The Puzzle Carries On

There are journeys in life which take all of life. There are journeys in life which are life itself.

It was more than six years ago that I began a journey. A spiritual journey. A journey that began when I was unable to comprehend a mass shooting at an elementary school. My inability to process that tragedy pulled on a thread in my life, and many other things began to unravel as a result. Call it a midlife crisis. Call it a spiritual awakening. Call it what you will. The label is less important than the journey it led me on.

I realized two important things as I tried to understand myself. First, I realized that despite rejecting my Jewish faith at the ripe old age of 14, and despite living for the next 30-plus years as an agnostic, I had never considered myself an atheist. Second, I realized that I was weak, which is to say broken, incomplete, imperfect, flawed, fallible, and generally incapable of coping with life in isolation. Whatever answers were to be found, I could not find them within myself any longer. And this, after a long period of contemplation and careful consideration, finally led me to Christianity.

This was a shocking development to those who know me and, truth be told, it was a bit of a shock to me as well. But after due consideration of all of the major faiths — as well as some of the lesser-knowns — Christianity was the one which had, for me, the ring of truth. By “Christianity” what I really mean are the teachings commonly attributed to Jesus. The rest of the New Testament I more or less set to the side, assuming that once I had studied its context, it would all add up.

In the meantime, I chose a church to join, without really understanding that choice. How could I? Christianity has, after all, fragmented into so many sects that a newcomer, especially one who had largely ignored Christianity up to that point, could hardly be expected to make an informed choice. I looked online for churches near me. I viewed (or listened to) their podcasts. And then I chose the church which seemed to be speaking to me. That church, although evangelical, did not use that highly-charged word in its name. So, in my naiveté, I dove right in. And, in the interest of fairness, that church was really more a post-evangelical church, a point which I’ll return to shortly.

Fast forward a couple years and I found myself actually working for that church. And fast forward another four years and, having become disenchanted, not only had I started attending another, not dissimilar, church, but I had quit my job and taken on a position at a local school to earn my bread.

Part of why I became disenchanted had to do with the leadership of the church not dealing fairly with me. Part of it had to do with certain doctrinal issues which, as they kept nagging at me year after year, became intolerably irritating. And part of it had to do with the response I received when I responded to the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue.

Both the church I was working for, as well as the church I started attending later, could be described as post-evangelical. What I have come to understand, however, is that most of the abuses of evangelicalism (such as anti-Semitism, homophobia, prosperity gospel, etc.) have not been eliminated within post-evangelicalism, they have simply been camouflaged. Evangelicalism, in whatever form it takes, is, to put it bluntly, the biggest cult in the United States. What marks it as a cult?

Perhaps the most telling sign is the unconditional embrace of those who accept the doctrine it lays out, coupled with the unconditional condemnation of those who reject any portion of that doctrine. Evangelicals, whatever their stripe, adhere to creeds, and these creeds are considered sacred and inviolable. Sometimes this involves rather fancy footwork. For example, the church I worked for claimed to accept LGBTQ congregants. But, in practice, few, if any, members of the LGBTQ community ever attended, because it was made clear that while it was acceptable to feel same-sex attraction, it was unacceptable to act upon it. This is tantamount to classifying same-sex attraction as a craving, not a hunger. To argue against this view would be to risk ostracization.

This same rigidity with regard to doctrine extends to every area of church life. Thus, to criticize the church’s leadership is just as unacceptable as criticizing its beliefs, and evangelical churches, to varying degrees, become cults of personality. This is where I ran afoul of the cult. I dared to speak truthfully about the abominable manner in which I had been abused as an employee of the church. The response by many of my fellow congregants when I complained about being mistreated was to chastise me for daring to speak out. Instead of support, I received rather insolent responses which either invalidated my emotions, or else criticized me for having the temerity to air the church’s dirty laundry in public. Because, evidently, when the behavior of a church is unacceptable, it’s not appropriate for the general public to know about it. (We all know, of course, how well this has worked out for the Catholic Church.)

