[CONTINUED FROM PART ONE]
When I was around twenty years old, I successfully extracted myself from my first marriage and immediately landed in another. This new guy didn’t get drunk and come at me with a PVC pipe, or try to trade me to his dealer for a couple grams, but this marriage ended up crumbling as well. A few years in, the second husband started falling down into the same goopy, druggy pit that had swallowed my first one. I knew I’d have to leave him when, as I was in labor with my kid, right before we went to the hospital for the all-natural, no drug, hippie birth I’d planned, the morphine lady showed up with a delivery for him.
It took me a few more years to work up the courage to actually leave, though. Well, let’s not call it courage: it took me a few years to line up another man. I had no idea how to live alone.
I eventually did set my sights on someone, and he was seriously awesome. I don’t think he’d ever heard of drugs except from pharmaceutical literature, plus he was handsome and funny, and knew the two different pronunciations and uses of the word “epitome”.
We originally met on the internet, when he found my old blog and emailed me saying he liked my writing. He was living in Ohio, finishing his Ph.D. thesis, and I was like, “Why does this guy like my writing? He’s, like, smart and junk.”
I knew I had to have him somehow, but I wasn’t flirty with him at first – I didn’t figure a guy like him would want a pile of refuse like me. I was honest with him about my past, but it didn’t seem to bother him at all. It was weird. I think that, to him, I was some sort of curiosity, something so far outside his experience that he didn’t know how dangerous I was. He was like the first British guy ever to encounter a tiger. “What’s all this then? It’s a big kitty, innit?”
Miraculously, after he got his doctorate he up getting a job near where I lived. I showed up on his doorstep when he arrived, wearing a skirt, toting a homemade cheesecake and a six-pack of microbrew. I married him a year and a half later.
Anyway, what were we talking about? Oh yeah, God.
My imaginary friend Jesus was just as hilarious as ever as I continued to struggle with my guilty belief in the Divine, but these sorts of things aren’t easily confessed to atheist friends, including my new husband. Believing in things which can’t be proven is the definition of insanity. But the desire to find more meaning in life than that which is readily apparent is a compelling idea, and wouldn’t leave me alone. It is, above all, a human desire. After all, if we didn’t place an overlay of contrived meaning over our everyday experience, we wouldn’t be human at all. Every time we have an emotional reaction to something we’re doing this. Emotion is illogical at its base, and although it can be easily explained through evolutionary theory, the cold science doesn’t adequately capture the beauty of it. The true glory of life is that we can find glory in it at all.
It’s circular reasoning, I know, but the brain can’t function without making connections between unrelated things and inserting meaning where, logically, none exists. However, I’m a believer in the fact that, if a thing is created by the human imagination, it has a reality all its own. I don’t mean in a tangible sense, but think about it: is love a real thing? It certainly is something that can affect our actions enough to end up creating its own reality. For instance, Boy and Girl love each other, so they get married, have a bunch of kids. Then Boy ditches Girl and she goes on a shooting rampage and kills a bus full of investment bankers on their way to a conference, thus causing the stock market to crash. The love may not be tangible, but it has left children and a path of destruction in its wake. You can see its effects just as clearly as you can see the effects of gravity. It is real.
Religion is the same way, for better or worse. It has roared and stomped through human history, creating carnage and beauty all around it since the dawn of time.
As an example in my life…oh sweet, invisible Jesus, she’s going to talk about her fucking novels again.
At a complicated and stressful point in my life, I got the idea for a story (here she goes).
It was a silly little story about wizards and such, but I felt absolutely compelled to write it. It took over my whole brain. It kept my mind off things that might otherwise have driven me a lot crazier.
I’d never even come close to finishing a novel before, but I absolutely couldn’t stop writing this story. I finished book after book after book. It was surreal.
I didn’t know if this was how novels were generally written. I didn’t hang out with other writers at the time, but I’d been looking up their processes online. There seemed to be two schools of thought, basically, on how to write a novel. There were “architects” and “gardeners”. Architects wrote outlines for their stories and then filled them in with characters and plot. Gardeners created characters, and then just let them interact, let the plot unfold. I was definitely one of the latter, except I was even more schizophrenic about it. I didn’t feel like I was even creating the characters. I’d actually tried to create them – I’d have a person in mind I thought would be fun to write about, but when I started putting them on the page, they’d say and do things that threw me for a loop, and I’d have to throw my idea of who they were out the window and just let them tell me.
All my friends and family back home thought I was completely goobers, so I tried to quit talking about it. Except I really couldn’t, because it was all I ever thought about.
I felt like an outside force was giving me these novels to write. This isn’t a new idea in the art world, nor was it a new idea to me. The notion that God might actually be attempting to communicate with artists this way is compelling to a lot of people, though crazy and perhaps conceited. (If it really is God doing it in my case, I wish he’d transmit some art that’s a little more profound, or at least marketable. But I guess He only has so much talent to work with here).
