When someone asks me “Are you a Christian?”, my first answer is usually some variant of “um, kind of?”, complete with a shrug of my shoulders and a rueful grin I learned as a young leader in the youth group at my parents’ church.
What an awkward phrase that is: “the youth group at my parents’ church.”
For the longest time, even after I no longer attended their North Texas non-denominational evangelical congregation (another epic phrase), I thought of it as my church. Even after I was aware of the trauma, aware of the terrible theologies and philosophies, aware of abuses that had happened within its walls, I still instinctively claimed it. It was the winter of 2021 before I finally broke the habit and remembered to use “my parents’ church.”
Because it wasn’t my church. It was never really mine. In high school, after my older brothers had left for college and I was functionally an only child, the majority of my fights with my parents was whether or not I had to attend youth group. I loved the other students in the group and I have fond memories of them (Strangely, many of them have undergone similar journeys to the one I’m about to describe. Curious how that happens, isn’t it?).
But the theologies and youth leadership that tends to go hand-in-hand with North Texas evangelical churches – sickly sweet, smiling as they throw their verbal barbs, uncaring if they speared my closeted friends – was not for me, in my curiosity and open-heartedness.
And yet. Here I was, still calling it “my church.”
My particular brand of religious trauma is arguably tamer than most. I’m a straight white dude, so exactly the demographic North Texas non-denominational evangelical churches tend to appreciate most. But trauma doesn’t have an Olympics; traumatic experiences are unique to the individual. If you freeze when you think of church, if the thought of what you learned in church makes you tear up or get nauseous or have any kind of visceral reaction, congrats, here’s your trauma.
(The jokes are a coping mechanism. I’m working on it.)
Accepting that I’d been traumatized was only the first step. Like many in my shoes, I flirted with atheism, desperate to find a system that didn’t rely on anything beyond what I could rationally understand. It worked for a while, and I don’t discount that my years denying any kind of higher power other than the mysteries of science were essential in my journey.
But in my most vulnerable moments, the thought of a universe with nothing else never quite sat right with me. I saw Hubble pictures and felt the mysterium tremendum, the terrible mystery of creation that has no answer. I read so many different books looking for answers – Kierkegaard, Rachel Held Evans, hell, the Bible, unfettered by toxic theologies – and felt something realer, something truer, than what I could explain. I looked out over the northern Pacific Ocean, and felt small in a way that words and logic could not describe.
God was there for me, in some capacity, and so I couldn’t help but continue to call that North Texas congregation “my church” because that was my first experience of the certainty of God’s existence. Despite having found another church, that North Texas place still had a grip on me.
What does it mean to move on from fundamentalism? For me, it was acceptance of uncertainty. My parents’ church taught faith as an unwavering devotion to a man-made document that answered any questions you might have about life. My foray into atheism was similarly rooted in a belief that science and logic could answer just about any question.
I was seeking certainty again.
But life isn’t like that, is it? A book written by men thousands of years ago doesn’t have all the answers for our complex life together in 2023. We have to constantly hash out the new worlds we live in, preferably over a meal.
I returned to a semblance of faith in God because those books I read and the experiences I had taught me, at last, to be comfortable with uncertainty. To seek it out and live in that mystery. There’s other ways to do that, sure, but it feels like I chose this. At last, this is my faith. Not my parents’. Not those grinning, too-put-together youth pastors. This is mine.
At last, this is my faith. Not my parents’. Not those grinning, too-put-together youth pastors. This is mine.
Faith after fundamentalism makes the mystery make sense to me, as much as it can. It helps me accept and live within uncertainty, the knowledge that some questions will never be answered, and to revel in that. It doesn’t solve the mystery, but then, I don’t think it has to anymore.
So now I go to church, sometimes.
There’s a great little Episcopalian church off of Cantrell in West Little Rock. The people are so kind, and so accepting, and so willing to listen to questions. The priest is one of the smartest, most empathetic women I’ve ever met. They have a potluck every Sunday. It’s my church.
There’s a nice Presbyterian church a block over from my house. The reverend is a man whose booming voice and delightful stories stand next to an absolute care for his flock, a burning desire to serve them in whatever way he can. It’s my church.
There’s a Methodist church back in Athens, Georgia, that I miss dearly. It’s a scrappy group of people who stand in front of refugees and immigrants. It’s professors and students and veterans who go out after services and feed the unhoused, as Jesus commanded. It’s my church.
All of these places have made me feel comfortable and happy inside their walls. All these places have invited me to their table with my uncertainty, genuine smiles on their faces, and told me: “Stay, with your questions. We don’t have a lot of answers, but we love you.”
I think of faith now as, among other things, a community of uncertain people who continue on anyway. Who shrug, alongside me, and say, “We’re doing our best. God helps with that. Want some lunch?”