Thursday, September 21, 2006

The House that Emily Built

Okay, there is something that FTN's comment-fest has brought up for me that I would like to share with you. Maybe this post should be called "The True Confessions of an Ex-Fundamentalist".

I was a pentecostal fundamentalist when I was in my teens. A serious one, too. A sort of trainee preacher. This was a very important experience for me, which has had a long term effect on my whole life.

There is a lot of speculation about why people find these churches appealing. People seem to assume its about the lively, rock n roll style music and the sense of security that people get from accepting clear direction and leadership.

But for me, it was always about wanting God. Wanting a relationship with God. And God, in the fundamentalist church I discovered, seemed to be a real presence, someone who was active in my life.

And for a few years, it worked. I loved God, and I knew that he loved me. My church friends were a great source of fun, serious conversation and support. I had a lot of trust in our leadership. I accepted rules and limitations about things like pre-marital sex as part of a bigger picture. They were a significant sacrifice, but a sacrifice I was willing to make. And I was so happy and proud when I was chosen to join the trainee ministry team.

But over time, the fact is that it didn’t work. As I grew up, became more familiar with the way the world actually is, it became increasingly clear that church teachings didn’t reflect that. They didn't reflect what most forms of knowledge tell us. They didn't even really reflect what I could see around me if I kept my eyes open.

And as I read the bible more and more, it became increasingly clear that the way the bible was portrayed didn’t add up, either. I always smile quietly to myself when someone accuses me of trying to wriggle out of what the bible says. Because they obviously don't know me well enough to realize that I would have liked nothing better than to find that the bible provides a clear set of statements about what to believe and what to do and not do. Instead, the more I actually read it, the more I found that the bible doesn't really provide a set of bullet-point beliefs and commandments. It was more like a library - a sprawling, contradictory, sometimes beautiful, sometimes terrible, library of stories, poems, parables, histories and other kinds of literature, from different times and from different places, with one great theme: God. Inspired by God? Perhaps. But at least as human as it was divine.

And part of the problem was language itself. Language, even biblical langage, cannot fully describe God. To get to the deepest truths, it ends up having to resort to metaphors, analogies, poetry and stories which point to the truth, but are not, in themselves, the whole truth.

For a long time, I repressed these thoughts. And I don’t think I was the only one. Over time, I noticed how much the church and I had a kind of siege mentality. We in here, we were okay, still fighting the good fight. Facts that didn’t fit were denied entry. People that didn’t fit were denied entry. Parts of ourselves and other people that didn’t fit we repressed ruthlessly. And, you know, I become obsessed with this kind of repression. The more I repressed, the greater my doubts. I no longer felt like a person who was growing in faith and maturity. I felt like a person who was trapped in a fortress, unable to see the sky or breathe God’s clean air, and just going around and around in circles.

And ultimately, I felt like a person who was lying to herself about what she really believed and what she really felt. And I felt like a person whose fortress was becoming a prison.

And, of course, a siege is always temporary. It always comes to an end. And when I could no longer deny my thoughts, I plunged into a prolonged spiritual and emotional crisis that involved pretty much everything – my sense of God, my beliefs abut the bible, about the world, about morality, about gender, and my sense of self. And especially my relationship with God, which I thought must be over. I truly believed that my grief and my loss of God were so complete that I would never get over it.

Now, I have known a number of people who have left fundamentalism behind. Most don’t seem to really move on, spiritually speaking. I have a close friend who truly believes that he is going to hell when he dies, and yet is still unwilling to go back!

For myself, I have been luckier. I have managed to assemble some of the bricks that made up my fortress and construct something else. Something that provides me with a home and yet doesn't shut out the world. Sometimes it looks well constructed. Sometimes it looks kind of gerry-built. But, you know, I can live in it. It has a lot of windows. And it can cheerfully remain in a neighbourhood that includes the lovely FTN and his commenters, without needing them to build something similar.

This house that I am building is not something that can be finished, you stick a fork in it and its done. Its always in process. This house involves a view of God that is much bigger than I would ever have allowed for as a fundamentalist. This house involves a view of the bible in which I respect it, not for what I wish it was, but for what I think it really is, and allowing it to still speak to me. It involves a more minimalist set of beliefs. It involves committing to always telling the truth to myself about what I really believe and about my own feelings. It involves working on becoming a more compassionate person, towards myself and towards others.

I sometimes call myself a "theological liberal", and it sort of fits, but I really only use the term to save my fundamentalist and evangelical friends the trouble. For myself, I don’t much care about the label. I believe that faith is about a relationship with God and, in that sense, as long as it is real and I am sticking with it, it doesn’t really need a certificate of approval from anyone.

And overall, the effects are good. I think I am a much freer, happier person than I would have been, had I stayed with fundamentalism. More importantly, I think I am able to be a more loving person, because I am more able to deal with the world, with people, with myself, as they are, rather than as I would like them to be.

I do not think that I am a very wise person. I had to laugh at something Trueself said once, which was that what she had in book smarts, she more than made up for in lack of common sense. Because I am the same. I have a lot of flaws that I am very conscious of. But I cherish the bits of wisdom I do have, because they have been so hard to win. And I am not going back.

