Which witch?

In my quest to explore different religions, I decided that I wanted to eventually write a post on here about witchcraft, which would include some tidbits about its history and some facts about modern witches. My misguided enthusiasm led me to get five or more books on the subject from the local library, but I only ended up reading a handful. I think that my focus was a little bit wrongheaded- was I really interested in the subject, or was I just reading about it because the Christian church- of which I was formerly a member- considered it to be taboo?

Nevertheless, I did learn a few things. Notably, that the witches of the “Burning Times” (a period of heavy witch hunting around 1450-1750 A.D.) differ somewhat from the witches of today, in that those witches did claim to worship Satan. Satan was said to appear in one form or another and preside over the various ceremonies. He was also said to appear to new initiates to complete their initiation. There were various ways the initiation was performed- one young woman who was caught claimed that all that was necessary was for someone to form the sign of the cross with their left hand. Other ways of being initiated was to go through a ceremony where one renounced their faith and baptism, and were “rechristened” with a new witchy name.

The superstitions about witches were pretty farfetched- they were said to fly around on brooms, and also thought to possess the ability to transform into an animal like a toad or a black cat. The devil was also said to be able to transform- he was either depicted as an extremely ugly fellow or as a man with a goat head or some other kinds of animal features.

Actually, the superstition about witches being able to transform into cats caused widespread killing of cats in England. Ironically, this led to an explosion in the rat population, and these rats aided in the spreading of the bubonic plague (which as we know killed thousands throughout Europe). So the very thing that people thought they were doing to protect themselves actually happened to be to their great detriment.

Also, the people that were hunted and killed during the Burning Times were more than likely not even witches. Some of the tests utilized by the Inquisition to test whether someone was a witch were completely absurd. People were assumed to be guilty, rather than assumed first to be innocent. Torture was often used to procure a confession- and many people would confess rather than continue to suffer the excruciating pain of the torture. In addition, there was a method of tying a woman’s thumb to her big toe, and throwing her into the water. If she sank, she was thought to be innocent, but if she floated, she was a witch. Often even people thought to be innocent- the sinkers- died of drowning before they were fished out. Anyone who swam to stay alive was then sentenced to death by burning or hanging.

It is estimated that over 100,000 accused witches were killed during the Burning Times. The victims were disproportionately female; some villages were left with only one or two women left in them after the Inquisition swept through.

I’m not going to claim to be an expert on modern witchcraft. Most of what I read focused around Wicca. I read a little bit of a Wiccan  book entitled “Everyday Witch A to Z: An Amusing, Inspiring, and Informative Guide to the Wonderful World of Witchcraft” by Deborah Blake. It might not have been the best source of information (or maybe it was) but I learned a little about what some witches believe and a little bit about spells and practices.

For one thing, most modern witches do not worship Satan, but instead focus their devotion on ancient gods and goddesses (such as gods/goddesses from the Greek pantheon or Egyptian deities). A witch may invoke these gods and goddesses during spell-casting or call upon them for aid. I learned about the athame– a special knife that is used in various rituals. The book also went into details about some herbs and plants that were important in Wicca, but I mainly glossed over these. I learned that if you put a few drops of rose oil on an amethyst stone and place the stone under your pillow, it is said to thwart bad dreams.

It’s important to note at this point that witchcraft preceded the Burning Times, and in some cases it is that ancient witchcraft that modern witches are trying to return back to. Thousands of years ago, goddesses were more central to religion than male deities. The female body was revered because it was capable of carrying new life. People appealed to the Goddess to protect their crops and shield them from disease. Ancient witches, who knew a lot about which plants could relieve pain or bring relief for various sicknesses, were revered. These people- usually women- were thought to have a special connection with the divine.

At this point I’ve only scratched the surface of the subject of witchcraft. There are many types of modern witches besides Wiccans, including some forms of witchcraft like neo-Shamanism which seeks to combine modern witchcraft with ancient shamanism.

As far as my personal religion journey goes, I do not relate particularly well with witchcraft. I tend to shy away from religious traditions that focus on objects and rituals to bring about particular results. I don’t give special significance to a kind of stone, or to a specific spell/mantra. I do have an altar at home with objects that are important to me, but it is kind of a mishmash of various religions. The altar isn’t “to” a particular object or deity, and I mainly light my candle so I can focus, rather than in honor of a specific god.

In writing this piece, I wanted to be able to do the subject justice. Just because I don’t personally relate to witchcraft, doesn’t mean that it isn’t valid or important to many people. I think it is vital for each person to carve out their own path with regards to their particular faith and practice. If you feel the presence of god(s) with you during your rituals- and/or they give you peace- then that is the most important thing.

Thankfully, the Burning Times are far behind us, but we still live in a world where people are persecuted because of their religious beliefs. Christians are being beheaded and crucified by ISIS in Iraq. Muslims that are different from the ruling sect are being attacked. Anti-semitism is still alive and well in the U.S. and Europe. Maybe one day, we’ll all come to a place where it isn’t necessary to attack one another just because some of us have different beliefs and practices. Until then, the only thing that those of us who are aware can do is to continue to be open-minded and fight against hatred.

I Don’t Need a Savior

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com

In times like these, it’s easy to want to “blame” good fortune- as well as misfortunes- on something esoteric and otherworldly. Today, I went to a church with an aquarium, a restaurant, and an elaborately designed sanctuary. Everyone was very welcoming and was always saying “Jesus loves you.” The pastor made it a point to say things like, “The reason why you’re going through trials is because you’re on assignment” and “People aren’t against you, they’re against the Jesus that they see in you.” He tied the reception- or the lack thereof- that Christians receive in the world to their relationship with the Christ figure. He blamed some troubles on the Devil (“The Devil won’t steal my joy!”).

When the pastor kept asking congregants to say “Jesus loves you” to one another, I’ll admit that eventually I just gave in rather than be the awkward one in the room. I justified it by saying that if Jesus really were alive in heaven, and the sin-defeating, healer/miracle worker that the Bible described, we really could say “Jesus loves you.” During the first songs- which were popular gospel tunes- I started to feel emotional because I couldn’t help but think of how much my mother would’ve loved that church. I had a sense that that church was a real community, centered around a love for- and perceived love from- Jesus Christ of Nazareth.

I don’t know if they perform the same outreach ministries that my church does, but I’m sure that they do a great deal. In fact, a large portion of the pastor’s sermon was about how Christians “aren’t in the life-saving business anymore.” How once, Christians cared about whether people “got saved”, but then they became more concerned with how much they loved the sanctuary, the ushers, and most of what was happening within the four walls. They lost their vision and their desire to reach out to people outside of the church community. He talked about “sins of the spirit” like “pride”, “a superior attitude” and “impatient words.”

