“Dear fellow exevangelical,” I wrote. “When I stopped trying to convince and convict others to change what they believe because my way was “right,” I uncovered a happier way to be human.”
I wrote this line for an Instagram slide. But, I might as well have been writing to my sixteen-year-old self. She needed it as much as 46-year old me.
When I was a teenager, the church I attended sent our youth group out in teams of two to canvas neighborhoods and “win souls.” We did this for hours every Saturday (attendance and participation was rewarded with an all-expense paid ski trip.) We’d head out on seven or eight school buses, dropped off in groups to knock on doors.
“Excuse me, sir. If you died tonight do you know where you’d spend eternity?”
Our pastors and youth leaders taught us that it was our Christian duty to ask such an important, probing question to everyone we met. It was okay to go in cold and ask it right away. “Make sure they understand the stakes that are on the line. They’ll burn in hell forever unless they pray the prayer with you.”
When this tactic worked, we reported back the number of souls we’d won, and would probably be asked to share our testimony on stage. When it didn’t work, we crossed the neighborhood off our list and headed to cool off in the air conditioned mall with cherry limeades.
You can’t save someone from hell through force. :shrug:
This evangelical training underscored our ownership of the corner of truth. With enough cherry-picked scripture and theological maneuvering, we’d solved for God. We were right, everyone else was wrong, and it was our job to spend every breath convincing them to become more like us. Their souls were on our hands if we didn’t at least try.
Fast-forward thirty years.
Living on the outside, deconstructing my faith, beliefs, and behaviors, and letting go of the arrogance that says this tiny group of white Americans holds the answers for all of humanity is freeing. It also holds an irony.
Christians don’t hold the patent on fundamentalist belief systems. It’s entirely possible to encounter fundamentalist attitudes out here. For example: a rigid insistence on atheism. Or, judgmental vitriol directed at others who’ve recanted, because they aren’t “repentant enough.”
It’s a struggle. Discovering fellowship “out here” is remarkable and comforting. It’s easy to slide back into group-think and pride. Maybe these are opposite swings of the pendulum.
What I know is that I prefer the middle. The “I don’t know” land. Tell me about life, yours, and I will tell you about mine. Sharing. Listening. Experiencing a larger world.
I have no actual idea where my soul will go if I died tonight, because there’s no hard evidence and witness accounts that verify it. I love listening to what others think about this…stories of “the light,” or coming back in another form, or never really leaving.
Maybe I’ll do that: never really leave for good. Hang around in shroud and shadow. Haunt a few. Show up in someone’s wonky fever-dream and whisper ideas into their ear. Who knows?
Freedom resides in the mystery and unknown, in curiosity and questions, in humility. I’m a happier human when I don’t try to change others, and I think they’re happier too.