Where I left off, I had suffered terribly at the hands of anti-gay Christians, but I had not lost my faith. I understood that, while god was supposedly perfect, Christians would fail to exhibit the same perfection. This was not an impediment to belief… it was obvious. However, various Christians’ demands that I reach their theological conclusions and my inability to do so did raise some questions. How could I know for sure what is true? It was a huge question, and I was eager to search for answers.
The first possible answer that I tackled was the assumption that Truth would be revealed in scripture, and whatever was most Scriptural was most True. My recent experiences had pulverized this idea thoroughly. Various different pastors, Christians, and myself had all studied scripture and come to different conclusions. Indeed, over the years, many people have interpreted scriptures in many different ways. Modern Christianity bears very little resemblance to ancient Christianity, despite being based on similar documents and events. Even in modern Christianity, there are tens of thousands of different sects, largely differing on interpretations of various scriptures or traditions. Even if one assumed that the bible did theoretically have all Truth within, that clearly wasn’t sufficient for humans to actually have a clue what it was saying.
Furthermore, the assumption that scripture ought to be the ultimate authority on all Truth was looking increasingly silly. My sister loved quoting 2 Timothy 3:16 that “all scripture is god-breathed” ’til she was blue in the face as evidence for biblical inerrancy, but at the time those words were written, the bible as we know it did not exist. Did Truth not exist in any clear form until 397 at the Synod of Carthage? Is there any real reason to assume that Paul in the 60’s A.D. was referring to a document that would only be officially canonized in another 330 years? It seemed like a stretch. Besides that, saying “the bible says the bible is true therefore the bible is true” is a pretty shoddy argument even by evangelical standards.
The next place to turn was tradition. Could church traditions provide a solid foundation for truth? This one disintegrated immediately. Relying solely on church leadership, whether past or present, seemed like a desperately foolish endeavor. Authority had let me down badly in the past. Could I really trust the decisions and decrees of powerful, political men who lived over a thousand years ago? Men who had obvious failings and conflicts of interest? Men who advocated horrendous crimes and oppression alongside their supposedly “pure” doctrine? Furthermore, considering “tradition” to be truth gave me no guidance on which tradition to follow. Many people claim to trace their traditions back to the early church, but in all likelihood, none of them represent the church of 2000 years ago.
Finally, divine inspiration and interaction seemed like the obvious place to turn for answers. In the past, I had assumed that god had the ability and desire to work personally in our lives, giving us guidance and reassurance. I had lived with a very intimate faith; I talked to god like I would talk to a friend. One of my favorite ways to process my thoughts would be to just take a long walk and talk out loud to Jesus like he was walking beside me. I thought he was listening and, very gently, helping me find my way. I had taken the promises that god could answer prayer literally, even while still admitting that the answer might not look like what I expected.
So when scripture seemed difficult to interpret and tradition was lacking, I had always turned to my “friend” to guide me. But now I was forced to realize that this guidance was lacking. Specifically, many people believed they were being guided, but this guidance often led in different directions. How could I be sure that I was hearing from god and not they? How could I be sure I was not just reacting to coincidences, jumping at shadows, and feeding my own biases?
I questioned many spiritual people about this. All of the answers I got only led me in circles. “Test if the inspiration you feel matches up with scripture!” said the fundamentalists. Well, that’s nice, except as I said that the scriptures are not clear about pretty much anything, are subject to 20-bazillion interpretations, and have no real claim authority. “Test if it bears good fruit,” said the evangelicals. A nice thought, but “good fruit” is surprisingly subjective. Where some people saw good fruit in my relationship, other people saw prickles and spines. Maybe it was a pineapple. The bible never explains how to deal with pineapples. “If it brings peace and love, it’s from god,” said the progressives. For a while, I was willing to accept this, but finally admitted it was arbitrary. Why should I assume that god always brings peace and love? Jesus and god, as they are described, were complicated dudes. For every “blessed are the peacemakers”, there was a “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” For every mercy enduring forever there was some god-wrath being kindled. Why should I assume any of the attributes of god are consistent? How could I know which one to expect?
So now, with great reluctance, I began to turn my scrutiny towards even my most cherished memories of my walk and interactions with god. I didn’t want to. But I needed to know. Surely they were different! Surely god’s truth would still shine through them!
But each one evaporated once I turned the light on them like goddamn vampires. Speaking in tongues? I was 11 or 12 years old, under a lot of pressure to perform, surrounded by screaming adults that were shaking me by the shoulders for hours while I was overheated and dehydrated. It was no stretch to imagine that my stressed and disoriented brain had glitched, inducing a stammering, tongues-speaking experience. The many intense feelings of power and awe that I had attributed to god? All of them occurred while I was either extremely stressed or anxious for help, or else when I was otherwise being manipulated by my environment (music, atmosphere, collective behavior, etc). Even the miracle vision that saved my life occurred at a moment when I was in an altered state of mind, preparing to take my own life. Could I really claim, with any reliability whatsoever, that it was god?
No, I couldn’t. Not a single moment that I had shared with my god could actually be verified in any way. All of them had natural explanations that made just as much sense… maybe even more sense. I had been squinting and tilting my head and imagining that I saw Jesus in a piece of burnt toast but, in the end, it was probably just a piece of toast. And it hit me: what sort of god only shows up in ways that, to an impartial observer, doesn’t look like god at all?
Probably no god at all.