Saturday, October 5, 2013

Reflections on Coming Out and Walking Away from Christianity

My friend Cory recently came out to his friends and family, something I'm ashamed to say I did not see coming. With this, he announced that he no longer considers himself a Christian, which is something I did see coming. When I asked people recently what makes them doubt Christianity, Cory sent me this, which is posted here with his permission. Cory is a very dear friend of mine, and I am glad I know him a little better now. What follows are his reflections after honestly wrestling with Christianity and with his sexual orientation. His words offer something to all of us.
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Let me begin by clarifying the subjectivity of what’s to follow. It seems silly to have to clarify such a thing because the only way we can know and experience anything is subjectively, but I know some of the things I am going to say may sound like semi-sweeping claims that will definitely ruffle some feathers. Therefore, I want you to understand that I am speaking from what I have seen, heard, and experienced up to this point in my life. The fact that you may disagree with some opinions is your right and subjective circumstance, but the fact that you cannot relate (or refuse to) does not make things any less real or important. That being said, here we go.

My life growing up in the church has never been marked by any drastic events or circumstances like some stories you’ve heard. My parents have never wanted anything but the best for me and raised me in the best way they knew possible, and I am deeply grateful for everything they taught me and it is ultimately because of them that I value many of the things I do today. I had a great group of friends and leaders at my church. I also had the privilege of being part of what you might call the “in” crowd of kids whose families I liked to compare to “dynasties” within our church. Suffice to say, most everyone knew me or knew my last name. I played in the high school worship band for 3 years, went to camps, was a leader at camps, and went on one mission trip. I was definitely your typical church kid.

Of course, I had my ups and downs faith-wise during high school, and I went to Mars Hill Church (lead by the notorious Mark Driscoll) for a little over 3 years as well. The music there was (and still is) really good and there’s no denying Driscoll’s oratory talent. Although I never got actively involved at MH, I eagerly attended every Sunday and greatly enjoyed what I understood as strong, unswerving, Biblical teaching. Transitioning into college and still coming out of a sort of religious stupor of not going to church, I decided to leave church out altogether during my freshmen year. I dabbled in partying and the like and generally enjoyed meeting new people and learning new things. However, I chose to start attending church again sophomore year, this time a very small one made up of young couples and college students. The church also happened to be part of the church planting network started by Mars Hill, so the teaching and atmosphere felt very much the same except 1/50 of the size. I began leading worship again and attending weekly small group meetings and found myself back in full church-swing.

But towards the end of sophomore year, I had a sudden, startling realization from reading Rob Bell’s book Love Wins. The controversial theology in his book aside, the thing that got to me was the extreme lack of questioning in the church I was attending and my experience with Christianity in general. Bell’s book, more than anything else, suggests the simple of question of “how do you know?” So many ideas such as inerrancy, predestination, truth, faith, etc, were all taken at face value, and I never met someone at this church or Mars Hill who was willing to ask basic, obvious questions. The real deal breaker for me was the Calvinism, specifically predestination, present in my church and Mars Hill. This piece would be oh so much longer if I wanted to go down the long and twisted path of my deep seated (I’ll admit) hatred and loathing for such doctrine openly espoused by those such as Driscoll and John Piper.

Ultimately though, I had a major problem with what Lutheran theologian and sociologist Peter Berger calls a “lack of epistemological modesty.” For those of you who don’t know, epistemology is the study of knowledge. Basically, how do we know what we know? Christians claim they know from the Bible, but knowing in itself has never been certain. What I came to realize is that what most Christians mean by “I believe” isn’t really a belief at all. It’s a truth claim, which in philosophical and scientific terms, is extremely bold and tricky. I would say that claiming to know the truth itself is impossible in this reality, but that’s a whole other philosophical conversation. The root of the issue for me lies in how the majority of the Christians that I know treat the Bible and so many other doctrines, theologies, morals, etc, as if there is no denying their authenticity.

In reality, as I said at the beginning, subjectivity is at the heart of all these matters. You may believe that objective truth exists, but your belief that it exists and what exactly it is is subjective. The fact that so many different groups within Christianity alone drastically differ in so many ways is proof of the subjectivity that bind people to certain groups and ideologies over others. Within your own group, it’s easy to look out from the inside and wonder how others can’t recognize their faults. I am as guilty of this as the next Christian too. As a result, it’s easy for the organized church and its teachings to treat the world as objective and ignore the literal billions of unique lives out there. It’s easy to view the world over as just masses of sinners needing salvation, but when you start to look at each individual, there is so much history. Good, bad, hurt, tragedy, all kinds of shit. With an objective world-view, you lose the individual, and everything becomes a mass of symbolism and ideology rather than human beings who deserve personal, careful attention.

All these things have been especially true for me. All through high school, I knew in the back of my mind that I was gay. I recognized I had this attraction, but refused to acknowledge or think about it. There was just no way in hell it would work for me to take it seriously or come out when I was still at my old church, a part of an all-guys small group, leading worship, and going to Mars Hill. Of course, back then I still thought the whole thing was wrong, a sin, etc. I almost thought maybe this was just some temporary thing that would go away eventually somehow. Going away to college and distancing myself from all of that made my orientation even more apparent to me, but I still chose to ignore it.