“Reaching the lost” is considered by most churches to be a huge part- if not the ultimate goal- of their ministry. This doesn’t just mean feeding the hungry, rehabilitating people, and visiting people in hospitals and prisons. It primarily regards a call to conversion, to seeing people “turn away from useless idols to serve the living God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9). This part of Christianity that is so essential to its creed is what I take the most issue with. The idea that we’re lost or depraved is the one that I have most come to reject. I also reject the idea of a God with astounding abilities who chooses to remain largely indifferent to the sufferings of humanity. If I believe that God is omniscient and omnipotent, and his primary mission for us is to bring people into the faith, I must also accept that he is responsible for their state of unbelief and depravity to begin with.

Paul’s epistle to the Romans, in fact, addresses this very conundrum. In it Paul admits that in the Old Testament account, God is said to have hardened Pharoah’s heart. He then goes on to address the question of how God could rightly judge anyone, if he was responsible for whether they obeyed or disobeyed him in the first place. Paul is rather condescending and dismissive in his response, saying “Who are you to reply against God? Shall the one formed say to him that formed it, ‘Why have you made me this way?’” He also said that God had “vessels of mercy” and “vessels of destruction” and was free to show his favor to one, and display his wrath and power through the other.

I don’t know about you, but I choose not to believe that I’m simply a puppet on a string being jerked around in a contest of wills between God and the Devil (or maybe even just God and Himself). I also don’t believe that even if God were all-powerful, that he would be given to such a mercurial and unstable temperament- especially not if he were also all-knowing and could fully comprehended human frailties. Some people could argue that I’m just trying to turn God into a god that satisfies my human sensibilities, but I don’t see how that’s any different from what people have been claiming about God(s) for hundreds of years. Whether people believe it or not, the concept of God is interpreted differently by each person. He’s vengeful to one, all-merciful to another one. To some there is one God, but to others, there are multiple deities. Since we seem incapable of reaching a consensus, I am going to say that it is perfectly acceptable for me to create my own concept of what God is like, as well as my own way of approaching him/her/it.

Right now, though, I don’t feel that I need a savior. I don’t need to be saved from my sins. I’m just a human being in a world of many other human beings, trying to make the best life for myself that I am capable of. In the Christian community it’s considered cool to brag about your imperfections, that you’re “ a work in progress” or in the “process of sanctification” or on the “journey of holiness.” There’s nothing wrong with that, but if we’re really all sinners, regardless of whether we’re “saved” or not, then maybe “salvation” doesn’t really make you any different from anybody else. Maybe believing in a set of “facts” about a man who died over 2000 years ago doesn’t make you holy. I think we’re all in the same boat here, and that we all need to work together to make this world a better place. If religion is what inspires you to do good for your fellow man, then I can’t say that there’s anything wrong with that. If you choose to do good because you think it’s right and it makes you feel happy, then that is just as well. Let’s just not judge each other because of having different motivations.

The more I go to church, the more I feel a profound sense of loss at the community that I used to be a part of, but the more I also feel grateful for the path that I’m currently walking. As a person who still feels connected in some ways to Christianity, but cannot bring herself to accept the core doctrines of her former denomination(s), I often find myself in that dry place that Bishop John Shelby Spong accurately termed “the Exile.” I have a profound respect for the Jesus of the Bible, but I cannot bring myself to feel comforted when people say “Jesus loves you.” I do not feel convinced of the existence of hell or heaven- for all I know, when I die, I am no more. Even so, I know that I’ll live on in the memory of those people who loved me. I know that even though I’ve lost a lot with what I’ve decided, hopefully I’ve gained just that much more. I know that life is more about the journey than the final destination.

“You’re Pretty”

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com

Today I was riding to work with my Uber driver. He was an elderly gentlemen with a mild manner and a nice sense of humor. He had joked the day before that it was “destiny” that I was riding in his car again, and somehow I ended up riding in his car today as well. The day before he had asked if I had a boyfriend (Note: he is happily married and was not hitting on me) and I told him no, and he commented that it made sense because I needed to focus on school and work.

Today, though, he brought up the subject again.

Him: “It’s strange that you don’t have a boyfriend.”
Me: “Oh, really?”
Him: “Yes- you’re pretty.”

All I could do was what I usually do, which was laugh and say “thank you” instead of saying how I really felt. Usually, I’m only slightly offended, but today, his words stung, because I think for the first time I saw the hidden implications behind them. The unspoken idea is that if you’re a pretty woman, then you’re desirable, and if you’re desirable, you must be willing to be the object of someone else’s desires. That someone else is almost always assumed to be a man. Men always ask me if I have a boyfriend, and sometimes if I say no, then they do ask if I’m interested in women, or the ever-irritating, “So do you like men?” The implication there is that if I’m not interested in them, it must be because I don’t like men, which is pretty much saying they think they’re the best thing that could ever happen to me (betraying a high level of conceit).

In asking about my sexual preferences either way, they’re showing a pretty marked lack of concern for my privacy. Maybe the fact is that I don’t have a boyfriend could mean that I just don’t want to be involved with anyone, regardless of gender. Or that I’d just rather be alone than be with the wrong person. It is inconceivable to a lot of people- in this world that leans so heavily towards heteroromanticism and amatonormativity- that anyone could simply want to be unattached, but especially a woman. If a man is a bachelor, he’s said to be just “sowing his wild oats” or thought of as unlucky. If a woman- especially one who is considered attractive- is alone then she’s the object of confusion and pity (or she’s thought to be stuck up).

The other implication is that prettiness is valued above other traits- that a woman who is “unattractive” cannot be expected to have a partner. This makes all sorts of assumptions on what is considered beautiful, and the importance of said beauty in the world. It also puts women under obligation to “put out” if they’re thought to be attractive. So it sends two messages: “If you’re not pretty, no one wants you” and “If you are pretty, you should share it with someone”.

Pretty or not, you do not owe anyone anything. You are under no obligation to anyone to be a part of a relationship if that’s not what you truly desire. You also don’t have to do the things that are expected to follow, such as getting married or having children. You can be as involved or uninvolved with other human beings as you like. It’s your life. When strangers probe you about your relationship status, it might seem harmless on the surface, but what they’re really saying is, “You’re not normal. I don’t know you, but here’s what I think you should do to fit in”. Well, I’m here to say that you don’t have to put up with any of it. You do not have to answer questions about your sexuality if you’re not comfortable.

