Coming Home for Christmas (after de-conversion)

December 19, 2007 at 11:42 pm 21 comments

home at christmasChristmas is always a bit hard for me.

When I was young, and nestled in a deeply religious fundamentalist family, Christmas was wonderful. It was both deeply personal, and at the same time it was the grand final chapter of a cosmic drama. It wasn’t about gifts and confections, though of course as a kid I looked forward to those. For me, the “magic” in Christmas was that it a day that celebrated belonging. Most immediately, it was the ultimate Family Day, when families came together, and love and acceptance and belonging could be most enjoyed and most taken for granted. But in my experience (as a rather emotionally sensitive kid) it was even more: nature and even time itself became cozy and warm, and seemed to close in about us, rejoicing, as the coming of Christ into the world demonstrated our worth in the eyes of God. Christmas reminded us that the universe was made for us and we belong here. Christmas was nothing less than the reconciliation of heaven and earth, when belonging at home, in the family, merely echoed our belonging in the created world. It was beautiful; it was theology in motion. I have never, ever in my life felt as at home as I used to, on Christmas day.

Needless to say, it isn’t like this for me anymore. And given that such a soaring, incredibly idealized standard somehow implanted itself in my young psyche, it was probably inevitable that I would wind up eventually disappointed with Christmas, with the coming of adult perspective. But, nonetheless, I do think the disillusionment I felt was more than just that. I believe with all my soul that the psychological intertwines with the religious, and what we believe and experience in our faith is a manifestation of our deepest needs. For me Christmas eventually became (and remains) quite bittersweet – but that feeling had already emerged long before I actually de-converted. And its really no mystery why: the ideal of Christmas that I, by young adulthood, had come to carry threw into sharp relief my experience with my then-recently-divorced parents and the subsequent family chaos that ensued. The disintegration of my family destroyed for me any more possibility of “belonging”. Christmas then ceased to be about celebration in the present, it came to be about remembering a better, lost past.

So I still, to this day, feel wistful around Christmastime, but its hard sometimes to tell just what it is I miss. Perhaps it’s that cozy, uncomplicated sense of family and belonging that I wish for, or perhaps, rather, it’s the cozy, uncomplicated sense of belonging in the universe that came with my faith. I am not really sure there is even any difference.

Or perhaps, rather, it was the sense of importance, of mattering. After all, to receive such a gift from heaven as Christmas celebrates – is that not the ultimate validation? Even today, as a non-Christian, I find myself feeling stirred by ideas and images in Christmas songs that are alien and even abhorrent to me the rest of the year. “O Holy Night” always gets me: “Long lay the world in sin and error pining, til He appeared and the soul felt its worth.” Now, I have absolutely no use, any longer, for the concept of salvation, and I find the concept of sin to be positively repulsive. Yet these lines still move me, at Christmas. I would dearly love to feel my worth warmly reflected by the Creator of the universe; I would like to feel, again, a universe that was made for us, where the family and its unconditional acceptance is but an reflection of the Divine order of which we are a part. But I don’t.

And so Christmas now reminds me of something I lost. But in doing so it also reminds me of why I lost it, and what I got in exchange – and that, I find, has been the key to acceptance and, hopefully, some modicum of wisdom. For me, now, Christmas has become a metaphor. With Christmas I am reminded that I traded an idealized but cartoonish childhood illusion about life, for a complicated and imperfect, but real, adult understanding of it. There is indisputably a real loss in this, but there is also a real gain, for only as an emotionally mature adult, honestly recognizing the losses and imperfections that are an inescapable part of life, can we thereby truly appreciate the human joys that are possible. And I remember, then, that I wouldn’t go back, even if I could.

Christmas is thus a metaphor for the complex, gray messiness of the world, the messiness fundamentalism is frightened by and therefore seeks to transmute into the clarity of black and white. It is this messiness that I first encountered with the loss of my family, and a messiness I have lived in ever since. Life is just a lot more damn complicated than the vision offered by fundamentalism, a vision at its strongest at Christmas. Christmas offers a naive, womb-like simplicity which is as appealing as it is unhealthy, because it distorts and obscures what is really important, what really makes life worth living. For fundamentalist Christianity teaches that all pain and loss are ultimately illusions, destined to be overcome in the coming Kingdom. But the possibility of loss, and indeed loss itself, are intrinsic to joy; there cannot be one without the other.

