I once gave up spoons for Lent.
For those who are unfamiliar with the Christian calendar, Lent is the 40ish day period right before Easter, starting on Ash Wednesday, a day when many go to church to have ash crosses smeared across their forehead. Many Christians give up something sacrificially, to remind ourselves of the sacrifice that Jesus gave.
So, spoons felt right one year in high school. To be fair, at the time, I was really into tomato soup and having to sip it out of a mug or a bowl was jarring. I know, I know- the parallels between being inconvenienced by not having a spoon and Jesus dying on the cross are breathtaking.
This year, I’m doing something a little different.
By exploring atheism as a profane practice of theological purification, we will explore its priestly power of exorcism. An exorcism powerful enough to cast out, not only religious dogmatism, but also the proliferation of all kinds of spiritualities that so often take its place.
So forget forsaking chocolate, TV or tiddlywinks and get ready to fast from the very ground of your being.
Peter Rollins, of the book that made my heart race fame, has led this Atheism for Lent course for a few years. It came across my social media at one point and I clicked on it, read it, shrugged and then kept going back to it over and over again.
You see, last year, around this time, I binge-watched Tidying Up by Marie Kondo on Netflix and went on tear around my house, including my spiritual house. I described a “deconstruction” process by which I went around my spiritual house, finding all of the racism and misogyny and homophobia that had been hidden among the good things my faith gave me. I tossed this refuse out onto the lawn and then declared that I would stand at the threshold of my spiritual house with a shotgun, threatening anything ugly that dared to press its way inside.
And that’s really where I’ve been for the past year- sitting in my mostly empty spiritual house, collecting books and ideas by people not traditionally in charge (women, Black theologians indigenous Christian writers, LGBT+ Christians) and stowing them away on my mostly empty shelf. I’ve spent most of my time laying on the bare living room floor watching the fan blades turn lazily.
To be fair, I’m very, very glad that there are other people out there doing the work of communicating that Christianity doesn’t have to be wrapped up in all of the ugliness I threw away. And I’ve tried, really tried, to adopt these new ways of faith, to uphold these new traditions, new ways of looking at Jesus and the Bible and the Church and the world. I really wanted them to work for me.
It’s really cute that I thought I could just rid myself of racism or misogyny or homophobia or legalism, like those are just little things that are mostly separate from this spiritual house I’ve built, just little knick knacks that I accidentally brought into the house.
I’ve since realized these are baked into the very bones of the foundation. Some damaging and ugly theology is so pervasive that I can’t seem to rid myself of it.
Here’s an example: What is my Christian faith without conditional shittiness?
Conditional shittiness is this idea that you’re a piece of shit and you need God to make you not a piece of shit but you have to follow the terms and conditions or you go right back to being a piece of shit.
“When you give your life to Jesus, you hereby leave your condition as a piece of shit and become an heir of God, chosen by God. You are a princess now. Any of the following actions will revoke this agreement and return you to the wobbling pile of dog shit that you were formerly: gossiping, cussing, doubting God’s goodness, not believing the Bible is literal, having sex outside of heterosexual marriage and/or masturbating, being angry, talking about race, drinking alcohol, not attending church regularly, going to a fortune teller, being gay, supporting people who are gay, saying the word gay in a positive connotation, and anything else at our discretion- it could literally change at any moment.”
I can obviously see that’s toxic and those terms and conditions are what I’ve been working so hard to vehemently reject. Even though I logically know that conditional shittiness is dangerous and horrible, it is still the polluted air that I built my spiritual house in. It seeped into the very walls of my house and there’s no scrubbing it out.
Even after I actively identified that that way of thinking was toxic, I simply switched the terms and conditions of conditional shittiness.
“We’ve updated our terms and conditions. You will now be a piece of shit if you: own a Make a America Great Again hat or bumper sticker, refuse to grapple with your own racist biases, choose to “All Lives Matter” or “Blue Lives Matter” Black people to death, aren’t an immediate and unconditional LGBT+ ally, and anything else at our discretion- it could (and did) literally change at any moment.”
