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Sorting Things out in Later Adulthood

Spirituality and religion may have flowed out of me like so much water out of a pitcher, but as I quoted her in To Drink from the Silver Cup, Jeanette Winterson wrote of herself in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? “If you are raised on the Bible, you don’t just walk away, whatever anyone says.” Winterson, a well known British lesbian author whose adoptive mother raised her to be a fundamentalist preacher and missionary, wrote this to explain the fact that today, perhaps forty years after leaving her church, she still reads a good deal of spiritual material. It was that way for me, too, after leaving the church. Even while I denied my spiritual nature, I continued to read, in order to attempt to reconcile who I was (a lesbian among other things), with who I’d been raised to be—like Winterson, raised on the Bible. One place I looked was in the stories of how others had made peace with their religious roots, Winterson’s books being among them. I loved her story for its irreverent, brave humor in the face of a world turned upside down because she chose to live her sexuality and also for how books saved her. How many of us have not been saved in some way by books? I for one. (p. 176)

Two other personal stories affected me deeply. The first was Tirzah Firestone’s With Roots in Heaven: One Woman’s Passionate Journey into the Heart of Her Faith. The other was Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, in the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation by Eboo Patel. Both of these books recount a journey away from a faith—Judiasm and Islam, respectively—learning from other spiritual traditions, and eventually returning to the faith of youth with deeper understanding and in a different form. Firestone’s book gripped me in a very personal way, as I had been dancing with Judaism for many years and was considering converting when I read it. Her story was so similar to mine—leaving an ultra-orthodox home with a rabbi father and eventually becoming a rabbi herself. Patel’s book struck in a different way, as he emphasized the tremendous need for religious pluralism and for those who support it to actively reach out to young people as an antidote to the tragedies brought about by religious extremism. His was a book that I mentioned often to others and for varying reasons—always the sign to me of an important book. (pp. 170 and 176)

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright is less personal than these others—more an analysis of a religious system and biographical material about famous people caught up in its prison of belief. My upbringing and my trajectory away from that upbringing have predisposed me to be fascinated with religion, with people’s involvement in it, and particularly how people leave a religion that has been meaningful to them and how they resolve conflicted feelings and behaviors as they do so. This is why I have interviewed a number of people regarding their faith journeys. I wrote in To Drink from the Silver Cup regarding Going Clear: “In Going Clear…Wright tells how people who leave that religion are stalked and hounded in an attempt to bring them back. … No one stalked me or tried to prevent me from exercising my civil rights, other than the civil right of marriage equality. But disapproval, verbal harassment, and marginalization were tools my family employed powerfully to try to get me to return to the fold.” (p. 120)

Recently, I told my brother Rick that I think the religious extremists in our family won’t really grapple with the inclusion of LGBTQ people in the church because of fear. “What do you think they’re afraid of?” he asked. My reply, “If you let yourself question what the church considers to be a big precept, you almost inevitably must question other, even bigger tenets. They’re afraid of the answers they might find—answers that will turn their neatly boxed system upside down. I did question the one that affected me most personally, and sure enough, that led me to other, even bigger questioning. The biggest one, and I wager the one our brothers are most afraid of, was, “What is the Bible empirically?” And the corollaries, “What is it to me? What role does and can it play in my life?”

The first book that addressed those knotty questions about the Bible, Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? also addressed the question about the church and my sexuality, although by the time I read it, I had already moved past that question. (See blog entry from August 11). Around the same time, I read Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels. In my Old Testament class at Calvin College, I learned about ancient scriptures that were part of the Protestant biblical canon and ones that didn’t make it. We studied the ones Protestants call the Apocrypha—books that fit between the Old and New Testaments in the Catholic canon. A final exam question in that class required us to write an essay as to why one of the apocryphal books was not canonical—a tough question for a freshman English major, despite my avid interest in all things biblical. The Gnostic Gospels explored some forty-five ancient books about the life of Jesus—books that could’ve been included in the New Testament but weren’t. The question is, “Why not?” The simple answer is that the Church Fathers didn’t like what they had to say; for example, they supported a mystical approach to life in the Early Church and also the equality of men and women. What was revolutionary about this book for me was that it enabled me to see how much human will to power had influenced the contents of the book that I had been taught came directly from God without error. It gave me permission to ask the deeper questions to which I needed answers. (p. 138)