The delight I felt, for example, in watching my young daughter as she first learned to use a spoon – and thus no longer needed to be fed – was inescapably colored by a tinge of sadness that a phase of her life that had I enjoyed and cherished was suddenly, forever gone. And still today, with each new milestone, I feel joy in her growth along with a bit of sadness at the passing of her childhood. That is the complex, gray messiness I’m referring to: joy and sorrow, intertwined. Existentialist philosophers call this experience finitude: a gut-awareness that life passes, life ends, life is not forever. But rather than being a cause for despair, that is exactly what makes it sweet. Honestly acknowledging this, the transience in life, makes us more aware of the preciousness of each separate moment of it. Fundamentalism would have use believe that all sorrows are fated to end, but I believe another, more human truth: being open to pain and loss and imperfection sensitizes us to the vast, wonderful beauty of life.

Christmas is also a metaphor for the complex, gray messiness I find in myself and in those I love. We are not neatly split into an “old Adam” and a “new Adam”, a pre-saved, sinful self and a redeemed, purified self. We are, rather, a bit of a mess. We are whirling mixtures of conflicting and unruly motives, desires, fears, and emotions. It isn’t always pretty, but it is always human, and we must all make our peace with these things, because that is how we grow. We possess a glorious and fascinating messiness, wanting what we cannot have, or what does not exist. Or, more often, we want mutually exclusive things – like to be warm and cozy and sheltered in our wombs (literal, social, or doxastic) and yet also to be free to grow and explore and become ourselves. We want life to be comforting, to have simple solutions, and ready guidance… and yet we know, in our souls, through hard experience, that life is infinitely richer and more worthwhile when we see it without illusions.

Christmas thus reminds me that I am human, and that life is life. Those are good and necessary things to remember, for those once under the spell of powerful illusions. Those illusions are appealing and, in their own way, lovely in their purity. But that world we see there is, in the end, inhabitable only at great price. They show us security and belonging, and reassure us of our worth, yet they do so at the cost of the beautiful, untidy, imperfect human life-world that we do live in, and it is in that world, and that world alone, that we can find real (though imperfect) joy, and real (though imperfect) human connection.

Each Christmas, now, I remember that in leaving fundamentalist Christianity, and though it is always a bit bittersweet, I have finally come home – to this world, the only world that matters, the only world we have.

- Richard

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Jesus and Politics The Good of the Church

21 Comments Add your own

  • 1. John Pageless  |  December 20, 2007 at 12:07 am

    As someone who has be struggling with Christmas himself, I have to say that your entry is heart warming… I’m happy you shared this. That emotional quality of spirituality is still a very essential part of human existence – even if the meaning we attribute to it has changed.

    Er… sorry to wax philosophical. In any case, I miss the Christmas of my youth as well. I do hope, however, to recreate that time in my life by instituting my own traditions. Maybe you can do the same?

    Thank you and Namaste.

  • 2. rebecca shannon  |  December 20, 2007 at 9:20 am

    A great read Richard. Thanks for writing it and sharing it with all of us.

  • 3. writerdd  |  December 20, 2007 at 9:43 am

    Why don’t you have Christmas at your house and create your own traditions? I started doing that a few years after I got married and it’s wonderful — even on the years when no relatives show up. Then I invite a couple of friends over. I kept the traditions that I love and ditched the rest. It’s so much more enjoyable than traveling and stressing out visiting relatives in Christian homes at this time of year.

  • 4. Thinking Ape  |  December 20, 2007 at 11:00 am

    I think this is a wonderful post. Just as a quick response to writerdd before I head to work,

    Why don’t you have Christmas at your house and create your own traditions?…

    This might be a lot harder than it seems for many of us. My wife is not very religious, but her parents are Pentecostal and mine are evangelical – in fact, my entire family is involved with outreach in one way or another (from full-time missionaries to working within Christian outreach organizations, ie. Campus Crusade, Young Life, YWAM, etc.). Could you imagine having Christmas as the only agnostic/skeptic/atheist surrounded by over two/three dozen conservative Christians? To simply create our own traditions, my immediate family, wife and daughter, would be ostracized.

