For January, 2017, we explored my personal struggles with faith and doubt. I examined the things I want people to know the most about struggling with doubt, what Donnie Darko taught me about religious doubt, why my Christian give-a-damn is broken, and how I define Esoteric Christianity. As usual, my readers offered some compelling responses, and I want to take a moment to feature the best ones here.
I used to care so deeply.
I used to care so deeply about right belief, about Orthodoxy, about the church’s teachings and how to best live them out.
I used to care so much about being part of the inside, part of the Right Crowd. I used to care so deeply about not being cast outside for some minor heresy.
On Christmas Eve my partner and I watched an old favorite of mine: Donnie Darko. The film is a trippy, incoherent and yet strangely cathartic philosophical exploration of reality. Running through the film is Donnie’s struggles with belief in God. The film captures well the unreality and alienation that accompanies such deep exploration: little makes sense in this world, and we are surrounded by delusions and nightmares.
The scenes that struck me the most powerfully were the discussions Donnie has with his therapist about his struggles with belief in God.
For as long as I have had faith in God, I have also known doubt. My doubt and I have been in a dance for years, now, growing apart and then coming together, sometimes fighting, sometimes talking, sometimes choosing to understand one another.
As I struggle with navigating the faith I love so dearly, I turn to the internet for guidance, and I find a great deal of cerebral talk with little soul. I hear Sam Harris and Dawkins and Christian apologists talk about the pros and cons of faith, but what’s missing for me in almost all discussions about doubt is humanity.
American poet Mary Oliver begins her poem Wild Geese thusly:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Every so often, I find myself meditating on these lines. They represent a shift in my consciousness, a sea change in my faith and worldview. These words have been the theme of my growing up; of moving from boy to man.
When I was a Freshman at a small Christian college, I took a Philosophy 101 course. I read Camus, and Nietszche, and Aristotle, and Augustine, all under the tutalage of a caring, prodding, sometimes infuriating philosophy professor. Up until that point, faith had always been a given. Certainly, I had occasional uncomfortable questions (is eternal torment really a reasonable response to sin from an all-loving God?) but generally I didn’t let those questions trouble me. My Evangelical surroundings worked hard to reinforce the assurance that my particular early 21st century brand of Evangelicalism was certain and reasonable, and that it was the outsiders who were delusional, or working from incomplete evidence.
Once upon a time, I was known almost exclusively on the web for being a gay Christian. I wrote day in, day out, about the experience of homosexuality and faith, and I eventually developed a tidy following for my work. For almost all of my late teens and pretty much all of my twenties, I dedicated my life to sorting out the puzzle of my sexuality, and it consumed my every thought. It kept me up at night, I wept, I cut myself, I plunged into deep depression, I read and prayed and talked, I searched desperately for the love of God. And, all along the way, I wrote untold thousands of words in poetry, fiction, journal entries, and articles.
Every so often, I get asked a difficult question: how, after all I’ve been through as a gay person in the church, am I still a Christian? I’ve struggled with this question, and refrained from writing about it, because, “I don’t know” doesn’t seem like an appropriate answer.
The question just keeps coming up, though, and I think it might be time to start unpacking that “I don’t know.”
The tide started to turn, perhaps, when my editor was reading a piece for my previous blog, “Sacred Tension”, about being gay and Christian. She looked up at me and said, “Stephen, I can’t let you publish this.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because people would feel attacked, belittled, dehumanized,” she said, “I won’t let you publish this piece, not in its current form.”
I am at the Abbey of Gethsemeni as I write this: home of Thomas Merton, and one of the great mystical and ecumenical centers of the world. The Abbey has a plain, simple beauty about it, and is transfixed in a perpetual silence – a silence so deep it feels like a physical substance. I am taking this time to rest and reflect, to process the past year and prepare myself for the new, and to open myself up to the presence of God.