It's not lost on me as I reflect on another year, my thirty-third trip around our sun, looking, as I like to joke, something akin to white Jesus. This birthday carries with it a special significance; as others have noted before, it's the "Jesus" birthday—Jesus was crucified at the age of thirty-three for those of you lost in the allegory. A person I deeply appreciate and respect encouraged me in our time together this morning to—continuing a theme I have observed over the past couple of months—grieve and mourn. Still, this time it was to grieve the loss of the God I once knew. So this is a post of lament for the God who died and was buried some three years ago; it's finally time to stop running and acknowledge the loss.
I've written about the loss and subsequent searching from a more theological and cognitive point of view, but this is because the loss, death, of God was intimate and, in many ways, too sudden. To a degree, it felt worse than losing one of my parents—as I lost my Father and Mother in a cosmic sense in what seemed like an instant. It was an abandonment of the worst kind.
To acknowledge that I feel abandoned by God feels almost too raw and honest to admit. To myself, much less in a public sense—though I know it to be true—acknowledging my sense of abandonment feels very tender. Yet, the abandonment feels all too familiar when my younger sister arrived home from the hospital, dad moved out during my parents' separation, and ex-wife and I separated. God's untimely departure was a betrayal of the most intimate kind, but I realize that I have known this feeling most of my life.
I was two-and-a-half when my sister arrived from the hospital. I was keenly aware that my role as the primary object of both of my parents' attention and affection had inexplicably changed forever. At that age, I could only surmise that I had done something to result in my parents giving me less attention and love than merely days prior. The conclusion that I reached was that I was inherently defective and painfully ordinary. I also reasoned that if I could eradicate my imperfections, or at least sufficiently hide them, and become extraordinary, I might earn back the love I once knew and craved—if only I could prove my worth, then my gods would realize the error of their abandonment and betrayal.
From the age of five, I grew up attending Evangelical churches. Therefore, for twenty-five years, I grew up hearing about the love of Jesus and terrorized by my intrinsic defect and the Father's hatred of it and me. I was convinced by people I loved and trusted that I was wretched to my core and needed to continually repent of my badness. Only Jesus could make me good—I'd have to wait until my eternal judgment after death to know whether Jesus had saved me or if I was hell-bound despite my best efforts.
In the politest of terms, I was manipulated for over twenty-five years. It's hard not to wonder if God really hadn't abandoned and betrayed me at two-and-a-half. From where I sit today, I see that as a genuine possibility. Before I even came to know him, the all-powerful, all-loving, and eternal judge Evangelical Trinity left me at the doorstep of my own personal hell. I've lived there for the rest of my life.
I struggle with not blaming my five-year-old self for being preyed upon by people peddling evil and dehumanizing lies. How tragic is that? I'm so sorry, young Cameron. You deserve better than my shame today. You had to trust these adults for your very survival, and they told you that you needed to trust the authority figures who sold you that shit and told you it was fruit juice. In a real way, those you needed to trust sold you into slavery, and you found a way to survive. How can I be anything less than infinitely grateful to you, dear friend?
I find it even harder not to hold my college-age and post-college-age self culpable. I struggle to hold the same kind of loving and compassionate space that comes so easily for others for myself. This struggle is especially challenging here when I should have known better and have done harm to people—those who I deeply love and care about today. But that is the thing about manipulation and gaslighting. The longer you are in that environment, the less likely it is that you can realize what has been normalized and continually reinforced. I had learned how to survive in that environment; I was doing the best I could and knew I needed to stay as my sense of connectedness was only in the church. My eternal well-being hung in the balance.
Serendipitously, my first and only seminary class provided the perspective I needed to trust the misgivings that had been piling up internally over the years—bristling against the white supremacist heteropatriarchy. Hearing a pastor deny that the Bible's creation myths had to be taken literally was my breaking point. There are too many contradictions between the two for at least one to be literal. Aside from the fact that we anthropologically know that either myth can't be a firsthand account, the concept of literary genre still holds.