And to paraphrase a great nursery rhyme: This is the house that Emily built.

And to quote a great man who also chipped away at a great edifice, only to find it tumbling around his ears: Here I stand. I can do no other.


Blogger Cat said...

I can definitely relate. I grew up in an Apostolic church which I suspect is quiet similar. Did the teen church group and so on. And definitely felt under siege. It is a breath of fresh air to see I am not the only one tying to build a house. A house I can actually live in :)

6:18 PM  
Blogger starrynite said...


Without wanting to get into all the stuff that is going on over at FTN's I just wanna say good on you for questioning your beliefs and not just accepting what you were fed growing up. I think doubt is a big part of faith anyway.

I also think that fundamentally faith in God/Jesus is the most important thing and I'm glad to hear you haven't abandoned that totally.

I honestly really hope that you find contentment in the house you have built. We're all just blind fools feeling our way really. none of us has all the answers (as much as it migth appear that I think I do sometimes! Lol)

Glad you felt able to participate in the discussion too :)

6:50 PM  
Blogger The Visitor said...

Lovely post Emily - I can relate to your way of thinking. (reached here from FTNs comment post)

3:39 AM  
Blogger Desmond Jones said...

Interesting post, Emily; thanks for putting it out here.

My own journey began in a 'theologically liberal' church, which, for various reasons, didn't satisfy. I had a 'conversion experience' with a group of charismatic/pentecostals, which profoundly affects me to this day. I have subsequently gravitated into Roman Catholicism. I should probably post my experiences in more detail; but thanks for putting your story out.

7:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is very well said. Past that it's very well thought. You're a thinker, you are.

I myself have to wonder continually at the people who insist that the Bible is the literal word of God. Yo, folks, ever heard of the Council of Nicea? Could one of you explain how there's only one story which is common to all four gospels in the NT? Don't you all wonder what parts and stories were left out?

End of rant. Love the Luther quote.

7:53 AM  
Blogger Lady Let said...

Hi Emily,

It was more like a library - a sprawling, contradictory, sometimes beautiful, sometimes terrible, library of stories, poems, parables, histories and other kinds of literature, from different times and from different places, with one great theme: God. Inspired by God? Perhaps. But at least as human as it was divine.
Probably you know about José Saramago's novel "The Gospel according to Jesus Christ".

The novel is about his own version of the story of Jesus, where all the characters involved are seen as human beings instead of saints. The relationships of Jesus with his family and the rest of the characters are then very human.

How the bible, the events of the gospel would look like if they were about human beings? The book is about this question: it makes you look at the bible in an enterily new way and in my own opinion, "religion" becomes extremely ridiculous.

This is the Jesus I would like to think of: with fears, doubts, with a body, sometimes conflictive, with contradictions. Jesus as a man.

Maybe what we need is to find faith in our own goodness, in our own "humanity".

I believe a lot healthier attitude.

Thank you Emily for an inspiring post.

11:44 AM  
Blogger aphron said...

Like most of us on our "faith journey," what you said is inciteful. In college I had too many questions that my church's teachings did not answer. Fifteen years later, I'm very active in my church. Yes, churches can reveal the ugliness of Man. Churches are imperfect.

Faith is a journey. Our view of God and Jesus changes as we do. It matures. I'm glad you did not abandon Him.

1:16 PM  
Anonymous Shalane said...

I related so well to what you wrote on FTN's post and now after reading this, I swear we are twins separated at birth or something. Very eloquent!

11:23 AM  
Blogger Just Me said...

I love this post, something that I can relate to. I reminds me how God will continue to show his full nature to us, usually despite our faulty archetecture.

1:15 PM  
Blogger Emily said...

Cat- I'd love to hear what your house looks like, some time.

Starrynite - I found your testimony very moving.

The Visitor - I think it is quite cool that you have created a blog that basically enables you to comment on other blogs. This is something that would never have occurred to me.

Desmond - Yes, I think liberalism needs at least some experiential quality, otherwise it is all dry as dust!

LBP - It is an intriguing thought, about what may have been left out!

Lady Let - No, I have never heard of this novel, but I definitely plan to read it, now!

Aphron - I would be interested to hear about your faith journey some time.

Shalane - Its wierd when this happens, isn't it? We think we are so unique, and then... a strange parallel universe is revealed!

Just Me - Thank you. I hope so.

4:06 PM  
Blogger hasarder said...

This post really spoke to me. I can relate to what you're saying a lot.
I've been planning a similar one, but it will have to wait until I get the time.
Thanks for dropping in to my blog!

1:16 AM  
Blogger FTN said...

I did read this last Friday, but I'm just now getting to comment on it. Thanks for posting it. As Aphron said, people (and churches) are quite imperfect. One of the problems I see is the lack of teaching and knowledge about the history of how the Bible came together. In the end, it IS an issue of faith, because even after a lengthy argument, no one will be able to "prove" some things in scripture. But I think Christians do need to be aware of the history of how the Bible was compiled.

Anyway, that's a little bit off subject.

7:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know a lot of people who share a similar story to yours. I admire willingness to look objectively at your faith and take the steps to follow you a new path.

8:44 AM  

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