I really didn’t expect to make a post like this, but I’m becoming pretty convinced that asking a woman why she’s not married or doesn’t have a boyfriend should be on a list of “things not to ask women.” It’s even worst if you’re not asking, but you’re actually telling her that she should just magic up a relationship. Even if she does want to be in a relationship for herself, putting pressure on her to do things is not going to help the process. Society at large subtly and overtly sends women the message that we are not our own- that our lives and bodies belong to other people. I’m fighting to take back my autonomy, and not internalizing these mass-marketed, harmful messages is a part of that.

The Colored Glass Lens

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com

It can be pretty hard to convey some of the things that I believe in when trying to talk to relatives. Sometimes it feels like we have two completely separate ways of dealing with reality. In my reality, I just want to see Biblical stories of old viewed with the same type of skeptical scrutiny that we give myths and legends of other cultures and religions. If you heard about a talking snake tempting God’s children out of garden paradise anywhere other than the Bible, you probably wouldn’t take it very literally. If time and time again, predictions were made about the return of say a Hindi or Greek savior, and these predictions continually failed to come to pass, you might venture to say that the worshipers were mistaken in their convictions. You might even become frustrated if the worshipers said, “Everyday with God is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” as a reason for their continued devotion.

Last time I visited my older brother, he was telling me about why as Christians we might be tempted to have interfaith, but in the end other faiths were not compatible with Christianity. Of Islam, he said, “You might even think that they [the Muslims] were better off [than the Jews, who don’t believe Jesus is the Messiah] because they believe that Jesus is a prophet but they’re not…I understand that you might want to go [to the Moors] to be polite, but especially with where you are now struggling, they have nothing to offer you.”

I got pretty quiet at that point, but part of me had wanted to say something, because in the end his statements were Islamophobic. He was willing to say that the Christians and Jews worshiped the same God, but not the Muslims, even though Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are all Abrahamic religions. He also pretty much stated that Muslims were “worst off” despite their religion being more inclusive of Jesus than even Judaism, without giving a real reason for saying so. More than once he has described Muslims as “dangerous.” If asked about these he would probably say that because Islam appeared to embrace Jesus in some capacity it could be deceptively alluring- and it would be bad because in the end it denied the deity and Sonship of Jesus, and his sacrifice for sin, which are crucial to Christian doctrine.

That again brings me to one of the problems I have with Christianity (especially Western Christianity)- its argument that Christianity = good/pure and non-Christian religions/cultures = bad. There seems to be a complete rejection of the idea that God could be present in multiple religions and cultures. The idea that a God who is supposed to be all love, could not embrace people who were honestly seeking to be devout worshipers, regardless of whether they all saw Him in the same way, is one that has been bothering me for some time. Time and time again I ask myself, if Jesus was really the only way to be saved from sin and secure a comfortable place in the Afterlife, why did God wait so long to send him? Furthermore, if angels really visited shepherds in Jerusalem to announce his birth, why didn’t they also visit the Americas, or Asia, and proclaim this happy news? If God was really concerned about saving the world through his son, why did he seem to keep it so secret?

So-called “Christian morality” preceded Christianity. The ancient Egyptians had their own ten commandments. The Assyrians had the Laws of Hammurabi. Morality is present in various ways across multiple continents and cultures. Fundamental Christianity asserts that people are trapped in a state of depravity until they accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, but as I pointed out previously, the Gospel of Matthew presents a Jesus that taught that “doing the will of My Father” consisted of being humble, generous, kind, and respectful. I haven’t decided yet how we can reconcile this with the account of the Gospel of John, or the Epistles, of a Jesus that made bold claims about his own deity and presented himself as a savior for sinners. What I do know, though, is that seeing an entire world as condemned for not believing in an unprovable story about a man’s death and resurrection seems grossly unfair. This is without even addressing why God would require a violent human sacrifice to forgive us at all. Christians accept this fact of a human sacrifice being necessary without thought or question.

I am aware that there are “politically Christian” answers to most of my questions. God waited thousands of years to send Jesus because he wanted us to truly be aware of how depraved we were without him. A human sacrifice is necessary because it was written, “Without shedding of blood there is no remission”– this is simply God’s rule and it is immutable. All humanity is depraved because “all men have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”. It is impossible to disentangle yourself from sin, because “he who sins is a slave of sin.” Only Jesus, who was sinless, could really save people from sin. “He who was without sin became sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus.”

These are all acceptable answers if you’re comfortable with accepting things just because they’re written in the Bible, and aren’t willing to think critically and ask yourself why these things have to be this way. People don’t seem to understand that if I don’t think the Bible is inspired, quoting Bible verses doesn’t help their argument. When it comes to my relatives, I’m very hesitant about revealing the depth of my skepticism. I often even become apologetic if I bring science into a discussion. I very tentatively say, “Well I know you don’t believe in it” as if science were subjective in the same way religion is. The scientific method basically states that for something to become an accepted theory it has to be something that can be tested. We mainly can test repeatable phenomenon. Of course, just because something only happened once doesn’t mean that it never happened, but if we’re talking about some miraculous phenomenon like water turning into blood, there’s no precedent for that. In all of our testing and experiments, water has never been able to be turned into blood- we’ve broken down the components of each and it would seem that such a thing is impossible. Also, we’ve found no evidence of a change in the ecosystem of the Nile at that time in history- no huge fossilized remains of dead fish, etc.

When a person reads the Bible they’re expected to take certain things on faith, and I can’t say that’s entirely wrong. Having faith in something that can’t be proven- like an optimism that things will turn out well- can be a very healthy thing. I just don’t think it’s healthy when it blinds you to very real possibilities, and causes you to isolate yourself from other human beings. My childhood was extremely isolating, and I missed out on a lot of things. That’s why, when people tell me about Pascal’s Wager- that you’ve lost nothing if you just act like God is real/the Bible is true, that’s all well and good until it’s taken to extremes. Some women, including my mother, have lost relationships with friends and family members, have lost their freedom, and even in some cases their entire sense of self because of being a part of an oppressive religious sect. If this is the only life we have, then, they’re never going to be rewarded for all of the sacrifices they’ve made. If this is the only life that there is, not living it to the fullest is a tragedy. So no matter how you look at it you could lose your eternity either way- but I would rather do what I want right now, in the life I can feel and see, then to sacrifice this life for a distant possibility.

