that it could be enough.

All the while I was slowly taking myself further from Christianity without ever rejecting Christ, to me the foundation and salvation of the person and the faith.

Before I had children of my own, I left formal belief in Christianity and was able to give myself permission to be full of feelings of all kinds, up and down and all around. I raged against the God of my youth. I told him he was a real prick for what he did to Jesus and that his nonsense with Abraham was just plain child abuse and showed what an asshole he was…. I talked to God for a long time after I was quite convinced that he was never real…. I still talked to him as I always had, as I was taught from early on…  I’m in my sixties now and have stopped talking to God but still chatter away at myself. I wonder what I might have been free to be or do had I been loved and supported instead of trained up.  I watch my brilliant kids, now almost on their own and both brilliant artists and human beings I admire with full, giving hearts and thoughtful directions. Neither have chosen to believe. I think that perhaps they are what I managed to do, that they are my only way to reach beyond the harm of my childhood and be allowed to be free, to play and freely speak.  I trust that I have not let them down because of the harm I have had to carry with me because of religion. I glory in their mortal company.

One thing very clear to me since being a dad, a real dad to my kids, a primary caregiver in some of their earliest years and a dad who learned to let his children lead him. I think Abraham was a sick man and that he responded to voices allowing him to abuse his son. I think the story of God giving his only begotten is long, long mental illness that bipeds are still struggling with since the caves. I rejoice in living and am so thankful for my life and family, for my few dear friends. I do not want to talk of eternal life or death but to live this Saturday till a new dawn. I  feel so sad for children who must face what so many of us had to face, the punishment, the loss  of innocence, the whole failure of the punishment paradigm.

Each day, I get up and ready myself for work and often I hear old Eliot whispering in my ear, “Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky…” Let us live. There is no greater purpose, nothing beyond a life lived fully. I can allow my own joy. Really. It was always there with me even in Hell at ten years old, but it took me half my life to say, okay, I choose life… I’m going to feel all of it.

My believing family still pray for me. I asked them to please stop, repeatedly, but they won’t. They do it for my own good, like parents who spank children rather than listen to them, like all of us perhaps who decide what is best for others by listening to our ‘voices.’

11 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Becky Wiren

    Very beautiful. Brian. I never had this kind of abuse, as my parents did not attend church. And yet I thought I wanted it for myself. Thankfully, I’m done with those beliefs. I’m glad you were able to let go and live. <3

    • Avatar
      Brian

      Thanks Becky. I laughed out loud when I read your words, “I never had this kind of abuse…” because one level of my denial included this sentence verbatim. Whenever I started to feel something negative about my family life in religion, I would flop-flop out of it by quickly focussing on somebody who really had it worse, much worse, the Dutch girl my age whose father beat her up or the children of Africa! Ha!
      No matter how bad I felt, there was always a way to tell myself what a suckhole I was and how I was every bit as bad as one had to be to crucify dear, sweet Jesus. I am grateful to hear that you did not face that kind of abuse.
      Fundagelical exposure as a child does damage to all children. It is designed to harm, to demand they fall from innocence into guilt and say they are sorry. It makes them say that their friends are bad too and will get what they deserve. It ruins children by design.
      Thankfully, as you say, I’m done with those beliefs too.

      • Avatar
        Becky Wiren

        You know what? I was a convert in my early 20s. I’m guessing that is the real reason I didn’t go through all of that crap. Our denomination tried to appeal more to adult’s intellect, in some ways. (And that may seem contradictory but then, isn’t all of Christianity a contradiction?) I was a Seventh-day Adventist. And in some areas of the country, that denomination was more liberal. In other areas, super, super conservative. I’ve come across former SDAs who were raised in the church, and they got the abuse.

        I should have known I was done with Christianity and being an SDA, when I left the church to deal with issues. For some reason, I thought I would return after I dealt with said issue. Well, I never did. Now I’m happy as a Universalist. And if I’m wrong, well, then I die. I had figured out years ago that the god I believe in is love, so whether that is a true being or just an ideal, I’m good to go.

