Sunday, June 2, 2013

A Heart Is Not a Boundary

I had the privilege a few years ago of speaking with a recent convert to Catholicism. The person willingly corresponded with me about various issues of the faith. They* were certainly a theologically conservative Catholic, with conservative political leanings, but the content of their faith and writings was the person of Christ, as revealed in the Sacrament, not the advancement of a particular political agenda.

And then I saw this person become increasingly more political. Their writings were less about the mysteries of the faith and more about their anger at certain political occurrences. Their words, once soaked with grace, were now soaked with vitriol towards the perceived "enemy" of the left.

I was taken aback. This was not the only Catholic I knew who had made this turn. The advent of this shift was news of the HHS mandate about contraception.

It was around the time I was taking confirmation classes. But my fragile faith, already reeling from years of fundamentalist Baptist culture wars, and 4 years at an American evangelical college, cracked.

I couldn't take it any more. The us versus them mentality. The idea that Christ was about "our side" winning and "their side" losing. Faith as a battle for control of a government and a media, not as a battle for the body and soul to have union with God. I stopped attending confirmation classes and sent a brief note to the RCIA director saying that now wasn't the time. The mentor who had been appointed to me sent me a concerned email, and I thanked her for her concern, but said I had certain issues going on in my life that led me to believe I could not convert in good conscience at this time.

I didn't know these people very well, so I didn't wish to explain the deep well of anger I was experiencing with Christendom: evangelicals, fundies, Catholics, the Orthodox, liberal Episcopalians, conservative Anglicans, etc, etc. In fact, I couldn't explain it. The debate over the HHS mandate was the catalyst that caused my anger and doubt to erupt. Attempts to explain it to my husband always ended with me in tears, sobbing incoherently about politics, culture wars, gender issues, gay marriage, how to interpret the God of the Hebrew Bible in light of the person of Christ, the problem of evil, the reality of death, and the tasks of my everyday life. Inside my head, every single issue was linked to the other, and for the life of me I couldn't determine truth from the lie, fact from fiction.

My reaction, at this time, was to go in the opposite direction of my upbringing and of  the political conservative Catholics who I felt betrayed me. I began tweeting snarky liberal statements, things that may have had truth to them but were so drenched in anger that I doubt they could have done anything to start a meaningful conversation with someone on the right. I became what I hated, just in reverse. And I gained some notoriety for it. It was fun at first, and I certainly enjoyed the virtual high-fives I received from like-minded individuals, but I didn't like what I had become. And an echo chamber of affirmation is not good for anyone. My bitterness and cynicism were on display for the world, for total strangers. Gone was the girl who wrote poems about trees; she had been replaced with a political pundit. If you tried to talk with me during this time and I was brusque, I apologize. I deleted a lot of people on facebook around this time because I didn't feel like debating with them about my faith, the childishness of which is so apparent now but was oblivious to me at the time. I thought I was protecting myself, when really I was alienating others.

I realized that I was dealing with the same angry, black and white, us versus them mentality, only on the other side. I didn't need to find a safe haven of militant liberals, I needed to find men and women of peace on both sides of the fence. But I didn't know that at the time.

For a time, I lost my faith. I could enumerate the specific contents of my doubts, but that could take hours and I'll spare you those tales for now. What did happen was that I deleted the twitter account and an adjoining blog, and the woman who was so keen to share her opinions on the internet suddenly had nothing left to say. I stopped attending the Anglican parish I had been a member of since 2007, because on an ideological level I felt displaced (the people there are extremely loving and open; I just felt at odds with the theology).

I read Rachel Held Evans, George MacDonald, and Christian mystics. I read the Bhagavad Gita. I read poetry by Oliver, Rilke, Whitman and Donne. I read about neo-paganism and eastern philosophy. I read about animal ethics and rights.  And then I stopped reading anything deep, and feasted on television, entertainment news, fashion, memes, and pop culture (there is nothing wrong with any of those things. There is something wrong when that is all that you consume). My excuse was that my work took up a lot of my energy and emotions, which it did. But I was starving intellectually and spiritually, because I didn't know what to eat.

I couldn't pinpoint the moment my anger subsided, because it was gradual. I spent a lot of nights in absolute torment, sobbing for hours. But I began to piece together something of a belief system, something that looked drastically different from what I had ever believed before. Gone was my insistence on having all of my theological ducks in a row. I learned to listen to myself: if something felt abhorrent, turn away from it. This was such a drastic change from the radical idea of depravity I had been sold as a child. It was always taught that we are so depraved that we couldn't trust our intuition. Emotional intuitions about truth were not reliable, so they couldn't be a guide in our quest to understand the world (Rachel Held Evans' essay The Scandal of the Evangelical Heart describes this issue better than I ever could. And please note that I said "a guide" not "the guide").

It all come together the other night when I mentioned to my husband that a certain perspective of how to develop a theological system annoyed me, and I shared that my system was shaped differently. I didn't even know until I spoke that I even had a system, but I did. I had developed a rudimentary framework, and lo and behold, it looked remarkably Catholic. I had come full-circle.

I don't know what the future holds for my faith journey. I couldn't tell you what my next steps are. You might be wondering if I plan on becoming Catholic, and my answer is a firm, "I don't know."  I really and truly don't know what the future of my faith will look like or what denominational shape it will take. But the beauty is back in my life.

There is bad everywhere, in every system of belief, in every church, in every political party. If you wait around trying to find the pure camp that won't tick you off, that won't break your heart, that won't tear you to pieces, you'll always be sorely disappointed. But if you focus on truth, beauty, grace, forgiveness, mercy, love and peace, it's possible you'll find yourself feeling comfortable going anywhere God leads, because you know God will be there to get you through the good and bad of communal life, and that will be enough.

*I find using the third person plural pronoun "they" clunky when trying to avoid using gendered pronouns, but it was my only recourse. 

1 comment:

  1. My heart is happy that the beauty is back. ;)