I’ve heard that, as newborns, one of the very first emotions we feel is a sense of abandonment. Your whole life up to that point has been spent in a warm, safe space where you are literally connected to another person. The very next thing you experience is being forcibly removed from that safety—you’re thrust into a cold word—and someone disconnects you from your life source. If you believe in cellular memories and trauma, this moment could have quite an impact on the rest of our lives.
Some philosophers take this early trauma quite seriously and postulate that we spend our whole lives trying to make up for this abandonment. You might similarly hear corny religious people say, “You have a God-shaped hole in your heart.” Religious or not, we can all probably identify with feeling the need for something else to make us “whole.”
We spend our lives in search for what we think will make us whole. We need a significant other, we need that dream job, we watch HGTV hoping we can have the perfect house one day. Churches often sell people on the idea that finding God will make them feel whole.
That was me. I believed that God would make me whole. Not just any God, but a very specific God: the Western Evangelical God. The symbols associated with this God were helpful for about 25 years of my life. I was happy with this life and I felt safe with my Evangelical God.
I went through a season where I wanted to leave the whole of it behind. Atheism felt easier. To be honest it often still seems easier, but I’ve found a problem with leaving it all behind and it has nothing to do with God being mad at me or me going to hell. Here is the problem: I don’t think it is possible to completely untangle and fully remove 25 years of religious symbols and worldviews from my life. I think the Western Evangelical God is a part of me—will always be a part of me—in a cellular memory kind of way.
There will always be elements of my Western Evangelical God left no matter how furiously I try to remove it all.
Even if I were to somehow manage the impossible and erase every religious aspect from my life, the chief focus of my life would become erasing. That sounds exhausting.
I’d have to be on constant alert for every subconscious thought that might pop up smelling religiously foul.
I will forever be shaped by my religious upbringing, just like I will be forever shaped by my first experiences of being disconnected from my mother as a newborn. I can’t get away from it, so I might as well make friends with it.
Making friends with my past doesn’t mean returning to my Western Evangelical God, but it means I can no longer abhor it. I used to think that it had no room in the pie chart that is my life, but now I realize that the act of trying to remove it from my pie chart actually gave it more room. (See: growth of alcohol consumption and alcohol related deaths during the prohibition era.)
Making friends with my old-religious-self means not beating myself up for having a version 1.0. For example, I used to see salvation as me being saved from an angry God. Now I see salvation as wholeness. After all, the root word for salvation is indeed “sozo,” which means “to make whole.” And wholeness is a matter of no longer trying to deny my past and rid myself of my upbringing. Wholeness is often acceptance. Acceptance requires the embrace of that ugly, past version of myself and integrating it into my future—not to make it a focal point—but at least to give it a sliver of my pie chart.
Brandon Carleton is an author and community organizer from Rock Island, IL, where he lives with his wife and son. He helps people who have walked away from their childhood beliefs make their faith meaningful again. He also facilitates community spaces for Connection Quad Cities and is the co-host the Ode to the Underdog podcast. He is both a craft beer and coffee snob, and prefers both to be brewed and roasted in his hometown. An INFJ and Enneagram Type 2, he loves nothing more than cooking dinner and mixing cocktails for friends.
You can learn more about Brandon at: meaningfulagain.com
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