However, after I finished my third book, I looked at what was going on in the plot and had to admit that this story seemed to be my conversation with God. He was apparently speaking with me in the only way He was absolutely sure would make me listen: in epic fantasy form, with lots of gun battles and people who could shoot lightning bolts from their hands. It was a conversation that only I could understand – other people who read it might think it was entertaining, and the people who knew me were certainly surprised by the quasi- theological content, but no one saw them as religious books. I couldn’t have written a religious book. If God had told me to write one of those, I’d have been confused and a little bored by the idea.
At some point, though, I realized it didn’t matter to me if it was an actual God somewhere, a guy that I could go visit in a spaceship or something, that was making me write. The feeling that I got from writing was that I was in touch, somehow, with the Divine. It was a feeling of peace, and of knowing myself, and of being connected to the universe around me. This is what my soul had to offer to the Eternal, to the collective unconscious, to the human conversation about the mysteries of the world: a story about wizards and aliens. It may be petty and contain too much toilet humor, but that’s who I am.
Then, one day, I was sitting around writing my books when there was a knock on the door.
It was the neighbor’s daughter, a tiny girl, even shorter than me, in her early twenties. She had an earnest face, big blue eyes, freckles on her nose, and an awesome haircut. I invited her in.
We talked about this and that, and then she finally got to the point. She had come to invite me to church. “We just wanted to let you know that, even if you don’t love God, God loves you. He loves you even if you aren’t a Christian.”
I sat fidgeting on the couch. I knew this sort of girl. I could tell by the way she talked she wasn’t some sort of hippie-voodoo God-loves-us-all Unitarian: she was a serious hellfire, righteous-God person, cut from the same cloth as Born Again. But she was beguilingly beautiful and her bra strap was showing. “I’m a Christian,” I said. “I’ll come to church with you.”
She looked surprised as she left, and promised to meet me the next Sunday. When she was gone, I went and threw myself face-down on my bed, sweating and breathing hard. “Did I just say that I was a Christian?” In my head, Jesus was laughing his ass off. (By the way, my husband already has this full confession, so don’t worry about telling him. My neighbor doesn’t, though, so if you ever meet her keep your mouth fucking shut).
That Sunday, God Girl met me in front of my house with her husband and baby, and gave me a hug of welcome. My kid was with me; we’d talked about God in a sort of rambling and inconclusive way beforehand, and she was open to the experience of going to church.
People there were really nice and made us feel welcome, and I started to remember why I’d always liked religious folks. Also, there were cookies and coffee, and other kids for Kid to talk to.
Before the preacher started in on us with scripture, he asked us to bow our heads and pray, thanking God for His sacred words. “Every last comma, every hyphen, every space between the words is sacred, and we thank you, Jesus. We thank you for the Bible and the literal truth you’ve written within.” The organ music was horrible. Next to me on the pew, Kid was blowing spit bubbles, and my imaginary friend Jesus was glancing around nervously, clutching his elbows. “These people don’t believe in evolution, do they?” I asked, and He gave me a dark and knowing look.
Then the preacher started telling a story from the Old Testament. I remembered loving a lot of those stories, and sat up straighter to listen. It was about a guy trying to organize the bureaucracy of ancient Jerusalem in order to get a city wall built, and I was digging the history. But then he lost me somewhere, and before I knew it he was talking about the Rapture or something, about the resurrection of the faithful dead. He actually said that bodies would be sucked out of their graves up into Heaven, and I had to clamp my lips shut. Next to me, Jesus had a sort of frozen look. I think I wasn’t good at the poker face, because the preacher’s eyes picked me out from amongst the congregation and said, “If you’re wondering what the proof is for the resurrection of the dead, it’s because Jesus was resurrected, because Jesus rose from the dead and promised us eternal life.”
Jesus cocked an eyebrow, then he raised up his hands and a wicked fireball bloomed from his palms, engulfing the preacher in a halo of blue flame. Luckily, the preacher didn’t notice, it didn’t hurt him. “I can do that, too, but can you?” Jesus said.
“Jesus, you are so glorious awesome,” I said.
After the sermon, we had more coffee, and people gathered around talking. I loved having people to talk to, especially people that exuded the warm fuzzies of their faith. And what did I care if they thought God was going to vacuum us all up after we died? Maybe they were right. I didn’t know.
So I went back the next Sunday, and a few Sundays after that. I always looked forward to church, but I never felt very great afterwards. For one thing, the preacher had a habit of slipping disparaging comments about the “Mooslims” into his sermons, and for another, he dumped bucketloads of damnation upon the homosexuals and on people whose faith wasn’t pure. One Sunday, they brought around little glasses of grape juice and pieces of saltine crackers. “If you know you have accepted Jesus into your heart, you make partake of communion,” the preacher said. “If you know that you are saved, and that you are going to Heaven, then you may join with us in this holy ritual.”
