Empty the Pews: Mandy's Story
Some of my earliest clear memories involve sitting near my father's wingback chair where he studied for his MDiv. I would snag the books he put down and rifle through the pages, or practice the Greek alphabet alongside him, dreaming of the day I could read the New Testament in its original language. My dad and I spent countless hours debating the merits of Calvinism, the ins and outs of eschatology, and the confusing apologetics of salvation and faith. I loved those years, and they were very real to me.
All of my experiences in Evangelical Christianity were real to me. The tear-filled camp chapels, the conviction-heavy revival services. The time at Bible college, working out my salvation with fear and trembling. The house churches, the pastoral pressure, the sermon preps, the Sunday school curricula, the Christmas pageants and the door-to-door witnessing excursions. I felt my faith in my bones, and had what I am convinced were real experiences and spiritual encounters. They happened. And they're over now.
Just like my marriage was no less real just because it ended in divorce, my faith was no less solid just because it's ended. Ended, or evolved - I'm never really sure.
My breaking point came at the end of a thankfully short but powerfully abusive relationship with a man who manipulated, gaslit, assaulted, and isolated me. I began to read about the phenomenon of the Narcissistic Sociopath and my heart dropped as the person I thought I was growing to understand morphed in my mind from a human man to the very god I had worshipped my whole life.
Every new paragraph was like a nail in the coffin of my faith.
Isolated me from anyone I grew too close to, in an effort to keep me entirely dependent on him? Check.
Committed horrendous atrocities but always had a good reason for the carnage he created? Check.
Got others to do his dirty work, fight his battles, and justify his actions? Check.
Rigged the game, then pretended to be at the mercy of it? Check.
Tormented people who didn't do what he wanted, and then pretended to be the real victim? Check.
The god on which I was raised was a user. A gaslighter. A manipulator. He created gigantic schemes that left huge swaths of humanity dead and then pretended like he had no choice. He relegated women and slaves to lifetimes of oppression without batting an eye. He was cruel. He wrapped his heartlessness in a thin shroud of "love" and "justice" but I had begun to see through it. "Toe the line or you won't be safe" was a place I just left on the mortal plane, and I was mere steps away from leaving it on the ethereal one.
I know this isn't the god of every Exvangelical's childhood, but he was the boogeyman of mine. And when the moment finally came to leave, it was clear as day.
My pastor had been harmed by my human abuser too, and I could tell, as I sat at his kitchen table, that he was exhausted. My church and my small group all knew I had a tumultuous relationship with the Bible. I struggled to accept most of what I was taught, even after 27 years in the thickest parts of Christianity. I was tired of putting my brain on the shelf to make space for my faith. I wanted to stop fighting to feel something that seemed so easy for everyone else. I was exhausted too.
"Just don't bullshit me," he asked, not unkindly but clearly. "If you don't believe - if you don't want to believe - that's fine. We still love you. But don't pretend you're in if you're not." And just like that, something deep in my chest cracked open. I promised him I wouldn't pretend.
Then I went home and broke up with god. I had never felt so relieved.
I feel safer, more stable, more secure in the "I don't know" than I ever did when I had all the right answers. I still know those answers. Those complex apologetics that I twisted and used to keep the cognitive dissonance at bay are still in my brain and I recognize them when someone else tries to use them on me.
But when the questions come up in my own head - Is god real? Is there an afterlife? Is something bigger at work? - I have to land on "I don't know," and that answer is shockingly satisfying. It's a relief to not spend my life walking on eggshells around a god who can and does move the pieces when I'm not looking, and to not have to engage with a deity from a place of fear. It's a relief to not be spending all my time reaching for and simultaneously dreading the afterlife. It's also nice to have my Sundays back.
Now I can be here. Now I can be now.
I write. I research. I spend a lot of time engaging with others, holding their stories and weeping over their wounds. I heal and am healed. I read about peoples and religions I was never allowed access to in my childhood, and study them in college. I ask "what if I'm wrong?" a lot more and I'm no longer afraid of the answer. I evolve. I learn and grow at my own experimental pace and I don't stress my mistakes. I don't feel lost - I feel finally found.
If one day my daughter asks me about god, I'll tell her that many different people have many different views of him. I'll introduce her to the believers I know - people who are passionate about their faith and the freedom, justice, and love they find in it. I'll show her how I walk and work alongside those who believe in something I don't have and don't want, and that we care for each other with zero strain.
And if she asks what I think about god, I'll tell her the truth. I don't know about god, or the afterlife. I don't know if there's anything bigger out there. I don't know if there is absolute truth in religious belief. But I know that what we do here matters, and that the impacts we make in our lifetime have value. I know that people matter, that justice matters, that love does. I know we can make good change if we care. And I know that if we make the most of the time we have, we can move mountains.