I’ve been struggling with spiritual issues and faith for as long as I can remember. I came from a mixed-denomination household–dad was Coptic Orthodox, mom was Southern Baptist–so developing a coherent theology was difficult. There were few Coptic churches around growing up, so I was distanced from the theology of the Coptic church, but I never felt connected to the Baptist church. It’s hard to feel connected to a church that tells you you’re a sinner and automatically have an extra hurdle because of the perception that your parents don’t believe in the same God. Worse, it’s hard to feel connected to God, Jesus, and Scripture. Growing up, it felt as though nothing I did mattered in a spiritual sense – I was a sinner, God didn’t love or notice me, and my prayers would go unnoticed, because I wasn’t ever going to be a “real” Christian.
We went to several different kinds of churches growing up – we went to special holiday services at the Coptic church in New Orleans and in Houston, but most of the weekly services were at a Baptist church until I was in Jr. High, then we went to a Quaker (or Friends) church for a while, we went to a Lutheran church once or twice, and for a while as an undergrad I went to an Episcopal church. When I got to grad school, I was attending University of St. Thomas here in Houston, so I started hanging out at the Chapel of St. Basil. I hung around Campus Ministry, and eventually one of the FSE sisters talked me into attending RCIA. It was life-changing for me – a church that encouraged and had a history of theological research? that encouraged asking questions? that didn’t tell you you were going to Hell because your parents weren’t from the same ethnic group? I was shocked. (Also, it was kind of awkward because it was also the church of the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, a church that believes condoms and birth control is a sin, and for all the work Cool Pope has done to change the image of the church, it was also the church that appointed a former Hitler Youth as Pope. But I digress.)
So I’m a gung-ho Christian now, right? Church every Sunday, Bible study every day, can’t get enough of Jesus and the Rosary, right? Yeah. No. Not exactly. It’s not that easy to overcome 20+ years of predestination, believing that you’re a sinner in the hands of an angry God, and being a bright, intelligent woman in a community of people who believe that women in the workplace are what crashed the economy and ruined the American Dream for everyone. Hell, some of them even believed that allowing women to vote was what ruined the economy, and a smaller even older subset believed it was freeing the slaves and letting them work with the white folk that ruined America. (Yes, I grew up in the South. No, not everyone at church was like that, but y’all know if you grew up here you met people like that.) And then there was the feel-good non-denominationalists who believed that if you just smiled a lot and said Praise Jesus! often and put an Ichthus (not that they call it that – it’s the Jesus fish) on the back of your minivan that you’d get to heaven (see anything regarding Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church for evidence).
True Story – I had a Sunday School teacher for a 20-somethings class at a small Baptist church tell us that if you wronged someone and they wanted an apology, you should tell them that Jesus had already forgiven you and they should too. I asked for Biblical support and was labeled the class liberal and laughed at. True Believers don’t ask questions and don’t need facts or evidence – you know because you have faith. If you believe Jesus forgave you, then he did.
So I have a strained relationship with Christianity and religion. I’ve been living teetering on the edge of atheism and agnosticism most of my life, but with one foot still in the bucket of theological research and the occasional spark of faith (fun fact: Faith is my middle name). You know how sometimes you see a natural wonder so beautiful it blooms wonderment in you so powerful that it takes your breath away? That’s how I feel when I think about space, or when I look at photos of Old Faithful, or I hike up to a view at Elephant Rock State Park. The natural world is a huge source of spiritual wonderment and fulfillment for me, and I’m a natural skeptic, so yeah I’m naturally drawn to scientific thought. But there’s still that inclination of curiosity about What Comes Next, and that occasional fleeting spark of faith that keeps drawing me back to theological and theosophical questions. Marrying the skeptical, scientific part of my soul to the religious part of my soul has proven to be one of the most challenging parts of my life, and the result is that I often feel like a stranger to myself.
I don’t go to church, because I’m afraid of the rejection that happens, of the bias and questions people ask. I’m not a social person by nature, so I want to go in, get my fulfillment, and run before people can start crowding me with questions and introductions and Let’s Hang Out, or Do You Wanna Go To Bible Study, or Come To The Contemporary Service (No thanks. Contemporary services are for feel-good nondenominationalists who want God to fit into their pop culture box instead of trying to expand their brain to reach outside of their comfort zone). (Let’s not even talk about where I differ from most Christians on topics like gay marriage and other LGBTQ issues, birth control and abortion, and other hot-button topics.)
I want to believe. Mostly. But that feeling of being someone who would never be good enough for God so I should just stop trying is really hard to overcome. I’ve got shelves full of religious study books but you probably won’t see me in church, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.