Tag Archives: spirituality

Religious but not spiritual

I don’t know how exactly to consider myself from a religious standpoint.

I was on the Sojourners website and I came across this blog post from a Gen-Xer writing about the importance of creeds and the way that creeds have changed for this 21st century Spiritual but not religious generation. Rather than the Apostles’ Creed, it’s U2 that resonates with us.

As much as I love “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, and even though I crank it every time it comes on the radio when I’m in the car, I don’t feel as though I’m having a religious/spiritual experience when it comes on.

Maybe it’s because I’m too young, or maybe because I’ve never been to a U2 concert. I hear they’re pretty incredible experiences – even spiritual experiences.

But then again, I don’t really consider myself a spiritual person. I’m not anti-spiritual, either. My not being a spiritual person is informed primarily by my youth, when I was a very spiritual person, constantly seeking spiritual highs; my life was more or less a roller coaster of highs and lows, a series of emotional experiences where God was present to varying degrees depending upon how attuned my heart was, or maybe God was trying to teach me something through the lows and then maybe trying to reassure me and comfort me that everything would, in the end, be OK through the interspersed mountain top moments.

Now that I’ve come out on the other side of a few turbulent years, I no longer consider myself spiritual. The constant quest is too tiring. It is true that without this sort of lens through which to see the world, by which you can judge every event, every moment of boredom, every let-down, every triumph, you are left a little unsure of yourself sometimes. I wrote about this problem last November here on this blog, as I tried to reconcile myself to this new position:

Personally, I’m left with deep admiration for the Gospels, for the idea of a god who would lower himself to such a humiliating state and respond to it in such a superhuman, transcendent way. But frankly, it’s not the same. I’m left with a feeling of smallness, a feeling of being a breath in the wind, a tiny dot of life floating on a rock hurtling around its corner of the universe.

In place of a “personal relationship” with God – a concept that appears in the Bible nearly as many times as homosexuality, by the way – or considering myself “spiritual”, I’ve settled on something new: Being religious, but not spiritual.

I’m not doing a very good job of it, but I think it’s a significant step up from seeking spiritual highs while you’re listening to CCM on the radio or trying to figure our what God is teaching you through depression.

This summer I saw some of my dad’s family for the first time in years at my sister’s wedding; a couple of them remarked to me something along the lines of, “Joel, you seem so much happier than we remember. You’ve turned into such a nice young man.” It was strange, because I didn’t feel completely at liberty to explain why I was so much happier than they remembered me. The truth was, I stopped fighting myself. I stopped my little roller coaster life of irreverent prayers for good grades and God to protect me from being gay. Sure, I’m betting a lot of people would point out the less nice things about me ever since: My language. My lack of church attendance. My out-of-check, flaming homosexuality.

But at the same time, now that I’m no longer fighting myself or constantly trying to hear the voice of God, I’m much more where I am, if that makes any sense. Now that I’m off my little quest to be God’s perfect soldier who measures each day’s success not through the impact he’s had on others, but rather through the lack of infractions, I am free to be where I am, to love others more freely because I am able to love myself more freely.

Being able to love others is worth missing out on that spiritual roller coaster. And I can still enjoy U2.

Of course there is some conflation here. You can definitely be spiritual and gay, but for myself, I choose otherwise. If I were straight, I would choose otherwise. There is great value to being a person of spiritual interest and perhaps one day I may yet learn how to live a healthy, spiritual life.

For now, I am happy to be happy.

More to come.



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Filed under Post-spiritual

You got yourself into this

Something deeply hurting still burns in my brain.

In the wake of “Memogate”, a controversial move by the board of trustees at Calvin College to quash discussion of gay rights in classrooms and around campus, there were a number of students who wrote in to the school newspaper telling us, the LGBT community, that we should’ve known better than to attend a Christian school. How could we expect that Christians could possibly be OK with our “lifestyle”, with our Bible-bending and slippery slopes.

Of course. What were we thinking? How could we have been so stupid?

The sad thing is that a lot of non-Christians agree. Since last fall, I’ve been kicking it in Delaware, basking in the religious apathy of the East Coast and appreciating a visible and reasonably well supported LGBT community at the University of Delaware where I go to school. But there’s another side to that.

I don’t want to get myself in trouble for what I’m about to say. So let me start off by making a compliment to Christians and Muslims and religious Jews and all other religions: Religious people have a sense of smallness. I like that. Religious people tend to realize their insignificance in the universe and to see things in a much broader scope. We are all a part of something much bigger, depending on what your particular religious persuasion is, whether you’re Baptist or Pagan or Buddhist.