So what color are the lenses in my glasses today? I’m not really sure about the answer to that question; I just know that they’re different from the ones my family has. I know that we probably won’t see eye to eye ever again. The more I go through the motions of life, and navigate work, school, and relationships, the more I see myself moving away from traditional Christianity. My parents and my older brother are waiting for me to return to “the truth” but their truth is not the one I subscribe to anymore. I don’t believe that Jesus is waiting in heaven for God to give him permission to return to earth and wreak havoc on God’s enemies. I don’t believe that this planet is going to get burned up and magically replaced by a new one. I don’t believe that there’s a hell for all the sinners and a heavenly city for all the “believers.” I don’t believe God specifically punishes wrongdoers and rewards the righteous. I don’t believe that Christians are holy, while “the whole world lies in wickedness.” In fact, I don’t believe that holding religious beliefs- on its own- makes you a better person.

So what does that make me? Not very Christian. I’m starting to accept that that’s okay, though. I’m starting to get over some of the guilt I have for supposedly “letting my family down.” Faith has to be genuine, or it isn’t a real faith at all. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t fake believing if I really didn’t- and even if I could, I would make myself miserable and I have to ask myself it that would really be worth it. In fact, not so long ago, I was laboring under the terrible fear of “what if my parents find out I don’t believe?” Well now they know, and they’re predictably not talking to me, but the sky hasn’t fallen. I’m still going through life.

Also, for someone who is supposed to be under a curse now, I’m actually doing alright. Like I said, I don’t believe that God’s this heavenly judge that gives people exactly what they deserve. Let’s face it- some really horrible people are in powerful positions in this world, and there seems to be little to no resistance against their oppression. In the mean time, earnest men literally work themselves to death in coal mines, just so that their families can have a better life. A God that could do anything should surely protect them from black lung- that’s the least that he could do. We see though, just from casual observation, that this isn’t true. Good people don’t always get protected. Bad people don’t always get their comeuppance. We have songs like “Only the Good Die Young” being hits because often very good people do die young. Doing the right thing doesn’t guarantee you anything- but you should still be good because you care about other people and that’s what you want to do. Also, sometimes, good things do happen because you choose kindness over tyranny.

So I tell you- but myself, mostly- keep being kind. Live your life. Do what you want to do, avoiding hurting others whenever possible, but also not putting yourself in a box because of them. It doesn’t matter what color your glasses are, as long as you’re willing to deal with the consequences of wearing them- whatever those may be. I believe, at least, that you only live once. So make it worth something. Don’t spend your whole life being afraid about what other people are going to think or do.

Wear your glasses with pride.

Blessed are the Pure in Heart

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com

In my last post, I discussed Jesus as he was described in the Gospel of John. That account focused on the more supernatural aspects of his teaching, such as his claims to have divine authority as a son of God, and his assertion that he would save people from their sins. The Jesus of John was “the bread of life”, “the way, the truth, and the life” and a mediator between God and humanity.

The Gospel of Matthew paints a slightly different picture. We are introduced to Jesus through his famous Sermon on the Mount. In this, he does not outline a set of beliefs in order for people to have access to God, but rather a series of actions and attitudes.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. / Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. / Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. / Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. / Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. / Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. / Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. / Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” -Matthew 5:3-10

Here, Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven belongs to the humble, or the “poor in spirit”. He says the children of God will be those who are “peacemakers”. He praises virtues like purity, mercy, longsuffering, and a “thirst for righteousness.” As the sermon goes on, he commands his listeners to forgive others- to never return evil for evil, to be charitable, welcoming, and kind. He warns them not to pass judgment on others, because they would be held to the same standard.

This theme follows all throughout the gospel of Matthew. When Jesus is approached by a rich young ruler who wants to know how to enter into the kingdom of heaven, Jesus asks if he has kept all of the commandments- not stealing, not committing adultery, not killing, etc. When the man affirms that he has, Jesus tells him that he is lacking one thing; he is to sell everything that he has and give it to the poor. As the story goes, this young man goes away sorrowful for “he had many possessions.” That’s when Jesus says that it’s almost impossible for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. This is following his theme from an earlier passage where he admonishes his followers not to “store their treasures on earth.”

Jesus also lambasted the religious leaders of his day for their hypocrisy. He called them out for their pride and constant seeking of human approval, instead of focusing on seeking approval from God. He accuses them of “binding on men heavy burdens, and grievous to be borne, but not lifting them with even one of their fingers”. He criticized them for paying attention to tithing spices and herbs, but leaving off the “weightier matters of the law” like judgment, mercy, and faith.

Towards the end of the gospel, Jesus is discussing the judgment at the end of time. He is presented with two groups- the sheep, who stand on his right, and the goats, who are placed on his left. He blesses and praises the sheep, and welcomes them into the kingdom of heaven.

“For I was hungry, and you gave me meat: I was thirsty, and you gave me drink: I was a stranger, and you took me in: / Naked, and you clothed me: I was sick, and you visited me: I was in prison, and you came to me.” -Matthew 25:35-36

When the sheep ask him when they ever saw him and did any of these things, he replies, “If you have done it to the least of these my brothers, you have done it to me”. He criticizes the group on his left, and commands them to go “into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels”, because they have failed him where the first group succeeded. They did not give him food when he was hungry, or water when he was thirsty. They did not take him in, give him clothing, or visit him in prison- all because they did not do it to their fellow man.

Maybe this was what Jesus was talking about when he said this;

“Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. / Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? / And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, you that work iniquity.” -Matthew 7:21-23

It’s easy to see how when people read the Gospel of Matthew they see “Jesus the moral teacher.” Yes, even though there are some supernatural accounts of him doing miracles interspersed throughout the text- and he three times prophesies his own death and resurrection- we don’t see the same emphasis on his divinity that we see in the Gospel of John. The kingdom of heaven is described less as something you enter through believing on an object- that is Jesus- and more something that you enter by simply living your life in a way that is pleasing to God. Jesus emphasized private devotion, telling his followers to “pray to your Father who is seen in secret, that your Father who sees in secret may reward you.”

The question is whether or not we can separate Jesus from the supernatural claims about his life and death, and the fantastical stories of miracles that he is said to have done. If we do, what is it that we have left? As I said before, I have no doubt that a man named Jesus lived- and died- some 2000 years ago. I’m not so sure if that man was a worker of miracles and the carrier of my sins. I’m not so sure if he resurrected and ascended to be with God, where he waits for the opportunity to return. After all, most early Christians were convinced that Jesus was going to return in their lifetime, and that has been the case with almost every generation since then. At what point do we just move on?

