Hi Oak Life, I'm Cristina, and I wrote this essay as a 36 year old woman, who's between being Gen X and being a Millennial, about the different stages of my spiritual journey.
This was originally written for a zine from Portland's Microcosm Publishing that's a benefit for autism awareness/neurodiversity and has different quarterly themes. This time the theme was about 'interactions with authority' and I wrote about my evolving relationship with God and faith and the church in terms of relating to/submitting to authority and how I understood that.
You can find more of my writing, and others' writing, at synchchaos.com, which I publish and for which I write the editorial letters.
When I was in junior high, my parents brought our family to a relatively traditional, evangelical Protestant church.
The senior pastor shared a sermon illustration where a Christian believer found himself sharing a ski lift with a skeptic. On discovering he was a man of faith, she interrogated him with a variety of philosophical objections. He finally responded, ‘If I could answer all your questions, would you believe?’
She said, just before the two landed in the snow and never saw each other again, ‘Honestly, I still wouldn’t want to. If I accepted that a supreme being existed who were in charge of the entire universe, I’d have to be accountable to that being for how I lived my life.’
The pastor used that illustration to suggest that some of those who chose not to embrace faith were actually rejecting authority.
I wasn’t sure what I thought about that anecdote at age twelve, so I decided to set it aside to think more about it later. But now that I’m in my late thirties, and I’ve gone through different stages of how I understood my relationship to faith, it’s come to mind again.
I remember reading progressive essayist and novelist Anne Lamott’s book Traveling Mercies in college, and she conceptualized her journey out of alcoholism and depression and into an eclectic version of Christianity through the metaphor of lily pads. Rather than heading straight into faith, she meandered through a set of experiences that nurtured and nudged her along the way, like a frog leaping across a pond from one lily pad to another.
I’ve landed on several lily pads throughout my personal spiritual journey, which I tend to divide into three main phases.
In my teens, I chose to accept and enthusiastically participate in and promote evangelical Christianity. The church our family attended had a large high school youth group and I was accepted and welcomed there, and promoted into leadership, where I helped organize events to bring more of our fellow teens to faith.
Most of the people I met at the church were kind and friendly, and I am still in contact with some of them, even if we don’t agree on everything now. The youth group and associated church made a big impression on me as a teen because it offered me as a young person who wasn’t especially wealthy or famous the chance to take part in something that was saving the world.
It also provided me with a ready-made social outlet where I was respected and stood out in good ways. I wasn’t bullied or especially unpopular at my high school, but felt that my classmates were more like acquaintances than real friends. My parents, especially my father, were not particularly social and did not enjoy having people over to our house, whether they were my friends or classmates or other adults they knew. They were also extremely protective, due to several high-profile kidnappings that had made the news near us when my brother and I were young. I now know that I, and most likely my father, are on the autistic spectrum, and that likely influenced that teen social dynamic.
My mother compensated for my father’s social awkwardness by making a big deal to me that I needed to hang back and observe how others interacted in social situations, that there were rules and norms I needed to follow. While I know she meant well and only wanted to stop me from embarrassing myself and that she wanted me to learn social skills from someone other than my dad, I grew up with the feeling that interacting with others was difficult and that there were so many ways you could accidentally get things wrong.
Church was a place where I could feel freer to let my guard down around people. We all believed similar things and listened to the same music and watched the same movies. This was the 90s, the era of Christian rock bands DC Talk and Rebecca St. James, movie stars like Kirk Cameron and the hugely selling Left Behind suspense series about Armageddon, the final judgement of the world and the divine rescue of the faithful. Here I knew the right cultural icons, the right passwords and slang, to enter this large teen subculture. The ‘rules of the road’ – i.e. no premarital sex, no underage drinking, etc – were things I was already following as I lived with protective parents who wanted me to spend most of my time studying, so I didn’t think about them too much.
I moved out of my parents’ house at 17 and started college at UC Davis. Once there, I started off by getting involved in college Christian groups, following the teachings of my faith and trying to re-create some of my high school church experience. Later, probably because I could, as I was living on my own with non-Christian roommates for the first time in my life, I gradually started to try different ways of life and adopt different beliefs.
