Going to hell (not)

I started thinking about this post when recently, I was about to join the Facebook group of an internet discussion board I like to read now and then. Just when my mouse hovered over the button, I hesitated. I knew that joining would mean that some of my Facebook friends would likely un-friend me. I’d hate to loose contact with them; but why would I consider hiding who I am or limit my freedom to choose?

It’s time to explain how I got to that point. Growing up in Germany, my family attended a small evangelical church, neither catholic nor protestant mainstream, which was founded with the best “back to the basics” intentions in the late 19th century. My family four and five generations ago belonged to the small group of founders of the german congregations. At the time, the doctrine was “exclusive”, meaning only members of this very church would be resurrected with Jesus when the apocalypse came. Any other Christians were not real christian, and therefore could not be redeemed. (As a side node: it has also become a major critique toward the church, and the leadership has tried to “clarify” the position. Since they cannot officially declare the word of a former Chief Apostle as false, the clarification is quite muddled. Last I heard an explanation, it sounded like it was very purposefully confusing) Attendance at church (twice on Sundays plus Wednesday night) was, well, not mandatory, but who would squander away the word of God? Dance lessons, cinema, playing competitive sports, all forbidden because it belonged to the world of sin. Association with the non-faithful was actively discouraged, and marriage outside the church frowned on unless the future spouse planned on joining the church.

I can remember one Sunday morning when I was very small, not even in elementary school, I did not want to go to church. My mother spoke to me about how much the angels would miss me. I remember crying and feeling very guilty, so I agreed to go. Nevertheless, it never was the same as before. I still loved my Sunday school teacher, I still loved our family friend the District Apostle Rockenfelder. As I grew older, more cracks started to appear. Some Vignettes ….

Against the recommendations of the church leaders, my parents decided to send me to the local catholic school for 9 years.

I noticed liked some of the priests more than others. When the church in Germany experienced a schism, triggered by a succession conflict for the retiring District Apostle Rockenfelder,  the split went right across the congregations, the priests we felt uncomfortable about leaving. Nothing about the split was discussed other than a short 30 minute congregational meeting; people disappeared completely from the social circle.

Mentioning people who “left”: it was not done other than in hushed voices. But the verdict on their fate, looking back on it, was decidedly schizophrenic. On the one hand, leaving meant to reject the word of God, breaking a vow to remain faithful, sins forever unforgiven from now on, being bound to earthly evil. On the other hand, once baptized by a “living apostle”, one’s name was forever written in the “Book of Life”. You just had to come back into the flock in time, the one sheep the shepherd goes looking for …

Puberty, questioning everything, was for me a time where I became very intellectual. My love for science, history, philosophy, learning, exploring, squarely clashed with the culture of the church. I started to live a schizophrenic existence. Fiercely intellectual in school, devouring books at home, being the nice church-girl otherwise.

A few years later, seeing my mother dying of brain cancer taught me the next lesson. I was utterly left alone. Admittedly, I did not know how to ask for help; developing emotionally got lost in the split between science at school and religion at home. But no one, not a single person of my spiritual caretakers, thought to approach me. Priests visiting the family only asked to speak to my Dad and Mom. On the one or two occasions I encountered those “blessing bearers” visiting, I remember receiving a sermon full of standard phrases. The funeral was nice. The minute I walked out of the funeral service, everybody on the congregation behaved like nothing had happened at all. NOTHING!!!

My aunt started having difficulties with the church at the time, but it did not register in my mind. My Dad also slowly retracted. I left Germany and went to Newport News, Virginia, a military/industrial town in the Tidewater Area of Southeastern Virginia. A science lab with an international community of nuclear physics researchers in the middle. The Bible Belt. A Sunday morning, my first visit to one of the congregations in the USA. I did not know what to expect. What I found was family. From my american Daddy (yes, you, Bill!) to many, many others I still dearly love. It was a small congregation in a “Lord come soon” church residing in a not-so-nice neighborhood. The Potter’s Field was in our backyard. We were seriously disappointed when the short in the thermostat did not burn down the building. Being a small congregation far away from any others did, however, also mean that some of the rules were not enforced so strictly. This made church life really pleasant.

Moving to Northern Virginia, this radically changed. Don’t get me wrong – many of  the people in the congregation there were really nice and gave their best. But there were the rules. The strict adherence to non-sensical rules, which even were not applicable to Chief Apostle services a decade ago in Germany! There was the prayer after Sept ’11 thanking God that none of “his children” had perished. Hiding conflicts under the carpet instead of addressing them. Pretending at any cost that all was harmony. Intense politics. Anti-semitic and racist jokes. I could not reconcile it – how can mostly really nice and well meaning people create this unhealthy environment?

A woman slightly younger than I left the church. For a while, she went the way all sinners went – disappeared from my world.

Another woman I knew from choir and small talk. I email for her birthday, and find out she moved across the country. I was to be in the area a few weeks later, and decide to meet. It was as for the first time in 5 years, I was able to open my eyes and see who she was. We had a deep, meaningful conversation. Since then, we have become friends. We still laugh about that for five years we met twice a week to no effect, and it took a move of 3000 miles to end up with a friendship and less than 10 miles between us.

