Sunday, October 4, 2020

Tearing Down the Toxic Christianity of My Childhood and Starting Over: a Testimonial and Progress Report

 

If you've read either of my memoirs (here or here), you'll know I come from a seriously dysfunctional family. I think the colloquial term is "fucked up."

It was. I have struggled to understand that awful time throughout my adult life, with varying, rarely decent, levels of success. It's not like I've come to grips with all of it, or even have consciously acknowledged all of it: oftentimes, in some random quiet moment, perhaps as I'm dropping off to sleep or doing some deep breathing, or even going to the bathroom, a new-old layer exposes itself to me, one I'd never recalled before.

My thoughts and considerations have always been earthbound, tied up with the people who put me through all that hell, or who stood aside and watched indifferently as I was kicked repeatedly to the curb. But this year I came to a fresh realization that my entire spiritual upbringing was totally jacked up as well, and that I needed to come to grips with it too.

I was raised in a very conservative Catholic home. Until I was 12, I was forced to go to church every Sunday, and then to catechism, which is the Catholic Church's way of indoctrinating kids into its often contradictory and harmful dogma.

I was raised to believe that God was a deeply angry, judgmental super-dad who watched everything I did and was, always, very displeased with me. I was raised to believe that if you weren't working hard every single moment of every day, you were bound for hell. I was raised to believe that, in fact, if you were happy or contented, you were really fucking up and were hell-bound as well.

Prayer, therefore, became silent and desperate petitions for constant forgiveness; groveling; begging; and pleading.

~~*~~

I watched my mother--the only true family I ever had despite being raised with four siblings and an abusive father who abandoned us when I turned 13--die slowly of a horrific degenerative muscle disease over the course of my childhood and into my early twenties. That's when the first cracks in my toxic theological upbringing began to show. It was inconceivable to me even then that a "loving" God would allow such suffering. I wasn't raised to believe in such a God, despite what priests preached at Mass. Those same priests warned of hellfire and damnation at almost every turn, that God would be more than happy to send me to hell for the slightest of infractions. Somehow that God loved us always, even if he condemned us for eternity to burn.

Watching Mom suffer as she did, I couldn't help but believe as a young man that she had done something terribly wrong and was being severely punished. And indeed, she was told that on more than one occasion by various people, including one of those priests as well as her vile husband and his mother. If Mom would just repent, they claimed, the disease would go away.

She died at 55 when I was but 22, her mind stripped away by her own liver, which was pouring toxins into her bloodstream, leaving her open to long bouts of hallucinations that tore me so badly that I will never get over them.

My dickhead father had long since remarried, and had sued Mom and us, his kids, into poverty. My siblings were really nothing more than strangers that happened to share the same roof and surname as me; they treated me daily with contempt and hatred.

I was totally alone.

It was very easy to believe that God was punishing me, too.

~~*~~

My life has been one of struggling to live as best as I know how by my own design, by my soul's fondest wishes, by making my own path. It has been a no-holds-barred war from the start, not least because oftentimes I was my own worst enemy. For many years after Mom's death I fought as hard as I could to fit in, to become what everyone wanted me to become--a respectable wage slave just like them, a cog with a growing pile of debts. I was expected to get married and start a family; get a house and a mortgage and a white picket fence and a dog. I was expected to become safe and acceptable; and for many moons I did all I could to do all those things. I really did.

I thought that was what good Christians did. I thought that was what God wanted me to do.

But I wasn't made that way.

I've never asked a woman to marry me. I've never even been engaged. I've never owned a home or a condo, or even a small spit of barren land somewhere. I've never had a mortgage; and only one time in my entire life did I ever have car payments.

During Christmas of 1999, realizing that I was a miserable failure, and that by everyone I knew I was always going to be one, I walked into a tattoo and piercing parlor in the seedy side of Fort Collins and got a solid-gold hoop earring. It was my fuck you! to all of it: the ass-kissing, the constant squashing of my personhood, the expectations of a bigoted, conservative, closeminded community and culture.

Two weeks later, on my birthday no less, my girlfriend, who probably worked harder than anyone to that point to make me acceptable, dumped me.

~~*~~

Throughout my life, my relationship to God has mirrored almost exactly what my relationship to my so-called father was: abused and abandoned. And that's how, for nearly sixty years, I related to God. I was a bad person, period.

