I struggled with what would best follow these last couple weeks of posts as they largely defined the timbre this blog would hold. Evangelicalism and LGBTQ affirmation are rather polarizing topics with which to launch a blog, but I suppose I have your attention.
For those still reading: Thank you for your forbearance and making space for what I have to say. I’ve been especially encouraged by the number of gracious people of varied theological and political stripes reaching out to me with something kind and edifying.
For those who disagree strongly: Thank you for reading, anyway. It’s good for all of us to entertain those worldviews we find misguided. If you can find it within yourself, keep learning how to make space for something “other”.
Hopefully, this post will provide some context and honest rumination about what it practically means to leave evangelicalism, come out, and put the effort into making sense of the world through a shattered lens.
I don’t write any of this to invite criticism or argument, but to transparently articulate my experiences. You may have fervent disagreements with what I’m about to say, and that’s perfectly fine, but this is not an invitation for correction or rebuke.
As always, please read graciously with an open mind, making the appropriate space.
In the months after my plunge into affirming theology and subsequent deconstruction began the savagery of life as I had known it, I found myself without the solid footing I once knew. There was a day not too long ago when I could give anyone an answer as to what I believed and even provide a basic set to justifying propositions from within that framework.
Having lost that entire framework, there wasn’t much to justify anything; the beliefs I once held dear were now untenable concepts predicated upon untenable constructs. It had all fallen apart, and what was left was a shell of “belief” out of need for survival.
What surprised me most was my lack of interest in redeveloping any framework upon which I could renew spiritual disciplines.
Nothing about Christianity, God, or the Bible provided comfort.
It was quite the opposite, in fact.
Fair warning: I’ll be real with you.
In my previous life, everything I knew about God and God’s relationship with the world was predicated on ideals of salvation, Good News, atonement, mild asceticism (social conservatism), and this need to tell everyone about this God so that they would likewise avoid an eternity spent in hell.
You can tell me whatever you want about the nature of this God, but when the frivolous language of Christian subculture is removed and evangelical theology is distilled into its most basic tenets, I’m left with this: I exist in this unjust world to do the following: know God so we can avoid hell.
This is, at its core, what I believed for most of my life.
At one point in the not-so-distant past, I would spend my mornings reading Scripture, praying, listening to music, and weeping over the “goodness” of the God professed as love who had killed himself as part of a cosmic plan so I wouldn’t go to hell.
This is all I had been taught to see, and my spirituality was wrapped into this.
This is how I understood God, and there are neurological underpinningsfor the nuance and complexities of spirituality.
I lost it all.
Suddenly, standing in a large assembly of other Christians singing popular evangelical songs was no longer an accessible way for me to experience God – it was now exhausting in every possible way.
No longer did these songs tell of this great and mighty God who had forgiven my cosmic debt of personal unrighteousness by way of his innocent suffering and death two thousand years ago. The God of these songs was not loving, not inclusive, not good. He was exclusive, violent, and angry.
I didn’t want to think this way, but I couldn’t shake it.
Compounding this, since I was embracing my queerness, these were songs written by people who could not affirm me or those like me, sung by people who who could not affirm me or those like me, and written for a community that could not affirm me or those like me.
When God and Scripture are used as the means by which millions indignantly advocate against your humanity, it doesn’t take much to become jaded towards those very things, no matter how dear they once were.
Everything was suddenly tainted by a negative association, and it hastened the demise of my evangelical worldview.
The system in which my life had once been steeped was now the very thing that refused to embrace me in my entirety, and I wanted nothing to do with it.
No longer was anything sacred. The music, the books, the prominent figures – all of it became impossible to embrace because I knew: regardless of what they had or had not said publicly, they would not ultimately affirm me as a gay “child of God”. This was the stuff for which I had lived, the stuff I breathed and sang and cried when life was difficult. It’s where I ran when I needed peace, the mechanisms by which I came to know and trust in the God of my youth.
I had gone to the largest evangelical university in the world in order to become a musician and worship leader in prominent evangelical circles. I had spent years on stages, singing and engaging in the best of what this subculture had taught me.
I lost the future and dreams I had hoped for myself.
But it didn’t stop there.
Scripture was no longer something easily loved and celebrated by me; now, I saw it as an ancient book telling of an angry, violent God willing to order genocide so an entitled people group could lay claim to land that wasn’t theirs in the first place (sounds familiar).
All I could see was a God who advocated war, violence, and suffering because it “glorified” himself.
All I could see was a God who excluded a vast majority of the world so as to provide a means of escaping eternal damnation, and the onus was on me to proclaim by word or deed the utter necessity of “accepting” this escape.
All I could see was a God who supported the denigration of women, whose character was best described as masculine; to suggest God as feminine would be heretical.
