Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The God Question: What I Do (and Don't) Believe

I believe in God. But please, don't assume you know what I mean when I say that. 

I do not believe in an omnipotent god who has the power to prevent (or cause) bad things -- like, say, child sex trafficking -- from happening to good people. I do not believe that events unfold according to God's plan. I do not believe in a god who requires us to follow a rigid set of immutable rules that often strip of life of its joys. I do not believe in a god who requires my faith to be blind and unquestioning. I do not believe in a god whose existence is antithetical to science, study, and reason. I do not believe in a god who wants us to adhere to oppressive gender roles. 
I do not believe in a god who imposes strict boundaries on our sex lives and who and how we can love. I do not believe Jesus was God's son or is my saviour. I do not believe a person needs religion or faith to be a moral person. I do not believe in a god who expects me to avoid rocking the boat, making enemies, or talking about harsh, negative realities. I do not believe in a god who requires sexual abuse victims to forgive their abusers. I do not believe the Bible or the Torah or any other book was written by God and is the definitive source of knowledge about God. I do not believe that I need to live a religious life in order to live a faithful life. Indeed, I do not believe that religion and faith are the same thing.

So what do I believe?

Most of my life, I've kept my faith to myself. I consider it private, nobody's business, really. But, more than that, I've wanted to avoid the erroneous assumptions many people -- religious people and atheists -- make about me when they know I believe in God. And I've wanted to avoid their rude and disrespectful attempts to argue me into or out of the belief system that they think I hold. That's not their right!

But I've grown weary of being evasive when people ask, as they so very often do, "How did you survive your childhood?" To answer that, I need to confess that I have a faith, and I guess I'm ready to do that.

I've also grown so weary of conservative religious people, and vitriolic atheists alike (the extremes of both groups) defining faith and God that I thought I'd open up and try to explain what God is to me, and why my horrifying childhood never shook my faith. 

In other words, I'll try to explain what I mean when I say I believe in God.

When I first told Beau that I'd been sex trafficked, he asked me how I survived. When I told him I survived because God was always there for me, he wept. What he'd been taught of God was not what I believed. I gave him a new view of what God might be. He finally really understood that we can reject everything religion has told us about God, and not be atheists. His gratitude was and is immense.

It was critical for me to help him understand that in no way do I believe that God "let" me be raped. In no way was the abuse a part of God's plan. I simply don't believe that God has that kind of power. God may be omniscient -- all seeing, all knowing, and all loving -- but God is not omnipotent -- all powerful. 

Belief in an omnipotent god who somehow wants a girl to be raped is a form of victim blaming. No girl deserves that, no matter what. I would hate a god who, for some mysterious reason, wanted and allowed these terrible things to happen to me. There is no possible way that such a god could be a loving god. And the God whose presence I always felt is a loving God.

In other words, I can rail against the injustice of what happened to me without needing to rail against God. Indeed, God rails with me. When people ask me, "How can you still believe in God after everything that's happened to you?" their question doesn't even make sense to me. Who is that god? Not mine, that's for sure.

I just knew that God couldn't physically intervene in my life and stop my abusers. After one of many gang rapes, I remember despairing about this. I knew God wanted to stop them, to punish them -- and couldn't. That was so hard. 

But God could help me, by loving me, and ensuring that I knew I was never alone. It may not sound like a lot, but it was. Anyone who has ever had a constant companion in the midst of suffering knows this. Love matters. Love helps.

Dress: ModCloth; Tights: I can't remember but I got them from Modcloth; Boots: Ecco; Sweater: Mak; Right hand ring: Birk's; Gloves: I forget but from Amazon; Earrings: Stylize; Cape, scarf, brooch, and earrings: vintage  
I never decided to believe in God. Long before I could speak or reason, God was just there, always, like air.

I would not have survived without God. 

My childhood was a hell beyond most people's imagining. Pedophiles raped so often and so brutally that they put me in this chair.

And, through it all, there was God. 

I always felt God's presence, like one feels the comforting warmth of the sun, or the soothing coolness of snow on a fresh bruise.

I think I first remember feeling God's presence in the roar of the autumn wind in the trees. Or maybe it was when, as a toddler, I bent down to look at some rocks and thought, "So this is the world," and it was God who was introducing me to this world, sharing my joy and mirth in this new discovery.

My belief in God is not something I can be talked into or out of, any more than anyone could talk me into or out of knowing that love is real. My faith is not a matter of logic. 

God was a companion, love, a witness to my suffering, a guiding force telling me that the people who raped, drugged, tortured, and beat me -- in the name of God -- didn't know God at all. I did. They were wrong. God was on my side, not theirs, no matter what they said.

God grieved with me, grieved that I did not have what every child should have: safety, security, familial love. But I did have love.

God helped me find a million small escapes that preserved my soul until my big escape: books ...

... cats ...