I am not arguing that all non-religious people are vapid or big-headed or self-absorbed. In fact I think it’s often just the opposite. Some of my favorite people I knew in college were atheists. I appreciated the honesty and thoughtfulness. In a place like Grand Rapids, it takes no small amount of courage to be forthright about your religious views when you’re not an evangelical Christian.

But I think there’s a difference between religious apathy and atheism or serious agnosticism.

Often our problem as gay people is that we have limited goals: We set our eyes on adoption and non-discrimination laws and marriage equality when we could be aiming for something so much broader. Of course these are all great things we’re fighting for and I consider every single person behind these efforts a hero.

But fighting for inclusion in the system means we need to make sure that the system we want to be a part of isn’t excluding others. We need to take a hard look around us for who’s being left behind now that we’re moving forward. We need to see ourselves as a part of something bigger than ourselves.

In the wake of Memogate, the ever brilliant Stephen Mulder, the then editor of the school paper and one of the best allies the LGBT community has ever had at Calvin College, wrote an especially brilliant editorial in the Oct. 30, 2009 issue of Chimes. I can’t tell you how relieved I was to have someone outside our community without any personal interest at stake willing to step up to the plate for us, especially someone so articulate and thoughtful. It was a little insulting to be getting letters sent to me, as the co-editor of the opinion section, telling the gays to get out. Telling the gays to shut-up and take it quietly. And on top of that, having the audacity to accuse me of silencing their voices when I, a gay person, was also obligated to publish their dribble. Here I was, a student at a school that had decided that “advocating for gay rights” was unacceptable in the classroom, being accused of infringing on people’s free speech.

To be fair, one of the aforementioned individuals and I had an e-mail exchange the following spring at which point he gave me the high compliment of “Hey, you seem really normal. I expected you to be really militant.”

Obviously, he hadn’t read my blog.

In the time since “Memogate” I’ve been busy putting space between myself and this world where I grew up. Emotional and physical space.

Going to spend a year in Charente helped clear my head. It helped me readjust and learn to become a whole human being. The song “Ashes on Your Eyes” by the Weepies’ Deb Talan became my anthem. I heard it for the first time a week or so before I left for France. I remember sitting at my desk that I’d had since high school, clearing out my room and crying hysterically. Each word seemed written to me.

“Dry your wings in the sun/You have only begun to understand/When it’s time to move on/There is no one to hold your hand/So let go/Let go/Let go…”

Although I’ve vowed to never go back to religious institutions following my stint at Calvin, I wonder still why it has to be this way. I mean, of course I know why on some level. Cultural norms and religious exhortations get conflated. We mistake cultural practices for divine commandments. We even find a couple of excerpts from our holy text that we can use to support our beliefs.

So here I am. Exactly where I need to be.

But I’m broken-hearted that it has to be this way. I don’t think I could ever live in Grand Rapids again. At least not for a very long time. I’ve just started living, I’m done resenting and so I can’t go back. Not now. Going back to Grand Rapids would only trigger that resentment. Resenting that other people grew up being happy. Resenting that they’ve never felt like an outsider in any really meaningful way or know what it is to want to end your own life. Resenting the weddings, the high school proms, the heteronormativity. Resenting other couples getting to hold hands in public without people staring or laughing or worse.

That was 20 years of my life and I’m happy to be done with it. You can say “You should’ve known better” as many times as you want to me, and I can’t help but agree with you. I should have. I should’ve expected the treatment I got.

And I’m not blaming anyone else. I survived my childhood and, hopefully, I’m a better person for it.

All I’m saying is that we can do better. This dichotomy of Christian versus gay sucks. It’s a bad business calling the shots for God, especially when you have something so feeble as seven Bible passages to base it off of.

Shouldn’t we know better than to expect that such a place on earth existed that would be sufficiently thoughtful to welcome us in rather than to see us as a threat? Shouldn’t we know better than to expect that Christians might actually take their calling to love others as themselves seriously? (Seriously – that whole verse about the plank in your own eye? Have you crossed that out of your Bibles? How many of you are willing to hate your own sin the same way you hate gay people’s “sin”?)

I chose Calvin College because I wanted to find an academic setting where I could fully engage myself, where I would be encouraged to seek out a lifelong calling, a higher vocation and not just a degree that would help me land a job. I may have rejected religious institutions, but I don’t reject this idea that I want to be more than a cog, that I want more than a degree and a job.

People still ask me about what I want to do in terms of a job like I have a clue. I want to live my life – that’s enough for me.

I’m not stuck on my past. It’s difficult, though, and I would argue unhealthy to so quickly discard your past. It shapes you and in turn, in the present we transform and change the past into our present experiences.

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Filed under Queer Politics