This was an educational time for me, where I learned about different cultures, religions, philosophies and ways of life. I became close friends for the first time with people who were LGBT, polyamorous, Jewish, Muslim, socialist, atheist, Pagan, feminist, who had been teen moms, and who were from various other backgrounds.
While I do believe that this time helped me to gain a more balanced and inclusive perspective on life, and I do appreciate the chance to learn to understand and respect all people, it wasn’t an entirely positive season. I did some things then that I regret, such as sleeping around without really thinking about what I was doing, getting angry and getting involved in drama, and cheating/emotionally abusing others in relationships. I also became aware at some level of the cognitive dissonance between the morals I’d been raised with and had personally adopted at age 12 and the way I was living then, and turned to drinking to silence the contradictions. Later on I remember reading an academic article about Jack Kerouac’s alcoholism possibly stemming from his inability to resolve the tension between his early conservative Catholicism and his Beatnik lifestyle.
When I drank too much I became sloppy in ways that I never wanted to be. I was less articulate in how I spoke, not so witty, and would show up places late or not at all, and lost some of the ability I always admired in myself to get projects (school assignments, volunteer work, articles for the student paper) done well before deadlines.
Also, I experienced the kinds of insecurities that had made me groan when I heard others share them or when I read about teens having these feelings in YA literature. The worries about whether I were cool enough for people to like me, why I was still single, whether my friends really liked me, whether people were talking behind my back, etc. When I was single I’d feel lonely and inadequate and want to be back in a relationship, but then when I would start dating a guy I’d miss the freedom I had as a single woman and want to be on my own again. And I would get annoyed and impatient with my own insecurities but felt helpless to escape them.
At this point I felt that there was a philosophical binary where I had to choose between traditional Christianity, which offered a clear and understandable system of ideas and moral teachings based on Divine authority and a way back through repentance, and the values of the other Generation X people around me. Many of them were like me, aimless, insecure, and cynical because cynicism made us feel good/superior about being the way we were now instead of how many of us were raised to be.
My parents reinforced this binary by telling me I’d have to choose between the ways of the world and the values of our faith.
And, the traditional, conservative systems we were rejecting did not affirm LGBT people or grapple with the realities of racially motivated violence, a nation at war once again, and the erosion of our faith in our major economic and political institutions. The United States government was behaving unethically in Iraq and towards prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, and many corporate and financial executives were being exposed and banished for dishonest and sleazy behavior as well. We believed we were seeing the failure and bankruptcy of the values and institutions we’d been raised to respect, which in my mind included traditional Christianity, whose authority we rejected. But in our early twenties we didn’t have any real alternatives of our own, just vague alienation and disengagement.
After graduation, I moved back in with my parents, where by necessity I drank less and attended their traditional church again. At that point I reached an uneasy mental truce with my faith. I had to live my life and look for work, so I decided to go along to get along. I got busier, became less restless and picky in my dating life with fewer social outlets open to me, and settled down into a few longer-term steady relationships. Insecurities about finding work and earning enough money to move out replaced my former anxieties about my social life and likability. I didn’t exactly submit to the authority of my faith then, but didn’t actively challenge it either.
As I transitioned from being a twenty-something to a thirty-something, I got involved in more long-term projects. I started a literary magazine and became involved in the cultural scene of the Bay Area. And I continued to encounter faith in the weirdest of places, the most unlikely of lily pads.
My current boyfriend and I have a mutual artist friend who’s gay, formerly homeless, streetwise, newly clean and sober, politically active and outspoken. Once I offered to fill in for him at an editorial meeting of a radical magazine to which he’d submitted an essay. There, I discovered, in front of a roomful of tattooed anarchists, that he had written about Jesus. More specifically, about a documentary he’d watched where indigenous female community leaders in Honduras had found inspiration to protest a corporate takeover of their land through their Christian faith and commitment to the dignity of everyone, no matter how marginalized. My nonreligious friend had been so moved by the women’s faith that he’d read and quoted sections of the New Testament and made those central to his film review.
Around that time I started a literary PR business and became friends with a woman who was an executive at a publishing firm. When she invited my boyfriend and I to her wedding, she extended an open invitation for all guests to join her and her fiancé at their regular social activities. Turned out that despite coming from an atheist family, she was heavily involved in a local church.