What loving and all-powerful God would subject a child to that level and duration of manipulation? What God would abandon me when I lost my wife and community? What God would abandon me when I was in the throes of uncovering the degree to which people had lied to and manipulated me most of my life? What tragedy.
My heart aches in acknowledging all that I've touched on at various points and to different degrees all in one place. I feel like there's a painful reality that Rabbi Kushner highlighted in his analysis of the book of Job—he concluded that either God is not all-powerful, or God is not good. I see this in my own story and can acknowledge this today when I could not back when I was first confronted with this troubling assertion three years ago.
So on this day, I wonder aloud if God is not dead as some radical theologians asserted some sixty years ago? I wonder if I am not Jesus, who lives in Brooklyn. Perhaps I am the God for whom I've been searching all my life.
To dive into a controversial view, Jesus was born out of wedlock and was no more divine than you or me. I imagine that despite the Bible's best efforts to convince me otherwise that Jesus did some shitty things and was an average child for the most part. I also believe that Jesus is still a beautiful example of radically embracing our humanity. This embrace is the way to living into our inherent holiness if we assume that God created the universe and everything in it, as Genesis and John assert. Frankly, I think Jesus' humanity and his exaltation of the profane or the worldly are what so many continue to miss. Mainstream Christianity continues to peddle a Gnosticism bent on rejecting present reality in favor of a fantastical future, one that never existed.
What do I mean that God is dead? Well, I'm still trying to understand this, but I can say that the God I communed with and was getting to know as an Evangelical has grown cold and silent for the past few years. The presence I once felt has departed. In its place has been a new set of experiences. I have found a Self and a deep, abiding love for people and a profound connection with nature in His stead. I see nothing wrong with finding my God in my family, friends, acquaintances, strangers, animals, mountains, sunrises, beaches, sunsets, and ordinary moments. I realize I've been doing this for as long as I can remember. Today I'm confident enough in myself to say that right now, my God looks like the dusk moments just after the sunset over the Manhattan skyline.
As for being the God I was looking for all along, I don't need one who is outside of or beyond me. Honestly, I may not need God at all. I am perfectly competent and capable on my own. I'm only just beginning to comprehend the freedom inherent in these terrifying and anxiety-inducing words. I am at one level waiting to be struck dead for such audacious and blasphemous language. However, I am reconciling that once I no longer need God, I can appreciate and enjoy God. Without an eternal need for the divine, I am giving myself space to delight in it instead. That is a strange thought experiment for now that I am looking forward to experiencing more and more.
I would love to make some sense of my own experience. Why any god would allow a manipulative system such as what I have emerged from to form in the first place, let alone continue to persist, is baffling. But I can accept that perhaps this being is still strange and new to me. I can also admit that I have some severe misgivings to address in feeling abandoned from the start by this God. Because the presence of a different God doesn't answer too many questions, it leads me to further questioning and a greater level of mistrust. However, this mistrust is met with the level of safety and trust that I have established with my body and myself. And perhaps that tension of trusting more and more in myself while feeling God is distant, silent, and maybe not good is the place where life is best lived for me—indeed, this is where I find myself today, and there is nothing wrong with that.
Now, I have the option of visiting God's grave. I can visit the tomb of the God who was and the versions of myself who died along the way to arrive at this very moment. I choose to grieve a past that was not what I grew up thinking it was; I grieve a present which in many ways should not have been and a future which will never be. I do not feel the urge to reject this present moment, but I recognize that this did not have to be my right now due to the manipulation and abuse that I endured. I am grateful for this breath, this very string of characters that I type. As I understand it, joy is the bittersweet feeling of acknowledging the past and present's bitterness, finding gratitude amidst that, and experiencing hope for the future. I don't need some god to see that; I have myself.
Maybe, just maybe, I don't need a god at all.