Okay. I believe that those new terms and conditions are not toxic and that if you do those things you are hurting people. I’m not saying that I never want to have expectations that the people around me will not knowingly harm others but, I’m asking myself two important questions on a deeper level: do I really think that people are pieces of shit and that they have to earn not being a piece of shit? Do I really want conditional shittiness to be a part of my spiritual repertoire forever? Because if I apply conditional shittiness to other people, then I must apply it to myself. Considering that I will never be perfect and I will always find ways to hurt people and violate the terms and conditions of conditional shittiness, even when I don’t want to, I don’t want conditional shittiness anymore.
Maybe you’re nodding along, agreeing with me that conditional shittiness sounds horrible, but wondering why I’m throwing out the baby with the bathwater when I could just take conditional shittiness out to my chiminea and burn it there.
Because conditional shittiness is baked into the walls of the house. It is a structurally crucial part of my spiritual house.
If I get rid of conditional shittiness, why do I need Jesus to die on the cross? If I fundamentally disagree that my starting place is that I’m a piece of shit, then why do I need someone to sacrifice so that God won’t hate me anymore?
Believe me. I’ve done my research on different theological perspectives on the meaning of the cross but none of them have sat right with me. I can’t quite shake conditional shittiness, no matter how hard I’ve tried.
This is what I mean when I say it’s baked into the bones of the house. In trying to keep the walls of my house standing, I’ve unwittingly continued to keep toxic things. I haven’t been able to get away from them.
Rollins also talks about this idea of deus ex machina (god from the machine), a term that Aristotle coined to talk about how actors playing God in a play came in and solved everyone’s problems. It was seen as a lazy way of writing because there was no work or intrigue involved.
Rollins argues that we’ve created a God as a type of deus ex machina, a God fashioned to save us from discomfort and fear, a God, a liturgy, a religion who protects us from all of the scary stuff.
For me, my understanding of what faith means has helped me avoid my doubts. My religious morals have helped me feel like I was better than the non-Christians around me and helped me dodge my true fears that I am just a piece of shit like everyone else. I’ve hidden my fear of not having a purpose behind doing everything I do “for God”. My sexual purity masked my abject terror at actually being a person with sexual needs and desires. The Evangelical brand of certainty that tells us that we’re the only ones that are right has been a hell of a drug. I still find comfort in that certainty, curled up at the feet of Being Right like a little dog (see: updated terms and conditions of conditional shittiness).
That God, the one that we’ve created, needs to die and that God dies when we face all of our fears head-on. When we stop hiding behind this God that we’ve created and let our fears in, then we can move on.
My Deus Ex Machina is part of the foundation of my house.
So, I’ve decided to burn the house down.
This probably sounds alarming. I would have been alarmed at someone saying this even three years ago.
But Peter Rollins’ work isn’t about burning shit down and running away. It’s not arson. It’s not a teenage prank or the work of a psychopath.
No, this is a thoughtful burn, a controlled burn. It’s setting the house on fire, knowing exactly why it needs to burn, and then pulling up a lawn chair and cracking open a cold sparkling water and watching the walls come tumbling down.
Perhaps more importantly, it’s continuing to watch long after the embers have grown cold, waiting to see if tender green shoots of something new press their way up through the debris, fertilized by the ash of something old.
Before I get too hopeful for you, to be clear, I’m not doing this for the ‘something new’. That’s not in the spirit of the exercise. I’m feeling very “meh” about anything spiritual or religious right now and I either need to be in or out. I’m tired of sitting in the in-between, not feeling strongly one way or the other.
I’m afraid because I don’t know what working to combat systemic oppression looks like without having the omnipotent Creator of the universe on your side looks like. (Terrifying and impossible, mostly.)
I’m afraid because in my weakest moments, even though I don’t even really know what prayer is, I still cry out, “GOD HELP ME!”
I’m afraid because certainty has been the armor that I’ve used most of my life to protect me from the things I’m most afraid of. I don’t know what it’s like to live with uncertainty.
I’m afraid that this decision will isolate me from the community that has carried me my whole life.
I’m afraid because this will fundamentally rock my world. I’ve never known life without a spiritual home. I’m gonna be homeless.
I’m afraid but I know it’s time.
My thirst for authenticity is dragging me along.
If there is a God, I don’t want to dishonor her any longer with half-hearted efforts. If there is a God, then I have to believe that she isn’t threatened by this.
So, here we go.