Ten years ago I was stitching together a ragged collection of stories and reflections into a book I called “The Homeless God” before landing on “Life After Faith.” It ended up over 300 pages with nearly 300 footnotes, which is to say: it’s much too long. My choice to include chapters on a selection of my “secular saints”–Thomas Paine, John Burroughs, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau and Margaret Fuller–was probably not a wise decision, but the book stands (or sits on the shelf) as it is, my contribution to the growing number of books by ex-faith leaders and ex-believers.
Life After Faith was meant to be a version of my story of faith and my emergence from faith, but mostly the good life and living that can follow a lifetime given to believing in God and serving as a minister. I sometimes refer to it as my “spiritual autobiography,” and maybe it is, to a point.
At some future date, I may cut and paste another version of Life After Faith into a shorter, more accessible work. For now, as I read portions, I still think it speaks to the central issues in my “exodus” from faith and offers a positive alternative in something I called “natural spirituality” but now would probably call “natural humanism” or simply a practice of compassionate freethinking.
As I contemplate a second edition of the book, I thought I might go ahead and publish short snippets from Life After Faith to invite comments and questions from readers.
And, of course, I would love to know you have purchased the book to support my writing “this side of faith.”
Cross Purposes (from the Introduction to Life After Faith)
Molly stood up, grabbed her bags and headed for the door. Our “Wellness” circle of housing-and-health-challenged people sat stunned. We knew Molly was quirky, even for an eclectic group of people from the street. But what she did next rattled everyone a little. She stopped, turned, walked across the room, reached up and snatched the wooden cross from the wall. I cut her off under the exit sign but she pushed passed onto the sidewalk. “Molly, please give that back; it doesn’t belong to you,” I tried to reason with her. She stood close and I could see her thick makeup was starting to run. “I’m taking this! I don’t care who it belongs to! Why do churches put crosses up so high we can’t touch them, anyway?” Leaning in, her eyes took a quick scan of my face for a reaction. I only raised my eyebrows and swallowed a smile. She whirled around, making a show of her disgust, threw back her hair and stormed away down the street, clutching the stolen cross.
Several days later I entered the free dining room, off the busy downtown street, and saw that the cross—a colorfully painted and laminated piece of art from El Salvador—was back on the wall above the doorway where Molly stood in line along with hundreds of other women, children, men and a few dogs, talking, laughing or shuffling silently through to get a hot meal, as they did every day of the year. Molly’s mental illness was acute, and it caused her to act cute sometimes; at other times, obviously, not so cute. I found Molly sitting alone. She looked up and smiled, “Sit down by me, Chaplain Chris.” I smiled and put my tray down, sliding onto a cold folding chair next to her. After a few moments Molly said, “I’m sorry I took the cross. I gave it back to the kitchen this morning. You know, I can’t understand why churches have crosses. I mean, why don’t they have statues of Jesus doing something for people, you know, healing someone or something?” Now I really grinned and nodded. “Great question, Molly; that’s a very good question.”
This story, pilfered from a heavy bag of tales collected over my years as an interfaith chaplain, when I, with much fear, trembling and questionable courage “re-presented the compassion of the faith communities” in the county jail and on the streets of Marin County, California, illustrates the challenges, frustrations and stunning moments of crazy clarity that were my daily bread (more stories are collected in the book, My Address is a River). The ironies and paradoxes were regular fare. That day as I sat with Molly eating the free food provided by the St. Vincent’s Catholic community, I thought how wonderfully bizarre is this execution-centered religion in which I was raised, trained and ordained. Her wild comments set my wild mind to work. Later I discussed Molly’s street-wise wisdom with my colleagues. I think we even made it a topic for our next “Wellness Circle,” the weekly gathering Molly had stormed out of that thieving day. For years I have quoted the words of this delightfully nutty woman, words that question the very foundation of the (nutty) Church—oddly enough, a fractured foundation impaled on the spire of every “house of God,” evidence of a sort of skewed and skewered spirituality.
Stealing Molly’s questions to carry in my own mental backpack all these years I continue to feel they are central to a precise and honest critique of the religion that shaped my life—the religion of the cross. Every religion has its central icons, but ever since childhood, crosses have been powerful symbols. There were the crosses on and in every church—large and small, short and tall, gold, silver and polished wood, there were crosses in graveyards; crosses in movies my family would watch like “King of Kings,” “The Robe” and “Jesus of Nazareth.” Then came more interesting films that inspired my youthful days as a “Jesus Freak”—films like “Jesus Christ, Superstar,” “Godspell” and even the hysterical “Life of Brian” (with that classic closing scene of the guys singing and swinging on the crosses). I saw images on the television of burning crosses in the South, used to intimidate and terrorize Black families. As my eyes widened along with my vision, the art world gave us Mapplethorpe’s crucifix in piss and the large gold cross between the ample breasts of a very-nonvirgin Madonna. Hollywood gave us “The Last Temptation of Christ” and the ever-passionate Mel Gibson brought us a bloody “The Passion of The Christ.” Nothing quite as controversial to Christians in a Christian-saturated culture as a cross. A friend gave me a cross made of nails for my ordination and a few years later I had a Celtic cross tattooed on my upper arm (since then I had a Chinese yin-yang symbol of balance etched into the center—now I consider changing it, with a smile of irony, to a tree).
One could say, and I think argue effectively, that we are obsessed with crosses. They are the most popular jewelry, they are seen in virtually every town and city in America, they cover our cemeteries and they are constantly placed side by side with the flag. Crosses and flags seem to go together, like nuts and chips. Perhaps one day all those little stars by the stripes will be replaced by little crosses (the day America dies and Christianistan is born). Crosses are held, kissed, rubbed, caressed. People love crosses. Well, at least, the ones who think they show fashion or faith.
I loved the cross too. Until mine broke. The cross, and by this I mean The Cross, tumbled down to shatter at my feet. This book is two stories. One is the story of how and why that happened—what caused me to leave the faith of my fathers and mothers. The other story is the surprise, the good and simple path of living, that I discovered post-Church, post-Cross—my life after faith. I think this is worth the sharing. I suspect that Molly would agree. The image I have in mind is her defiantly playful and childlike run down the street after stealing the cross. Maybe I’m doing the same thing here. It’s a liberating lunacy; a creative craziness, you might say. And like Molly, I may hand it back when I’m done—with a whole lot of splintering questions nailed to it.
Chris Highland, 2010