I am attempting- very methodically- to puzzle out the truths about who Jesus was, and who he is to me now- what role he plays in my life. I’m now open to not only reviewing these things by comparing Biblical texts, but also comparing texts written by early Christians, and doctrines debated in the early Christian councils. Maybe that will give me some clue as to how we go from the early A.D. to where we are now.  It’s very clear to me that there isn’t one way to be a Christian- as is evidenced by the many denominations within Christendom- but there also isn’t just one way to live outside of it.

Evangelical Christians tend to lump all non-Christians into one big group they call “the world”- something to be feared or conquered, something to be separate from. In reading the book of Matthew, though, it’s clear to me that many people of other faiths would qualify to “enter the kingdom of heaven” above some Christians who carry the name of Jesus on their lips. In fact, in Matthew, Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven as a “net, which drew in a great multitude of fish”. The good were accepted, but the bad were thrown away, and Jesus clearly outlined earlier in the text what bad and good meant. “Good” includes people who exercise mercy, forgiveness, non-judgment and charity. “Bad” includes the selfish, the proud, and the unmerciful.

Now are You the Sons of God

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com

Christianity differs from the Moorish tradition, and other traditions, because of how it approaches how you connect to your Creator. Jesus, in the book of John, told Nicodemus that in order to experience the Kingdom of God, that he must be “born again.” He said that unless one is born of “water and the Spirit” he could not inherit the Kingdom of God. He connected this born-again experience to a belief on him.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” -John 3:16

The Apostle John, who is responsible for sharing with us this particular account of Jesus’ life, emphasized this in the opening statements of the Gospel.

“But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” -John 1:12-13

This idea that you enter the family of God through belief in Jesus is a recurrent theme throughout the Gospels and the Epistles. The Apostle John in particular emphasized this connection, as can be seen in one of his letters to the churches.

“Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwelleth in him, and he in God. And we have known and believed the love that God hath to us. God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.” 1 John 4:15-16

The main doctrines of Fundamental Christianity are as follows,

-Believe that Jesus is the Son of God

-Believe that he died for your sins, was resurrected, and ascended to be with the Father in Heaven

-Believe that one day he will return and establish his kingdom on the earth

Now I am beginning to understand what C.S. Lewis meant when he said that if we separate Jesus from all of his divine attributes, he can’t simply be accepted as a great moral teacher. He made statements that seem to portray him as a bit self-important: “I am the bread of life” “I am the way, the truth, and the life” and “No one comes to the Father except through me.” He was unabashedly proclaiming himself as the savior of the world, the giver of everlasting life, the carrier of humanity’s sins. He said, “He who rejects the Son has not the Father also”. He placed himself as a bridge between Mankind and God.

He was said to be the “first-begotten Son of God”, the only way that the rest of us would become children of God. In this way, Christianity states that we are not children of God just because we are “made in his image.” This is where Christianity and other religions differ. In Moorish tradition, you don’t “become” a child of God- you already are, it’s just something that you have to grow in and realize. We are all said to have a “seed” that has all of the divine attributes of God inside it, but we are also said to have a “lower self” that we have to deal with.

In Christianity, the “lower self” is called “the flesh” or “the carnal mind.” Again, in order to deal with these fleshly impulses, we are said to need to “mortify (kill) the deeds of the body” and this is said to only be possible through the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:13). The catch is that the only way to get the power of the Spirit to work in you is to believe the facts and statements about Jesus.

“In whom you also trusted, after that you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after that you believed, you were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise.” -Ephesians 1:13

Even knowing all that I know about different denominations, and about Bishop John Shelby Spong’s interpretation of Christianity in particular, I do not know if there is a way back to Christianity for me, without me believing what are considered by many to be its fundamental truths. Without believing in a virgin birth, Christ’s deity, his physical death and resurrection, and the promise of his Second Coming, I am not sure if there is much left for me there.

Yes, Jesus was a great moral teacher. When asked what was the “greatest commandment” he said, “The LORD our God is One” and that we should love him with “all of your soul, mind and strength” and also “to love your neighbor as yourself”. I think people of many religions keep these commandments, regardless of the fact that they do not accept Jesus as divine or as the Only Son of God. He also said, “He who is without sin, cast the first stone”. He ate with sinners and tax collectors. He was generous and kind, but unashamedly ripped into the religious leaders of his day, whom he described as “leaving off mercy and justice.”

That being said, if you ignore everything else that Jesus was recorded as saying, you only have part of the picture. It’s pretty obvious to me that we can’t take literally everything that was said, about how he raised the dead, walked on water, or multiplied food. I think these stories grew out of simply an awe or reverence of the man that he was. It’s similar to how St. Nicholas, the inspiration for “Santa Claus” was said to have resurrected a boy who was cut into pieces with an axe and cured illnesses. As time goes by history becomes stretched into legend.

That being said, just like there was a real St. Nicholas, there was a real man named Jesus. The gospels aren’t even unified about what exactly it was that he taught, but we can know from the way he was said to have been killed that his teachings were controversial. According to the Gospel of John, the Jewish authorities were infuriated- above all else- by his claims to be “the Son of God.” If he was simply trying to expound more on the Jewish law and was just teaching morality, I don’t think that they would’ve found it necessary to kill him. No, he stood for something greater- he stood in direct opposition to their understanding of God, and he openly challenged them. It was too much for them to take.

Today, I don’t believe that I have to believe in all the statements about Jesus in order to be a child of God. I too believe that we are all children of God, just by being human. I don’t believe that “no good thing exists in my flesh” but rather than I am a vessel with a capacity for evil and good. I might not have a Holy Book or religious text to support my beliefs, but I’m not sure that I need one. Even though I share some beliefs with Moors and Yoruba people, I am not eager to convert to a new religion.

I was just telling a friend that my primary mode of devotion is through my studying and writing. I may not fast, build altars, or light candles. I may not find it necessary to bow or kneel when I pray. Prayer to me is an open communication with God; it’s a conversation. Jesus said “The kingdom of God is within you.” I might not feel that I have to enter the kingdom of God in exactly the way that he said, but I can still believe that my body is a temple that houses the presence of God.

Our Adversary, the Devil

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com

“Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: / Whom resist stedfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren that are in the world.” -1 Peter 5:8-9

We have an enemy- or at least, that’s what I’m always being told. It is the Devil, or Satan, that “serpent of old” who “deceives the whole world” (Revelations 12:9). He was present back in the garden of Eden, tempting Mankind with the forbidden fruit in an effort to get them to turn away from God. He was said to have accused God’s faithful servant, Job, and convinced God to give him permission to completely wreck Job’s life, ostensibly as an attempt to test Job’s faithfulness.