Perhaps the most important book as I sorted through my questions about the role of the Bible in my life was The Bible: A Biography by former Catholic nun, now religious and biblical scholar, Karen Armstrong. I had never stopped loving the Bible—its stories, its language, its guidance for a conscientious, maybe even joyous life. But I was troubled by its many inconsistencies, by the mental gymnastics required if I were to believe that it was the flawless and direct Word of God. Armstrong’s biography of the Bible basically tells how it was written and also the methods by which it has been interpreted over the centuries. I learned that the writers of the Bible had rewritten, rearranged and revised the text many times in order to make it meet the needs of its readers in different eras. I learned that ancient biblical scholars did not have a problem with inconsistencies in varying texts. I learned that only recently had scholars begun to take the Bible as literally as so many do today. The Bible: A Biography set me free to embrace the Bible from an entirely different perspective from the one I’d been brought up on. (p. 224)

Three books especially helped me move through a deliberate process as I embarked on the experiment that is recounted in Part III of To Drink from the Silver Cup. The first was The Best Year of Your Life: Dream It Plan It, Live It by Debbie Ford. I was looking for the third book in the Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson, when this book leapt into my hands because I could get a bargain if I bought The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest with two other tagged books. I picked it because of another book Ford had written and because I was feeling very stuck in my writing life. Of course I wanted to get unstuck so I could have the best year of my life. The first exercise involved listing and resolving what Ford calls incompletions. I could probably have worked on a nice round list of ten, but I picked two—one of which was organizing a storage room into an office. The other, which ended up being much more significant, was the writing of what I referred to as my Statement of Faith. I had avoided sharing what I believed or didn’t believe with my family because everything in our relationship told me that if mine didn’t match their beliefs, I would be even less acceptable than I already was. Now I felt that the only way we might achieve, if not the intimacy we had lost, at least some rapport, was for me to come out of my religious closet. I chose eighteen words or phrases such as Faith or What I Don’t Know, Belief, God, Sin, The Bible, Prayer, and I wrote my beliefs about them as they were in 2011. (p. 183)

Before I felt ready to share my statement with my family, I decided that some guidelines for approaching the statement were necessary. I went to Sourcebook of the World’s Religions: An Interfaith Guide to Religion and Spirituality by Joel Beversluis, with whom I happened to have sat in some classes with when we were both students at Calvin. I’d read much of the book before, so I knew it contained a set of recommendations for holding interfaith dialogue. Technically, my faith and my family’s weren’t separate faiths, but for practical purposes they were. I wanted any discussion that might follow the reading of my statement to be for the purpose of knowing and understanding one another better, not so we could convince each other how right each of us was. I adapted Beversluis’s parameters and sent them to siblings, some cousins, and adult nephews and nieces (not wanting to be accused of corrupting the youth with my ideas). I made clear that I would send my Statement of Faith to anyone who was interested and could agree to my guidelines. The Statement was not to be passed around but had to come from me. (p. 184)

The third book was one that I had read several times: Thich Nhat Hanh’s Living Buddha, Living Christ. It first attracted me because I hoped that this sage Buddhist could help me understand the mystery that intrigues and baffles me—the mystery of Christ. I expect that I will return to this book many times before I’m done. With this life. Because I get something new every time. The first time I read it, Thich’s statement that unless we make peace with our religious roots, we will always be at war with ourselves affirmed what I already knew and drove me the harder to seek reconciliation. His advice that former Christians seeking resolution approach God through the Holy Spirit made perfect sense to me. I don’t pretend to understand or even embrace in faith the idea of the Trinity. To me, the Holy Spirit is the essence of God, the way to meet God face to face. Thich’s words offered me soul succor time and again as I worked at sorting things out. Interestingly, the introduction to the book was written by Elaine Pagels, whose Gnostic Gospels had been such a boon to me earlier on my journey. (p. 304)

Last of all, I’ve listed an assortment of books that don’t fall neatly into a time or a category, but have been important to me for one reason or another on the spiritual journey. They don’t even include my favorite book of all time, which I may give a nod to anyway because it is such a gem. That will be for next time.

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