The breaking point was when I hit yet another rough spot in my life with some health issues. I had given 5 years of much time, work and emotional effort to the congregation. As I was told, but did not believe: I was to expect nothing back. No support. Just criticism about slacking in my efforts. Voicing my frustrations about this was futile and ridiculed. Really? How come that once again, surrounded by my christian “brothers and sisters”, I found my strongest support with my atheist friends?

To be clear, I am not complaining about shortcomings of individual people. Or occasional failures. I do understand well about people not being perfect, organizations not being perfect. But I was one of the lucky few who had a life apart from church, and I had experienced what it was like in other social groups. It became crystal-clear to me that this was something else: a deep-seated wound, a structural defect, a culture gone wrong.

I moved across the country. I attended a new congregation. I saw someone speak about the “Day of the Youth” that year. The idolatry of the church leader disgusted me.

I decided to test myself. If I did the unthinkable, if I did not attend church out of training and habit, if I stayed home and waited until I had the desire to attend church, what would happen?

Well, one of the priests of my former congregation told me in a phone call:

  1. He wished me hell on earth, because that was the way to be prepared for heaven
  2. I was as unable to attain a way to salvation by myself as a heart surgeon performing a successful surgery by just reading a book (Good advice: “if someone wants to put anyone between you and God, run!”)
  3. My experience of being closer to God (for lack of a better word) in the Wilderness instead of the church building was a work of Satan.

Oh, and my husband (we since divorced) told me he still loved me despite my rejection of Jesus as my Lord and Savior meaning I would surely go to hell. What the heck?!?!!? Seriously?

Half a year later, I was happily enjoying my life.

A year later, I was on the way of spiritual recovery.

I was honest with myself.

Thinking back, I had never grasped the concept of Jesus as the personal Savior other than intellectual. It had never been a personal experience. The Bible is an important spiritual text; having grown up in Europe, it is the dominant one by way of culture and heritage, but not the only one. I am not sure what the concept of God really means, but I am ok with that. I will figure out out eventually, or maybe not. I just know what I feel when I am out there, on the rocks, in the forests, under the water. Death is as scary as before, but I can say out loud that I am scared. I soar in the freedom of contemplating spiritual thought without the fear of violating doctrine. Curiosity has broken the shackles of repeated words and phrases. Historical studies of sacred texts is an exciting topic, instead of blasphemy.

But I have become anathema. The paragraph just above means for my former friends that I reject, by choice, everything they believe in with their hearts and souls, and dedicate their lives to. Some of them broke off any contact with me. I do miss them, but I know I have to accept their choice. Some of them chose to reach across the divide and stay friends despite the differences; you know who you are, and I am deeply grateful for your friendship. But there may be several who are on the edge. The topic of faith is not touched in conversation, which keeps the fragile equilibrium. By me joining this Facebook group, I would choose to name the elephant in the room. I am still on the fence.

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2 Responses to Going to hell (not)

  1. Nicole says:

    It too is my experience that the best and most valuable people I’ve met are atheists. That of course doesn’t mean that there aren’t true Christians that act according to their faith. But my general experience is that I’m shocked and disappointed by many “strictly believing” Christians (I don’t think the religion itself matters – you can meet this sort of fundamentalism in any religion/ culture) . A classmate of mine ( Seven-Days-Adventist) committed suicide out of the feeling of being a sinner. Also as a psychotherapist I’ve been confronted with many life stories – e.g. homosexuals who were kicked out by their parents, sexually abused children, …..) and sadly there in fact is a statistically significant correlation between families that have a devout belief system and sexual abuse and also between mental disorders (especially OCD) – to my interpretation it has to do with the fact that in these settings there often are so many taboos – things that are never talked about – and when there are many taboos then there’s usually a great amount of fear and dishonesty and a strict hierarchy of power. The things one never talks about enables people to do things one would never do in an open setting – then there’s this imbalance in power within these settings that also promotes behavior like that. The strongest weapon of course is: to provoke the feeling of guilt in others to influence and manipulate people. Religion shouldn’t be about the feeling of guilt but about the feeling of happiness.
    I truly tried to believe in the Christian religion (I was raised Protestant) – my heart just won’t let me. Reading books about the Christian history (murder, power struggles, ….) surely doesn’t help. Reading the Bible also didn’t help (talking snakes,…. Also a God who wants to be worshipped all the time appears to be a God who has a problem with vanity – clearly a human attribute that is not desirable. A God who is jealous and wants no other Gods next to him – another human attribute.) Reading about the History of the Bible surely didn’t help either (contradictions within it, time lapses,…). And the worst: Christianity these days seems to be about believing (purely intellectual) not about feeling – the mysticism has been banned for centuries. Religion shouldn’t be in your head – everything should be included

  2. Aaron S. says:

    From George Bernard Shaw, _Don Juan in Hell_:

    “… men get tired of everything, of heaven no less than of hell; and that all history is nothing but a record of the oscillations of the world between these two extremes. An epoch is but a swing of the pendulum; and each generation thinks the world is progressing because it is always moving. But when you are as old as I am; when you have a thousand times wearied of heaven, like myself and the Commander, and a thousand times wearied of hell, as you are wearied now, you will no longer imagine that every swing from heaven to hell is an emancipation, every swing from hell to heaven an evolution. Where you now see reform, progress, fulfillment of upward tendency, continual ascent by Man on the stepping stones of his dead selves to higher things, you will see nothing but an infinite comedy of illusion.”

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