Religious but not Spiritual

As open as I am about most things, one of the most challenging things for me to admit both to myself and to those close to me is that I am really struggling with how I engage with religion and spirituality lately. This isn’t necessarily a post about gender but I think it is important to show how everything in your life can be interrelated and this is (or was?) a significant part of my life so I want to take a moment to talk about it honestly here.

In the past I was skeptical of people who said they were spiritual but not religious because that seemed like an artificial divide to me. But more and more I am coming to see how that distinction is meaningful and how I have been essentially practicing the reverse for the past decade. I’ve been religious but not spiritual.

I honestly don’t know what I believe. I guess that makes me an agnostic. I don’t think you can ever rule out or disprove a god or deity or metaphysical property because by their very nature they are outside of science and tangibly observable facts. But the way I’ve been justifying my continued involvement in Christianity and the Episcopal Church is because humanity has been searching for the divine and building religious structures as ways of doing that communally since before the dawn of agriculture and civilization as we know it. And I figured that if so much of human history has been devoted to that, it is pretty foolish of me to think I am outside of that pursuit. I use Christianity as my lens mainly because that is my culture and the context in which I grew up and I don’t want to appropriate someone else’s religion and culture, especially when I am not ready to lean into it as a whole but approach any religion as a skeptic.

As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up in a Fundamentalist Evangelical Christian community. And built into that culture is a lot of spiritual abuse, patriarchy, and denial of the real world in many forms such as rejection of scientific discoveries, gender variance, and sexualities. I am sad to say that their techniques worked on me and for a long time I was a good Fundamentalist bible-thumper who had successfully pushed my questions and doubts to my subconscious and at least ostensibly bought into the propaganda hook, line, and sinker. So part of the reason I stayed in the church is because I thought it was important to heal from that past by reclaiming “good” Christianity or at least fully understanding how it didn’t need to be practiced that way. If I had just run away I don’t think I would be the same person I am today.

But my doubts have never gone away and the harder I try to lean into the discomfort, the more resistant I grow. It’s been a long time since I’ve believed in miracles, divine intervention, the heaven/hell divide, or “the power of prayer” to do anything other than change (or more often confirm) how the person praying thinks. Does the afterlife exist? Maybe. But I don’t know how it has any relevance to my life if I don’t believe in a god who would send people to hell and wouldn’t want to spend eternity with one who does.

And my doubt isn’t exclusive to Christianity either. In queer community there is an abundant amount of “woo” in the form of astrology, tarot cards, reiki, meditation, pagan rituals, witchcraft, etc. And while I’m slowly learning to just accept that other people find meaning in it I don’t think I could ever dive into that with an open mind myself.

For years I’ve been going through the motions of going to church partly for the reasons above about reclaiming and retraining myself, partly because I want to change the church and make it a more welcoming place for people who want it, and partly because I think intergenerational community focused on doing social justice work together is valuable. But recently I’ve realized that the only thing that keeps me coming back is the people. I am lucky enough to have spent the last few years in a very affirming and supportive small community where I have made many friends. And because of that I’m tied into various commitments like childcare, hospitality, and policy changes.

Lately I’ve noticed an increase in my anxiety every time I try to engage in anything related to church. It started out slowly with more and more resistance to attending on days I didn’t have commitments, but lately I have started having near anxiety attacks just sitting through services and last week when I tried to go, I couldn’t even get up the courage to walk through the doors. Part of it is that I feel like an impostor but there is definitely something deeper going on. And I suspect the reason it is really surfacing now is because the estrogen is really shaking out any emotions I haven’t dealt with yet.

I spoke to my very wise, queer femme priest who said this about what might be going on: “I think Christianity (all Christianity, not just bad Christianity) is wired into you entangled with the kinds of ways you were taught to shove yourself down and hate yourself. I think this is true biologically, even, that the neural pathways that are marked “Jesus” are also marked with the awful things you were told about how to be and how to behave, and that any encounter with Christianity, whether in line with your values and politics or not, sends an alert down that pathway. That’s a lot. It may or may not be reclaimable. But to repeat a pattern of forcing (the way you forced yourself to conform, and forced yourself within your marriage) with Christianity will likely only do you harm.”

I think she’s really onto something there. Christianity may not be something I can reclaim, at least not right now, and I need to listen to the wisdom of my body instead of fighting it. Christianity was integrally tied to painful and abusive parts of my past both through my upbringing and with my ex wife who wanted to be a priest and felt threatened anytime I had doubts. So as much as it hurts me to say, I need to step back from church for the time being. I need to find the things in life that give me hope and meaning and right now that isn’t religion or spirituality. But hopefully I can learn to open myself up to what is next.

One thought on “Religious but not Spiritual

  1. Thank you for sharing your queer perspective on Christianity.

    Unlike you, I didn’t grow up in a Christian community. But I came to faith in my mid 20s (not having been ‘spiritual’ or ‘religious’ before then) and was thrust into a fundamentalist community where I too (I’m ashamed to say) had to suppress some of my scientific knowledge and basic respect for other people. I got out after a number of years when that became too much to bear – and it was a few more years before I came out.

    I think my faith has deepened and become more meaningful to me since I admitted that I’m trans. In part, I feel that’s because I’m more connected to God (or a sense of the divine) because I’m no longer hiding behind a gendered façade. It’s also perhaps because I have a new-found honesty and openness, which means that I’m OK with questioning the existence of heaven/hell, what prayer actually does etc. I’m also a lot less wary of other religions and the dangers of syncretism: we‘re all just trying to find meaning in this world after all, and we all have little bits of understanding and something to offer each other.

    Liked by 1 person

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