After walking away from a childhood faith that taught me that it holds the absolute Truth (about God, life, the universe, your eternal soul, and everything else), transitioning out took more than simply walking away from it all. It required a complete deconstruction of the way that I was taught to think – all things black and white, people are either with us or against us, and the standards of right and wrong are measured by the Holy Bible… or at least the way my particular evangelical denomination taught me to interpret it. Sure, I was permitted to ask questions, but if my conclusions differed from the Four Spiritual Laws (look those up if you’re not familiar; if you are familiar, you’ve my sympathy), I was informed that I’d been led astray by Satan.
I didn’t realize until I finally read Marlene Winell’s work on Religious Trauma Syndrome how much residue I still carried from being indoctrinated to believe that there is only one Path. It manifested throughout the years in ways I never fully realized but most certainly experienced. For example: Because I was taught that there is an absolute Truth, upon realizing that conservative Christianity was no longer my path meant that my initial instinct was to figure out exactly what “the Truth” was. Another holy book, perhaps? A different spiritual road? If you’re deconstructing your faith, this impulse is a natural trap to wander into, but I’d urge you caution in simply trading one form of fundamentalism for another. Because let me tell you a brief story:
Between 2011 – 2012, I got myself involved in a little cult group. I don’t want to sound sensationalist here – it wasn’t a suicide or alien cult or anything of that nature. Most cults lack the kind of theatricality that makes it onto CNN. In fact, I’ll bet you most of the people there didn’t even realize they’d wandered into it, and they probably still don’t and have gone on to be well-adjusted people. But our little group fit the basic definition: A cult is simply a movement, big or small, that hinges upon the philosophical discipleship and veneration of a singular person or object. In our case, it was a bit banal – our cult involved a lot of drugs, Rock Band, and shooting the shit around a ring leader who considered himself a shamanistic healer.
The “shaman” liked to have younger people around who he could mentor (I was actually an exception, being a year older than him), and his strategy involved keeping us all pretty high on psychedelics on a regular basis while he tried to shape us into the image of disciples that best fed his hubris (he never called us disciples, but it’s what we were). “If I can’t bleed, you’ll bleed for me,” he used to say, which I assumed was metaphorical. As a Christian, I was used to interpreting the problematic sayings of my leaders in ways that distilled their disturbing nature until such problem passages lost their meaning – another instinctive defense mechanism left over from evangelicalism that I wasn’t aware I still had. Has the way that Christians use theology and “historical context” to justify their Loving God ordering the slaughter of men, women, and children throughout the Old Testament ever bothered you? Same principle here.
All this to say, I missed the warning signs that this “shaman” was bad news because I’d been trained from a young age to ignore them. Besides, I was too enamored by what this guy was selling – peace and love that we could all share in to the fullness of our bodies and our souls, and he’d provide the means and the parameters. Meanwhile, I watched old friends of his who knew him before he identified as a shaman get slowly pushed out of his circle when they tried to caution me that he wasn’t who he claimed to be. Those of us who liked what he was selling took their places and ignored their warnings that he wasn’t trustworthy and had been brainwashed into a cult himself while he was in college. In the Church, we like to say that folks like that were never really saved to begin with, or had encountered a distorted version of the Christian faith that didn’t represent a true relationship with Jesus Christ. It wasn’t hard to shift that reasoning over to those apostates of our little cult group.
The “Shaman” took a particular interest in my girlfriend. Very long story short, he eventually convinced both of us to participate in a polyamorous relationship, which more or less meant that whenever I left them together at the house we shared, I could guarantee with absolute certainty that they’d be in his bed when I returned. The conditions of this new arrangement were relayed to me by my girlfriend, who he’d been grooming for some time to gamely accept his proposition. And she was clear: Either I go along with it, she told me, or we were done – because she loved me. It was another thing that was easy for me to accept as someone who was taught that a loving, all-powerful God included an eternal Hell and a sacrificial Lamb in his perfect plan: Those who love us must hurt us in order to perfect us. “If I can’t bleed, you’ll bleed for me” isn’t that far removed.
I loved this woman fiercely and hung on for as long as I could, consistently not okay with any of this but being perpetually gaslit into believing that because I didn’t want to share, there was something wrong with me. And to be fair, I wasn’t guiltless; I self-sabotaged quite a bit the more I realized that there was no stopping this. I resorted to drawing lines in the sand between me and them and tried to get others in the circle to pick a side in ways that could simply not be measured by maturity or mental clarity. But then, my heart was breaking and I thought I was going crazy because I was perpetually being made to believe that something was wrong with me for not wanting to be the increasingly irrelevant third wheel. It certainly didn’t help that nothing in the self-deprecating nature of my evangelical upbringing had ever taught me less destructive ways to stand up for myself.
It finally hit me one day, in the thick of a terrible depression, what this was – because it felt so familiar. This “shaman” was offering nothing more than another form of the fundamentalism in which I grew up. He was hurting me because he loved me. If I questioned his ideas, I wasn’t a “true believer.” If I wasn’t okay with watching my girlfriend fall deeply in love with him, that was my own weakness against the sacred. If I just gave in and stopped questioning, my life was going to be a whole lot simpler. And after a while and a lot of betrayal, I realized that enough was enough; I picked up the pieces of my shattered heart, got the hell out of that toxic environment, and never once looked back – except to get a couple more people out of his sphere when they asked me for help.
On the other side of it, a few friends on the outside pointed out to me that this “shaman” had all the makings of a cult leader, and I realized what I’d gotten myself into. On one hand, my experience with the evangelical church provided me with the experience I needed to realize the sort of situation in which I’d found myself. On the other hand, I recognize now that if I hadn’t instinctively had that need to find “the Truth,” I wouldn’t have been susceptible to a wannabe cult-leader. I’d thought that I still needed an Absolute at the end of my journey, and that’s why I bought what this coward was offering.
The more I deconstruct from my faith, the more I have learned to be okay with the ambiguity of it all. Religion, faith traditions – they’re metaphors, that’s all. We pick metaphors that help us walk into the divine mystery. We cannot define that mystery; we just find lanterns we can hold up to shine light onto our paths. If we spend all of the precious time we have on this earth looking for the only True Way, we’re going to miss the beautiful experience of life (for all its pain and joy, both crucial) that is all around us, waiting for us to engage with it. We won’t see a dangerous situation when we’ve wandered into it, because we’re looking up instead of looking around.
If you’re deconstructing and wondering where to go next, your path is your own – and that’s scary, but it’s also glorious. Because I promise: The farther away you walk from it, the more free you realize you are. The greatest joy I’ve found is simply to embrace the mystery.
I’ll conclude this story with a quote from my favorite theologian, John Shelby Spong: “God is not a Christian, God is not a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Hindu, or a Buddhist. … I honor my tradition, I walk through my tradition, but I don’t think my tradition defines God, I think it only points me to God.” I interpret this to mean that there is room for abundant life in all faith traditions, and we are allowed to find meaning and purpose on any path that we choose to walk – including no faith tradition at all, if that is the path that works best for you. There are as many paths as there are people! Holy Wars, Crusades, Inquisitions, and violent jihads only occur when we decide that our metaphor is the only one that’s going to work for everyone else. If anyone ever tells you that they have the Truth, run for your life and find your own – just remember to be kind to yourself and to others along the way. It’s really that simple.
Blessings and peace to you on your journey. Wherever you are on your path, remember: You do not walk it alone. I love you.
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