Originally published in C(G), April, 2016.
To say that lately I've been wrestling with thoughts on religious faith, and the absence of faith, is quite the understatement.
I will say with some embarrassment that my views and acceptance of those who hold a faith based value and belief system, have been, until very recently, rather closed minded. I was not raised with religion being a factor in my life in any sense. Although my parents went to great lengths to raise me with what I still consider an extremely open, accepting view of all people, anchored in a secular humanist ideal of how a collective humanity is experienced, the opinion of organized religion in my family was neutral to negative. Implicit and explicit.
As far as their own histories, neither of my parents would have identified as Christian, or even religious. My father was raised by a single Dad, having lost his mother when he was still very young, and as such, Church or God was not a priority for a man attempting to raise two pre-pubescent sons. Dad’s religious upbringing was neither negative or positive. It was absent.
My mother, however, had a different experience. Raised in a strict, God fearing Baptist household, the head of which was a sadistic and abusive man whom my mother often bore the wrath of, she left home at eighteen never to look back. A woman who carried deep and lasting scars from that experience, my mother died in 2010, unable to reconcile her deep and abiding affinity to some aspects of religion (music specifically), yet harbored a revulsion so strong she was compelled to spare her only child from it.
How do those experiences translate when people then decide to have a child? Not easily, that’s for sure. Often, they are realized in complicated and largely unintended ways. Because, despite my parents best efforts, and while always fostering a sense of respect for those who held divine understanding, my own takeaway from that upbringing was layered, in many ways an awkward fit.
The net effect? An unspoken, tacit acknowledgement that ended with a view of religious people being not as “enlightened” as those who did not hold such belief. The “I have no right to judge your choice, however unfortunate a choice it may be” approach. The irony of that being it was the identical philosophy coming from the religious on which my rejection of them was based.
Entering adulthood as an out, gay man absent the baggage that I assumed religion would bring, coming out was not an especially difficult milestone. As a result I held critical and uncompromising positions against most, if not all organized forms of religion, seeing the damage it often caused in my gay peers coming from a church background.
Those beliefs shifted throughout my twenties and thirties many times, from a hardcore new atheist understanding, to a respectful agnosticism, and on through the vague and often times incomprehensible philosophies espoused in New Age spiritualism, then back again.
Then of course, this past spring at the age of 46 I met David Montgomery. And no one was, and is, more surprised than I, that an openly gay, out of the closet, Anglican priest would be someone I would choose as my life partner.
How’s that for irony?
So my respectful, yet privately sneering arrogance has been challenged in every conceivable way. With, I’m sure he would agree, not a small amount of push-back. But over time, my firmly rooted belief that to be progressive as well as religious was an impossible duality became harder and harder to justify. Especially when David’s views of human rights, social justice, and the overall purpose and function of religion would usually meet, and sometimes exceed my own progressive, often radical ideas. These were things I simply could not disagree with him on. And I did try! Often, but with increasingly challenging and uncomfortable results.
The realization that David and many others view scripture as simply an alternative narrative, ideas on which to live based on metaphor and symbolism, rather than literal interpretation requiring dogmatic adherence, was a huge eye-opener for me. Effectively neutering my contention that the Bible was the most problematic text ever written. Seeing the community he helped to create and is a part of, I could no longer deny that some expressions of religion can, and often do, inspire change and good in the world. Often through a radically progressive agenda. I should state though, that I am very aware that David’s specific denomination holds a belief and understanding of God that represents only one specific and liberal element of an otherwise conservative institution. Therefore, his style of religious expression is specific to only a certain number of Christians today. David would also confirm that they are not the majority.
My acceptance of the above is not to say that huge problems don’t exist with religion globally. Christian centered privileging is rampant in our culture. Power relationships within the church hierarchy are concerning to say the least, and have frequently been shown to be abusive in nature. I see these problems for what they are. And I mention these examples to underscore my uncompromising belief in, and rabid defense of a separation of church and state. That is something I will never equivocate on. Though I will admit my defensiveness loses steam when I realize David is just as committed to that principle as I am.
Yet still, there are several ideas and deeper motivations that I cannot, do not, and probably will never understand or accept. And that’s okay. Because my conception and understanding of what some religious institutions can mean and offer in the lives of individuals and communities, has been flawed. Will I ever be a Christian, some may wonder? No, I will not. My conception of a higher, collective energy is firmly entrenched, deeply fulfilling, and not something I feel needs changing, now or ever. However, I am slowly coming to realize that I can’t simply dismiss a person of faith based on my often unfair, and invalid assumptions.
I imagine we all one day hope to have some experience of grace, or even transcendence. Self-actualization is the pinnacle of Maslow’s needs hierarchy. So to put a deceptively simple frame on it, “whatever gets you through the night” is something that sounds good enough for me.