My faith was very important to me growing up. I was raised in the Church of Christ, a fundamentalist southern sect that believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible, but I stopped going to church in high school after I noticed the disconnect between my life and the lives of my friends in the church and the radical, give-all-your-possessions-away-and-devote-your-life-to-the-poor teachings of Jesus. I remember thinking very clearly when I was 16 or 17 that I had two choices: call myself a Christian and devote my life to poverty and service to others, or live my life the way I wanted to live it and stop calling myself a Christian.
That might seem like a simple decision on its face, but Christianity, at the time, was the operating system of my life. It was what defined my relationship to myself, the world around me, my future, my present, and my past. If I wasn’t saved, if there wasn’t a loving God looking out for me from above, if the system of morality with which I’d been raised wasn’t tied to some deep and fundamental truth about the universe and my place in it, then I was lost.
So I wrestled with the question of my Christianity from high school until after college—I started going to church again when I was at Rice, I majored in religious studies because I was fascinated with the study of other religions, and I struggled with my faith the entire time. It wasn’t until I finished reading the Bible cover to cover when I was 25 that I officially renounced Christianity, though.
August of 2004 found me on the west coast of Australia trying to find a sea passage to Africa. After my search for a tramp freighter came up dry I decided to look for a spot as crew on a yacht instead, and since I didn’t have the faintest idea how one would go about trying to get a spot as crew on a yacht, I decided to walk into the first yacht club I could find and try my luck. Not wanting to leave such an important lynchpin of my round-the-world travels to chance, though, I prayed to God (an emergency occurrence in those days rather than a daily one) and promised Him that if He gave me a ship on which to sail to Africa, the next book I would read would be the Bible, in its entirety. I said the prayer silently, standing outside the first yacht club that I would ever set foot in, and then I opened my eyes and went inside.
I don’t remember anything about the inside of the club except that they had a little cork notice board with two notices tacked to it—one advertising a get-together the following week, and the other looking for two crew to sail to South Africa immediately, no experience necessary. It was one of the most incredible feelings of my life, like being cradled in the arms of the divine—I was used to God communicating with me in signs and signals, but this one was genuinely unmistakable. My thinking at the time had already gone from a literal interpretation of the Bible to a view of Christianity as a human interpretation of a greater truth, but I still very much believed in a God to whom I could pray and who saw fit to intervene in my life from time to time.
It took me a little over a year to finish the Bible (the only other book I read the entire time was Death of a Salesman, the night Arthur Miller died), and over the course of that year I came to see Christianity as an eschatological offshoot of an ancient tribal religion that bore little resemblance to the tradition in which I’d been raised and that had virtually nothing to do with my life. Letting go of it was relatively easy at that point—I took with me the parts that resonated and left the rest behind. I still believed in large swaths of the core system of morality, and in a system of order in the universe that was essentially unknowable but that had some sort of interest in my long-term happiness and actually intervened in my life from time to time to keep me safe, provide me with a path to walk down, and generally watch over me.
My mother was one of the most religious people I’ve ever known. She died of cancer when she was 57 years old, and she stayed a committed Christian right up to her last breath; we threw her a big party towards the end so that she could be with everyone who would later come to her funeral while she was still alive, and she got up and gave an impassioned speech in which she told us not to lose our faith because of her illness, that she still had an incredible amount to be thankful for. It was representative of the way she lived her life in those final years, too—it’s a testament to the depth of her belief that I held onto my own religious worldview after her death instead of abandoning it outright.
My relationship with Carolyn fit perfectly into that worldview, and in a lot of ways came to embody it for me—we met by chance on a trip that I almost didn’t take, our meeting changed the course of my life by convincing me to quit my job and join the Obama campaign full-time, and we started dating 2 ½ years after we first met at perhaps the first time in my life that I was truly ready to be in a serious, not only long-term but potentially permanent relationship. I came to see it as something that was meant to be, an opportunity that the universe had given us and that we’d chosen to take. Our relationship made me deeply, sustainably happy, and I saw our engagement as further evidence of the invisible hand at work in my life.
Our breakup—6 months ago, and four days after my 33rd birthday, at the start of my so-called “Jesus year”—blew all of that wide open, and I’ve spent the intervening time fundamentally re-thinking a lot of assumptions about my life. As part of that process I ended up buying and owning a car for the first time in 4 ½ years, and I inaugurated it by taking a road trip to commune with my birth volcano, something that had been on my to-do list for 11 years starting when I first moved to the Pacific Northwest after college. It was on that trip that I finally gave up on the idea of external salvation.
Mt. St. Helens erupted 3 ½ months after I was born, and four months after the breakup I found myself sitting in front of what’s left of it for the first time. It was a more powerful experience than I was expecting it to be, and the image of what nature has done, post-eruption, to the north face of St. Helens over the course of time that I’ve been alive became an object of meditation, a koan through which I came to appreciate my own insignificance in the grand scheme of things.
There are a lot of leaps of faith that are required in order to maintain a wholehearted belief in the veracity of any of the religions of the book, and some of the more interesting parts of religious studies are the philosophical bridges that scholars of the different religions have constructed over time to pave over those leaps. There’s a Jewish concept in particular that’s always stuck in my mind called hester panim, “the hiding of the face”, which is the idea that at certain critical junctures in history (the Holocaust was the context in which I learned about it in college) God withdraws himself from the lives of the Israelites and leaves them to fend for themselves. Old Testament scholars saw it as a discrete mechanism that represented either a punishment or a test depending on the situation and the scholar, but it had always seemed like a theological cop-out to me.
I can’t put into words what I felt sitting in front of the mountain that day, but “there is no face” is a good rough approximation. I still believe in a vast, fundamentally unknowable system of order in the universe, but I no longer believe that it has any interest in human affairs. It doesn’t portend a huge shift in the way I live my life—I’ve always made the most of whatever opportunities I have in front of me, regardless of where they come from—but I’ve let go of that faint glimmer of hope that there’s some master plan my life is a part of. Like my used car manager used to say, luck is when opportunity meets preparation…and you eat what you kill.