All I could see was a God who was intimately involved in all my day-to-day affairs, yet he wouldn’t listen to the prayers and cries of starving children in Africa because they weren’t praying specifically to the “God of the Bible”.
All I could see was a God who would allow me to suffer eternity in hell for loving and marrying a man, raising a family, and living a normal life, even though this was simply following the natural – created – impulses of my being.
All I could see was a God who could breathe into existence a fourteen year-old girl in the slums of India, raised as a practicing Muslim in a loving family, suddenly kidnapped, sold into the sex trade, and killed by the age of fifteen; and since she’d heard nothing of the Good News of Jesus Christ, this young girl – who experienced the greatest of injustices and was given no choice as to her life circumstances – would spend eternity suffering in hell.
Yet he’d still be called just?
This great and powerful God was justified since “his ways are higher than our ways”, only “God knows”, we must take everything “by faith”, and to reason that any of this was objectively bad was nonsensical thanks to original sin, the ultimate disqualifier.
Reason was instead the mark of secular thinking, and to suggest otherwise was to conform to the patterns of the world. Apologetics and philosophical systems of thought for the sake of defense have been built to fight the encroachment of all forms of criticism, and I had once participated in these things.
Somehow, God was rendered subject to a higher necessity called “justice”, and we’ve enthusiastically submitted ourselves to the idea that God executes justice in retributive fashion. God became a punitive judge no more loving and merciful than the United States’ judicial system.
Why is it that I can imagine a more benevolent, loving, and inclusive Creator than this? Why can I imagine a better story?
Isn’t it a good thing that I cringe when reading tales of God’s agency in Scripture? Isn’t it good that I’m disgusted at the idea that God isn’t more forgiving, merciful, and kind than myself? Where is this “Love” that casts out the fear of punishment?
How do I describe “gospel” to somebody when it seems anything but “good news”? How do I explain the cross if all I’ve ever been told is that God essentially killed God to spare us from God? How do I believe in someone so angry, so violent, someone who will allow punishment for those entirely unaware of the specifics of God’s nature according to Christian tradition?
All I saw was a gospel of patriarchal subjugation, oppression, and power. There was no liberation, freedom, or mercy. And when other Christians have attempted to persuade me that “God’s best” (ascetic denial of my humanity) is truly liberation for the soul, I’ve been left wading through the mud of cognitive dissonance.
God was not something or someone to be loved because of God’s own inherent attributes: God was to be “loved” lest I experience unending suffering.
I’m not sure that’s love.
I’ve written already of my propensity to read through my confusion, and that’s exactly what happened. Night after night, day after day, in class when I was supposed to be taking notes: I read scholars and theologians and those pushed out of their communities for the same questions I was asking.
And they told of a different way of seeing, but there were some underlying subjects to be necessarily addressed before I could begin to see.
- It hinged on atonement – the purpose and meaning of the crucifixion.
- It hinged on the afterlife – the historical context, meaning, and practical implications of beliefs regarding heaven and hell.
- It hinged on the Bible – what the Bible really is and how best to read it.
- It hinged on epistemology – how we know what we know, and how we justify our systems of belief.
They were like dominos toppling into one another, pushing me into the next falling piece.
When I realized I was being offered something beyond what evangelicalism held before my eyes, I caught just a glimpse of a hope I hadn’t known in a long time.
I saw the Good News of the inexhaustible love of God for me – a queer, lonely, wandering human being – and all of God’s creation.
All of it.
I began to experience the shift in paradigm wherein many of my previous thoughts and questions became pretty useless to me.
Instead of seeing God through the retributive lens of penal-substitutionary atonement theory (or any form of atonement through satisfaction), I began to see Immanuel – God with – who suffers with us, lives with us, and models non-violent submission in the face of injustice. I saw the God who became one of us so as to make this very emphatic point: He is not far, not something “other”, and fully love.
I saw the God who of society’s margins, who lifted up the oppressed, who gave good news to the poor, who offered justice to those cast aside by systems of purity and cleanliness.
I began to see a God whose single greatest self-revelation was not an image of a majestic king leading his people into war, but a poor, lonely, bleeding man suffering asphyxiation on an oppressive empire’s torture device.
The God I once saw as bound by location and power – “high and lifted up” – was suddenly with me: small, and frail. He was lifted up in the sense that his execution made a political point, yet this incarnate Christ did not fight back – he didn’t curse those cursing him, revile those reviling him, or damn those damning him.
He blessed them.
The Christ, in the process of execution by his own, asked forgiveness on our behalf.
I now see God as the One who imparts each of us with inherent value and original blessing, who gives the earth and the solar system and the galaxy and the universe life and dynamism, who exists beyond words and metaphors yet maintains his accessibility because he wants to be known.