By way of further illustration, consider the following episode. I have lived in the same home for nearly twelve years now. The grocery store where I do the bulk of my shopping is only a few blocks from my house. Naturally enough, over the course of years I’ve become friendly, in a passing sort of way, with many of the people who work there. This includes an older woman, whom I’ll refer to as Jane. Jane and I would frequently exchange small pleasantries when crossing one another’s paths. And over the course of time, somehow it came out in conversation that I worked for a church. At that point, she revealed to me that she also attended a local church, and, as a result of this exchange, her attitude towards me became somewhat more congenial. When I stopped attending the church I had been working for and started attending the other church — lo and behold! — there was Jane. I unwittingly happened to choose the same church she attends. Her attitude towards me became even more friendly. Finally, after a couple months of attending this new church, I was asked to read a Bible passage as part of a Sunday service. As I took to the podium, my name was shown on the screen in the sanctuary. Now Jane started calling me by name, and greeting me with a hug each time she saw me.

The point of this story is that I rose in Jane’s esteem to the extent that I became immersed in her church. This does not, however, align with the teachings attributed to Jesus Christ, who tells us that all people should be treated equally, that we should consider all people our brothers and sisters, and that no favoritism should be shown to anyone, regardless of any extenuating circumstances. In theory, Jane should be hugging every stranger she makes contact with. But why was she only marginally interested in me before she knew I was a Christian, and then only tentatively so until I started attending her church? And, more to the point, what will her reaction be when I stop attending her church? Because if you couldn’t figure out where all of this has been going, allow me to make it as clear as day.

I am renouncing my faith. Not because I have become an atheist: I haven’t. Not because I think the teachings attributed to Jesus are bad: I don’t. No, I am renouncing my faith because I believe that Christianity has become perverted, polluted, and poisoned. I do not believe, for one moment, that Jesus — if the statements attributed to him are representative of his historical personhood — would have rejected anyone for any reason. By the same token, I firmly believe that the supernatural events depicted in the Bible were never intended to be understood in literal terms, but were always meant to be interpreted symbolically. What’s more, scholars have fairly well settled that great swaths of the Bible (most significantly the New Testament epistles) contain insertions which cannot possibly be attributed to their nominal authors. For that matter, many of the nominal authors of the Bible were clearly not the actual authors (e.g., the Book of Moses could not possibly have been written by Moses, even if such an historical figure ever actually existed, which is doubtful at best). I flatly reject the idea of eternal damnation, the concept of a Trinity, and any suggestion that demonic forces are waging some sort of unseen spiritual warfare on the human race. I absolutely affirm the legitimacy of science, while wholly rejecting creationism, understanding that the creation account in Genesis was intended to be a pragmatic mythology, and nothing more. I could go on, and at some point I may. But I’m sure my readers grasp my point.

This leaves me in a difficult position. Because I still believe in God, and I still believe I’m broken. In short, I still have a need for a spiritual life and a spiritual community. On the one hand, most of my Christian friends, whether openly or not, will condemn my renunciation. I’ve already met with a fair amount of open hostility. But what will prove even more insidious, I suspect, will be the covert disapproval: those who will say nothing, but “pray for me.” On the other hand, all of the people I know who are avowed atheists, or at least anti-Christian, will be pointing their fingers with an I-told-you-so smugness, a mean-spirited jumping for joy which, believe me, I have already run up against. So I expect to get it coming and going. And meanwhile I still believe in God, and I still feel broken.

This past Sunday I attended a service at a Unitarian Universalist church. It felt good. Maybe I’ll try that for a while. What do I have to lose? (Christians: Don’t say my eternal soul!) To quote an old song: “All of the pieces fit, but the puzzle carries on.”

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John Sowalsky

Writer, composer, director, producer, baker, used record collector, drummer, uncle, cat lover, silly person, vulnerable, human. (Not necessarily in any order.)