The Testimony of Matthew the Agnostic, Book 1

My blogging and writing output these days seems rather pitiful compared to the halcyon days of LiveJournal. Frequent posts averaging a minimum of a few hundred words have devolved into far less frequent pithy Facebook bursts of no more than a few sentences. There is no one but myself to blame, and it’s a shame for numerous reasons, not the least of which is since that time I’m sure that certain events and memories that would have been nice to document and save are now lost due to the unavoidable effects of being middle-aged.

Thankfully, those efforts resulted in saving much about my past. In particular, I wrote plenty of  material relating to my college experience with White Evangelical Christianity (WEC.) Alas, I don’t believe there exists a concise summation of that period and how it ultimately changed me in ways I still might not fully grok. All my previous attempts — before, during, and after the LiveJournal era — to compose such a narrative never came close to completion, though a few still exist in Word documents that have lain undisturbed on computer hard drives and backups for many years.

The problem is that it’s a rather difficult subject to summarize in absolutely no more than a couple thousand words. It’s amazingly easy to share stories and anecdotes and indulge in tangents that provide meaningful insight into the opinions and views I now hold. It’s just that those diversions create difficulties in controlling the narrative. That’s the reason every single previous attempt remains incomplete — it became easier to walk away than to attempt to properly pare everything back down to a manageable length. Nonetheless, recent events have provided inspiration to make another effort. The fact that you’re reading this means that this attempt finally achieved the previously elusive success, or it at least worked just well enough for sufficient satisfaction. 

The important thing to understand about this testimony — and, yes, that word choice is deliberate — is that the journey started with the absolute desire to believe and experience God’s love the same way that so many in that faith profess to feel it. When starting on that path, I chose to view and interpret a number of events in my life as God trying to make himself (using the “male” designation because WEC very clearly both understands and depicts God as gendered that way) manifest to me. However, it would be utterly disingenuous to not note the importance that Denise played at the start. 

My girlfriend at that time, Denise (not her real name) was the primary reason this was all happening. Raised in the WEC world, she still lived at home and resolutely held those beliefs. During the first few dates, we shared our respective religious experiences, and because I found myself rapidly falling in love with her, her presence became the clinching factor in my deciding that God was attempting to work in mysterious ways.

So, akin to the way my heart opened to Denise, I attempted to experience and feel God’s love by fully devoting myself to the precepts of her faith. Bible studies, daily devotionals, joining an explicitly “Bible-based” church (as if other Christian branches didn’t actually base their beliefs upon it), scheduling meetings and having discussions with the Pastor of that church, giving thanks before meals, attending services more than once per week, spending entire Saturdays at the WEC equivalent of TED Talks, writing frequently about my experiences in the college newspaper… and, most notably, doing nearly all of these with Denise.  

Looking back on the effort, it’s amazing to see the fervor I displayed. Yet, over 25 years of distance results in some clarity of vision lacking at the time. There’s a reason why Evangelicals talk about the importance of properly indoctrinating children in the faith. Instead, I came into it with a background rooted in wildly differing efforts by my grandmother and father to raise me in two unrelated faiths: Catholicism and Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism. Despite nothing but the best intentions and sincere efforts when starting out, I was also a well-read intellectual with moral and ethical beliefs firmly grounded in feminist and humanist values.

In retrospect, it comes as no surprise that every single wholehearted attempt at some kind of leap of faith resulted in a spiritual face plant. Obstacles that proved impossible to overcome certainly played a part: an inability to reconcile contradictions in Biblical text, rigorous objections to a very black-and-white way of looking at the world, finding extreme fault with certain aspects of WEC dogma (just to name a few.) At the end of the whole experience, it simply seemed that I completely lacked the mental makeup — in the words of Dennis Miller, back when he was funny, the “ecclesiastical whiteout” — required for someone to maintain the kind of faith demanded by WEC. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

It certainly didn’t help that I regularly experienced events and conversations that brutally undermined my ability to simply just accept certain things on unadulterated, simple faith. Numerous anecdotes come to mind, and at some point in the future I will attempt to compile the most memorable of them into a second narrative (hence, the “Book 1” in the title.) For now, I’ll simply relay an experience at one of those WEC TED Talk-like events.

