After so many years of church and church authorities providing the answers to all of life’s questions, within an environment that condemns voicing doubts regarding matters of faith, the person who leaves often feels psychologically and mentally stunted, and incapable of making life decisions. In a very real way, they must re-create their identities from scratch. This core uncertainty and brokenness forms the basis of RTS [Religious Trauma Syndrome].– The Hidden Trauma of Life After Fundamentalism
I didn’t grow up fundamentalist, so I can’t relate to the above quote quite the same way as someone learning to overcome a lifetime of abusive spirituality. I’ve made friendships with bloggers whose stories are jaw-droppingly shocking to the spawn of Yankee Jewish liberals (that’s me, in case you’re new here). But all my years of college and seminary indoctrination sure felt enough like a lifetime.
Two major life events occurred during those harrowing years of breaking free of fundamentalist damage: I ended an abusive relationship and watched my father die from cancer. Those things are enough to fuck up any person, religious or otherwise, but the effects of faith on the latter event are my breaking point. In my life, mental illnesses are like Pringles: can’t have just one!
My family felt an odd mix of grief and gratitude after Dad’s death. The gratitude was only because he wasn’t suffering anymore – supposedly. For a person struggling to break up with fundamentalist theology, I couldn’t draw comfort from that line of thinking. According to the theology I lived by since sophomore year of college, my father’s suffering in hell was just beginning, because he was Jewish. The cancer came and went over a period of thirteen years, and you would not believe the number of Christians I’ve encountered over the years who “warned” me about his eternal fate as casually as one might say, “Pass the potatoes.”
I can only imagine those Christians shaking their heads if they’re reading this, probably wishing they could say to me “Well, the road to salvation is deliberately narrow. The truth sometimes hurts. If you have an issue with that, take it up with the Lord.”
That last line is the hardest verbal slap. It’s the ultimate conversation-stopper, because you can easily disagree with people and try to prove them wrong, but once God and capital-T Truth are brought up, that’s it. You lose. No argument or appeal can possibly trump God, and the shame of wrongdoing is passed on to me: this is really your problem because you just don’t understand God’s ways.
I need to be completely honest about the effects that this kind of thinking has had on me. For the sake of appearing like a faithful servant of God, I could never let anyone know what I really felt. I could never let anyone know that:
The thought of being held responsible for my dad’s salvation, and having to answer on my Judgment Day why I let that go because Dad was “uncomfortable” talking about matters of religion, was such a heavy burden that it gave me panic attacks. I practically begged my doctor for Xanax.
I never understood why none of the good my father did in his life, none of the positive impact he had on people mattered, because it was all done outside of Jesus, and therefore amounted to nothing.
The thought of Dad suffering beyond human comprehension for eternity when his last months were hellish enough are partly what put me in AA. When a family friend sent me an email just a few days before he died, telling me my chances to “save” him were limited and I needed to hurry up, I was so triggered and so furious I told her to go to hell. The irony? She didn’t understand my anger at all, because in her world, she was doing the most loving thing imaginable.
I’m now one of the increasing thousands of fundamentalist “survivors” struggling to discern which parts of religion are safe and good enough to keep, and which parts are so abusive and toxic that they must go.
That’s what this struggle is about: breaking free from abuse and piecing together a new identity. It is not cherry-picking which parts of Christianity we like and cutting out the rest. I know that is exactly how some Christians will view this struggle: a selfish process that’s all about individual pleasure and comfort. Well, if “comfort” and “pleasure” amount to having normal blood pressure, going to bed sober, and being able to walk past a church without breaking out in hives, I’d hate to see what their idea of selflessness looks like.
I’m sure readers of my next book will finish feeling somewhat confused: so is she staying, leaving, or what? Spoiler alert (as if the title, Confessions of a Jew-ish Skeptic, wasn’t indication enough): once again the ending is vague on purpose. To write a “conclusion” to a faith journey at any point before death, but especially at 27, is ludicrous (as is writing a second memoir before 30…well, I never claimed to be normal, did I?).
The truth is, I don’t want to give up on faith. I don’t want to walk away from God. Religion has not been all toxic to me; in fact, most of it hasn’t. People find foundation for identity in many places, and religion has always been mine. That is, for the most part, where I find peace and purpose.
At some point in the future, I may write a post about the difficulties of developing faith in a society that is heavily Christianized almost everywhere you go. I’d be in a lot of trouble if I were still hell-bent (heh) on living a devout Jewish life. Where I live, that’s dropping seeds on completely dry, infertile soil. If not for the campus Hillel, I’d be a complete lone ranger.
I won’t keep writing books about being spiritually confused forever, but I will keep blogging about the process of digging myself out of fundamentalist muck. I hope I’ve cultivated a safe enough space here where maybe no one’s deep, complicated questions will get answered, but at least there will be community.
Perhaps I should call it The Church of “Me, too.”