The usher held the tray out to me, and I hesitated, but I wasn’t about to out myself in front of these people. I wasn’t about to stand up and tell them that I had no fucking idea whether I was going to Heaven or not. If I’d had to hazard a guess at that moment, I’d have said no. But I took the crackers and juice anyway.
I spent that whole night lying sleepless in bed. I felt horrible. I felt like someone was playing tug-of-war with my brain. I wanted so badly to believe in God. I ached with the need to know that, at least in some way, the guy who had been there with me, all those long, dark years, telling his stupid jokes to make me feel better, was real. That it was okay for me to feel better; that I deserved to have a connection with the Divine, achieve inner peace, and redeem myself for the bad things I’d done. That God was for people like me, too. But going to church had just ended up making my idea of God seem sick and wrong. If I told those people about Jesus’ solid gold coffee table or the fireball, I don’t even want to know what they would have done to me. And these are people who know God. They talk to him all the time, about everything. Jesus helps them stick to their diets and find their lost earrings. He’s there with them, unfailingly, and he sounds nothing like the Jesus I know. If I ever went on a diet, my Jesus would sit there eating a giant slice of chocolate mousse cake and taunting me. “Mmmmm, this is heavenly. Want some?”
I decided I wouldn’t go back to church. I mean, considering the way the preacher went on about the gays, it was unlikely I’d ever get past accidental second base with God Girl anyway, and I didn’t think it was a good idea to go to church specifically for the purpose of breaking commandments, even in my mind. But it did occur to me that making me suddenly, rabidly gay would be exactly the sort of thing my God would do in order to draw me into his fold. He knows that it’s an irony that would resonate with me, and that would make for a great anecdote to tell at parties. “Hey, Moses, get this. There was this agnostic girl….”
I kept writing my books, though. There was this character named Bridgett who was half-nuts and given to spouting prophecy. In the middle of Book Five SPOILER ALERT: a religious cult springs up that follows the philosophies outlined in her writings.
God gave us his only son, the Divine made flesh, so that we could understand God’s human side and feel closer to Him, Bridgett wrote. Through Jesus, God is not only seeking to be more accessible to us, he is also telling us that He knows what it is to be human, that He understands us, and forgives us.
I read this, over and over. “Oh, I get it,” I said. “The freakin’ Trinity. That’s an awesome idea.”
I broke my promise not to go back to church. God Girl told me that there was an Easter sunrise service up on a hill close by my house, and I agreed to go.
It was a beautiful place, built like a Spanish mission and nestled amongst vineyards. I sat on the hard pews, Kid half-asleep next to me. I stared around at the stained-glass windows and Moorish ceilings, hoping the rest of the congregation didn’t know I was going to hell.
There was more than one preacher this time, three others besides the one from God Girl’s church. The first couple of guys spoke about how Jesus was coming back, how time was running out. We’d better shape up, they said, because Jesus would see straight through our bullshit when he got here, and there would be hell to pay. He pointed out that some of us lived with sinners in our own houses, our own husbands and children, and told us what a horrible thing it was for us to allow this. I thought of my dear, sweet husband. He didn’t have any divine mysteries in his life. He didn’t think about that sort of thing at all. It was like he didn’t need to, it didn’t even occur to him, but he was by far the nicest person I’d ever met on the face of the planet. Thinking about him going to hell…well, it was like thinking about kicking puppies. God wouldn’t kick puppies, right?
Then the next guy got up. He said he was from the other church in my town, a place I always stared at longingly as I walked by. It looked like it had been built by the first settlers, with stained glass windows and a real belfry. He shuffled his papers on the podium, preparing to launch into his portion of the sermon, and I got ready to hear things that would make me feel even worse about myself. This guy would probably say that God does indeed kick puppies, and that He was going to come to town and beat me personally over the head with a couple fuzzy baby ducks.
But he didn’t. “My colleagues here have been speaking about Jesus coming back,” he began, “but I want to point out that he never left. He’s here with us, every day. We don’t need to wait for him.
“My sons have a hard time believing in the Resurrection,” he continued, and there were gasps and moans and scattered nods amongst my neighbors. “After all, in this age of science, when they’ve sent rocket ships up into space, we can say definitively that heaven isn’t up there beyond the clouds. If that story isn’t true, how can they believe any of it? They also point out that the separate stories of the Resurrection in the Bible don’t exactly match one another. They differ on a few particulars. So how can they give any credence to the story?
