I am excited today that Kathryn will be our next Help Us Understand interview, and help us she does! These interviews will be a bit longer than my normal posts, but these are complex subjects and worthy of creating a bit more space.
Kathryn, we are grateful you are here today. Thank you for trusting us enough to listen to you and for the ways you will help us understand those who are spiritual better.
What does “spirituality” mean to you? If you practice some form of spirituality, what does that look like?
To me, “spirituality” entails a sense of connectedness. When I was a Christian, I interpreted those experiences of connectedness in terms of a connection to God. When I left Christianity behind, I fully expected that my spiritual experiences would stop. They didn’t. In fact, they didn’t change, not even a little bit. All that changed was my own interpretation of them. Instead of telling myself, “This sunset is such a testimony to the glory of God,” I started telling myself, “Wow, what a beautiful sunset!,” and leaving it at that. Instead of telling myself, “The Holy Sprit is giving me the strength to keep working,” I started telling myself, “This is great—I’m totally in a state of flow right now. This is meaningful and satisfying work.” Instead of telling myself, “I think God spoke to me just now!,” I started telling myself, “Something new just occurred to me.” And my new interpretations frankly felt a lot more honest than my previous ones had been.
What has been your experience with Christians and the church?
I grew up in the church, sang in the choir, and joined every Christian activity I could find. I considered myself a Christian from a very young age and many, many times rededicated my life to Christ, just to be sure. I studied for seven years(!) at a highly ranked Christian college, and served overseas for six years. Upon returning to America, I went on to get an MDiv degree at a large interdenominational seminary and pursued ordination in my denomination. I was awarded several prestigious scholarships, not only for my academic achievements, but also for my spiritual leadership and example. I was a teaching assistant for so very many classes in seminary, entrusted with the responsibility of grading and providing comments on other students’ deeply reflective papers.
Christians, I was one of you, and a very devout one at that. It never, ever crossed my mind that I could possibly ever leave the Christian faith. Then, at the beginning of my final quarter of seminary (AFTER I had already walked at graduation, mind you), things began to fall apart.
My church, who had supported me in many ways through three years of seminary and the initial steps of the ordination process, casually decided to hire a new pastor who didn’t believe that God calls women to ordained ministry. They gave me a friendly heads-up before the new pastor arrived. I believe they honestly thought that as long as I knew in advance that my new spiritual leader, who would guide me through the rest of the ordination process, was quite certain that I was not called to ordained ministry solely on the basis of my gender but had committed to walk me through the process anyway, all would be well.
I was speechless, at first. Then I shared my misgivings in private with a fellow female seminarian who attended the same church. “How could he guide me through the process under these circumstances?,” I asked. She was horrified to hear the news, of which the rest of the congregation was still in the dark, and began telling other friends. Pretty soon the church leadership was calling me to express their extreme disappointment in my “breach of confidentiality;” asking me to talk to every single person I knew of who knew, and tell them to not spread this information any further; and telling me that Satan was working through me to try to divide the church.
Mind you, all I had done—ALL I had done—was tell one friend that I was worried about the fact that I was about to have to pursue ordination under the leadership of a pastor who did not believe in the ordination of women.
My world was shattered. That same week, I began my required hospital chaplaincy internship. It was intense. My very first day on the job, I saw a dead body for the first time ever while also trying to help 15+ family members in the room come to terms with the sudden death of their middle-aged loved one. I actually did okay on that one, I think, but I was pretty stressed out, as you might imagine.
It soon became apparent, though, that dealing with dead bodies, hysterical people in grief, sick people estranged from their children, and the like, was the easier part of the job. The hard part of the job (and I say “job,” but this was actually a 10-week unpaid internship required for graduation) was the meetings with my chaplaincy supervisor.
My supervisor strongly believed that the only way to be a successful hospital chaplain was to have all of your defenses shattered, to be broken down into nothing but raw emotion and experience, to hit rock bottom, and then slowly rebuild from there. Ironically enough, this was exactly the kind of shattering experience that I was having in my life, only not especially involving her.
At first I did try to share some of my difficulties and concerns regarding recent developments at my church, but her responses were unhelpful. She said things like, “And WHY are you still going to this church??”… as if it were the easiest thing in the world to simply drop three years of membership, ministry, and ordination-seeking, and start over somewhere else with strangers. Her responses added to my staggering, screaming pain, so I stopped sharing my vulnerable places with her. She flipped out.
