Thursday, June 03, 2010

Coming Out as Religious, and Other Stories




I'd rather not entertain current events for a while, and instead tell you a bit more about the Quaker Young Adult gathering I recently attended. Primarily this is because it is supremely depressing to contemplate the oil spill. The beaches on Alabama's Gulf Coast that I visited every summer as a child and young teen might be forever changed as wave after wave of oil washes ashore. I may return to that at another time, but right now I am avoiding even thinking about it because it hits so close to home. Returning to my original point, there are so many stories to share I hardly know where to begin, but I'll start with one and go from there.

Returning to my original point, there are so many stories to share I hardly know where to begin, but I'll start with one and go from there. In a small group, a Friend talked about the difficulty of embracing a love for God when one's friends are skeptical or even hostile towards theists and a belief in a higher power. The way she put it was, in her words, "coming out as a believer." I certainly understand what she meant and think it is an apt term. The hostility I faced from some as a person of faith when I was in my teens and early twenties led me to be reluctant or even unwilling to share a very important part of myself. Though I was not yet ready then to embrace a Christ-centered identity, my faith in God nonetheless never wavered.

Those who push away from religion as a means of establishing a firm sense of self often begin, I find, with an all-out rejection phase, one that as I noted above I held myself to some degree. Now that I am nearly 30 what I hear from those who are not people of faith is, more often than not, "I wish I had what you have." Talking with older adults about this subject since I have returned has been enlightening and instructive. To a person, they have vocalized that they themselves are seeking a kind of spiritual connection and renewal for themselves. I think with time we recognize how desperately we look for peace of mind and a loving community. The pressure of a demanding job, plus the responsibilities of adulthood, as well as being a parent if we have children changes our priorities and way of looking at the greater world.

To return to the idea of "coming out as religious", often one cannot share one's faith around certain others because some assume that self-identifying as "religious", "spiritual", and/or "Christian" means that an automatic kind of silent or vocal rejection of them as they are will be imposed. I cannot emphasize enough that liberal Christianity, in particular, is much different than conservative Christianity, and that I find it highly prideful and unfair to make judgments of people based on a minimum of information. Where they might end up after they die or what I might think they need to have in their life is not exactly my call to make. That, in my opinion, is God's role alone. Judge not, lest ye be judged. I merely show and share that which I believe, and if that speaks to someone else, then I rejoice in the knowledge.

One Friend, a college professor, mentioned that he uses profanity on occasion around his students so that those who are not people of faith will not feel restrained to share all of themselves around him. It is vitally important to what he does for a living to make a positive impression upon those who he teaches, and he has developed his own strategies to put people at ease. Sharing information with people requires a kind of mutual trust and respect between professor and student. If it is not present, then a student is not inclined to absorb that which is being taught.

Many of us sequester our true selves. Other Friends noted that close friends and acquaintances have come to them and mentioned that they dislike almost all other Christians except, of course, for they themselves. This has been my experience too, and it puts one in a particularly awkward situation. What does that say about me? That I must adhere to an impossible standard of perfection? Am I being compared and held to that standard whether I like it or not? After all, there is only one who is perfect, and it is certainly not me.

Jesus called the crowd to him and said, "Listen and understand. It's not what goes into your mouth that defiles you; you are defiled by the words that come out of your mouth." Then the disciples came to him and asked, "Do you realize you offended the Pharisees by what you just said?"

Jesus replied, "Every plant not planted by my heavenly Father will be uprooted, so ignore them. They are blind guides leading the blind, and if one blind person guides another, they will both fall into a ditch."

Then Peter said to Jesus, "Explain to us the parable that says people aren't defiled by what they eat."

"Don't you understand yet?" Jesus asked. "Don't you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and it is those things that make a person unclean.


My other identities place me in this same situation. I find myself being a Christian apologist, a Feminist apologist, and a mental illness/brain disorder apologist. Convincing the skeptical is a Herculean task at times, but it is one that I embrace with a kind of dogged determination that at times astonishes me. For some reason, God has always placed me in situations where I am vastly in the minority. As a Quaker, I am a member of a small faith group, albeit one with a rich history. As a Feminist, I am a member of an often stigmatized group, but I am also one of the few men within the movement itself. As someone with a chronic illness, my desire to be open with my disease is motivated by an effort to take on the vast amount of misinformation that still circulates about it.

In each of these situations, I am different from the norm and thus I stand out. Standing out is good in some ways because I draw instant attention and with it an instant audience by my very existence. This makes the experience often trying and highly pressurized for the same reason. As a male Feminist, I am frequently, and quite unintentionally presumed to speak for all men. I know that I honestly can't do that and certainly wouldn't try even if I could. But, on the other hand, if what I can provide increases understanding and decreases fear and negativity, I will gladly continue to voice my opinions.

As a Progressive, I feel this same tension. The sense of isolation we experience both motivates us to move forward to make needed reforms, but it can also be turned inward, dividing us in the process. The deepest challenge of all might be to let our anger and indignation push us in helpful, not destructive directions.

Circling back around, I have found that certain people have an axe to grind against organized religion and identity groups. And to reiterate, I do understand from whence such attitudes stem. Unfortunately, the bitterness and resentment felt leads some to expect or demand complete flawlessness from those who are believers, and once very human limitations are detected, these people quickly lash out, seeking to prove again that an an entire system of belief is hypocritical and worthless. Though such people are challenging, to put it lightly, I do try to keep in mind the pain they are experiencing and I hold them in the Light, hoping that they will process their discomfort in constructive ways.

A personal note: when I left the Unitarian Universalist church some years ago, I am ashamed to reflect upon how long it took me to get over my own feelings of betrayal and disappointment. What I felt was akin to a bad divorce, and I am not especially proud to contemplate what I said and how I acted then. My hope is that those I offended know now or even knew then that I was processing through what had been a emotionally wrenching experience. The experience was bookended by an awful manic episode followed by an equally awful depressive episode and my hope will always be that those who knew me then could separate me from my illness. I am so glad to be through with it and would eagerly grant a humble apology to anyone who had to see me at my worst.

If I can keep in mind my own past behavior, then I can empathize with those who sow seeds of discord and disunity, while also not allowing them the ability to divide and foment disunity. My own story is that of the Prodigal son. For reasons I cannot understand and may never, God told me that I had a purpose and a role to serve. My belief has never been stronger and with that belief comes a joy that is difficult to express in words alone. Perhaps it is more important to focus upon my present than dwell upon my past. I know now where I need to focus my efforts, and I know that a multitude of good things lay ahead of me. I urge those who feel so led to come out as religious, regardless of how you may define it, and to seek peace within yourself and with everyone.

1 comment:

Lilly said...

I am also the same way. A lot of people, when finding I am religious, are very confused. I am quickly apologetic about the fact, even though... I don't like apologizing for my faith, nor do I really think it's appropriate for me to apologize for anyone else's action unless I'm their official spokesperson. God has a few better spokespeople than me, and he really doesn't need me to defend him either.
This weekend i was at a Democracy for America event and I was so pleasantly surprised every time someone brought up women's rights. It was like "oh my gosh! people in real life identify as feminists??? Old white male politicians in texas are running with women's rights as one of their main campaign messages???" It is weird, but amazing.

(cough cough my open ID isn't working, hence the other log in)