By the time I returned to my extremely conservative Christian college for my sophomore year, I was glad the summer was over. I’d endured a hell-hole of a summer camp, been excommunicated and shunned by people I considered “family,” and was forbidden from speaking to my best friend ever again.
However, I was going back to the same type of environment that had caused all of that trauma, although I didn’t really see it that way at the time. At least, at college, I could sit at the same table as a boy, wear knee-length skirts without being termed a “woman of the night,” and I could be among people who thought that music was important to worshiping God.
Looking back, though, while those “freedoms” seemed huge and I enjoyed the “rebellious” nature of some of the decisions I was allowed to make, I really had no idea that the environment at school was just as spiritually oppressive as the environment at church. And what I also didn’t realize, at the time, was that everything about my faith was about to fall apart and make me vulnerable to more violence and abuse.
Something that I’ve realized since then is that my particular “faith journey,” at this point, is not unique. It’s certainly not one that gets talked a lot about, because it isn’t terribly dramatic. On the surface, I was still attending a Baptist college. I was still going to church. I still prayed, I still “believed” in God, and I still could feel guilted into having a “quiet time” or “devotions.”
The stories you more frequently hear involve someone going through a spiritual 360– in a dramatic swerve, they turn into an agnostic, or an atheist, or they renounce Christianity and become “spiritual,” but, then, somehow, miraculously, something happens that brings them back to an orthodox Christianity.
My journey doesn’t look like that, mostly because it wasn’t allowed to. I couldn’t, practically, make the decision to no longer attend church. My college administration had effective ways and means of making sure every student attended every church service. I rebelled, some, when I was at home, by “playing sick” most Sunday mornings and grudgingly going to church on Sunday night and Wednesday.
Neither did I do anything else that was particularly crazy. I didn’t become promiscuous, even emotionally, didn’t suddenly develop a fascination for death metal, didn’t do drugs–but, I did disengage.
Everything about God, faith, or spirituality no longer seemed to matter to me. I couldn’t bring myself to care about anything at all remotely religious. I went through the motions, and I think if you had asked anyone who knew me at the time they would have said that I was fine. Healthy, even. My sophomore year was the year I met one of my best friends, and I even helped disciple her a bit. Since this time in my life, however, it’s become possible for me to label depression in my own life for what it is, and this was one of those times.
I could barely drag myself out of bed. I stopped caring about anything to do with fashion, as clothes (“standards”) represented a lot of the evil I was struggling with. My personal relationships fell apart–some, quite violently. One friendship ended when she slapped me across the face, and another friendship ended when she tried to deck me in public. My grades fell, I started losing weight, and I was constantly returning to my room to sleep. At one point, when I was at the campus clinic, the nurse there wisely asked me to fill out a questionnaire. After I’d filled it out, she tried to gently tell me that I was depressed, but I scoffed at the very notion. Christians can’t get depressed, didn’t you know? We have Jesus, and depression is only demonic oppression. A depressed Christian is an oxymoron, and one who takes anti-depressants is at the very height of sin, because he would be rejecting Jesus and turning to the “world” to fix his problem.
Toward the end of my sophomore year, a few things happened. One of them was that I decided that “being a Christian” had to mean something different than what I’d always thought. What I was feeling, what I had to drag myself through every day, just could not be right.
I have no idea what brought me to that realization. There was no epiphany, no chapel message, no gentle urging from a friend to start seeking answers. I went from not-knowing-or-caring to thinking-and-caring gradually, in a process so slow it is impossible to see, even now. But I remember waking up one day, and feeling something more, something beyond, and I knew that my answers lay completely outside anything I had heretofore experienced.
I’d grown up in an environment that idolizes spiritual leaders– in an interesting twist of fate, IFB folks are more sola ecclesia than Catholics– and, in that environment, it’s difficult to have a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” even though they are constantly admonishing us to do so. This is largely due, I think, to the very public nature of Christianity in IFB circles. Everything we do is judged as objectively as possible, and I understand the appeal of that. Subjectivity means that there will be gray areas and uncertainties, and “personal” is synonymous with “subjective.” It’s really nice to have an objective trump card that you can throw out with a triumphant “ha!” Ironically, bandying around words like “abomination” are comforting, simply because of the absolute nature of the rhetoric. IFB teachings limit our faith to public spheres– dress, behavior, community, church attendance, how much you “amen, preacher!” during a service, whether or not you show up for “door-knocking” evangelization nights, and a whole host of other things.
But what I realized, slowly, is that if I am to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, it can only be just that. Personal. Subjective. Different. Unique. Relative.