Paul also talks about him, calling him “the Prince of the Power of the Air” who “now works in the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 2:2). Jesus said that if someone doesn’t understand the Word of God, then “the devil comes and takes it away from him.” Just as he accused Job, the Devil is said to “accuse the brethren before God day and night.” He is said to be our enemy, our adversary, a threat to the very foundations of our faith and a bane of society.

Revelations tells us that in the end he, and all of his “angels” will be cast into the lake of fire, or, hell. In the mean time, according to many an Evangelical preacher, he is seeking to round up as many of God’s children as possible so that they will be forced to join him there. This is said to be a last ditch effort of his to grieve God’s heart. He cannot get to God directly, so he has to hurt him by going after his children.

Many of these preachers also teach what Bob Larson said in his interview with Nicholas and Zeena Schreck, that all pagan religions are “an attempt of Satan to deter people from the truth.” This is a statement that I have a lot of problems with, for two main reasons. Firstly, Christianity is not the world’s oldest religion. If Christianity is the only true way to get to God, why did God wait so long to have it revealed to the world? Why did he allow the world to sit in darkness for so long? Secondly, there are many principles in Christianity that are shared by other practices such as Confucianism, things like honoring and respecting one’s elders, being humble, and being charitable. Also, in ancient Egypt, there was a set of ten “rules” that was almost identical to the ten commandments that were said to have been given to Moses by God on the mountain. No matter how you look at it, Christianity did not originate what we now think of as “Christian morality.”

So where does the Devil enter into all of this? There are some religions that do not consider him to be an entity with a personality. The Moorish Science Temple of America, for example, considers the Devil to just be your “lower self” and representative of your basal, fleshly urges. Your “higher self” is said to be the part of yourself that wants to connect with Allah. Even the Church of Satan’s official stance on Satan also states that he isn’t a definable entity, but rather representative of Mankind’s carnal nature, which they teach is something that you should embrace instead of fight. I don’t know a lot about polytheistic religions, but from what I understand there is no one character analogous to Satan, but rather some “trickster” types of characters that are usually causing some sort of mischief.

To believe in Evangelical Christianity’s assertions on Satan is to believe something that goes along with it- that we are in a constant battle, fighting to keep God’s “truth” in our minds. This is the main verse used to support this argument.

“For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh. /  (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;) / Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ;” 2 Corinthians 10:3-5

And here’s another one for free;

“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. /  Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.” -Ephesians 6:12-13

“Principalities and powers” are said to refer to some of the “lesser demons” that are employed by Satan as part of his deceptive work. If Christians seem like they are on the defensive, maybe it’s because they believe that they are in a war. The implication is that other religions are looked at with fear and suspicion. The world is “the enemy’s territory” waiting to be conquered. Instead of looking for what they have in common with other faiths, they become hyper-focused on the things that separate them. Emphasis is placed on being “in the world, but not of the world”, which “lies in wickedness.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks addresses these groupish mindsets in his book, “Not In God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence”. He emphasizes that whenever we see the world as Us. vs. Them, we are at risk of demonizing the Other. I can hate you, persecute you, and even kill you because you are not like me. He says this behavior can extend to all groups of people, whether they be religious or nonreligious.

So is Satan real? I cannot answer “yes” or “no” definitively, but if he is, I do not see him as being the main influence on secular society. I do not feel like I am in a constant battle with a supernatural being, or that human lives are caught in a tug of war between God and the Adversary. I see far more good, far more “God” in the world’s religions than I see evil. I know that Jesus was recorded as saying “I am the way, the truth, and the life- no one can come to the Father except through me” but how we can interpret that in the modern age is another subject entirely. When he said that did he really mean that all people who didn’t believe in Him were hell-bound, or are we adding something to His words?

Jesus said, “He who commits sin is a slave of sin” and that He came to set slaves free. But when he was asked what was the greatest commandment, he said “Love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind- for this is the greatest commandment.” Then he went on to say, “The second is like it- love your neighbor as yourself.” These are commands that can be followed by almost any person, regardless of their religious affiliation. I don’t believe that the Devil is behind peoples’ lack of faith, their sin, or their wicked actions. I believe that we all have a capacity for good and evil and we have to make a choice of which to follow.

On Being Present

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com

I briefly mentioned the book “Presence” by Amy Cuddy in my last blog post. I know that in that one I focused on the fact that I felt bad for “needing” to read a book like this to feel better about myself, but that wasn’t fair because it overlooked all of the great insights in the book. I learned a lot, and actually enjoyed it so much that I finished it off in less than a week.

In the notes that I wrote after I was finished, I summarized presence as “bringing your authentic self to a a situation”. In the first chapter Cuddy describes the struggles she endured after suffering a traumatic brain injury in a car accident, and how afterwards her difficulty with learning undermined her self-confidence. She talks about the times when she was so afraid about presenting her research that she clammed up and wasn’t able to express herself effectively. That is because, she said, that negative emotions like fear and anxiety cause us to become inward focused- we are not longer able to “be present” and really be focused on the ideas or message that we are trying to convey. Instead, we become hyper-focused on our own nervousness and sense of discomfort.

She also shares about how important authenticity is to people who are hiring other people or negotiating various business deals. People who are making decisions on whether to invest in a particular project stated that it was important for them to feel as though the person presenting the project really believed in what they were putting forth. In other words, they needed to show genuine enthusiasm for the idea. They also didn’t like to see people who seemed to be “trying too hard” or were pushy or aggressive. Interestingly enough, they said they didn’t mind if the person was a little nervous because “they’re doing something big, something that matters to them” so it makes sense if they feel a little nervous.

Throughout the rest of the book, Amy Cuddy expresses how we can reclaim our personal power and “bring your boldest self to your biggest challenges”. We can do things like practicing yoga and “power posing”, which is scientifically proven to increase testosterone (the hormone associated with greater risk taking and initiative) and decrease cortisol (the “stress hormone”). Even doing simple things like sitting up straighter and using more open, relaxed posture can increase our sense of confidence and feelings of being grounded. We can also use imagery techniques like picturing ourselves flying or just imagining ourselves performing difficult tasks with pride and enthusiasm before we go out and actually do them.

With this year coming to a close, it is common for people to be considering what kinds of “New Years’ Resolutions” that they will be making. Miss Cuddy explains why this doesn’t actually work too well for us. The goals we set are too lofty and ambitious. For example if we plan to “exercise three days a week” and we aren’t able to fully meet this goal (we only go once or twice) it tends to lead to us abandoning the goal altogether. She says that instead- and she uses herself with running as an example- that we should give ourselves small “nudges”. We should say, “Today, I’ll eat healthy” or “I’ll stretch for 15 minutes”. Those incremental changes can in the end lead to big results, without us feeling like we have resolutions hanging over our heads like a threat.

