Some of you know that I have been attending a non-denominational Christian church for many years. However, recent events have made me question that decision, and had me look deep into Scripture to seek answers. Before I get into all of that, let me first start with a disclaimer, as well as some background information.
The following post describes my own faith journey and is in no way meant to offend or to be disrespectful of anyone else’s beliefs.
How do I identify myself?
I identify myself as a Christian.
How did I get there, what does being a Christian mean to me?
My path is somewhat long and has many twists and turns. I was raised in a highly homogeneous neighborhood that was almost exclusively Roman Catholic. Everyone was white, working-class, and most were of Irish or Eastern European descent. We were a neighborhood of pale white folk. The majority of my friends went to the Catholic grade school that I attended. My family celebrated Mass every Sunday and Holy Day. My parents said the Rosary most nights, and our house was adorned with crucifixes and pictures of Euro-Jesus (Jesus made to look European). At a young age, I was told, and believed, the many ways that I could sin and go to hell. This gave me anxiety as I could never live up to the spiritual standard that I was given. I lived in a world where thoughts were as bad as deeds.
By middle school, I was seeing flaws in the system. My pastor was a creepy drunk, who seemed to have a cruel streak. The nuns that I had in school were a mixed bag. Some were OK, but others seemed mentally ill. During our only sex-education class, the instructing nun implied that our parents were immoral for having intercourse. Another nun seemed to derive pleasure in humiliating kids in front of their classmates. She liked to push them until they publicly cried. Still, another nun had rage issues. When a classmate didn’t know the answer to a math problem she bashed his head against the slate backboard hard enough to render him fully unconscious.
I liked the pomp and circumstance of the Catholic Church, but some of the dogma didn’t make sense to me. If I ate a hot dog on a Friday I damned myself to eternal hell (eating meat on Friday was a mortal sin). However, I could be a serial killer and confess my sins to a drunk guy (our priest) and have eternal salvation. How was it possible for another human to forgive my sins? Why couldn’t I ask God directly? What the heck was sin anyway? It seemed like it was either a long list of bad deeds or some abstract concept like turning away from God, which made little practical sense to me.
By middle school, I left the church, although my parents thought I was still attending. Further events during my freshman year in high school resulted in me becoming an atheist.
When considering God, there are three options:
- There is no God.
- There is a God, but he could care less about us.
- There is a God who is invested in our lives.
Over time I returned to the third option based on what I felt was God’s direct intervention in my life. I could give many examples of this, but I don’t think that they would convince a non-believer. Their uniqueness and frequency were enough to convince me. God has consistently been there during my darkest hours and my brightest moments. This has shown me on a fundamental level that something outside of myself has a clear and vested interest in me.
One personally significant example is the story of my three teachers. These were individuals who entered my life after my freshman year trauma. The neighborhood that I grew up in was highly prejudiced against anyone who wasn’t white and Christian. In fact, I used to pray for the Protestants who live across the street because I was afraid that there were going to go to hell. In those days we were told that only Catholics had the secret key to heaven.
The three teachers that cared enough to invest their time in me were not white Roman Catholic folk. Two were black, and one was a Jew. They initially acknowledged me for my academic abilities, but our connection continued because they saw value in me as a person. They helped me regain my self-esteem. They also gave me an important lesson against prejudice, as I also witnessed their great worth, kindness, and integrity. I believe that these connections were not random events, but were another example of God looking out for me. I often have these odd experiences where I’m not only helped by God but that I’m also taught a lesson. As I healed from the past I started to explore the spiritual aspects of my humanity.
I eventually returned to the Catholic Church as an adult with the understanding that my first assessment was naive, as I was judging an entire institution on one flawed group of people. My return to the Catholic Church was more about gaining a better understanding of God, rather than avoiding hell. In general, being Catholic phase two wasn’t bad. I attended a church with a dynamic and innovative pastor who knew how to add just the right amount of circuses to make worship engaging. I especially like our vast and powerful choir. I didn’t ascribe to all of the teachings, but I continued to develop an inner spiritual life and a personal understanding of the meaning of being Christian. It was a sad day when my pastor left my church to start a new life with a married female parishioner.
