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