  • 5. LeoPardus  |  December 20, 2007 at 12:40 pm

    Well written. Thanks. I particularly like what you say about life being messy.

    Regarding traditions, we have “our own”. They aren’t really our own though. They come from my wife’s upbringing in Europe. Holiday traditions are rich there. So she simply imported them to our home. Pretty easy to do when you consider that my upbringing provided so few.

    The other thing I do note here is how important Christmas is in the fundy mind. I’m of course quite familiar with that, but I always recall pastors saying that Easter was really more important. Of course they never showed it.

    Juxtapose that with the Orthodox. Easter really is more important. Come Easter time, I may write about that a bit. The EOC does take such a vastly different perspective on so many things.

  • 6. confusedchristian  |  December 20, 2007 at 1:27 pm

    My ex-girlfriend was indeed a fundamental christian, but hated Christmas. She took a Bible verse that says “stay away from tradition” and considered all the pagan roots of Christianity to be the Devil’s way of mindwashing Christians into worshipping him accidentally. She still believes this.

    My Christian family, however, are more or less into the santa, the tree, and the decorations. I still like those, even though my faith in God is nonexistant, I do like the gifting, the lights, the tree, etc. Even more so, after being in contact with Christians who hated the Christmas tradition.

  • 7. karen  |  December 20, 2007 at 5:04 pm

    A lovely essay; thanks much, Richard!

  • 8. John  |  December 20, 2007 at 9:21 pm

    Hi, Im from Melbourne Australia. I came across your excellent blog via another blog reference.
    Please check out a completely different understanding of the origins and meaning of the life of Saint Jesus of Galilee via these references.
    1. http://www.dabase.org/exochrist.htm
    2. http://www.dabase.org/spiritw.htm

    Plus a completely different understanding of God altogether.

    1. http://www.dabase.org/dht7.htm
    2. http://www.realgod.org
    3. http://www.aboutadidam.org/readings/parental_deity/index.html

  • 9. HeIsSailing  |  December 20, 2007 at 10:48 pm

    Have a great Christmas, fellow apostates!!

  • 10. Friday Vibes: The Yule Tide | The Pageless Book  |  December 21, 2007 at 2:50 pm

    [...] Coming Home for Christmas (after de-conversion) [...]

  • 11. Ryan  |  December 22, 2007 at 12:16 am

    At least we can all still celebrate Krismas! (It’s even pronounced the same!)

  • 12. hermipowell  |  December 22, 2007 at 1:07 am

    I will celebrate how good the Savior Jesus is. He’s WORTH IT!!!!Live Life to the Fullest!!!!

  • 13. exevangel  |  December 26, 2007 at 5:17 pm

    Beautifully said, and nice to see that others have the same problem. I have refused to go “home” for Christmas the last two years, and even really rejected playing along with the happy family ideals by not calling on Christmas Eve or Day. I’m sure my family does not understand why I am so angry or why I cannot seem to just shut up and act in line and be happy with them on their special day. It’s like, more than anything, the one day of the year that makes me the most crazy now, the most bitter about all the lies I was told, and the most likely to cause my blood pressure to rise. Even managing to stay away but feeling the pressures to call and acknowledge the family’s being together for the holiday makes me edgy and ornery.

  • 14. LeoPardus  |  December 26, 2007 at 7:11 pm

    exevangel:

    I think you’re not the only one hereabouts that has a bad memory or reaction to your former faith. I’ve heard a few such stories.

    Makes me glad that my own experience in the Church was largely quite positive. I don’t have any anger or bitterness toward it. It just isn’t true, so I don’t believe anymore.

    I wonder, who here had a bad experience, and had highly negative feelings toward the Christian faith after leaving it, and has now gotten past that? I.e. you don’t feel angry, or bitter, or have a need to counter-evangelize, and can just live and let live, or at least just ignore.

    What did it take to get past that?

  • 15. karen  |  December 26, 2007 at 7:55 pm

    What did it take to get past that?

    Time.