In it, a speaker attempted to explain how certain aspects of my life (and those lives of others) were sinful and un-Christian. Somehow, much of the music and fiction I enjoyed and saw no religious issues with was taking me further away from God. It was best to remove and forever avoid all of it from my life. The justifications for these assertions involved exceedingly questionable interpretations of Biblical passages that were divorced from meaningful context. This was followed with the audacious assertion that if you felt uneasy about what they just said, then that was the result of Satan’s influencing you — any discomfort you felt was because your soul knew deep down what was just said was true.

I shit you not. The only reason why I didn’t walk out before the event ended was that I went there with Denise, in her car.

By the time we had been together for nearly two years, desperation had settled in. Despite all my efforts, God’s presence felt no closer than it did on the day Denise and I met. Desperate times call for equally distraught measures, and one conveniently presented itself: full immersion baptism. Although properly baptised in the Catholic faith, that meant almost nothing in WEC circles. The true way to experience baptism was as an adult, and preferably fully submerged in water (not just sprinkled with it.)

So, attired in an baptismal robe, I metaphorically climbed to the top of the highest diving board I could find and sprung off the end of it with all the energy available to muster. This was the ultimate leap of faith. Or, if you’ll please forgive the tortured mixture of Christian faiths, the frantic Hail Mary pass on the last play of the game. When I literally emerged from the backwards dunk into baptismal pool, there was no spiritual renewal, no feeling God’s presence, and nothing akin to the spiritual weight of the world removed from my shoulders.

I just felt wet.

That’s not entirely right. I knew at that moment the relationship to Denise was over, but I still felt a sense of responsibility to her and her future happiness. Suffice it to say there was simply no realistic scenario wherein we remained together without my active involvement in the faith. The relationship ended with lots of tears, some white lies to cushion the blow, and no small amount of guilt. I don’t know what became of her, but wherever she is, hopefully Denise is happily living a good life.

I’m grateful for the sojourn into the WEC world. It’s responsible for many of the lessons I learned about myself and the world around me, and it allowed me to see and experience first-hand a few wonderful things to be found in living that faith. More importantly, I read the Bible in its entirety (some portions many times over) and came to appreciate red letter edition Bibles. Though I may not have found God, much of what Jesus actually had to say was enjoyably enlightening.

With that in mind, it was clear that much of the dark underbelly of White Evangelical Christianity resulted from placing far too much emphasis on the parts of the Bible printed in standard black. This causes an appalling lack of compassion to those outside the faith, coldly moralizing judgment, and a disgusting amount of thoughtless, casual cruelty. It also allows for a misguided use of one’s own belief in salvation to excuse dreadful behavior in the here-and-now. Most appallingly, the WEC belief system actively encourages the belief in dominionism and the assertion that America is really a Christian nation. 

Those were my conclusions back when leaving the faith in the fall of 1995. Their insisting on a religious right to treat the LGTBQ community as second-class citizens, their venomous rejection of any validity to the Black Lives Matter movement, their refusal to support government policies that help the downtrodden and poor, or any of the other public issue stances they’ve voiced since Trump started campaigning for President back in 2015… none of these came as any surprise to me as those events unfolded.

Any residual good fuzzy feelings that remained in the moments while toweling off after stepping out from the kiddie pool for adults are long since gone. I’m good without God. Do not confuse this with somehow hating him, which many of the WEC faithful want to believe that atheists do (see the God Is Dead movie series.) There’s a whole lot to unpack in terms of my feelings to a possible higher power/creator. That’s a subject for another time — maybe in a Book 3, perhaps. 

Whatever their, her, its, and/or his place in our universe — let’s go with “its” — I’ve found a way to find meaning in everyday life. If something is responsible for my experience, it also knows me and the way I operate. It sees my gratitude for this life and my thankfulness for the good fortune I’ve experienced. Whatever the truth is, I know it wants nothing more than for us to all be excellent to everyone.

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