Finally, after graduating in June of 2013, I went home for a week and saw lots of old friends. Being around them and knowing I thought differently about so many things, religious and otherwise, made things so frustrating. With almost every friend I met up with, I wanted to just unload everything I thought now onto them. On top of that, I was becoming more and more uncomfortable basically living a lie any time the question of girlfriends and such was brought up. At the end of my stay at home, I almost told my parents then and there, but decided to wait. A couple weeks later I told my oldest brother first, and then from there I let each of my family members know. It was the most awkward thing I have ever done.

Thankfully, no one responded in anger, as is the case with many stories I’ve heard of people coming from Christian families. My parents were definitely shocked and saddened though. The main thing I want them and all my friends to understand is that I am still the same person. This doesn’t mean that I am going to become flamboyant all of a sudden. Heck, after telling one of my friends, he responded later by saying “you’re one of the manliest people I know!” This is just how I am, and I’m still no different.

Now many Christians, including many I grew up with, would respond to that by saying something along the lines of “but you don’t have to be that way” or “God can help you not live that lifestyle” or whatever. If I believed the same things, I could try to not live the “gay lifestyle” (whatever that means), but I’d like the Christians who’d say that to truly consider what that means. It’s easy for straight people to say it, but imagine if you weren’t allowed or encouraged to be with the kind of person you’re naturally attracted to? Is it possible for you to forget ideology for a moment and actually imagine what that would be like? If you wanted to be honest with this idea, you’d be single for the rest of your life and not be allowed something that so many other people gladly celebrate.

In all honesty, I think that is a bullshit answer to something that you don’t understand and will never be able to so don’t put on an air of acting like you understand and know that it’s hard, etc., because you don’t. I used to think that I was destined to be single before when I didn’t find myself attracted to women. I’m a naturally independent person, so this idea didn’t bother me too much at first. But now that I’ve accepted this part of me and am perfectly fine with it, I’m really interested in and excited at the prospect of having such a relationship with someone.

You can argue all day about whether or not people like me can be born this way or develop an orientation.  All I know is that this is how I am. You can say that “well I’m naturally prideful” or “jealous” or “vain” or whatever “and that’s my ‘struggle’ just as being attracted to men is yours,” and I will once again call bullshit. You have these categories and ideologies of right and wrong that you attempt to fit around everything, but carefully consider orientation with me for a second. While I realize that the theology of this idea has some grey area and is not the strict dichotomy that I create here, but I think it still lends greater perspective and complexity to the issue.

If God is the God of strict Calvinism and predestination (aka determining everything we do before we do it), then God predestined me to be gay (this is also assuming that people can be gay from birth in the first place which I realize some people still believe to be an impossibility, but that issue aside because I don’t think there’s even a remotely solid Biblical argument to support that in the first place). I didn’t have a choice in the matter and this is just how I am. Basically, I was screwed from the start. On the other hand, if God is not the God of predestination and does not necessarily control everything, then I am gay just because that’s what happened. God left it up to the random selection of biology, a mutated gene or whatever. But this idea is hardly any less troubling than the predestination option because I am left with the explanation of “welp, this is just how the cards were dealt, sorry!”

Either way, I am left in a Christian society dominated by the idea that homosexuality is wrong and not having a clear theological answer for how I ended up this way. I could try to deny this part of myself and live a life that others and their God think is right, but that would be forcing myself to believe in something (the Bible, doctrines, etc) that I have strong logical and philosophical problems with. It would be forcing myself to believe (putting aside the fact that I do not consider my orientation to be a “belief” or “choice”) that objective, ultimate truth is knowable in this world, and that is something I cannot do. Why? I’ll give you nearly 7 billion reasons why.

If there is one, most important thing that this whole coming out process has taught me it is that you do not know people as well as you think. No one knew that I was gay up until this point in my life, and that is a huge part of someone. It shouldn’t define anyone, never the less it means that many of my friends who find out are going to be shocked because they thought they knew me so well.  As a result, I now try to look at everyone I know as supremely unique individuals with complex histories and events that have made them who they are today, and that is all they know, all they can know. In the same way, I am only what I have experienced and my knowledge is limited to that. This does not mean that people can’t change or don’t need to change, far from it, but it does mean that we, as individuals, are extremely limited in our ability to make objective claims about anything.

Which brings me back around to my biggest problem with the churches I have attended up to this point in my life and the type of Christianity I have encountered, and that is a lack of epistemological modesty and humility. Church leaders like Driscoll and many others insist on the full-proof, Biblical, God-given authority of what they say and act like it is fact. Its historical accuracy aside, there is no way to know if the Bible is actually the word of God. There is no way to know so many things. You may say, “but that’s why you have to have faith!” Have faith? In what? That you’re right and everyone else is wrong? This sounds more like a way of ignoring all the things that could threaten what you currently believe and leave you feeling less sure than you’d prefer. (Granted, everyone, religious or not, chooses to think thousands of different ways about everything, and to do so requires varying levels of arrogance and ignorance.)

For me, I choose to be what you might call an agnostic (but it’s more complicated than that) and accept ambiguity and uncertainty, and not because I am afraid to commit to any particular belief or simply don’t want to, but because I value people too much. I want to respect and understand people too much to label them Christian, non-Christian, atheist, Muslim, gay, straight, whatever. As reality stands now and our ability to understand anything beyond it, others are the most real thing we can know. I still believe God exists, but as to how God thinks everything should be or what should not be, that is ultimately speculation. The person standing in front of you, however, is not speculation. They are real and their issues, interests, needs, joys, etc, are real and all deserve to be understood. I am real and deserve to be understood and not labeled as “gay,” “church drop-out,” or “non-believer.” That is the difference between being subjective and objective.

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