[So, with much dramatic cymbal-clanging and gong-resounding, I introduce the first of what I hope will be many guest voices in the Letters to an Invisible Church series. With this series I never aimed to take a particular stance–positive or negative. I think the human discourse about religion is far more nuanced than such emaciated labels. Without further explication then, I give you my best (and first) e-friend, Chris Stedman, whose work I shall eternally admire and aspire to. Chris, you are free to address]
Dear Church of the Invisible,
Sometimes when working with religious people (Christians especially) I experience flashbacks, like PTSD, and it’s as if I never left the flock. It’s 1 AM, I’m writing, my iTunes is set to shuffle, and “For the Moments I Feel Faint” comes on and I need to remind myself that I don’t believe in You anymore.
“I lift up my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from?” Psalm 121:1
A number of years ago, I came home from an especially long day at work to find out that You had packed up Your things and moved out. The memory is fuzzy now, but at the time Your absence was a shocking revelation. You didn’t leave a forwarding address, so even now I’m not exactly sure who to make this letter out to, where to send it, or what to say.
I’ll try not to be bitter about it.
I’m a secular humanist now; there is no church of secular humanism. Thus, to be quite literal, the church of secular humanism is the invisible church – especially for a former Evangelical. So let’s start this by considering the tangible church: the Church of my adolescence, Your church. I’ll get to the invisible later (it can wait).
Christianity is a huge part of my narrative, yet I have no idea how to relate to it sometimes. It’s like bumping into that ex; the one you loved more than anything. The one you made your whole life about when you were together, the one that absorbed you and then wrung you dry. And you have to do that awkward dance. “Oh, hey… so good to see you again!” Pause. “How are you doing?” Pause. “You look great!” Neither of you can look the other in the eye. “We’ll have to do this again sometime…” And you’re both already taking off in the direction you were headed before the reunion.
But that exchange leaves its mark. Suddenly you remember how easy it is to revert to the person you were when you were with them. The music you liked, the words you used. And you wonder if you’re betraying your current self by slipping into that role to be accommodating. It’s something I think about often when facilitating interfaith work.
“That God does not exist, I cannot deny. That my whole being cries out for God, I cannot forget.” Jean-Paul Sartre
I remember vividly when I was “leaving” Christianity, how I would climb into bed after an overlong study session or a hushed dorm-room party, close my eyes and have to quash my instinct to pray, and how it felt like extinguishing a cigarette before it was actually finished – unnatural, premature, wasteful. How sometimes I would try it anyway, just to see if it still “worked,” like how I occasionally pick up the trombone to see if I can still play all these years later. It feels like an act now, so wholly phony, so I put it away and shut it back in the closet to collect dust. Prayer’s like that now; a phantom limb, something I once used regularly but now am not sure was ever mine.
Those half-hearted prayers cast in the twilight hour of my belief felt futile, like I was a ship sending out one final SOS while knowing that no one is coming to aid. Or, perhaps more blatantly, like the messages we fruitlessly beam into outer space, hoping that somewhere out there, someone out there is listening. Yelping into the void. But I missed the days the Void would yelp back. Call it sentimentality, but part of me hoped I was wrong.
Letting go of You wasn’t easy. Even as I began to step up my anti-religious rhetoric in college, I privately mourned You. I wanted to believe and was disappointed in my inability to do so. I missed You.
Shortly before going to college for ministry – the place where I stopped believing in You – I got a tattoo of a stalk of wheat with a Bible verse etched into my right leg. It was my first tattoo, mere months before I stopped believing in You, as if I’d known somewhere in a deep down inaccessible space of my subconscious that my belief was in its sunset and was desperately clinging onto its vestige with a bold and permanent statement, as if to say: There, self, now you can’t get out of it. I sent one last message out into the Void, big and dramatic, and dared You to answer.
But it was over soon after that, whether I got out of it or it got away from me. “How can something so seemingly permanent disappear so quickly?” one might ask. I don’t think I have an answer.
This tension was reflected in my college religion papers. I walked the line between denouncing religion and trying to rescue it from itself. Maybe Christianity can be resurrected, I thought, if I just defend it enough. I read the writings of progressive theologians with a quiet resentment, jealous of their ability to modernize Christianity but still retain a belief in You. I was mad at myself for not being able to believe – after years struggling to reconcile my belief in You with my queer identity (and eventually succeeding at doing just that), it felt unfair that that work had been done in vain.
Some theologians and religious practitioners will tell me that dry spells happen and that I “gave up on You” too quickly, but five years later I am still as sure that You aren’t a reality as I was in my youth that You were. That I could be so sure of one thing in my youth and so sure of its opposite now reminds me to be wary of ever being too certain about any of my convictions, which I guess makes me an agnostic instead of an atheist, as I’m quite open to the possibility that I’m wrong (which I wasn’t then).
Just as I used to be a Christian, I was once a runner. Before every big race, I’d open my Bible and run my fingers across 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 with all its talk of running the race, beating one’s body and the prize of an eternal crown. I fashioned myself a Runner For Christ. As You can tell, I’m far too literal with metaphors. But like believing in You, one day I was just unable to run any more. I’d been combating systemic foot, ankle, knee and hip problems, and eventually my body just stopped. I couldn’t do it anymore. I got winded. The dissolution of both my belief and my practice of running happened at about the same time, actually. Now I don’t beat my body at all, and the eternal crown I once sought is as defunct as those cross country medals.
Many of the Christians I know hint at their suspicion that my return to the Blessed Community isn’t far off. And while it is entirely possible, for now I am a steadfast Doubting Thomas. I’m not actually unhappy with my unbelief; the randomness and disorder of an unOrdered universe feels surprisingly soothing. Which is probably why I do interfaith work now instead of continuing the anti-religious “New Atheist” stance I adopted when I was freshly out of the fold. It is the peace that “letting go of letting go of You” has wrought that allows me to encourage others in their religious lives and push for the atheist community to get over its hang-ups about religion.
So many atheists today are bitter about religion. I get it – I’ve been there. But it’s a big problem because it prevents us from engaging one another’s core values in a world that already has too many divisions.
My deepest hope is that we’ll get over our anti-religious stance and start our own awkward dance. I’m still negotiating with my religious past, but it’s a worthy process. And though it will probably be a lifelong one, it shouldn’t negate my engagement with others’ religious present.
It might be a ways off, but I think we atheists will get there. Maybe I’ll say a prayer. Hey, I hear it has psychological benefits or something.
Chris Stedman is a freelance writer who was most recently a Content Developer and Adjunct Trainer for the Interfaith Youth Core. Chris recently completed a Master of Arts in Religion from the Associated Chicago Theological Schools and is now working on a book, as well as doing contract interfaith work with several schools and organizations. He blogs at NonProphetStatus.com and has been published in venues such as the Washington Post.