My wife and I started to have children and it became difficult to attend church; our attendance lapsed. During that time the Church’s sex scandal erupted and grew. I was a psychiatrist and had an understanding of how the old seminary system could have had a detrimental impact on psychological development. At age 14 boys committed to becoming a priest. They were told that they were extraordinary and more God-like than the rest of society. They were isolated and indoctrinated. They were told to resist their sexual urges (14-year-old boys, really?). They were denied normal ways to examine their emerging feelings. They were told that their desires were immoral. If you wanted to experiment on how to screw up people, this would be the model to copy.
I was horrified by the magnitude of priests who used their power and influence to manipulate, abuse, and psychologically damage others for their carnal pleasures. This disgusted me, but I could psychologically understand how it could happen.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the way that the greater Church dealt with this issue. Instead of being honest and forthright with parishioners, the larger Church tried to hide these crimes while blaming the abused. On an even more heinous level, serial rapists were transferred to poorer parishes allowing them to repeat their behaviors in places where their acts were less likely to be reported. These actions were supported and acted on at the highest levels of the Church.
Catholic religious leaders are not backwoods preachers, they are highly educated in areas beyond theological teachings. In their ranks are scientists, doctors, lawyers, and psychologists. We are not in the dark ages, it was predictable that these priests would continue their behaviors if given a chance. Their superiors had to know this, yet they subjected countless individuals to continued abuse. They put the institution and the institution’s elite above those who they were supposed to serve. They cited platitudes such as forgiveness and repentance to explain their actions while ignoring established behavioral science. This hypocrisy was more than I could bear, and I left the Catholic Church with a sour taste in my mouth. However, this time I was abandoning an organization, not God.
After not attending a church for several years it was time to go back to one. Julie had already started scouting around different churches and found a non-denominational one that seemed like a good fit. It had a great kid’s program, fantastic music, and a contemporary message. In addition, its philosophy seems to be about acceptance. All were welcome.
I have attended that church and contributed to it financially for many years. As the church grew its lead pastor became more famous and influential. The church started to change. It became a more traditional, less experimental, more predictable, and more typical church in its sermons. I loved church version one, but I was still OK with version two.
One critical aspect of the church was that they didn’t think for the parishioners. They never told us how to vote, or what group was good and what group was bad. I felt that they preached tolerance in most things.
I need to add a small sidebar here. So many Christian sects (as well as many other religions) emphasize the heaven/hell thing. I have watched many preachers on YouTube telling their congregations about eternal damnation. Apparently, sometimes the smallest slip-up can result in everlasting torture. This seems to go against God’s perfect love. The reality is that the concept of hell is very poorly defined in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. References made about hell are based on what many scholars would consider poor Scriptural interpretation. Concepts of heaven are consistent with the historical ideas of paradise at the time of their writing. For instance, in heaven, your soul and body will reunite, but your body will be perfect. Why would you need a body in heaven? Some scholars believe that the message of everlasting life refers to God creating a perfect world on earth. God and his angels live in heaven, humans live on a perfect earth. If there is a heaven, count me in. However, my belief in Christianity is not fear-based. It is based on its overriding message of love, acceptance, cooperation, charity, forgiveness, redemption, valuing others who are different than you, and kindness. These truths are everlasting and transcend the cultural binding of the past. If you understand this about me, the next section will make more sense.
Julie has an inside track to what is going on with the church, as she has worked in leadership positions there. Late last year she came home upset with the news that there was a shift in the church that would render a subgroup of the congregation as second-class citizens. I generalized that group’s name in my last post, and I debated about doing the same in this post. Why? Because what I am about to discuss is polarizing.
However, this blog is about honesty, so here goes. The subgroup mentioned was the LGBTQ community. The church has now made a formal stance that denies these individuals rights that are afforded to straight members.
Some of you are likely to agree with such a decision. I would ask you to consider my counterargument and to reflect on what it means to be a Christian. How would you feel if someone said, “Slavery is in God’s plan,” or “Women don’t have the intellect or temperament to be in a position to make decisions for themselves.” These are concepts that religious groups have espoused in the past based on their cherry-picking of Scripture. Hopefully, most of you would disagree with these statements in 2022.
