Sunday, March 22, 2015

What's in a name?

Since I named this blog Gay Pentecostal Atheist a couple of years ago I have received a fairly steady stream of reactions to the name itself. Those generally fall into one of two camps: (1) Awesome!!!! and (2) I know you and you are NOT an atheist.

In light of the steps of my journey in the intervening time frame, perhaps it is time to revisit the label. What do I mean by that? Am I actually an atheist? What does the term "atheist" mean? Where am I going with this?

First a bit of reflection: I believe that we are all journeying, regardless of the signs and labels we hang on ourselves. Thank goodness, we can discard and pick up different signs as we move along life's path. Wouldn't it be horrible if we couldn't do that? Perhaps that is one of the benefits of living in a linear time frame. So what's that label Gay Pentecostal Atheist about? At the time I put those three words together I was in a very specific place. I had already dealt with questions of sexuality for years and after more than a decade in a wonderful, life affirming love relationship I had reached a place of deep understanding in myself about that part of me. There is no doubt that I am gay, whether god-given or otherwise. But I, like many people my age and older have struggled to see how gayness can exist in a godly life.

In fact, I moved into adulthood suddenly on a May evening in 1988 but only after I began a deliberate process of separating from and rejecting the Pentecostal god of my parents. I needed to do this to resolve the internal conflict between the good I knew was in me and the evil I had been taught was in me. I had to do this to survive, to find some clarity. A few years later I was able to look back and explain my journey in this way: In order to survive I had to kill god. That explanation honored the fact that I had spent at least 10 unproductive years surrendering myself to god and accepting internal conflict as a personal fault. My teenage years were spent in prayer and it was prayer without resolution, without healing. So I found myself at a decision point: kill god or kill myself.

Who are you after you kill your god? How does one then live a good life? If even god himself is false what can be trusted? Who can provide rules for good conduct, models for proper behavior? I think a lot of gay kids from conservative religious backgrounds go through the yo-yo phase where they abandon all the rules and then struggle through a morality void. They have to work hard to regain a more meaningful grounding. I know it was a slow process for me. I probably never lost the core value of kindness to others but most everything else was up for negotiation. In that process of testing boundaries and building a new morality for myself I probably found a lot of comfort in reminding myself of the failings of religion. Pentecostalism, in particular, is rich in failings so there is plenty of fertile ground for ex-verts to find fault.

So I found solidarity in the ranks of atheism. One of the strengths of atheists is their ability to recognize and call out hypocrisy. This resonated with me and, hey, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. I never quite fit in with the atheists though. I wasn't angry at god (even though I had to kill him), but in the process of building my own morality I came to believe that he didn't actually exist outside of people's minds. I put a lot of really hard work into my new morality so, of course, I wouldn't want to give some distant god the credit for that. Then I discovered the sentiment attributed to Voltaire: "If God did not exist we would have to invent him."* That really resonated with me and it still does (although for different reasons) now.

However, I never stopped quoting scriptures in my head. Any regular Bible reader knows how remembered scripture can explain things, how it can comfort and support you in times of need. Eventually I found myself to be a scripture quoting atheist. After a few years I no longer felt the same relevance in that old idea that I had killed god in order to live. I have kept a journal since I was eight years old and part of my process has always been to look at old journals every few years, to review decisions and outcomes.

No doubt that reviewing helped me eventually revisit my killing god explanation. I found myself thinking more and more about one specific event recorded in May 1988: a prayer I prayed on one particular day. This was the day when the unnecessary guilt in me had grown to match my will for life, the day I might have killed myself but instead grew up. This prayer concluded two tearful, prayerful days spent hiding in my bed, in a dark room, in a lonely college dorm room. I was 19 and on this day I decided to be a man, make a real world decision and to then live with it. This was when I first accepted that all the praying in the world wasn't going to change my nature and that to continue to ignore the obvious was an even more basic transgression than being gay. Remembering the prayer I prayed helped me re-name this day as the day I stepped out in faith. In those last moments of dusk before I rose from my bed I prayed something like this: "God I don't know what's going to happen next but this can't continue. I'm going to find out tonight what it means to be gay. I don't know if you will go with me or not. I don't want to leave you and I don't know if or when I'll come back but your word says you will never leave me..."

It was very much an unfinished prayer because I had no idea what lay ahead. I just knew I couldn't stay where I was. I sat up on the edge of my bed, in silence, in dark, for a few minutes. Then I got up, dressed and went out into the world. So after a while I was able to remember this moment not as a defeat but as a really pivotal and trusting decision that there was a future for me but I would need to discover it. The story changed from "killing god to survive" to "stepping out in faith into the unknown".

I eventually fell out of love with atheists. In my experience many atheists are in a place of anger. The public figures we are most aware of as atheists seem to be fighting against religion and against the concept of god. Their discourse doesn't honor the good that lives in religion, the beautiful impulse that comes out of human souls. There seems to be little or no place in atheism for an inner life. What I came to realize a decade ago is that I still have an inner life. Even though I can't find something that is real out in the world that I can label GOD, my inner need for the god-like stuff, for meaning, for context, for love -- that's all very real. I also have allowed myself in recent years to revisit the songs, the rituals and the scriptures that brought me such comfort as a child and sometimes as a teenager. I discovered that the comfort felt real and true even while god remained unreal for me so I decided the need was real too.

How do you satisfy a need when the original solution was a made-up figment of someone's imagination? Does the need exist as a product of believing the hoax? Once I have recognized the conundrum, can I live an authentic life without exploring it? Am I running from or am I running toward?

Then I found myself in a serious crisis a few years ago. This is the kind of crisis that ruins lives, ends marriages, breaks people forever. I needed to pray and I found myself unable to pray. I couldn't bring myself to pretend that someone out there was hearing me and I couldn't pretend to believe just in case someone was listening. So I just prayed from my heart and I directed that prayer back into my heart. I needed help so I sought it as authentically as I could, as an atheist, just where I was. I prayed something like: " I don't know if you're there. I have no faith at all that anyone is there. But I need the kind of strength I used to get when I prayed before." I'm still praying a version of that prayer and it still feels like the most authentic thing I can pray because I truly do not believe in an old man in the sky. For so many reasons. But the prayer is authentic and it feeds my heart.

So I have come to a place that does not fit comfortably with some of the major paradigms of our society. I am gay but I am moral. I am atheist in belief but I am drawing on the strengths of my Pentecostal cultural background. None of this makes any sense at all but I still exist. These three things live together in me and my existence is sufficient evidence that there can be a gay Pentecostal atheist. If you can't understand that join the club. Understanding isn't the only game in town though. Reality often surpasses understanding.

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