Alexis Wolf, University of Chicago
I recently interviewed for an editorial position at a literary magazine on my college campus. The interview was structured as a group discussion that simulated the actual editorial committee sessions. During the conversation one of the other interviewees claimed the magazine shouldn’t accept pieces with themes they believed had been frequently expressed in other works, such as anti-nationalist sentiments. Fundamentally disagreeing with her statement, I argued that few works are entirely original, especially as related to theme. My exact words were: “There is nothing new under the sun.”
Ecclesiastes 1:9 What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.
It wasn’t intentional.
I grew up in a puritanical Christian family, attending a Church of Christ for the first 15 years of my life. The Church of Christ claims not to be a denomination because they don’t believe in denominations as rooted in the Bible, and they claim to be rooted in purely biblical ideas; they don’t believe in a hierarchical church bureaucracy with popes and bishops, instrumental church music, or original sin, for instance because they don’t believe those things are specifically commanded or permitted in the Bible. The Church of Christ is incredibly detailed and technical in their interpretation of Biblically permitted practices; many members condemn drinking alcohol, homosexuality, and those who use church buildings for events other than worship. For instance, there are two Churches of Christ I know of that are currently involved in a (somewhat passive-aggressive but also incredibly civil?) disagreement over one church’s building containing a small kitchen utilized for the church members’ monthly potlucks. One church does not believe the other church should contain the kitchen at all. Both groups draw on textual evidence to support their stance.
What this means is that ever since I was so young I can’t remember anything else, I was raised in a culture of hope that I would go to heaven and be loved by my Creator for eternity.
What this means is that ever since I was so young I can’t remember anything else, I was raised in a culture of fear that I wouldn’t.
I was talked into joining the debate team my second year of high school. One of my friends was a member of the policy debate team; he recruited me. There was a debater on the team who had recently left because of personal reasons, and so there was an opening in one of the partnerships. Anastasiya (my new debate partner) and I ran a feminist case, advocating lifting the Cuban embargo as part of a larger stripping of dominance and patriarchal attitudes in society which, through advocating every weekend for more than twelve hours a day, I truly examined and came to believe in. We would run pieces or evidence we didn’t agree with at times, of course, since sometimes you agree with your opponent in policy debate and still have to counter their point as part of the tournament, and because it’s important to be able to examine, explain, and argue for multiple perspectives of an argument and interpretations of evidence and situations, even if you don’t necessarily agree with them, or like them, or even think they’re valid. However, hearing and reading those arguments (and therefore thinking about them all the time) often leads one to consider the arguments personally and ethically. I realized that I agreed with the feminist case, and our human rights pieces, and our social democracy disad whereas I didn’t like hegemony arguments; it was not so much because our main opponents frequently ran them, although that kind of interaction with an argument tends to bias a debater, but because dominance narratives posited as not only necessary but as good and correct really bothered me on a fundamental level. All of the philosophy-based Kritiks discussed in rounds taught me about what different philosophers said and thought, and how those could be applied to real life actions, especially political actions. Debate taught me how to widen the scope of an action or saying or thought—how will this affect other people, countries, events, time periods, ways of thinking?
I listened to children’s Bible songs to fall asleep when I was little. I can still sing a song listing all of the books in the Old Testament, because I heard them every night before I fell asleep. I performed one of the songs for my elementary school’s talent show; it was called “Each Little Dewdrop”, a lighthearted song about God’s creation of everything. I had the order of songs on the CD memorized, so I knew exactly which song meant I had taken too long to fall asleep and that I was going to have to start the CD over again. I still play videos or music that I’m already familiar with to drone on in the background and help me fall asleep. I wonder how many other practices I’ve kept from then.
My favorite thing about the church was singing the songs during worship services. My church would not only have acapella congregation singing as part of every service, but they would actually pick a Saturday every year in February where the members of the congregation would meet up at the church building and just sing hymns for hours, all morning and all afternoon. I loved singing church hymns. I think I attended services solely for the music at certain ages. I remember being too shy to sing when I was very young, probably 5 or 6, and my mother saying: “Don’t you want to sing for Jesus?” I don’t remember being scared of singing after that.
“I’ve got a mansion/just over the hilltop/in that bright land where/we’ll never grow old/and someday yonder/we will never more wander/but walk the streets that/are purest gold”
Many hymns are about heaven, which sounds wonderful in all the songs we sing. We don’t usually talk about hell in the songs. I think that’s why I liked them. They were beautiful and evoked all sorts of emotion, but generally fear wasn’t one of them. Hymns were the origin of my love for music. I first learned how to harmonize because I couldn’t hit the high notes in church as a child and my parents didn’t have money for me to take piano or voice lessons, so I couldn’t read the sheet music in our “Praise for the Lord” hymn book; I had to learn how to hear the melody and hear—in my head—what notes would sound good with the melody, using the sheet music as a loose guide for whether I was supposed to go up or down for the next note. It’s hard to reconcile that musicality with the negative aspects of the church now.