And so, when I prayed as an adult (having graduated from the pleading I always did as a kid), I almost always raged. My prayers were more often than not curse-fests aimed at God, who, like my father, didn't give a shit about me and was just waiting for me to die so that I could stand shoulder-deep in a lake of fire the rest of eternity. It wasn't until Louis Helbert died two years ago, and I legally cast off his rotten name a year later, that it occurred to me that perhaps I was going about everything the wrong way.

Not my chosen life or lifestyle, no. Because here's the thing:

Jesus was a total rebel, just like I am. He didn't own a home. He didn't own a horse. He had no property. He was totally broke. He lived simply. He spoke out against conformity and power, against riches and status and fame. The Christian God, his Holy Spirit, and his only begotten son have been so distorted by modern Christians, and the Christian Church, as to be entirely unrecognizable.

He never married. He never got engaged. And the last fucking thing he did was try to fit in.

When that finally--finally--sank in, when I looked at my new driver's license and smiled at my legally chosen name--Montaigne--I think that's when--finally--the nasty, toxic theology I was taught from my birth began to crumble in earnest.

~~*~~

So here it is. I'm not a Christian.

Then again, neither was Jesus.

I no longer believe that God is some angry dude in the sky constantly judging me. In fact, my entire conception of God is undergoing a massive re-think. At this point I'm simply realizing that it's time to grow up theologically, and to make some major adjustments to my worldview.

I have never come to grips with the issue of suffering and evil, of how there can be a God who allows either. In my explorations since, I have discovered that as a theological or philosophical issue, it's one of the thorniest, and one that has not, nor ever will be, definitively answered.

That by itself is grounds for most to reject any notion of God and to become atheists. I can respect that. It's an entirely valid reason to become so. When you see--really see--the suffering that goes on every single day just in your own neighborhood, let alone the world, you are confronted with that problem like getting hit by a runaway bus.

The same is true with moral evil, which today is at a higher pitch and has more slobbering adherents than at any other point in the whole of human history. We stand on the very knife-edge of existential doom. Our planet is literally burning up. And yet what do most people do? Nothing. They just go on blissfully adding to the flames by way of their indifference, greed, ignorance, cognitive dissonance, and never-fucking-ending consumption.

What God would allow that who isn't a bona fide monster?

And yet, I still believe that God exists.

~~*~~

Keith Ward has helped me enormously in my rebuilding project, as have Rupert Sheldrake, Alistair McGrath, and Daphne Hampson. All are enormously educated. All have spent their lives in consideration of this central issue, and many more. Their books are piled up around me and this computer, gathering dust. I have read several of them half a dozen times or more, and will be sure to buy their new releases as needed. They are all believers too.

~~*~~

So here is where I am at currently. It starts with the word heteronomy, which is defined as:

  • the condition of being under the domination of an outside authority, either human or divine.

If there is a God, then I cannot believe any longer that He/She/It has placed me under His/Her/Its authority. I'm learning about Friedrich Schleiermacher, a nineteenth-century theologian widely considered one of the most influential biblical scholars of all time, one who believed the same thing, but who struggled mightily marrying his thesis to Christianity, of which he was devout.

I'm relearning such words as faith, sin, devotion, and prayer.  I'm learning that the problem of evil and suffering can be adequately, if not totally, answered if you discard the notion that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent--at least as defined by the Christian Church. I'm learning that these problems don't have a set answer that materialists demand, that materialism has been as much a poisonous influence on me as my father's Catholicism, and that organized religion as a whole is an unholy mess regardless of faith, Christian or not.

I'm relearning, and respecting, more and more, J. Krishnamurti's declaration that truth is a pathless land. I've always believed that in a dark, dark corner of my soul; but in the bright daylight of it, I stuck to my father's toxic Catholicism, even when I didn't believe I was doing so. It's always easier running someone else's code that they terrorized into you at a very young age. It's there, it's automatic; just shut up and let it run!

For fifty-eight years, that's exactly what I did.

No longer.

~~*~~

I'll keep you updated now and again as to my progress on this new and enormous project. I'm still very much a theist--a panentheist, to be accurate. I don't believe Jesus walked on water, or turned water into wine, or was resurrected bodily into heaven. I believe, as Thomas Jefferson did, that those were all bunk, and that most Christians, so named, have long since forgotten the real miracles of his ministry: his words, his lessons, the extraordinary example of his life.

The problems of evil and suffering remain for me, as does believing in a panentheistic God that is somehow also non-heteronomous. Further study is required.

So be it.


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