... fashion ...

... and nature. In my small, extremely rural, mountain town, I felt a great connection to nature. In it, I felt a connection to something much bigger than myself, much bigger than time, much more enduring than my abusers. I felt another side of God.

Hebrew has a word for this: olam - all that is was and ever will be in space and time. One of the most common Hebrew prayers refers to God as "melech ha olam" -- king of olam. But I think God is more than the king of olam. God is olam.

I felt both of these aspects of God -- companion and olam -- deeply and constantly. But not everyone did. And if they didn't know this thing about me, that I could feel God, they didn't know me either. And so they couldn't rape the entirety of me. I preserved my self.

The Romantic poets had another word for this sense of something bigger that we're most likely to experience in nature: the sublime. I've always been able to feel this sense of the sublime. Most often, I sense it in natural beauty, which is like a balm to my suffering. I call the sublime God, and that is why I named my blog Sublime Mercies.

I've always felt the sublime aspect of God the very most when looking at the mountains, but I also sense it in things like the rays of the sun that simultaneously illuminate and obscure the ordinary world around me. This is where the mystery of God comes in for me: God makes me see things more clearly even as they become more mysterious, teaching me that faith is not about answers so much as it is about questions, not about thoughts so much as it is about feelings.

God is in the shadows as much as God is in the light. Believe me. I know.

God imbues the world with beauty, sometimes where we least expect to find it. God is that beauty.

Perhaps I have always felt God because my life has been a trial by fire. I've been too close to death far too often to not know that there is something more ... 

... something beyond this life.

I was chained to walls, drugged, gang raped, beaten, tortured, witness to gruesome murder, starved, frozen, dragged behind a car ... I nearly died -- often. And always, in those near death spaces, there was something more, something beyond death, not just around me -- God -- but in me too. 

It was my soul.

No matter what they did to my body, I had God, and I had my soul, so I had hope.

I think this is part of why I love fashion. If beauty in nature makes me feel closer to God, then why not deliberately bring beauty into my daily life? Why not adorn my battered body with beauty? Doing so can bring me into a kind of harmony with olam, can cloth me in a small fraction of the sublime.

Probably because I have so much background in English literature and composition, fashion is a kind of language for me. How I pair pieces with each other is, for me, like a kind of syntax and grammar. I am composing meaning in my outfits. This often, for me, includes secret symbolism.

For example, the sunny yellow of these tights can be an expression and symbol of my own optimism. In a sense, then, they become a kind of expression of my faith. Usually, this is so subtle, no-one else would recognize it, but I know what it means and that's what matters to me.

Remember wearing barrettes like these? Wearing them now, as an adult, is a way for me to reclaim positive aspects of a mostly horrible childhood. I do things like that a lot. It's healing.

Fashion, or style, if you prefer, can help me feel like I am in harmony with nature, the auburn of my hair, harmonizing with the autumn leaves (yes, we took these photos some time ago) ... 

... while the caramel of my boots and purse harmonize with both my hair and nature.

And one and all can coordinate with my earrings. It all makes me feel like I too am a part of that something larger that is God, part of nature, part of olam. 

Child abuse is senseless. Beauty need not be. If I can create order, a kind of language out of beauty, I will do so. 

You may or may not have noticed that my outfit in this post is strongly influenced by the fashion of the 1970s.

Indeed, the dress immediately made me think of one of my all time fashion icons: Mary Tyler Moore. It was a time of strange colour combinations that didn't seem like they would work together.

In such unexpected beauty lies, I think, a key to how I survived my childhood. Life is full of unexpected beauty in the least likely places. 

Even in hell. 

And it -- God -- helped me survive.

Odd colour combinations, harsh angles, strange shapes ... 

... and near ugly textures, as in this Brutalist brooch, can startle with their jarring beauty. They contain within them a kind of contradiction: the horrible and the wonderful, all at once. Like life.

Even in hell.

Such fashion choices are not for wilting violets. They are not for those who would prefer to blend into the background. But that's not me. 

Long gone are the days when I had to hide who I was to keep myself safe. My silence protected me once but it's no longer needed. Now's my time to speak, with my outfit and with my words.

Does this photo remind you of someone?
Christopher Reeve as Superman
Yup. You know it! Of course, Superman wears a cape because he's a superhero.

I wear mine to keep me warm and dry on my scooter

Christopher Reeve after he became disabled
The irony of comparing myself to Christopher Reeve's Superman is not lost on me. When was he the real superhero? When he was tall and able-bodied and handsome? Or when, like me, he was brought low by disability? 

To me, the actual answer is that he wasn't a superhero either time, unless we consider what he did with what he was each time. Merely being strong and tall does not make one a hero. Nor does merely living with disability make one a hero. It's what we do with what we're given that makes heroes

Some may see someone like me as powerless. After all, I can barely even walk. Sometimes, I have to crawl. But I do still have power. I have the power of my insights born of my extreme experiences. I have the power of my words. So what is it that I should do with that power?

