I need to ask about Christian conversion, and I need to ask someone I can trust to help sort it out.
I want to believe in God: I see myself working so hard to fit into a spiritually satisfying life rhythm. But what I don’t want is a religious conversion—at least not now and not in the way I am assuming it happens. Because I’ve been converted before. When I was six to seven years old, my family were Presbyterians. But by the time I was ten we had fully committed to the dysfunctional cult of fundamentalism. When that happened my whole world got turned on its head.
The truth is I’m still scared that could happen again. Fundamentalism remains much of my core emotional context when it comes to Jesus. I have deep synaptic memory ruts that still say to me, for instance, that those outside the true church water down the truth, ignore biblical laws, commit countless blasphemies: they are, at best, false friends with a false religion.
That’s all patently ludicrous, I know. Yet it is the only real experience I know of Christianity. And it’s not anything that I want anything to do with.
Yet over the past five months, through your writings and your lovely sacred blog space, I have been getting the feeling that all these years between my childhood and now I’ve been missing out on something really pure and really beautiful. It’s a thought and feeling that frequently wrenches open my heart—while I’m at work, when I’m driving and barely seeing the road through tears, when it’s past my bedtime and sleep eludes me.
I’m feeling my loneliness acutely—not so much as being alone per se, but more as missing out on what I could have had, and might have yet—on what I believe, actually, to be a birthright of mine that somehow I’ve never been able to quite get my arms around.
I uncovered my soul by leaving the fundy church all those years ago. I heard my own voice for the first time in therapy. I discovered my spirit through my long and winding esoteric journey. And now I feel as if I’m beginning to find my heart again in coming back around to Christ.
Is it wrong of me that I’m terrified?
Well, of course, it’s never wrong to have any emotion at all: emotions are messages from our own heart and spirit that we’re supposed to heed. And how could you not be afraid of Christianity, which in the past has hurt you so? It’s a testimony to the enduring strength of your relationship with God that you’d even consider letting Christ back into your life. I don’t think I would. I tend not to visit houses where I know crazy people live. And you spent a lot of your childhood in one crazy group home.
On the other hand, you’re obviously these days about the business of discerning the indelible truth that is stronger than any of the lies pounded into you by fundamentalism, which is that you were not at all damaged by God, but rather by people grossly misrepresenting him/her/it.
It’s also clear from your letter that you’re carrying that emotional rawness that is the stamp—the personal legacy, the inherited imprint, the mark—of fundamentalism. You can say a lot of things about fundamentalists, but you can’t say they’re not intense. They’re not sometimes intense. They’re not intense between eight and ten on Sunday mornings, or when they’re singing special hymns, or whatever. They’re always operating at pretty much maximum intensity, because to them everything is about God. Nothing is neutral. Nothing is ambiguous. Nothing is irrelevant. Everything is about the biggest, most dramatic stuff possible: heaven, hell, evil, righteousness, morality, immorality, the will and purpose of God.
Man. Just thinking about all that makes me want to have a nervous breakdown.
Before sitting down to write this I put on the clothes I’ll be wearing when my wife Catherine and I go to the gym after she returns home from the college class she’s taking. Not once whilst donning my gym duds did I stop to wonder if it’s an offense against God for me to go to the gym, where I’m certain to be surrounded by lots of pretty women in colorful skintight outfits working their bodies in ways that would make any straight man want to die and come back to life as a hamstring machine. I didn’t wonder if it’s right for Cat to be at that same gym, grunting and moaning away in public. I’ve not thought about God being against Cat attending college.
But now that I am thinking about it, that Jezebel!
How dare she learn stuff?!
That’s it. Tonight she’s making dinner.
Har! But you see my point. You’ve lived that point: you know the truth that having everything be about God tends to keep your emotions pretty close to the surface. From your letter I’m guessing that emotional legacy has remained with you: that today you still tend to see things in intensely contrasting blacks-and-whites. (Which, by the way, is a quality that I love in a person: in my opinion lukewarm is for people with non-working knobs.)
It seems to me that what’s happening now is that essentially you’re fearing your own intensity. You’re afraid harkening to the voice of God will end up costing you more than you want to pay—that if you leap into the pool of Christ you’ll sink and drown.
For most people in your position I’d recommend taking it slowly, wading in bit by bit, testing the waters before you go deeper. But I don’t think that’s going to work for you. You seem like an all-in or all-out person. You’re a diver, not a wader.
So to you I say: cannonball in. Jump! Why not? You’re not stupid. You know how to swim. You know the difference between the real God and the perverted version of him with which you were traumatized as a kid. You understand that it wasn’t God/Jesus who hurt you, but people. It was your parents, which is terrible. But despite that your heart is still hearing God. And clearly God is still calling to you. He knows that you got a seriously mistaken impression of him the first time around. I think he wants to correct that now. I think that through the Holy Spirit within you Christ is telling you that he yet desires a real relationship with you, one that’s not twisted beyond recognition by people who prefer their own frenzied passion over the peace he offers them.
Jump in! The water’s more than fine: it’s cleansing, and healthy, and nourishing, and fresh and clear and bright. There’s nothing in it to fear. It’s the clean spring that’s been waiting for you from the day you were born.
It’s not a matter of “converting.” It’s a matter of agreeing with what’s already on the table, of simply accepting what’s being offered you. Nobody wants you to go stupid. You’re not supposed to believe in the reality of the figure known to history as Jesus Christ and immediately turn off your brain. That being a Christian means also being a slave to dogma is just a wrong thing that you were taught as a kid. As you may know, I had a full-on, out-of-nowhere conversion experience (which you can read about here), and I didn’t simultaneously become a Christian and an idiot. I was exactly as smart going into that experience as I was coming out of it. All in a moment Christianity became a way for me to understand, process, and appreciate the awareness of God that I already had. There was nothing more to it than that. (Since, really, how could there be? That is, after all, everything.)
All you have to do is the one thing that it was ingrained in you as a kid not to do, but which you’ve clearly already taken great strides to: trust yourself. Trust your instincts. Trust your intuition. Trust your knowledge. Trust that you will remain in control of your own heart and mind. God doesn’t want that control for himself. He doesn’t want you to be a mindless puppet. That’s no fun for him.
All God wants is for you to be the happiest, most peaceful you that you can be. He wants you to feel unafraid, and free of the emotional legacy—the karma—of all bad things ever done by or to you. So he manifested himself in corporeal form, and came to earth, and as Jesus Christ played out the drama he did in the hope that forever after people would understand and accept that he’s here, that he’s watching, and that everything’s going to be okay.
That’s no reason to be afraid. That’s a reason to never be afraid again.