Last year I read a book that changed my life forever. It’s a memoir called Post Traumatic Church Syndrome by Reba Riley. Riley wrote about one year’s worth of rediscovering faith by opening her mind to other religious practices. Essentially, she had been hurt in the past by the Christian faith, yet she felt called to embrace faith in all aspects, to explore what it means to believe in something more across different cultures and communities. It’s a truly remarkable book full of incredible experiences. I find myself, for whatever reason, craving those experiences, craving something more.
Unlike Riley, many of my experiences with the Christian faith have been positive and even life-altering. I chose to attend a Christian college because I enjoyed learning more about the faith and living in fellowship with like-minded people. But it was not until I surrounded myself with “like-minded Christians” that I realized few Christians think, believe, or live out their faith in the same way. As a child, I attended a small country Church-of-God church on Sundays, went to daycare provided by the Baptist church throughout the week, and eventually attended youth group at the local Nazarene church on Wednesday evenings. I never knew of any differences among these faiths until I grew old enough to learn about the detailed doctrines. The Christian faith grows and changes every day, making it hard for churches to unite for the common good and to focus on the bigger picture.
During college, I found it increasingly difficult to enjoy a church or chapel service anywhere, for I knew it would be met with criticism and debate. I became a person who thought too critically of the particulars of the sermon, and at times I even found myself seeking out these debates with people of different Christian backgrounds, trying to establish where my own lines should be drawn when it came to Biblical interpretation. Eventually, I found myself unable to sit through services that degraded other people, whether the targets were other Christians from a different doctrine or other believers of other religions entirely. I could not sit through the “comparison” sermons, those that discussed what made this church different compared to the terrible things other “Christians” or “persons of other faiths” did. As I traveled the world locally and abroad, I met people with questions about the bad sides of my faith. Every religious discussion seemed to be about love v. hate. It all came down to whether or not we were loving others. In my own faith, we as Christians started “loving” others, but disapproving of their behaviors, starting conversations with them about their sins so we could “help” or “save” them. One of the largest influential factors of my faith revolved around the growing LGBTQ community and their calls for equal rights. I grew up in a world that was and still is changing and evolving their perspectives on the subject. As a young adult, I fell for the whole “love the sinner, hate the sin” campaign that my religion thrived on, and I’ll always regret the shallow relationships I tried to form with people I had no interest in other than learning more about their “sins” so I could save their souls. For the further into the relationship I got, it became increasingly difficult for me to pinpoint what was “wrong” about them. In fact, the more I loved these individuals, the less authority I felt in determining their destiny, in proclaiming their damnation. Upon realizing that I was unqualified to “save” the people around me, I began to lose faith fast. My entire purpose in life was made known to me as a small child: I was to go out and make disciples, to tell people about God before it was too late, to save them from burning in Hell for eternity. I spent many long nights pleading with friends to believe in God, and crying when I pictured the ones I loved in a sea of flames because I simply failed to save them.
Going to a Christian college was my second chance at learning how to save people and tell others about God. But I was turned off by the amount of time we spent comparing. My college had a particular doctrine that was more conservative than most, but there was an undeniable passion in the speakers and leaders there. The college was heavily involved in world-wide missions, and I eagerly joined trips abroad to save those who were “less fortunate” in other countries by giving them hope. I didn’t expect to meet people who wore rags but had smiles that outshone my own. I didn’t expect to be greeted with love and hospitality. In the end, I didn’t share the doctrinal details of my faith. I shared love, and left it at that.
When I started learning about other faiths (for I had never been given a true, well-rounded and non-biased look at other religions), I felt guilty for liking certain traditions they had. For example, after visiting a country with a large Muslim population, I was not turned off by the idea that Muslims pray at certain times each day. In fact, I admired that trait. I struggle to pray once or twice a day, and I have no certain time-structure that reminds me to set aside what I’m doing and re-focus on the bigger picture. I did not give thanks to God or regularly ask for his guidance. I prayed when I thought about it, which became less and less often as my life got busier and busier. When I heard their calls to prayer ring throughout the country, I felt myself also feeling called to pray. Could I pray to my God at the same time they prayed to theirs? Would their cries drown out my own? Most disturbingly, why didn’t I feel the need to pray for them? It’s true. I didn’t feel called to pray for them, but instead, I felt called to pray with them.
Oprah Winfrey narrated a seven-part documentary series called Belief two years ago, and one of my favorite professors loaned it to me last year. I watched it over and over and over again. The documentary reveals the practices and beliefs of religious groups all over the world, including the major world religions and ancient tribal religions and practices. I am fascinated by the similarities. It’s undeniable that as humans we crave supernatural experiences with something beyond ourselves. We crave something more. And at their roots, many religions come down to love, hope, forgiveness, kindness, and compassion. We share so many similar characteristics, but we are living a life overwhelmed by a media that does nothing but show the differences. Differences in religion, race, gender, sexuality, and class are tearing our world apart. I cannot participate in the negativity.
I’ve decided that my faith is too exclusive. I should not have to worry for hours about whether or not it would be acceptable for me to own a prayer rug, or to practice mindful meditation the way it is done in the East, or go one day to witness some of the world’s largest and most traditional worship festivals. I am tired of worrying about perfectly good people’s souls simply because their god has a different name. Some of the kindest people I’ve ever met have been atheists altogether. They’re able to accomplish so much for humanity because they don’t have to worry about how their God or religion would want them to do it. My faith is too exclusive. Christians are not the only people doing good in the world, and they are not exempt from the list of those who are doing wrong in the world as well. Growing up, my faith led me to despise friends who believed in evolution, to have horrible, degrading conversations with others about the “sins” of homosexuals and their lifestyles. It made me question whether or not I should travel to Africa if I didn’t feel “called” to go there. It turned me away from the idea of going into a scientific field even though I was curious and intrigued by the idea of becoming an astronomer.
Yes, my faith has given me many joyful and beautiful experiences, but I was blind to the negative side effects at the time. Now, I’m going on a journey. I’m out to explore what makes others believe so passionately in a god who is not my own, and to see if maybe my faith can become more inclusive. I want to know if I can look others in the eyes and love them without an agenda to change them. I want to see if I can open my mind to their practices and beliefs, and if that could break away the chains guarding my heart. Because truthfully, each time I’ve denied a part of my faith that has told me certain people cannot be pure, I have felt increasingly more joyful. I am excited to live a life of love and compassion, of deep sharing and connection, that cannot be tainted by the limitations that were set for me.
*Expect many more posts to come as I visit other religions and share my experiences with the people I meet. I welcome conversation and growth, but will shut out hate and ignorance, so comment wisely.*
Welcome to Learn-Grow-Teach-Go! I’m Rachel. Join me as I explore what it means to be a life-long learner and begin to live out a more full, balanced, and simplistic lifestyle. I am currently a high school English teacher, and I enjoy traveling the world and adventuring in my spare time. Whether you’re looking for advice on living minimally and simplistically, teaching ideas and lessons, or travel tips and trips, you’ve found the right place. Glad to have you here!