I’ve noticed that as I’ve been reading the book and trying to implement some of the principles, I’ve been experiencing less depression and more confidence. There’s a chapter in there that’s titled “I Don’t Deserve to Be Here” that goes over “imposter syndrome”. It explains how people in all sorts of careers and fields often have a pervasive feeling that they are “fake”, or that their positions in life have more to do with “luck” than with their own talents. These feelings of “being an imposter” tend to increase- rather than decrease- with every new achievement. I can definitely relate to having these feelings. Even though objectively I’m doing well in school and I’m handling my life well, the sense of “wrongness” persists. I find myself asking myself “what now?” every time that I achieve something good. The better the grade, the more I think that the teacher may have given it to me in error. Knowing that other people are struggling with these emotions- and that they have nothing to do with objective reality- I can reject these feelings and instead begin to celebrate my accomplishments. I can tell myself, “Actually, you do deserve to be here.

Curious Arts

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com

And many that believed came, and confessed, and showed their deeds. / Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together, and burned them before all men: and they counted the price of them, and found it to be fifty thousand pieces of silver.”

-Acts 19:17

“You shall not suffer a witch to live.”

-Exodus 22:18

Above are two verses, one from the New Testament, and one from the Old Testament, in the Bible. There is no mistaking that even in Christianity today, the destruction of so-called “demonic artifacts” is practiced and encouraged. I remember that when I read this story in Acts as a child/teenager, I was so proud of the people of Ephesus for having turned away from their “heathen ways” and turning instead to holy, sacred Christianity. Now that I’ve gotten a little older, I have a different opinion on what could really be considered holy.

Holiness, it seems, is greatly in the eye of the beholder. In the gospel of John, Jesus was quoted as saying “unless you eat my flesh, and drink my blood, you have no life in you”. This command to eat his flesh and drink his blood, led to the practices of Holy Communion that we have in the Catholic church- and some Protestant churches- today. Early on though, because of this symbolic practice Christians were erroneously accused by the Romans of cannibalism and many were persecuted and killed. A practice that is literally now one of the Holiest Rites in the Catholic church was considered barbaric to the pagans of the past.

History tells us that the ones who were persecuted quickly became the perpetrators of persecution of others. From the Crusades of the medieval times, to the Spanish Inquisition, to forced conversion and colonization of indigenous peoples by Europeans Christians in the 1600-1800s, Christianity has often sought to overwhelm and overshadow the culture and religion of places in which it has taken root. Non-European people were often seen as uncultured and uncivilized, “barbarian” and in some cases were considered sub-human. European standards of modesty and dress were imposed on natives, they were often barred from speaking their own languages, and they were forced to give up the religions of their ancestors.

Even now, with this Age of Conquest long past, Christians are taught to view other religions through a lens of distaste and suspicion. In another post, I quoted Bob Larson as saying, “All pagan religions are a delusion from Satan to distract people from the truth”. Sadly he is not alone in this radical view- i have heard many Evangelicals make similar statements. In the 1990s, Evangelical kids were burning rock records and copies of the Disney movie “Hercules” because they were demonized because of their pagan imagery. In the early 2000s it was Harry Potter they were focused on, because kids were encouraged to be “witches and wizards” which is prohibited by the Bible.

Derek Prince in his book on demons, reported that after he got rid of his collection of Islamic poetry, Buddhist statues, and other non-Christian artifacts, that demons that were causing him some health problems left him and he was miraculously cured. He tells a tale of a man who converted to Christianity and was then “unable to do a martial arts kick”. This seemed to Prince to be an indication that martial arts was also demonic, and that practitioners of martial arts gained their amazing abilities from Satan.

You can easily see the trend that’s forming. Christianity = good, All other religions = evil. A Jehovah’s witness once quoted me the verse in 1st John- “And we know that we are of God, and the whole world lies in wickedness.” Even Jesus was quoted as saying, “He that is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters” and “No one can come to the Father except through me”. The very creeds of Christianity seem to lift up Jesus to the exclusion of all else.

“For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus;” -1st Timothy 2:5

Christianity’s ancestor, Judaism, was also very exclusive in nature. At a time when most religions were polytheistic, Judaism lifted up Yahweh as “the one true God”. The prophet Isaiah goes on and on about the Abrahamic God being singular in his rulership of the heavens and earth.

“ I am the LORD, and there is none else, there is no God beside me: I girded thee, though thou hast not known me: / That they may know from the rising of the sun, and from the west, that there is none beside me. I am the LORD, and there is none else. / I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.”

-Isaiah 45:5-7

With these kinds of bold statements, it isn’t surprising that Christians regarded- and many still do regard- their religion as the only legitimate faith. In his book “Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence” Rabbi Sacks says that this problem is not necessarily because of the tenets of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, but because of human nature. We humans are pack animals, and we tend to form close groups. It is beneficial for us to see other groups as threats to our safety and resources, and this simply plays out in our interpretation of religion.

I agree with this up to a point. Christianity is definitely not the only religion that has persecuted other religions and cultures; the Romans greatly persecuted early Christians, and Christians are persecuted in the Middle East and Asia today. Christians, however, have to look at how they’re contributing to intolerance and injustice in the world and choose to take action towards not being part of the problem.

I think that whenever we have a Christian culture here in the States that says that Christians should be aware of the “dangers of taking counsel from a yoruba priestess”** that we are part of the problem. This deeply rooted idea that any pagan ritual or practice is malevolent/demonic definitely stands to be dealt with. Anton LaVey’s Satanic Bible actually reveals how Christian culture has adopted various deities from different religions (Pan, Beelzebub, etc.) into its demonology. Even the name of “Lucifer”- who is widely thought to be Satan- literally means “bringer of light” in Greek, indicating that he might’ve had a different function (and I suppose in the Biblical story he was one of God’s angels so maybe that also explains the name).

Christianity was preceded by hundreds of other religions, which we may not think have any significance today, but were actually a vital part of the lives of the those who practiced them. I think without giving honor and respect to this important history, we are losing a vital part of ourselves. Also, we put ourselves in a perfect position to repeat the mistakes of our ancestors.

