Why I Need to Leave Church for Awhile

I had two experiences last week that are great examples of why I’m once again on the side of “no ordination”. I do have to say though, these feel pretty definitive for me. Allow me to explain:

In the first instance, I was at church. A parishioner who is very conservative when it comes to women suddenly began to talk about how he does not believe in abortion but that “liberal women” need to have an abortion every time they get pregnant. He said this to me, knowing I am what he would call “liberal” and knowing that my three-year-old daughter was right there. He essentially told me that I should have aborted my daughter. The women around me were shocked and disgusted but he seemed not to notice their reactions and carried on. He said that if we all just had abortions, there would be no liberals (a huge failure in logic I, the daughter of hard-core, bunker-having, Glen Beck-loving conservatives, am not even going to address here). He then told us that none of “his house” would ever “be allowed” to have an abortion. That was the only point at which I opened my mouth to tell him that that his attitude was probably why “his house” would just come to someone like me. I told him that my ministry was helping women obtain care and that none of my patients had ever told their families because they knew they’d be ostracized. He told me that my work was emphatically not a religious calling and said it with all the confidence of a man who is used to sitting in for God.

I was a bit put out by this scene but put it out of my head and went ahead with church. But I made the mistake many women make – I spoke about it. I mentioned it to a select group friends online but word got around until I was approached by someone who was concerned that I was saying something that could reflect negatively on the church. I should mention that I had not said anything negative at all but simply narrated the experience and ended by imploring people not to say negative things about the person who attacked me but simply to use it to recognize how we often choose our politics before we choose our religion. However, the topic of abortion is often something that can be interpreted by some as negative in and of itself, without them realizing it. I also need to say that this person had very good private reasons for approaching me and I don’t fault them for it at all but rather the structure and culture of the church that makes it necessary.

All that aside, what really bothered me was that I felt that I was ultimately being tasked with the responsibility for the situation. The man who had verbally attacked and defamed me and my child was not, as far as I am aware, ever really confronted over his sin (and yup, that’s what that was). He certainly never apologized or acknowledged it. There are probably several reasons for this – one being that he has been at the church for quite some time and I am rather newish. The other I’ll demonstrate with a quote from pro-choice Christian ethicist Beverly Wildung Harrison who said that when it comes to abortion, “the demand to speak judiciously falls exclusively upon [women]” (from Our Right to Choose, 2011). In other words, we, knowingly or unknowingly, often excuse men from out-of-control speech regarding abortion while scrutinizing women’s speech.

Weirdly enough, I had another experience like this just five days later in, of all places, my knitting group. As I sat there cursing the fact that my hat was too big and I was going to have to frog it and start again, someone asked me what I do. I explained that I was an abortion doula and that I attempt to construct positive feminist theologies, especially surrounding abortion. Some of the women murmured their support as their fingers worked away at their shawls and sweaters. But others began to tell me that women who have abortions are irresponsible, that they just need birth control, etc. This is not shocking anymore as I get the same script, almost verbatim, from women who have clearly not had to struggle when it comes to their reproductive health. I took a few minutes to explain the realities behind the stereotypes (most women having abortions ARE using birth control, abortion IS a responsible act, the myth of the friend of a friend of a friend who had six million abortions in five seconds because it is “easier” than using birth control is not a thing, etc.) but soon gave up. It never actually matters because none of these people are interested in anything but condemnation, even if they are otherwise good people (patriarchy really instills this need to condemn so that we aren’t ourselves perceived as bad girls). So, I just went back to my knitting. But I was upset. Not for myself but because in a room of roughly 20 women, statistically speaking, at least three or four will have had an abortion and those women were probably listening to all this bullshit thinking, “And THIS is why I’ll never tell anyone.” It could have been left at that but the women with OPINIONS just went on and on and then I heard someone say to me, “Autumn, change the conversation.”

And that’s when I lost my shit a little. Because for the second time in a week I was asked to manage a conversation I wasn’t even really a part of. It seems that my very presence is all it takes to offend people and no one wants to stop and examine why they need to put me in charge of that or why I should be censured for my having the audacity to mention what I do and then stand up, in the politest way possible, for myself, my work, and the many women who I’ve been privileged to walk with. And if that isn’t enough, I am put into that quintessentially female role of assuaging the uncomfortable feelings of others.

