The longest journey starts with one step.
That's the question, isn't it? Once you've stepped away from the path you've known best, how do you find a new one to follow? For me, I guess the first step is to define what didn't work. This is a fundamentally negative thing to do by its very nature, but it makes points of comparison for later use. Here's what wasn't working for me:
- The rigid gender roles.
- The condemnation of gays.
- The exclusivity.
- The conformity.
- The stressing of the letter of the law over its spirit.
Eeek. That makes it sound like I was in a cult, and the religion I left wasn't that. You'll notice I haven't named it and this was a purposeful decision because I still have friends (or think I do) who are still affiliated and I respect their choices, and because there are a number of things it got absolutely right. That same sticking to the letter of the law makes them pacifists who will go to jail before they go to war. That's a stance I have a great deal of respect for. They are also some of the most honest people you'll find around, and that's rare in any walk of life. In many ways, they walk the talk better than most, and they really know their textbook. Though they are not by nature scholars, and are suspicious of "worldly" knowledge (except where it supports them), everyone, young and old, men and women, make an in-depth study of the Bible all their lives. By the time I went to college, I'd already learned how to be a good student, and not just from going to public school. I'd grown up doing what was, in essence, literary criticism and explication, in the same way that Jews study the Torah.
The major problem, for me, was the lack of love, compassion, and mercy. That was one of Christ's major messages: Love your neighbor as yourself. Have mercy on other people's failings: You without sin, cast the first stone. Have compassion for one another: feeding and clothing and taking care of the least of our brothers is equivalent to taking care of Christ himself.
It was that definition of "brothers" that hung me up. In this case, it was limited to my fellow believers, which made us a very inward-looking group. Friends who weren't believers were frowned on, considered dangerously "worldly" and corrupting influences. In disasters around the world, we saw to our own first, not those who needed it most. If there was a surplus, that went to non-believers, but only then. There are no charitable works in my faith: no soup kitchens, no schools, no hospitals. The only work is teaching people to interpret the Bible the way they do. Sometimes that involves actually teaching people to read, but only with that goal in mind. That's all our missionaries do: preach.
Because of that sense of separateness and a total neutrality, there's also a sense that we're not responsible for trying to fix anything in the world. It's a futile effort and only God can fix the problems we've made for ourselves—another reason not to spend time on charitable works. That got harder and harder to swallow as I got older. It's hard to make converts of hungry, homeless, poverty-stricken people. As Gandhi said, to a hungry man, food is God.
Because I grew up in such an isolated area, the prohibition against "worldly" friend didn't really work with me. As an only child, I would have had no friends at all in school aside from the one other boy in my grade who was the same religion. His brothers and he were the only others in my school system who shared the same religion. So I learned quite early that not all "worldly" people are bad influences. My best and oldest friend, Melanie, is one of the most honest, moral, principled, truly righteous people I know. Those are the kinds of people I tend to gravitate toward, I've discovered, so my friends are, generally, good, kind, honest, compassionate people.
But let's be honest: I had some doctrinal problems too. As I grew older, it became harder and harder to believe that God would destroy everyone who wasn't a fellow believer. I mean, there's only a few million of them, and there are whole countries or regions where there are none at all (China, Kashmir, several Islamic countries). Moving to New York, traveling, and meeting people from everywhere, I found myself rethinking that idea. It grew to seem appalling. Apocalyptism is often an excuse to do nothing; God will take care of it. Many of my friends and their parents spent their lives just waiting for God to fix everything, rather than being responsible for their own lives, for their neighbors, for their world. This is odd for a religion that teaches death has no afterlife. Except it does: instead of heaven, there will be paradise and we'll be perfect. Why try to be a better person now when God will do it for you in the blink of an eye?
When the AIDS crisis started, and so many people saw it as a consequence of breaking God's laws, rather than the happenstance of epidemiology and evolution, that went a long way toward breaking the camel's back. It certainly wasn't an excuse for not having compassion for people with it, whether they were gay or straight.
And as more of my friends came out, people I had known and loved for years before I (or sometimes they) knew they were gay, the Biblical injunction against homosexuality seemed more and more a holdover from an archaic civilization. If sexual orientation is genetically based, as seems more and more likely, then it's a cruel god who ostracizes people for being made the way they are.
What hurt the most though, was the constant personal rejection. I was a smart, artistically talented kid, and that wasn't valued because I was female. There was no position to which I could aspire but wife and mother and perhaps full-time evangelist. There was no room for my talents or abilities, no use to which they could be put to serve the group. I couldn't teach in church. There is no clergy and laity division in this faith, but there is a strict division of authority; women have none, especially wives. This is one reason they have such a hard time with single women; we're under no one's authority, answerable to no "head" but Christ (all very Miltonian, I know). So as an intelligent single woman, I was considered something of a dangerous rogue. Especially since I went off to college and got an advanced degree, something that was frowned on at the time.
My artistic sensibility didn't help either. I was the first to get my ears pierced, then I did it twice! I wore bright colors, preferred pants to dresses and skirts, wrote stories and poetry, worked on my high school yearbooks. I read books for fun! A true weirdo. I wasn't demure, silent, or submissive. I wasn't planning to get married right out of high school and have a pile of kids. I wanted to learn and to work and write. Dangerous, indeed.
In a fundamentalist, conservative group, I stuck out like a tarantula on an angel food cake. I had, basically, two choices: bend myself, twist myself, break myself to fit their mold, or leave. I tried for years to conform as much as I could: go to church, preach, study. I figured if I fulfilled all the requirements, if I was passionate about what I believed, that would make up for being who I was. None of it felt authentic to me. Not because I didn't want it to. I wanted to have a relationship with God, but I wasn't sure I liked this small-minded one very much.
My mom remained very dedicated to the faith, but increasingly unhappy with its treatment of women. As I've heard a number of Mormon (not my faith) women remark, she was tired of being a second class citizen. Even at her funeral she was treated as one. And I know for a fact she wasn't the only one with that complaint. Again, it made God seem cruel to make some of us smarter than the people who were supposedly our betters, our heads and then deny us the opportunity to serve Him directly.
Too many contradictions slowly built into an edifice impossible to sustain by faith alone.
So here I am, not precisely adrift, but wandering like Dante in the dark wood, or St. John of the Cross in the dark night of the soul. Oddly, the woods and the night don't seem very dark or dangerous, but full of possibility, of chaos in its mathematical sense: complexity and beauty. Where I saw one narrow road, I now see a broad avenue joined by many narrow roads at their very end, leading not to destruction but to God, to enlightenment, to freedom from samsara, to paradise both real and metaphorical.