I did my job well, reflected deeply on my experiences as a hospital chaplain intern, and even connected themes I experienced to some things from my own family of origin, but I did not give her the free access to all of my vulnerable emotions that she was seeking. Even so, I barely survived the summer.
A mentor of mine had to provide emergency emotional support on several occasions, all related to my chaplaincy supervisor. I did stop attending that church and visited several others. I horrified myself by exploring ordination options in the “liberal” branch of my denomination, the branch that (according to my religious upbringing) was NOT faithful to God or to Scripture. But mostly, I was just trying to cope, hanging on by a thread. And at the end of the summer, my chaplaincy supervisor wrote me a scathing evaluation, which of course became a permanent part of my student file at the seminary.
I graduated. I found a job teaching English, which is what I had been doing overseas. I settled into a “liberal” church in my neighborhood for several months. The people there were very nice. I introduced myself as a refugee from the more conservative branch of our denomination, and they welcomed me with open arms. I made friends. I got involved. There was a path forward there for me; I clearly had the option to pursue ordination through that church where the head pastor was a woman, and no one would ever question my calling on the basis of my gender ever again.
But I was still in pain, and I didn’t want to make any rash decisions. I attended church each Sunday as an ordinary layperson. I struggled with the ideas of “surrender,” “submission,” and “radical obedience” to God. I knew that the Christian God required them. I didn’t know if I could survive them.
One Sunday, the theme of the Scripture readings and of the sermon was, “Surrender to God.” I hurt my way through each Scripture as it was read aloud. Then came the sermon. The exegesis was perfect, flawless. I had an MDiv and had been a teaching assistant in preaching classes, so I knew how to tell if the sermon is really accurately unfolding the meaning of the relevant Scriptures or not. This sermon was absolutely 100% faithful to Scripture.
And I could not survive it. I could not live in a state of surrender to God, and also survive. More specifically, I was not at all sure that a posture of “surrender to God” was likely in any way to help me access or come closer to whatever Deity or Absolute Truth might lie beyond human understanding.
However, a posture of “surrender to God” now seemed EXTREMELY likely to help me get into situations where I was vulnerable to being hurt by other people’s pride, selfishness, misguided thoughts, and plain human ignorance, as they spoke to me out of all their human failings in the name of God. And I blamed the structure of the Christian faith for taking ordinary, fallible humans, and elevating them to positions of “spiritual leadership” wherein their own human brokenness now has a senselessly large amount of power to hurt other people.
Sure, part of the Christian duty is to be obedient to God over and above any human, and to examine Christian leaders to determine whether or not they truly are being faithful to the Word of God. But even good, faithful, well-meaning leaders can change in an instant—mine did—and ANY human, given the heady power trip of being a spokesperson for GOD, is susceptible to causing great pain. “Any God worth his salt,” I told my very concerned mentor, “would be disgusted by Christianity.”
In the case of my new, kinder church, though, there was no disconnect between the words of the leader and the words of Scripture. The sermon was completely accurate to the text. The Christian God himself was, through Scripture, saying that we must place ourselves in a posture of surrender to God. The problem was that there was no real way to know what God might or might not ask you to do next.
The Bible is full of paradoxes, let’s be honest, and there are at least 10 different, contradictory ways—all of them based in Scripture—to answer many important questions. This is why so many different Christian denominations exist. Any Christian leader you talk to is going to tell you that his/her teachings are Scriptural. And by and large, they all are. And they are all different from one another. And they all, somehow, mysteriously, also reflect the specific culture, time period, local setting, personal beliefs, and personality of the leader in question.
Submit myself… to what? There was no telling what I would be asked to do next… but whatever it was, was far more likely to play into the human thoughts and plans of somebody, than to somehow access an infinite God. In fact, from a posture of surrender, there was no way to rise above the noise of human thoughts and plans at all—they were deafeningly loud—and yet that is what the Christian God required. I could not please him.
In fact, I increasingly found it morally abhorrent to do so. The Christian God functions as a stand-in for all kinds of human weaknesses, writ large. As they say, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. I could not survive under this kind of corrupted authority, and I was actually disgusted at myself for having been on the path to become an ordained spiritual leader myself and doubtlessly project my own human follies and foibles onto others in the name of God. Yes, I might have helped some of them, but I can still do that now, in my own voice. I will never again claim to be speaking for God, whoever or whatever he might be. Come on.