But I UTTERLY FUCKING REFUSE to manage other people’s feelings. And therein lies the problem for my life trajectory at this point. As clergy, my job would be tied to that role of Emotion Manager and doubly so with an abortion doula ministry.  When I sat down to reflect on both of these experiences, I realized that I would be spending so goddamn much of my time and energy having to explain myself, defend myself, etc. that I’d have nothing left for those I minister to and that is hideously unfair to them. Being clergy would kill my ministry.

In the end decided two things – that I am not able to stand up for women and destigmatization in the way I feel called to within the ecclesiastical structure of the church,  even as a deacon whose job it is to “speak truth to the church”. And also, I need a break. I love church. I’m an absolute church nerd. But as long as men like that man I ran into are given implicit permission to determine who is heard and who is silenced, I cannot hear God in such a place. Her voice is drowned out by the loud, aggressive, and unfounded confidence of entitled white men.

So, in the meantime I’ll just go to another knitting group I’m fond of and I’ll participate in my women’s circle for religious and spiritual feminist community. Will I go back to church? Maybe, but it’s hard to imagine right now. After all, what was I thinking? A post-theist who is an abortion doula – I may as well have wrapped myself in tin foil and stood on the roof of the church in a storm.

Post-Theism? What the Hell is That?

I got a chance to speak at the Ever Wonder conference in Edmonton, Alberta the first weekend in September. My topic? Post-theism, of course! Below is a transcript of the talk. Let me know what you think.

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I am a post-theistic Anglican with one foot in the humanist world and one in the Christian world. As an author and a theologian, I think of myself as a bridge for those I minister with. I myself am unimportant. What I envision is providing the example of a new way of being, a visible answer to the question, “Do I have only two choices – that of supposed “belief” or “unbelief”?” Popular culture tells us that this is so and that we need to take up arms in either of these ill-defined camps. But that way of thinking is an illusion. It does not describe what a good number of people experience in their spiritual and intellectual lives.

Many people are unaware of the idea of post-theism despite, I believe, being functionally post-theistic. Post-theism is different from popular conceptions of the terms atheism, theism, nontheism, etc. We can quibble about what these words really mean, mainly because we don’t actually have even academic consensus, but broadly speaking, post-theism is a nontheism (in other words a non-belief in a supernatural god) combined with the sense that to even ask the question about whether such a god exists is unimportant and sometimes even distracting. Post-theists can be religious or nonreligious. They come in many varieties from those who plumb the depths of religious traditions, including Christianity, for the wisdom of their ancestors, to those who reject those traditions and God language entirely. I myself am of the first type. I revel in God language, finding in it a rich source of inspiration for the otherwise unnameable fluctuations of the human condition. Though I understand and fully advocate the need to think twice about what we mean when we speak of God, I think most current attempts to abolish God language absolve us of the heavy task of having to examine what God might actually be. Theists don’t have a monopoly on God or God language. Not all gods are omnipotent. Not all gods are supernatural. Not all gods are even beings.

I was raised in a religiously neutral family back in the states. I had an interest in religion but it was rather academic. By the age of 12 I was calling myself an atheist and I held some pretty antitheistic ideas. But something weird happened when I was 21. While I felt I was being intellectually honest in my atheism, it was not enriching or fulfilling me personally. In 2000, I decided that it just might be possible to be a religious atheist and I became, of all things, a Roman Catholic.

I was drawn to the meditative pace of the liturgy, the sense of common humanity that the mass can inspire. But I was also drawn to Catholic social justice teachings, finding there a way to live out my values in a way that “hard” atheism was too broad to encompass. But I hadn’t taken my life as a feminist and reproductive justice activist into account. Well, rather, I had some naïve idea that I would be able to navigate the situation, holding fast to my love of the liturgy as well as my convictions. I also discovered that I had a calling and that it wasn’t to the convent, the only avenue open to me as a Catholic woman. But the final nail in my Catholic coffin was dealing with a family crisis that left religious hypocrisy laid bare before me. I began to see that my thinking about faith, about religion, and, most importantly, about what God means, was so vastly different from those around me that I no longer felt like I was at home in the Church. So, I left.