        • Avatar
          Becky Wiren

          Oh, and I really am sorry for your childhood. My parents were mellow about what we believed. In fact, me being overly religious made them more uncomfortable. When I changed my beliefs, my family was pretty glad.

    • Avatar
      Brian

      Thank-you, J.D… Was your first acceptance of belief excessively fear-based? Notice how I preface ‘fear-based’ with the adverb? As if the fear itself is not enough! Poor kids… It is always the children who make my heart ache. Evangelical belief is such a wretched torture for children.

  2. Avatar
    Melody

    Great post Brian!

    What stood out to me was something that I still do sometimes: talk to God or in my case Jesus. It’s a habit that did get less over the years, as I realized I was becoming an angry, skeptical Christian and eventually not one anymore. Still I sometimes talk to him, basically just praying a bit and after a few sentences I’m sort of like: but this is pointless since I don’t believe you exist anymore… Letting go of an imaginary friend, I suppose.

    What also really got to me was the altar call thing: during this camp when I was twelve, they kept pushing the ‘you have to get saved’ message and even though I was already saved at the end of the week all of us were crying over our sins in this little tent. Fun vacation, or what?

    Later in college I sometimes had trouble partaking in the Lord’s supper. Often I had gone out the previous night and I felt guilty about drinking a little. I would then ask forgiveness and hope God wouldn’t strike me down as a sinner for eating his holy food. There’s this bible text about not partaking when you’re unworthy, and I was petrified God would decide I was unworthy about getting somewhat tipsy.

    Though I still have plenty of stuff to deal with and sort out, life has become infinitely lighter 😀

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  4. Avatar
    Brian

    Oh godly goody, you mention the altar call and camp! I have the same memory, the end of the camp being a gathering at the fire in the eve and all of us kids, one by one, having to get up in front of all to admit how horrible we were and how Jesus had saved us. So much crying and misery and so much bullshit confession!
    I always picture German prison camp guard, Shultz, now, to put that all in perspective: I see him standing at attention and answering, “I know nawting, NAWTING!” He was forced, as we all were to play both sides of the game, to be the camp guard and to admit that he had no control over all the shenanigans Hogan dreamed up. Did you know Hogan’s Heroes?
    Oh strike me down, sweet Jesus… Colonel Klink was a perfect commandant, as dumb and full of himself as they come, a great Pat Robertson or any of the addled T.V. preachers you can name. The show was a balm to me then, in pre-adolescence but I had no idea then just what it was really saying to me in making me laugh so hard.

  5. Avatar
    Edward

    Thank you for this post, Brian. I answered an altar call at 12 years old. It was a very emotional experience on the last night of a revival as the congregation sang “Just as I am.” Looking back, I’m not sure I had a clue about what I was really doing.

    When I finally deconverted (in my late forties after decades of discarding one Christian belief after another), one of the things that I found totally incomprehensible was the Abraham/Isaac vs. God/Jesus comparison. God could find an alternative for Abraham, but he couldn’t find one for himself? That meant that this god was stupid, sadistic or non-existent.

    • Avatar
      Brian

      As I grow older, it appears to me that the Christianity I knew had more to do with harming people than it did about anything else. One is led to believe that a human being is a bad thing, a heart that cannot help but harm itself and others without the magic of the Unseen doing regular repairs on the evil product. We are shit and not even good for fertilizer without being given the go by Magic Master. The really dirty part of it is that we are not perfect and do make all kinds of mistakes and errors as we go along and it is that simple, decent humanity that Christianity mines to fill its offering plates. Remember Oral Robers on TV telling his audience that unless he got 8 million dollars within the year that God told him he was a dead man, that he would be ‘called home’? Despicable or simply an addled mind? Either way, Christianity was the perfect tool: Not only did you kill sweet Jesus but you will send me to my grave unless you reach way down into those pockets!

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