I’ve been trying to figure out what’s really lead me toward neo-paganism in recent months. I think it has a lot to do with changes in my feelings toward Christianity. As I said, I live in the South, famous for the fervor of its Christian adherents. My husband and I moved here a few years ago and several months later I found a job at an art studio. I still didn’t know many people, but I would chat often with customers who would come in to browse. One of these customers was an older woman who went to a large Protestant church in town, and upon learning that I had just moved here and had few friends, she introduced me to a Bible study group for military wives.
I was a bit hesitant, since I was aware of the evangelical overtones at this particular church. I was unsure if having been raised Catholic would be an issue. But I gave it a shot. The customer from the studio helped me find my way through the giant church campus and got me settled. The women there could not have been more kind and welcoming. They didn’t try to elevate the hardships they went through and belittle mine, even though my husband was a young officer who had not yet deployed. They didn’t make me feel less because my husband and I did not yet have children. They were respectful when I or anyone else disagreed with whatever study we were working on. These women were instrumental in getting me through my husband’s first deployment and a strange, exhausting sickness that occurred at the same time. I let people in too. I watched their children when difficulties arose. I helped these women pack and move while their husbands were deployed. I cleaned and did chores when people were recovering from surgery.
I’m not writing these things to say I’m awesome, but to demonstrate how important the group was in my life. I thought that this was the best living example of Christian life — a group of women, overcoming the dogma and minutia of the different Christian sects and just following the commandment to love each other and love God.
As much as I did, however, I felt like I was, in a way, faking something. I didn’t believe everything in the Bible literally or that every word was written for me. I’ve read through much of the Old Testament sequentially, along with bits and pieces of the New Testament. But I’ve always had my reservations. And oh, all those niggling questions. What was Old Testament God’s problem? If he made us in his image and is all-powerful and all-knowing, wouldn’t he figure out that the Israelites would get sick of eating manna for forty years? Why would he keep Moses, someone who basically did everything asked, from entering the Promised Land? Because he struck a rock twice instead of once to make water burst from it?
I’m sorry to say it, but Old Testament God is an ass.
I concluded that he wasn’t the god I believed in. And I was glad for the role that Jesus played in introducing a kinder (read: more reasonable) God. But there were a lot of things about Jesus too that I didn’t feel added up either. Why were the stories in the Gospels similar but different? Why were the Twelve Apostles all men, even though Jesus preached equality for everyone, regardless of gender? Why were the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John included when the Gospels of Philip, Thomas and Mary Magdalene were not?
I’ve always been fascinated with early church history, although everything I have learned was never in a church setting. I’d read as much as possible about biblical archaeology, watched documentaries on the times of Jesus and the lives of the Apostles. Why was Peter so into celibacy? Jesus didn’t say anything about that (at least not to my knowledge). It seemed like just another way to blame sexuality, and later, women, for being a hindrance and distraction from higher things. Why was Paul so obsessed with orthodoxy that he hounded Christian communities in his letters to not interpret Christ’s teachings for themselves? I had at one point taken everything in the New Testament for granted, but now I just started seeing men’s sticky fingers all over it. I could see Jesus’s overall message and how it was good, but I didn’t know if I could really take anything else for certain. There was too much human interference.
While my husband was deployed and I was sick, I remember I had a hard time sleeping in an empty bed. I slept on the couch for weeks. Around that time I first learned about binaural beats and how they can induce certain states of mind by controlling the frequency at which your brain vibrates. I can’t remember what range of frequencies I was listening to one night, maybe alpha waves. But I started to breathe evenly and deeply and I teared up. My eyes opened wide and I felt like I was floating. I just started talking, even though I was alone. I said how I was thankful that Jesus had brought me to God, but that he was just one Spark, sent by God. As I talked, I said that there have been many Sparks: Abraham, Moses, Muhammad, Buddha, Confucius. They were all sent at a specific place and time to bring people to the Divine. Their messages were different because they were separated by time, space and human culture, but the the point they mean to get across was to seek the Divine.
I felt a bit removed from the women in my Bible study group, like I was learning something secret and contraband. I did not accept Jesus Christ as my personal lord and savior — Jesus was my guide, not my savior; I didn’t need saving. God gave me free will and a healthy, questioning mind. He gave me the tools to care for myself.
Over time, given the high turnover of military personnel and their spouses, the makeup of the group changed. In addition, an advertisement for the group went out after a service at that evangelical church and the group grew exponentially. I felt more and more distant from these women. The assumption was that because we were all Christians, we all viewed the world in the same way. The Bible is infallible. Non-heterosexual people are sinning against God. The only valid version of Christianity is an evangelical one. Abortion is unacceptable in all cases. Trusting in God to solve all your problems is the only thing a good Christian can do.
Around this time I started reading How Jesus Became God, by Bart Ehrman. I haven’t completed it yet, but the chapters I completed were fascinating. They were also the nail in the coffin. His hypothesis is that Jesus never claimed to be the Son of God, but that his followers made this claim, coupled with his Resurrection, to help fledgling Christianity compete with the cult of the Roman emperor (who was also called the Son of God, among other things). In this theory, the differences in the Gospels made sense — the Gospels were compilations of the stories and sayings of Jesus first circulated orally after his death, meant to convert those who heard them to Christianity; not to relate facts. The Gospel of John, the most recent gospel, written fifty to sixty years after his death, was the only one in which Jesus claimed to be the Son of God specifically. Again, these claims could easily have been made by Jesus’s followers and placed in his mouth for the purpose of deifying him and winning more converts. I won’t give more of Ehrman’s points away. The book is fantastic so far.
That being said, I saw how a historical Jesus could have fit into the idea of God (or Gods, as I’m learning now) sending different Sparks to humanity. I had never thought people of other religions were going to be punished for not believing in Jesus. And now it just felt right. I felt released. I also felt like I was lying for the sake of the women around me.
I still attend the Bible study occasionally. After all, many of the women are still my friends. I don’t always do the work or take part in discussions. I simply listen and take away what I can. But I yearn for a closer connection to the Divine, which is why I am here.