    I’ve noticed that it takes an average of 3-5 years after deconversion to be able to be fairly neutral toward religion. Of course, some people seem to be fine after a few months and others are still bitter and angry after 20 years, so it’s highly dependent on the personality type.

    I’m a fairly optimistic, easy going person and even I was very angry for a couple of years. My main problem was thinking about how much time, energy and money I devoted to the church and how many important decisions I made based on “Jesus will work out all things for good,” instead of using logic and reason.

    What I finally concluded (after time did its job dulling the pain) was that I wouldn’t be the person I am today had I not been a Christian, and so rather than bemoan and regret it’s better to embrace what was good and acknowledge my past for what it was instead of evaluating and re-evaluating it.

    Mostly what I’m grateful for now is that I emerged from the fog of fundamentalism while I’m still young enough to un-do some of the damage of narrow-minded thinking.

  • 16. exevangel  |  December 27, 2007 at 12:06 pm

    Time seems to be not quite enough for me somehow. It’s been more than 6 years since I walked away from my old life and I’m still pretty angry. It’s quite directed, though, it’s not general anger at all Christians or all of Christianity, and in fact I’m good friends with and have long discussions with an Episcopalian priest on a fairly regular basis. In my case the anger’s very firmly directed at the Evangelicals and the ultra-conservative middle-America two-facedness that is dominant in my family. I feel as though there is brainwashing that goes on there and it’s very much an accepted part of the faith, that keeping on with it requires otherwise smart people to become somewhat delusional and I managed to get stuck in that for a while, trying to fit in and be part of the club even though it defied all logic. And I guess that’s why this post hit such a chord with me, that I hadn’t made the connections between my feelings about Christmas and the church versus Christmas and my family, it’s all part of the picture and part of why I stayed away and made my own traditions of a more solstice/winter feast sort. Regardless, I’ve started therapy for the first time in my life to try and deal with my family issues and learn to function in a world where I can be okay with myself and not be a fundamentalist or evangelical. I agree with Karen too–it’s impossible to be completely negative because I wouldn’t be who I am today without the experiences I had in my first 25 years. I just hope it doesn’t take the next 25 to adjust to my new worldview and overcome the anger.

    I don’t actually feel the need to counter-evangelize in general, but the one exception is that occasionally I try to get my sister (still firmly in the clutches of the evangelicals) to admit that what she’s spouting does not make sense and that she should think about what she’s saying instead of just repeating the party line.

  • 17. TheNorEaster  |  December 27, 2007 at 1:47 pm

    Is there anyone who has been–or is in the process of being–de-converted that did not grow up in a fundamentalist home or background…?

  • 18. LeoPardus  |  December 27, 2007 at 6:11 pm

    My home, from my birth until I was almost 20, could only have been called “Churchian” (i.e. we went to church ’cause that’s what decent folk do). I certainly didn’t care much about the faith, and the churches we attended were pretty tame (like Methodists).

    I converted into fundyism, stayed there for many years, then finally left it for the EOC.

  • 19. seniorsaint  |  December 29, 2007 at 9:51 pm

    I am saddened by these posts and feel powerless to do anything about it.

  • 20. marco  |  August 18, 2010 at 6:16 am

    Wonderful essay, Richard. Have you considered Catholicism? I think you would find the emphasis on humanity and the understanding of suffering refreshing and truthful compared to fundamentalism.

  • 21. cag  |  August 18, 2010 at 5:50 pm

    marco #20 – Why would any individual who has realized that there are no gods consider any religion. Why would they want to exchange truth for the lies of religion. Just because your parents led to you does not give you carte blanche to spread those lies (although that is what religion is, the spreading of lies for the profit of the few). People who think for themselves are able to see that all religion is false. Educate yourself, learn how the world really works – hint: it is not found in the bible.

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Attention Christian Readers

Just in case you were wondering who we are and why we de-converted.

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Whether or not you believe in God, you should live your life with love, kindness, compassion, mercy and tolerance while trying to make the world a better place. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will have made a positive impact on those around you. If there is a benevolent God reviewing your life, you will be judged on your actions and not just on your ability to blindly believe in creeds- when there is a significant lack of evidence on how to define God or if he/she even exists.

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