I see the God who is she, he, and everything in between.
God our mother, God our father.
The nurturing gardner tending to her Creation, the one by whom and for whom and through whom all things live and have being.
I now see hell and eternal punishment as an unreasonable belief in light of this God.
I now see Scripture as an ancient collection of documents demonstrating a tribe’s interactions and subsequent relationship with this YHWH figure. It lost its flatness and developed characteristics I never thought possible. It was contoured, uneven, dynamic, and often ahistorical.
It could be beautiful, harsh, offensive, subject to disagreement, and offer its own internal critique.
It could be human.
God was no longer a distant being whose characteristics were the anthropomorphized projections of men through the ages. God was now the Ground of Being (YHWH, the “I Am”), Source of All, present-in-everything Love bringing to bear a redemptive narrative for the universe.
And he calls it a Kingdom.
Jesus was no longer an idea to believe in avoidance of hell, but now the embodiment of Good News in whose life and death I could participate.
Everything changed, but that didn’t mean I suddenly lived with consistent spiritual practices. It’s taken time, patience, and some moments of brokenness to begin walking back towards prayer, reading, and much of this has been replaced by meditation (thank you, Liturgists).
I’m still marked by a disenchantment with Christianity, a relative frustration with it and institutionalized religion. I’m jaded by a subculture and worldview that propelled our present political leaders into power, harms minorities, puts belief over and above participation, and lends itself towards spiritual trauma.
But Jesus is still so compelling, the Good News so pervasive and enlightening and transcendent of time and culture.
So I stay.
I’ve been considering where I now find myself, where I’ve come from, and the distance traveled between those loosely fixed points.
Though entirely metaphorical, the internal journey out of a particular worldview feels to its traveler an extended quest, covering a great distance in the least efficient way possible. It’s like traversing the mainland United States on foot. Blindfolded.
I’m tired of the uncertainty.
Yet I need it.
I’ve found that deconstruction isn’t so much an end as it is a paradigm shift; it’s a journey into a new way of seeing. Capitulation to an incessant postmodern critique of belief systems and ideological frameworks is exhausting insofar as it doesn’t lead to a place of certitude – it’s end is not an end, but a beginning.
Not a point, but an expansion.
A resurrection, perhaps.
In his book “Finding God in the Waves”, Mike McHargue writes of opening one’s hands to beliefs, those propositional truths to which we give our intellectual assent, and letting them rest like butterflies softly and gently on our fingertips.
Yet in the face of challenges to our systems of belief, we readily tighten our grip, metamorphosing our fragile beliefs until they are little more than spears of dogma to be used in our tribalistic idea wars. Our humanity gets lost in our “rightness”, and to reject the tribe’s dogma is to wish upon oneself an especially painful form of excommunication.
For the tribe to remain a tribe, the boundaries must be made clear.
To begin seeing differently, I’ve had to reject a lot of old habits that informed my view of everything. Dualism, right-versus-wrong, taking sides – it’s all generally useless to me now. While I can slip into old patterns of behavior, I’m at my best when my world isn’t revolving around being right or on the right side – it’s best when I’m willing to hold things in a tension.
Questions and the doubts they implicitly necessitate are sacred.
They’re fundamental to faith, for “the substance of things hoped for” cannot be grounded in epistemological certainty.
As some of my closest friends have made clear to me, I’m good at asking questions that are not easily answered; I can tell you what I don’t believe to be true, whether on an epistemic level or in matters of faith.
I can’t always tell you what I believe.
I have too many questions, too much uncertainty.
So I’ve had to reframe.
But it’s not over, and I don’t think it ever will be. I still have many questions, doubts, yet it’s because of my persistence in engaging with my world in Love that I can live in this tension.
Reframing is the act of re-seeing.
Sometimes it’s making a Spotify playlist of spiritual songs that are safe, relatively non-triggering, and facilitate a healthy posture less reticent towards engaging the Divine.
Sometimes it’s finding new language that assists me in articulating my beliefs without tying me to any particular system.
Sometimes it looks like opening the Bible collecting dust on my shelf. Sometimes it looks like praying when the waves of anxiety compel me away from spiritual practice. Sometimes it looks like finding a new church that looks nothing like I’ve ever experienced.
Sometimes it’s choosing to see God in everything and everyone, even when it hurts, breathing in and out with Love.
Every day is another chance to see differently, whether that’s from a world so often bent on injustice and subjugation, or from a fundamentalism that lends itself towards an entirely different form of oppression.
Either way, we can all choose to open our eyes, acknowledge the limits of our perspective, and choose to see one another as companions in this trudge through ignorance we call life.
Choose to see the love.
Choose to reframe.