As a psychiatrist and expert in behavior, I understand that sexual orientation is not a choice. It probably happens in-utero or shortly thereafter. It is fixed. You can not turn a straight person into a gay one, and you can not turn a gay person into a straight one. There is a gradient of behavior when it comes to sexual orientation. Some people reside at one pole or the other, while others are somewhere along the spectrum. It is estimated that about 10% of the population is LGBTQ. Some studies use lower numbers, others use higher ones. I live in a town that has a population of 148,000 individuals. Ten percent of that is about 15,000 humans, and we are just talking about my little town.
Pedophiles exist within every sexual orientation. Gay people are no more likely than straight people to try to force their desires on children. Rates of criminality are no higher than in the general population, but LGBTQ individuals are the subject of 1 out of 5 hate crimes. Studies of judgment, stability, reliability, and social and vocational adaptiveness demonstrate that LGBTQ people perform as well as straight people. However, many in the LGBTQ community do suffer from anxiety and depression, which is not surprising when you consider the incredible stresses that most have had to endure. Substance use can also be higher in the LGBTQ population. Is that shocking when you appreciate the hate, social isolation, and shame that these individuals are subject to?
There is a multitude of healthy, caring, and concerned LGBTQ people who contribute to society on all levels, and who have meaningful productive lives. Just like straight individuals they want to love and to be in loving relationships. They want to belong, and they want to be equal members of society.
Yet, societies punish gay individuals. One example is Alan Turing who was a brilliant English mathematician, and whom many consider as the father of computer science. During WWII he developed a mechanical computer that was able to decode messages from the German Enigma machine. This allowed the Allies to read secret German transmission. It is understood that this knowledge shortened the war by two years, and (by estimate) saved over 10 million lives in the process. Think about that, his contributions saved over 10 MILLION lives! Because this project was top secret he didn’t get much credit for his efforts, and after the war, he went to work at England’s National Physical Laboratory.
In 1952 Alan Turing was arrested for having consensual sexual relations with a 19-year-old man named Arnold Murray. Alan Turing and Arnold Murray were prosecuted for a long list of offenses that were against England’s Sexual Offences Act of 1885. Alan was mandated to undergo chemical castration, which not only robbed him of his sexuality but also his ability to critically think. He could no longer do the things that he was so exceptionally gifted at. His life ended by suicide in 1954. You have to wonder what other discoveries he could have made if he had been allowed to just live his life.
In my psychiatric practice of over 30 years, I have treated all types of people, including those who identify as LGBTQ. It would sicken me when I saw an LGBTQ person being ostracized from a church or abandoned by their Christian parents. All for something that they not only had no control over but also caused no objective harm to anyone.
Especially difficult were young Christians who had a strong commitment to and respect for their home churches. When they would come out they would not only be rejected but sometimes subjected to conversion therapy a practice that is not only useless but also damaging.
Some Christian groups, like Roman Catholics, acknowledge that someone can be gay and still be a member of the faithful. However, they are expected to resist their sexual feelings. Is that a reasonable approach? How well did it work for the priests who were told the same instructions?
The Catholic Church states that gay people “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity”, and that “every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.” while holding that discrimination in marriage, employment, housing, and adoption in some circumstances can be just and “obligatory.” Avoid bias, but it is OK to discriminate when it comes to marriage, employment, housing, and adoption? What??
LGBTQ individuals are part of God’s creation. If God made them they are part of his plan. What part? I don’t know, but I know that God does not make junk. Yet, religious organizations cherry-pick Bible verses to discriminate against them while often generalizing Scripture meant to highlight specific carnal acts, such as paederasty. This seems to be against what I consider the overall teaching of Jesus. I can not support these actions any more than I could support a church that justified the enslavement of people, or one that treated women as 2nd class citizens. Based on this I can’t return or support my home church. So where does that leave me? Do I find my own way? Do I try to find another church? I’m praying on it.
The above events prompted me to do a deep-dive on the Bible. Which will be the subject of my next post. I’m sure that post will also need a disclaimer.