Some might argue, “Those were false religions- that’s why they didn’t survive” but you have to bear in mind that Christianity might not survive, either. Currently Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world with over 1 billion adherents. If Christianity’s longevity makes it legitimate, than Islam is legitimate as well. Some people think they cannot peacefully exist together, but I think that they can if they are willing to work through their differences.

Just remember this- we as people have a lot more in common than we really realize. We breathe the same oxygen, have to share the same planet, and we all bleed red blood. The demonization of other religions and cultures is not just harmful to those cultures, but it is harmful to us as well. No one exists in a vacuum. We are all interconnected, and one day, I might have to lean on the same people who I view with such disdain and disregard.

**This is a quote from a Christian blogger who was making a criticism of Iyanla Vanzant.

No Regrets?

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com/

I wrote at the end of my last entry that I “have no regrets” about moving away from Christianity, and I realize that that isn’t totally true. I don’t actually feel like I’ve made the wrong choice, but there are some unfortunate things that have come into my life from making this choice.

#1: Isolation

I’ll be the first to say that the sense of alienation is probably mainly caused by me. My family and Christians in my life who know about my situation haven’t tried to push me away, but I’ve found myself feeling somewhat distant from them. The most typical reactions from my Christian friends who’ve found out about my doubts, is to offer to pray for me or just to imply that this is simply something that I’m “going through” and I will come out on the other side with renewed faith and a better relationship with God. There is no denying that there is a certain dismissiveness- and in some cases condescension- in these statements, but I understand that they do not at all come from a place of malice or judgement.

Anyway, despite everyone being relatively welcoming- and as supportive as they can be- I’ve chosen not to attend any more Christian groups and to limit my attendance at Sunday service. This has been really hard, because church has always been a safe, comfortable environment for me to socialize with people. I’ve tried looking into other groups but I haven’t been able to make a lot of progress with my search so far. Trying to find a new social circle to be involved with is really hard, especially for me as a relatively introverted person who has a lot of anxiety about driving to new places.

#2: Self-doubt/anxiety

Even as a I grow more comfortable in my “state of disbelief”, there are still moments when I wonder if I’m really wrong. I wonder if there’s a loving, all-powerful Creator-God of heaven whose kind embrace I am withholding myself from, or if alternatively, there is an omnipotent tyrant in the sky whose wrath I am inciting by my actions. Often the benevolent and fearful God are described as being one and the same, and at any rate, I feel that I must be displeasing Him. In doing so, I am also displeasing his followers- and that includes close members of my family.

At best I feel like a disappointment- at worst I feel that I may be in peril of “gaining the whole world and losing my soul” as Jesus was said to have said. I have to often remind myself that the idea of being cast into a burning lake of fire for eternity on the basis of mere belief or disbelief, is frankly absurd. If there is an afterlife, surely, our lives would be judged on the basis of our actions, and even if our actions were truly reprehensible they could not merit eternal punishment.

In some religions, being a truly horrible person just means that at some point your soul would be destroyed and you would no longer be reincarnated. Even though this is also a permanent punishment, the one punished does not in effect suffer for all eternity- they simply cease to be. That may be frightening as well, but, in the end, it’s all speculation. No one really knows what happens to us after this life- and that means that any number of things could be true, or none of them. Basing my entire life on any one assumption by itself sounds a lot like putting my eggs into one basket.

That being said, even though I’ve reasoned this all out quite neatly, hearing sermons about “losing this life” or even just offhand comments from Christians about hell and eternity can trigger all sorts of low-key nervous feelings in me. Sometimes, even without hearing these statements, the feelings can be triggered indirectly by random flashbacks to messages that have been drilled into my head for years. Even after separating oneself from the religion, one can still feel lingering feelings of guilt, shame, or “wrongness” that don’t seem to have any specific point of origin.

#3: Feeling lost

I used to pray a lot for strength and guidance, and sometimes, I still do. Now, though, I don’t have a very specific idea of who I’m praying to, and what it all means. In the past, praying to God for help with something also meant “putting it in His hands” which meant willfully choosing not to worry or be concerned with it. It meant quoting scriptures that detailed his “promises”, “meditating on the word” and choosing to praise, worship, and trust Him for the desired result. There was a certain element of “spiritual warfare” which included praying together with other people, and speaking out against any thoughts of doubt that might enter my mind.

If that sounds like a lot of work, in some cases it was. The draw of it all was that I felt that someone was listening- I felt that a Higher power was going to intervene on my behalf. Sometimes I felt literally refreshed and felt a sense of inner peace when praying. Even though I would still experience indecision, I used to believe that God was going to “work everything together for good.”

Now, I still believe in a higher power, but I believe that his/her/its role in human life is somewhat limited. I feel that I can seek guidance from this Force, but in the end a lot of the forward motion in my life is left up to me. This is both empowering and sobering. I now believe that I can’t just pray for things to be better, but I have to be the change that I want to see in the world. I believe that the Divine works through frail human lives to bring about good on this earth. I don’t believe that God has any sort of physical form, but rather is the life-giving force that exists in all of us. So in that sense, he/she/it isn’t really a “person” that we can implore to do this or that.

Another thing I now believe is in my own insignificance. I am not better or more deserving than anyone in this world, and being extremely devout isn’t going to stop bad things from happening to me. I also don’t believe that good or bad events are being orchestrated by some Divine Being. God was silent during the massacres in Sudan and Rwanda, the Holocaust, and havoc that occurred from the “Holy Wars” of the medieval times. There were- and are- times when peoples’ faith/religious convictions implored them to help others. Many Christians helped to hide Jews, but on the other hand, after it was over, the Catholic church was hiding Nazis and aiding in their escape. Religion is neither good nor bad, but good or bad people alike use it to justify their actions. What does that really say about it all?

It’s easy to get lost in this world. It’s easy for me to wonder if anything I do in life really matters. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the possibility that this life really is the only one that we have- that there’s no do-overs, that there’s no heaven for the righteous, no hell for the sinners, that we all simply get put in the ground and then we’re either remembered or forgotten. When I think about it like that, I have to ask myself if I’m really living the life that I want to live. It’s easy to wonder- “what are they going to say about me after I’ve died?” What legacy am I going to leave?

Not having any idea about any of it, or any romantic paradigm in which to frame things, is really hard. This is my reality, though, and I have to face it. So yes, there have been some regrets- but there’s no turning back now. I feel like I’ve seen a glimpse at the truth, and I don’t want fairy tales anymore. I’ve had some incredible good fortune in my life, and as great as it would be to think that that was due to my personally assigned guardian angel, I don’t know if I can tell myself that I’m that special.

I’m not special. I’m just me.