The following Sunday was my 30th birthday, and also the first Sunday that I had ever intentionally not gone to church when there were no circumstances preventing me from doing so. I kind of sweated through Sunday morning in my small apartment. I was afraid to do anything on Facebook, lest anyone notice the time of my post and wonder why I wasn’t in church.
This fear subsided gradually as the church-free weeks went by. No one really noticed that I had stopped attending. One day an assistant pastor called me, short on time, to see if I could lead a Bible study at the last minute, and got more information than he had bargained for (and still had to find someone else to lead the study!). Major Christian holidays like Christmas and Easter felt painful and empty for some time. But I could not go back.
I missed it, but the whole point of going to church is to worship God—and after having come to realize that the “God” of Christianity is really like the little man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz, I could not make myself pretend to worship him.
If you were a part of a spiritual group/community, what would you want present? What would you not want present?
This is an interesting question. I do miss the community, friendships, routine, music, beauty, etc. of church, and have looked a bit into traditions like Unitarian Universalism. The problem is, the things I miss most actually hinge on the sense of coming together to worship something greater than ourselves. In a choose-your-own-adventure religious environment, the unity—the awe and wonder—is lost. I now feel far more of a sense of connection outside of any kind of religious environment than within one. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m a candidate any longer for any sort of official spiritual community. That ship has sailed.
What are some of the unanswered/difficult questions that you continue to wrestle with?
Well, Christianity does have the benefit of having lots of answers to give about the origins and meaning of life, where people go when they die, and other questions of that genre. I don’t buy those answers anymore, but it was kind of nice when I still could. I don’t have answers to such questions anymore; I don’t think the universe grants such answers to us. But it sure would be nice if it did.
What do you wish Christians and the church understood?
When I left Christianity, I lost virtually all my friends. Stop for a moment and consider how many friends you would lose if you lost ALL of your Christian friends. Some were horrified by my change of heart, and told me so. Many, many, many found the thought of me going to hell one day so emotionally distressing that they broke down in tears, inconsolable, and I had to spend quite a bit of time taking care of them emotionally even though I was the one with the difficult news to share. Some tried to stay with me, thinly disguising their attempts to get me to return to the fold. I understood them too well; I used to employ those very same tactics myself.
The whole “telling my friends” process was so ridiculously emotionally draining that I stopped it as soon as I could. I had graduated, and I moved on to take a job in another state, so I simply disappeared from the lives of friends with whom I wasn’t super close. Some of these friends appear occasionally on my Facebook page and make comments in Christian-ese, assuming I still share that language. I ignore the religious references and simply respond to the main content. It would be far too exhausting to deal with the fallout of trying to explain to all of these less-close friends that I am no longer a Christian.
In short, being a former Christian is lonely. Very lonely. It’s lonely when you tell people, and lonely when you don’t. It’s lonely when your two best friends today both happen to be Christians who never knew you as one, who know your story, who accept you, and yet whose larger circles of friendship you can never join because they center around church and Bible study groups. It’s lonely when your husband is non-religious just like you, but has been non-religious all his life and cannot relate to your past religious experiences. It’s lonely when you know other former Christians… but only through their books, blog posts, or internet discussion groups.
There just aren’t too many people out there who were once extremely committed to the Christian faith but adhere to it no longer. I have felt less lonely in this regard just one time in the past seven years, during a conversation with a Muslim friend who was once a very devout Muslim and is now trying to come to terms with her faith in the context of her more recently modern, Western, liberal lifestyle. The ways in which we had expressed our devotion to our respective faiths as young people differed greatly on the cultural and religion-specific details, but the emotional journey was so very similar.
At one point she was very nearly recruited by an extremist Muslim group, and she now shudders to look back on her former naiveté. She really thought at the time that if she was truly devoted to God/Allah, then that was the path she should take. It made me shudder to think of what I, too, might have so easily become had I grown up as a devout Muslim rather than a devout Christian… but I felt less lonely.
Kathryn, after hearing your story, I am moved to respond. But in the spirit of listening, I simply say thank you. Your words will not lightly be brushed off of me or others who read this. We appreciate you helping us understand. Thank you.
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