“Well, if you asked three different witnesses to a car crash what had occurred, you’d get three slightly different answers, so the fact that the accounts in the Bible don’t completely match doesn’t bother me. The real proof to me of the Resurrection is that his disciples were convinced that Jesus was alive.”
He went on to explain how, though the disciples had been scared at first that they’d end up crucified like Jesus, they’d eventually come out of hiding to preach the Christian gospel, and every single one of them had ended up dead for their trouble. But they had been willing to die, because it was something they’d truly believed in. It was their faith made solid, made tangible through their actions, just like the girl in my example making her love real through her killing spree. Except maybe better.
It was like a warmth was filling me all up. This guy made sense. Did he just say there are contradictions in the Bible? And maybe that’s okay, because it was written by people, and people have flaws?
I wondered if maybe he was saying it’s okay to be an actual person and still believe in God. An actual person, with logic, and a brain. With imperfections, doubts, fears and uncertainties. That maybe a person like me wasn’t crazy if she felt the presence of God in her life. I’d spent so long believing that people capable of real faith were somehow different than me, that they’d been given something that I hadn’t, and so this was a comforting concept. It was a lot to infer from the preacher’s words, but I was hopeful, at least.
A couple of weeks later, I put on a skirt and marched down to the little church with the belfry.
I thought I’d feel shy going in, but I didn’t, really. The preacher saw me sitting there and came up and introduced himself. The church smelled good, and the piano player knew what he was doing. Also, they had hymn books with the music written out, not just the lyrics – so that someone like me who didn’t know the songs could actually read the melodies and sing along. The hymns were silly, and made my invisible Jesus snort into his fist, but that’s cool.
I was worried, though, that this guy was going to say something to destroy my idea of God again. I was getting pretty damn tired of that.
But he didn’t. Not at all. He talked about how we can’t necessarily rely upon God to shower us with riches, but we can rely on him to be there with us, and to make our lives better, to make them more worth living. He quoted John 10:10, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
I looked over at Jesus, surprised. “Hey, this guy’s talking about you,” I said.
The next Sunday, the pastor brought up that passage, I think it’s John 14:6, that says no one gets to God except through Jesus, like Jesus is the fleabitten, hardscrabble sheriff in a Western movie, protecting his prisoner, God, from an angry mob. “Send him out, Sheriff, he don’t deserve no trial!” And Jesus cocks his Peacemaker and gives them a long squint. “You want him, you’ll have to come through me.” This is the passage Born Again and her kind have been tossing at me my whole life to prove that just about everyone is going straight to hell, me included. But the pastor at this church said that it was against Jesus’ teachings to believe that those who haven’t been born again, or people who had never even heard about Jesus, would go to hell just because they hadn’t accepted Him as their personal savior. “It just means that Jesus is the pathway to God,” he said, and explained that that pathway was open to everyone, however they interpreted it – even if they’re Buddhists or Unitarians or just stoners like me. “God loves everyone, and Jesus loves everyone, even if they’ve never heard of Him. It’s not that Jesus is saying people will go to hell if they don’t believe in Him, it’s just that they’re missing out on the good things that happen when they allow God into their life. It’s like they’ve been invited to a party, but have decided not to go. Just because they aren’t there doesn’t mean God hates them, it just means they don’t get to have fun at the party.” I forgot exactly how he put it, except that it was freakin’ glorious, and I turned to Jesus, all a-dither.
“Are you listening to this?!? This is exactly what I’ve been thinking about for weeks. That’s freaky.”
Jesus had taken a pencil from the pew in front of us and was balancing it perfectly on the tip of his index finger. He shrugged. “Guy gives a good sermon,” he said.
“You told him I’ve been writing about this stuff, didn’t you?” I accused. “You snuck over to his house and told him to talk about it just to mess with me.”
“No way,” Jesus said, smirking. “You know I haven’t. I’ve been here with you the whole time. It’s a cosmic coincidence. It’s a sign from God.”
“Don’t lie. He just said he was at that party you threw the other day.”
Jesus grinned sentimentally. “That was a great party,” he said.
After the sermon, the pastor came up and asked me if I wanted to join the church, and I said I would. I was a bit nervous about it afterwards, though. “I can still cuss and stuff, right?” I asked Jesus, and He scratched His chin.
“Well, I wouldn’t recommend cussing when you’re actually in church,” He said.
“Can I tell them about you?” I asked.
He looked around at the other people there and raised his eyebrows. “They’d probably think you’re weird, but I don’t think they’d kick you out.”
So that’s why I’m getting baptized. If God is something that I can feel in my life, a force that makes my life better and that does me good in a practical way, then it doesn’t matter if He is “real” in a tangible sense that can be proven by science. The effects of God are real in my life, and that is enough for me. That is the essence of my faith. I believe because I choose to believe, because it helps me and makes my life better.