“This world is not my home/I’m just a-passing through/my treasures are laid up/somewhere beyond the blue/the angels beckon me from heaven’s open door/and I can’t feel at home in this world anymore”
There’s an obsession with home in Christianity which I suppose may stem partially from the Jewish history of diaspora. Christians as a whole don’t have an ethnic or cultural base, especially not anymore, which may be linked to their obsessive descriptions of a beautiful perfect heaven where they will belong.
Christians believe they are special, God’s chosen people, and they feel like outsiders in a world that estranges them. They speak and feel from the point of view of the persecuted. They feel isolated because they believe the world rejects their faith and practices (and therefore them), all the while feeling a need to separate themselves from the world around them. They have absolute contempt for the outside world’s corruption, excesses, and sinful attitudes and nature. They despise everything about it and want to be away from it, to be gone from it, to be in heaven already. They don’t just want to be ready for the judgement day; there’s an attitude of wanting the judgement day to come already, for the isolation and rejection to end already, for the suffering of everyday life to stop already. They all want to be in heaven, so they talk about it all the time.
I remember being given a t-shirt about being an “alien” in today’s society. “We are in this world, but not of this world.” This whole rejection of the outside world bothers me. It seems hypocritical and forced. Instead of feeling rejected by it and abandoning it, I feel that they should fix and improve it. I understand their inability to do that as an ancient, oppressed minority, but nowadays, as a powerful, rich, influential majority, they could do so much good in the world–and as much as they may hate it, they’re stuck here with the rest of us, at least for now. I think if you have the ability and opportunity to improve the lives of those around you, you have an obligation to do so, and without dogma attached.
This, in the end, is why I think I left behind—as much as I can leave behind—my religion altogether.
Unlike many agnostic and atheist individuals, I don’t have complex criticism of the Bible or of the history or origin of Christianity. I’m not clever enough for that. I’m not well-researched enough for that. I have fundamental moral problems with Christianity, but I don’t actually have the knowledge to refute its claims. But I don’t think that’s the point.
At some point near the end of my sophomore year of high school, I stopped agreeing with my religion on the basis of the fear it perpetuates in its followers and because of my own personal moral system. The idea of a loving God always taking care of me is a beautiful idea, but it is also a tragic one; it is beautiful to believe you are and always have been loved, but it is tragic to believe someone who has loved you would let you suffer for your own good. I cannot believe that; it doesn’t make sense to me. It isn’t okay. I am too proud and too ill, mentally and physically, too traumatized by those who would blame me for situations I have been forced in to, to believe that is true. There is something fundamentally wrong with the idea of God, and it was the examination of ideas from all angles (even complex ideas which are familiar and ingrained in me) through the debate team that allowed me to examine my most fundamental impulses and beliefs. I discovered beneath the veneer of quiet fanaticism that my impulse was always to doubt. Even God is responsible for his lack of actions, for what he hasn’t done to help me. I will never be able to get past abuse, illness, loneliness, and the misery of an emotionally manipulative childhood within the church He supposedly created on this earth. I was raised to feel isolated from the world around me, trained to believe I didn’t and never would belong, taught that I would never be accepted or feel at home unless I went to heaven. I believed this with all my heart and I have never since been able to shake off the chronic loneliness it instilled in me. The shame, guilt, and anxiety pushed on me by the church as a young girl has utterly wrecked my mental health and stunted my ability to form and maintain relationships. I still can’t bear the idea of making a mistake because I have been trained to believe that a single mistake could have the direst of consequences, could cause eternal punishment and pain. I still have panic attacks over forgiveness, which I have never believed I was worth receiving from anyone, God or human. I think all of this allowed me to question God in a way no one else in my church seemingly could, to question the problematic nature of divine love that was willing to torture you for eternity. And even if God is helpless to decide, I cannot get past that fundamentally problematic piece of Christianity. I simply don’t know how Christians can happily sing about “no tears in heaven” when their friends, their family, and almost all of the rest of humanity are tossed into a fiery pit because they don’t practice the exact same things. I can’t reconcile that anymore. I just can’t. It doesn’t make sense. It’s not right.
I don’t think I care whether or not the Christian Bible or any other religion is true; I fundamentally disagree with what parts of the Bible have to say, or at least how its followers practice their religion. That’s what critical thinking taught me; not that I should examine the truth of things, because I don’t really know what’s true, but that I can be critical of things on a moral level. My personal philosophy is and can be different than the world around me and what I was raised with; I have taken personal responsibility and have made myself an agent in my life choices.
I don’t care if there’s a God or not. I just don’t agree with what he’s apparently been telling me to do, and so I’m not going to do those things. I am the beginning, the first and the last; I will have to save myself.