This is where we come to my third understanding of God. God has a will, a strong will, and it is up to us to try to ensure that, God's "will be done, on earth at it is in Heaven."

But what does God want? This is where those who believe in God are most likely to come into conflict with one another. There can be real disagreement about what is and is not God's will.

When I first met Beau's mother, an avowed and conservative Christian, she told me that she thought he and I were a good match because we "both like to read books and stuff." I agreed and added that we also have very similar morals. She gushed, "Oh, I know what you mean. I was so afraid he would end up with someone who had slept with lots of other men before him!"

I was floored. It never even occurred to me that this could be anyone's definition of morality. In fact, I have slept with lots of other men, and lots of other women too, but I always treated them with respect and dignity, so where was the immorality in that?

"I didn't mean that," I told her. "I meant morality like how we treat other people, how we vote, what we do for justice and the powerless." It was clear that I was making no more sense to her than she was was making to me.

And yet, we both made our decisions about morality based on what we believed was God's will. 

I remember having a discussion with Beau's father, also an avowed and very conservative Christian, about Quakerism. He kept asking me what Quaker rules are. I kept answering, "To live a humble life. To seek justice in all situations. To help the downtrodden. To pray to receive God's guidance in these pursuits." This made no sense to him. This was not what he meant by rules.

In fact, he was furious. "YOU HAVE TO HAVE RULES!" he yelled at me. I think that was the last real conversation we had. That was about four years ago.

Clearly, we don't agree about God's will.

The word for "rules" in Hebrew is "mitzvot." In my uneducated way, I've come to see this word as having two possible meanings. The first meaning is that of literal rules, and Judaism has a lot of them. Most religions do. The mitzvot tell us what prayers to say and when, what to eat, what not eat, when to celebrate each holiday, when to have sex, how many steps we can take on the Sabbath, etc, etc, etc. 

I remember going to Shabbat (Sabbath) dinner at a highly obervant Jewish couple's house on Friday night. The husband was a rabbi. In this house, we followed all the mitzvot, carefully and strictly. It was lovely. It was comforting. It was easy.

Rules like that are easy to figure out, easy to follow, and they give a structure and order to life that can be a great relief in a chaotic world. 

I left dinner that night convinced that such a life was the temptation which my God wanted me to resist. Such a life would keep me from working toward enacting God's real will.

You see, I've often heard more liberal Jews using the word mitzvot to mean "good acts," or "doing something good for the world or another person." You are doing a mitzvah if you help someone down on her luck, if you help do some gardening at the synagogue, if you give money to charity.

You are doing a mitzvah if you are working toward "Tikkun Olam," (there's that word "olam" again): working to heal the world. It's a concept Beau and I wove into our wedding vows.

This, to me, is God's will.

The world is badly in need of healing. I believe in evil, completely and totally. Evil is human. I know this more than many people can imagine. I have been the victim of human depravities so repulsive and cruel, they disabled me for life. I have also been the victim victim of human selfishness and indifference so cruel, it will leave a child in a situation that could kill her. This too is evil.

What does God want of me? What are God's rules? DO something about all this evil. 

Fight evil, teach compassion, help the downtrodden, speak out, work for justice, seek equality. This is my faithful duty to God, who saved my life.

And this cannot be dictated by literal rules, like when to wash my hands, what words I say when I pray, or when I get to have sex. To me, this is about being open, always learning, praying to God for guidance, never closing my eyes to the painful truths of the world. Each new situation requires me to again open my heart to try to learn God's will. 

I might get it wrong. I'm sure I will sometimes. I know that. But I can't stop trying.

In this way, faith informs every aspect of my life, from my choice to become a pescatarian in my teens, to how I raise my stepsons, to how I vote. But, because most people think of both faith and morality as being rule based, my faith is not apparent to most people.

An atheist friend of mine used to volunteer at an inner city church that helped street people and those who struggle with drugs and mental health. He worked alongside many religious people and marvelled that they did not make a big deal about being religious. They weren't, in his mind, moralistic and judgmental. Therefore, he felt, they were not religious. 

I argued with him that they were indeed religious, moralistic, and judgmental. Their morals were like mine: they wanted to heal the world and do good. They were judgmental: they judged those who who hurt the downtrodden, either directly or through indifference and inaction. They were religious: they faithfully did what they believed to be God's will.

I think that being faithful in this way is a great deal more difficult than being faithful in a strict, rule based way. Looking around at the world today, at the world as it has always been, I honestly don't believe the world will ever be completely healed. Evil will always persist. 

But so will goodness. Good people will always resist. So evil never wins, not completely.

