Several years ago, after what I thought was a horrible ordination process, I decided to leave the church. It was a weekday when I decided that I would never step back into the church. The only problem was that I was serving as a chaplain in a level II trauma center outside of Chicago, IL, so I had to be confronted with normative Christian discourse and theologies that I found to be hugely problematic. But, nonetheless, I decided to leave. I had completed my undergraduate degree in religion/theology at a Texas baptist university, studied both Greek and Hebrew (but I don’t remember much of the languages), and had decided in 2002 to attend Seminary at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary (a United Methodist Seminary) and study with a Latin American Liberation Theologian, and baptist, like me!
Fast forward to 2005 when the horrendous ordination experience took place, I was serving as a trauma chaplain and completing my master’s thesis on a feminist liberation theologian, and I decided to leave the church. But! The theology and the theoretical frameworks continued to breathe life into me; there was a spirit (or something like a spirit) that flourished within me as I read and wrote my master’s thesis. It was also during this time that I found agnosticism–this disposition of a radical unknowing!
Serving as a chaplain created room for me to not know, or unknow, or disidentify with the tradition that had kept me down as a gender non-conforming mixed-raced person. I slowly peeled the Christian identity off–out of my brain, out of my mind, disposing of memories that were traumatic, and radically repositioning myself as something other. I didn’t become a nonbeliever, per se, because much of what I was reading and writing I believed in! I just didn’t believe or trust the institution that men had created (largely). I no longer believed in this tradition called Christian.
So, I gave it up! I stopped attending church.
I stopped participating in religious circles, in rituals, and I stopped reading the very thing that had guided me: the BIBLE! I became a skeptic and rooted myself in the practices of not-knowing anything for certain. What I knew at that time in the mid-2000s was that people were hungry, dying because of their hunger, had inadequate housing, little access to healthcare, and the LGBTQ communities, especially those of color, were being radically disenfranchised by systems that reified white privilege. I saw the devastation around me, and I saw how the institution that I once devoted myself to was not paying any attention to these ‘others.’ I no longer believed that Christian dogma could do anything in the world, because the church was not living into what I thought was its prophetic reality. That’s when my theology unraveled.
I started reading continental philosophy, written mostly by Europeans, specifically French thinkers. The existentialism of Sartre and De Beauvoir moved me, and I saw how their questions helped put flesh on some of my struggles and dilemmas. My doubt came alive, and I was no longer afraid of asking questions that had no answers. Then I discovered queer theory and radical feminist theories. I saw how these theoretical frameworks could really help some of our communities address the systemic injustices and multiple oppressions that was plaguing them, plaguing me!
I still didn’t want to have anything to do with the church. I was happy to leave it all behind me, but then I discovered that I continued to have a real love for thinking theologically and constructive liberative theologies that not only talked about social change but work to enact radical social change. In fact, I went on to enroll in a doctoral program in theology and philosophy, no less! It seemed that I just couldn’t give it all up!
As I have worked toward the Ph.D., I have continued to grow in my doubt, in my agnosticism, in (some might say) a new contour of atheism, but constructive theologies and queer theologies continue to move me! I keep returning to the very story that captured me when I attended Catholic school in Longview, TX. It’s the stories of Jesus, these patterns and remnants thatwe have that helped to start a first century revolution.
So, is it that I can’t give it up, or is it that it can’t give me up?
Last Friday night, my partner and I invited two of my close colleagues over for dinner. I had agreed to cook a nice, fancy meal, full of garlic and mushrooms and everything else that sounded good to me! The dinner included shrimp and a homemade pomegranate arugla salad, with a homemade dressing! Dinner materialized without any issues. The food was great, we opened wine from Napa, and we were just about to finish our dinner and pour a glass of rye bourbon when THE conversation emerged. Granted, my two colleagues are also theologian/philosopher types, and we talk a lot about religion, the church, what is wrong with the church, how we think we can fix it, and so forth. I took my last bite of the homemade spiced cake, and exclaimed to my colleagues (two white guys!): “the progressives have found me!” Donnie, quipped back and said in a critically affirming voice: “you can’t give it up, can you?” He was referring to the church–to the culture that has formed me into a radical queer constructive philosophical theologian. I replied to Donnie by saying, “well, it is not the institution that I cannot give up! I gave that up a long time ago. It’s the people who are trying to enact radical social change. That’s what I can’t give up!” A conversation ensued from that point, because for Donnie (who occasionally attends a Mennonite church in the Denver Metro Area with his wife), he also can’t give ‘it’ up!
So, where do we go from here, I wonder? Is belief in dogma or doctrine really that necessary to help a movement flourish? Is it enough to embrace the ways of Jesus as a framework for living? Can we construct theologies out of questioning our own doubt and disbelief? I think we can! But, still, it’s not that I can’t give ‘it’ up, it’s that ‘it’ can’t give me up!
When I texted my good friend, Tripp Hudgins, and told him the progressives had found me, all he could say was Hotel California! If you don’t know that song, let me insert the last part of the song here! In 1976, the Eagles produced it! Give it a listen here.
Last thing I remember, I was
Running for the door
I had to find the passage back
To the place I was before
“Relax, ” said the night man,
“We are programmed to receive.
You can check-out any time you like,
But you can never leave! “