And in my disappointment, I began again to navigate the choppy waters of antitheism. For those who don’t know what antitheism is, it is an opposition to the idea of gods, any gods. For three years I didn’t see the inherent problem with such a theologically unaware definition, namely that anything can be declared a god and that not all gods fall into the neat categories that some antitheists create for them. I became even more active in the atheist movement, publishing articles, writing blogs, appearing on TV, founding groups, serving on boards. And lest it sound like I’m picking on atheism, let me tell you that I don’t regret this. I think I needed atheism at that moment in my life to help me really think about what it was I believed in. But I was still in the old cycle, vacillating between hand-me-down constructs of “belief” and “unbelief” that I unquestioningly bought into.

During this time, my calling never went away, it just confused me. What was I supposed to do with it? I became a Humanist celebrant and chaplain but it still wasn’t right. Humanism, a belief in the ability of humans to better the world through reason, science, and technology, was, on its own, too vague and too scientistic (not to be confused with scientific) to be of any real use to me. I still had an affinity for Christianity and especially the life of Jesus but I couldn’t seem to make it work with the definition of reality I was being handed. And this was when I thought, “What if we don’t have simply two choices? What if our choices aren’t restricted to supposed belief or unbelief? What if philosophical humanism has a natural home within Christianity? What if I don’t have to police my “God language” because it can still serve a vital function in my faith life?”

I began to explore this question by reading the usual suspects – Paul Tillich, John Shelby Spong, etc. and a new world of possibility opened up to me. I started listening to the Nomad podcast, a show put out by two guys undergoing what they call a “faith deconstruction” and searching for what really matters to them. I began to delve into the history of Christian thought which is replete with references to a nontheistic God and chock full of humanism. And eventually, I found a place for both myself and my calling within the Anglican Church, a church so historically theologically open that the joke is that it is hard to find a Church of England priest who believes in God. In short, I found a context for my humanism. I’m hoping to be ordained a deacon within the church and continue my ministry working for reproductive justice and advocating for the needs of the post-theistic and nontheistic in our local congregations.

I relish my journey, every bit of it. I don’t reject a single moment of it. I’m glad I found new ways of naming God as well as new ways of understanding what the name of God has meant to people throughout history. I’m also glad that I had a cleansing period in which I could reject everything and start again. Because of my time in “hard” atheism, I feel much more grounded in what I believe. I’ve thought hard about it. I’ve studied. I’ve even, dare I say it, prayed about it when I felt like it. Because of this, I no longer feel the need to capture and cage the idea of God.

My journey has prepared me well, I think, for the work that I do now. As I said before, I’m often a bridge for people who are functionally post-theistic but have never heard the term or explored the idea. There are millions of people out there who have religious sensibilities but no language for it since its definition has been claimed by a false theist/atheist dichotomy. Readers of my blog, my articles, people who appear in my ministry work, tend to be those people who are not comfortable either with a “traditional” religious framework or strict secularity. They are the inbetweeners who haven’t yet realized that nothing is wrong with them, that they aren’t ignorant or sinful or lacking in education. I’m happy to provide a living example (as poor as it may be at times!) to show that we never have just two choices. But I also feel I need to say that those who choose one of the two traditional choices – there’s nothing wrong with them either. My way of being is not everyone’s way of being. Both of those two traditional choices provided me with an incredible learning experience, not to mention lots of great friends. Besides, I try not to imagine that I’ve reached the end of my journey. I haven’t come to some great revelation and now all I have to do is dispense wisdom. That’s ridiculous. As my journey has shown, I’ve gone all over the map in search of wisdom and will likely continue to do so. In a way, it’s my job as a theology student! My publishing record also shows the roads I’ve been on. I’ve written everything from theistic to antitheistic and now post theistic content. I’ve got a book coming out on Humanist celebrations from Humanist Press and the book I’m researching now is on post-theism. Later on, I want to write a more traditional lectionary (albeit with some non-traditional elements). So, I’m not done traveling yet, not by any means. Who knows where the future might take my thinking? For the time being, it is important only that I stay in dialog with my fellow humans, that I hear about what is most meaningful to them in their traditions, what has ceased to serve them, and what they envision for their own futures and communities. I’m thankful that this conference exists, that it has given us a chance to begin to spread the good news that there is not just one way of spiritual being.