Lately, my faithful acts feel like spitting into the ocean, or whistling in a gale. I am comforted by the Jewish teaching that, "It is not necessary for you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it." In other words, God knows I will never rid the world of evil, but it is God's will that I keep working to do so, even if it's imperfectly. 

This kind of faithful living requires me to be willing to say and do things that might alienate a lot of people. For instance, I am adamant that doing nothing to help abused children is, in itself, a form of child abuse. Who wants to hear that? I will lose friends. I already have lost friends. But I'd rather have a few friends who respect who I am and what matters to me, than many friends who do not. I don't need to be popular. I need to strive to do what is right. I need to strive to perceive and do God's will, as much and as well as imperfect little me can.

I do not do this for some posthumous reward. Many atheists claim that believers only do good works so they will be rewarded after death. To me, this is absurd and insulting. I do it because it's the right thing to do. I do it because I couldn't live with myself if I didn't. 

So what does happen after death? I believe in God, I believe in something beyond than this physical plane, and I believe in the soul. So, yes, I believe that, when we die, we do go on in some way. 

Do I believe in posthumous justice? To be honest, I'm an agnostic on this one. Since there is so very little justice to be had in this world, I hope there is posthumous justice. I hope those who raped and destroyed my body will be meted out just punishments for what they did. I hope all evil will be punished. 

This may not be charitable of me. It may not be forgiving, but it's my fervent hope. If forgiveness of true evil is what is just, I'll leave that to God. It's not going to come from me.

I hope I will be rewarded in some way for my endurance and imperfect efforts to serve God. I hope they will even out whatever bad I have done or caused, consciously or otherwise.

My life has been so hard, I really would like a Heaven of ease -- no pain, no fear, no brutality -- just ease.

I do have some hope that this will come. But it's not why I do what I do. It's not why I believe what I believe.

And that, my friends, in an oversimplified nutshell, is what I believe. I've tried to explain all this to people before but I am generally unheard. As soon as I say I believe in God, I seem to disappear! I am replaced by a paper cutout of what others think a "believer" is. This paper cutout doesn't resemble me in the slightest.

Remember, at the beginning of this post, when I told you all those things I don't believe? These are the things some atheists try to talk me out of believing. They seem incapable of imagining a faith that is different from the one taught by religion (interestingly, almost always conservative Christianity or Catholicism), and divorced from organized religion. Nor can they see my life as an ethical and intelligent one without atheism.

Despite my education and career, many atheists talk to me like my IQ has dropped at least 20 points, like I don't have several degrees, like I'm not the intellectual person they know me to be. One friend who has known me for over 30 years condescendingly snarked, "You know you're just brainwashed, right?" I know nothing of the sort! Another, who tried to get in my pants for years, told me that, since I believe in God, "You must at least admit that you are aligning yourself with evil," the evil in this case being organized religion. I need admit no such thing!

Of course, many atheists, my good friends, in fact, just leave me alone on this topic, and I'm fine with that. Obviously, in turn, I don't try to talk them into believing in God, something I know would be impossible anyway. They either have that feeling of belief in their hearts or they don't, and it's none of my business. Many their ideas about a good and moral life are very much like my own. They're trying to heal the world in ways that I respect. That's what really matters to me.

Meanwhile, because I don't live a life that fits some people's stereotypes of a faithful life, I've had a lot of Christians try to talk me into becoming a Christian. In fact, they often assume I don't believe in God at all! They seem incapable of imagining a faith that is different from their own (interestingly, virtually always a very conservative Christian one), and divorced from organized religion. Nor can they see my life as a moral, faithful one. 

They act like my own faith does not exist or is inconsequential, and like I learned nothing of God's saving grace in all the hell I endured. Ignoring the fact that I've already been saved, they tell me only "the lord" can save me. And, by "the lord", they mean Jesus and a whole set of rules that I believe are human-made and absurd. They do this by cherry picking irrefutable "facts" and "proof" from a book that I've already told them I don't believe God wrote.

And, here of course, just as I have many atheist friends, I have many Christian (and Jewish, and Muslim, etc) friends who don't try to talk me into anything, and I, in turn, don't try to talk them into anything. I also have many friends, more religious than I am, whose understanding of faith is much more like my own. They're trying to heal the world in ways that I respect, and that's all that really matters to me.

Still, because I get a lot of bogus objections to what people think I do or don't believe, mostly I keep my mouth shut about my very private, and very powerful faith. But I'm tired of letting others define God and faith. And I'm an honest person. Over and over again, people ask me how I survived, so I've given you my honest answer. 

I believe in God. God saved my life.

That's my truth. It's okay if it's not yours.

I don't need you to believe what I believe. But I do need you to respect my belief in God. It kept me alive. 

And that's got to count for something, no matter what you believe.

(I'm sharing this with Tina's Pink Friday, Adri Lately, Rachel the Hat, Not Dead YetHonest MumFashion Should be Fun, Style Crone, and High Latitude Style.)