I visited the church a few months after her wedding, mostly out of curiosity, and am still attending. Sadly, my friend’s marriage broke up, but the people there have supported her through the whole situation. There are sort of a random assortment of people there, many my age or slightly younger, many of whom are grappling with a similarly complex history with faith. They’re also exploring the ‘third path’ for those who exist outside the philosophical binaries of worldliness vs spirituality, conservative vs liberal, saved vs unsaved, but who would like to have something to believe and somewhere to belong.
Several well-meaning people from my past who would like to bring me and others like me back into the conservative religious fold point to supposed archaeological or historical evidence for traditional orthodox belief. While that may exist, I’m not so interested at this point in academic debates over the age of the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Shroud of Turin.
I’m more interested in what it means, culturally, as a woman, in 2019, on the autistic spectrum, on the cusp between Generation X and the Millennials, to accept again some form of my earlier Christian belief. Not in the sense that I care what people will think of me, but because I’m exploring how to re-integrate my faith into the values that I’ve come to adopt over time as a thinking adult making my way in the world.
I can hear the voice of my old pastor saying that faith is meant to be the first thing in your life, the structure around which you build everything else that you believe, something that you submit to, not something that you integrate or re-integrate into your current values.
And I admit that I’m still struggling with the submission and authority concept. Submission is linked in my mind still to very traditional ideas of wives submitting to husbands and children submitting to parents, to times in my life when I was not necessarily mistreated, but was very sheltered and didn’t have much capacity to develop an identity of my own and function as a human being.
I received some therapy related to my autism diagnosis and the therapist commented that I disliked authority and being told what to do. I’ve heard that some consider this trait, this independence and rebelliousness of spirit, to be shared by others on the spectrum and possibly associated with how some of our brains are wired.
But I do see some very real positive aspects to Christian faith, even for progressives from my generation or among the Millennials.
We live in a society where our economic system’s values and practices tend to spill over into other areas of life, where people are valued and treated differently based on how much they can earn and contribute and produce.
From where I sit this afternoon, in my parents’ living room, in my Trump-supporting, conservative, quiet, frugal, working-class neighborhood, I can’t imagine enough people in this country adopting other value systems in numbers large enough to challenge the pervasive societal attitude of measuring our lives’ value in purely economic terms. I really don’t see the USA becoming heavily shaped by paganism, or democratic socialism, or non-Western religious traditions, or any other alternative that people have developed throughout history or at cocktail parties or in Internet think pieces. Like it or not, due to the generational history many of us share, Christianity is the major source of values in the United States that compete with those that result from our economic medium of exchange being left to exist in a vacuum.
Because of my now officially diagnosed autism, and other issues, it’s been difficult for me to find steady paying work. Many people I know are disabled and struggling as well, and Christianity clearly asserts the intrinsic value of our lives even if we can add little or nothing to the economy.
Also, right now the business I founded is facing serious financial trouble and we’re having to think about restructuring. In that and other areas of my life, I’m having to face the possibility of failure and be realistic about the future.
But my faith teaches me that my life matters, regardless of my accomplishments or economic status, just because I exist, not because of what I can do. Even if I spend my life bouncing from one short term low wage temp job to another, or even if I am not able to work at all, my life is inherently valuable.
I remember reading ethicist Marilyn Vos Savant’s column in a major newspaper one day. Someone had asked her if she believed we all had the right to have our basic needs met. She answered in the negative because others would have to work and give of themselves to meet others’ needs and that would make the ‘givers’ into slaves.
Christianity sidesteps the whole legal, ethical, and political debate about whether the poor, the disabled, and those otherwise in need have a right to make others who have more resources care for them by making the issue one of moral responsibility on the part of the giver because of the inherent dignity and worth of the recipient, rather than a matter of rights.
The faith articulates and asserts a whole different basis for the value of life, human and otherwise, that doesn’t depend on our economic status or what we can produce.
For that reason, and others, I see value in my faith, and I am moving towards being able to find that ‘third way’ between the conservative fundamentalism of my teenage years and the cynical nihilism of my college days. Life always takes a degree of faith, even if you’re atheist – because there’s always some degree of uncertainty and you have to choose to keep going, to keep seeing your journey as valuable.
And I do want to learn how to submit in a healthy sense that’s not encumbered by cultural baggage, in a way that involves checking my ego and holding myself accountable to an authority and principles and values outside myself that I choose to embrace.