Christmas After Faith Transition

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My earliest Christmas memories are of deep drifts of snow visiting my grandparents house in New England. They lived on top of a big hill, and sometimes when it was too icy, we had to wade up the hill through heavy drifts of snow. The snow made for fun snow fights and sledding, and defrosting afterward as we hung our wet things by the large wood-burning stove in the basement. Every Christmas Eve there was a reading of the nativity story from Luke, while the children dressed to play the various parts with robes and other costume pieces gathered from around the house. At the end we sang Christmas carols, particularly those that are also found in the LDS hymnal. An afterthought was the laying out of stockings and anything about the Christmas tree.

My parents never taught me to believe in Santa Claus or told me that he brought me presents. I learned from other sources that he was watching to see if I was bad or good, but I found that he never brought me the presents I wished for and he didn’t retain my interest for long. Unfortunately, I also felt that Jesus didn’t find me to be very good and didn’t give me the kinds of things I wished for either. I didn’t get answers to my prayers, but that didn’t diminish my belief one whit. I was just convinced I wasn’t a very good little girl. It was easy for me to believe it was my fault whenever religion didn’t play out for me how I was taught it should.

My testimony of Mormonism eroded slowly over decades. I desperately fought it within myself. I repeatedly stamped down my own budding feminism and self-indoctrinated with old conference talks to fight against it. I tried to reconcile the ugly things I learned about church history even when I found them morally repugnant and made me doubt the goodness of God. I clung for a brief time to symbolic interpretations that gave me hope. I thirsted after the divine feminine. I tried to be obedient enough to earn God’s blessings and respect. I demanded, I cried, I wrestled. The worst part of it was the isolation I felt, having no one to talk with about what I was feeling. And God was silent. When my foundations in Mormonism finally experienced an earthquake, I thought I would still be able to hold on to Jesus Christ and some form of Christianity. But almost the moment I turned my thoughts that direction I felt a familiar crumbling beneath my feet.

Eventually I went down a second rabbit hole, wherein my interpretation of the traditional Christian narrative unraveled, just as my Mormonism had. The last few Christmases have been painful. At first I had no idea what to do with it. I had always taught my children that the ‘true meaning’ of Christmas was remembering Jesus. Suddenly I had no idea if Jesus was a real person or not, much less if he was the son of God, or my Savior. My husband read the Christmas story from Luke while my children acted out the nativity story, while I sat numb and overwhelmed with my own ambivalence. I tried to sing the familiar songs, while inwardly cringing and spiraling as I questioned the messages of those songs. The next year, I was silent and didn’t sing the religious songs. We didn’t have the nativity play that had been a yearly tradition through my entire life. The following Christmas I started to sing again, though I still didn’t know why.

I find that each year as time passes the pain is less acute. This season as I began to hear all the old songs have touched less of a nerve than they did when I first grappled with who I was and what my new worldview would look like. I’m not going to pretend this is all behind me, as I think my worldview may continue to evolve throughout my lifetime, but I thought today I could talk about the beautiful things I get out of the Christ story, even as a person in a non-literal evolving stage of belief. I have no desire to hurt anyone with my heretical views, and hope I am expressing clearly the things I love about my tradition.

The nativity story is a beautiful tale, even when seen as mythological. I like the message of God himself coming down among the people of the world as a helpless infant. I embrace the idea of the divinity of each human life, the great promise and hope of a child coming into the world. I like the idea of an unknown divinity masquerading in the midst of the most common and humble among us, that we should look to and treat others as divinities in disguise. I like the idea of giving generous gifts to the poor. I like the idea of all creation celebrating a human birth. I love that it is the same time of year as winter solstice, and the symbolism of the cycles of life in nature that are brought through the darkness and death of winter, to the light and life of spring. The timing of Christmas as 3 days after solstice, is apt as the lengthening of daylight first becomes apparent. I think ritual can be beautiful and meaningful in expressing deep truths through metaphor.

The gospel message as I understand it is that all of us can be reconciled to God through Christ. This also is a beautiful message. To me it means that we can always change and become better. That when we have done something wrong, we can still be good people and won’t always be stuck because of past mistakes. I don’t know if there is a personal being (or beings) who is God, but I can think of God as a oneness and connection to all life, and a transcendence beyond the self. I feel like we get cut off from that when we are acting in selfishness and that we need a way to be reconciled. I like the imagery used to express these ideas in scripture “To be made clean”, “To be saved from sin”, “To be reconciled to God”, though I can’t say I embrace these literally, I enjoy the questions and thoughtful conversation these kinds of messages can spark.

The moral and ethical teachings of Jesus are beautiful and meaningful. I love Jesus. I am okay with calling myself a Christian, as a follower of Christ. The sermon on the mount as a collection of the teachings attributed to Christ is beautiful and meaningful. The commandments are general statements of good morality like, don’t kill, steal, break marriage vows, or defraud others. I love that Jesus specifically taught to love all people regardless of their background, he was a revolutionary for his time in reaching out to people who were despised – women, non-jews, sinners, etc. I love the idea that people of all genders, races, cultures, and walks of life are equally deserving of our love and should be honored and respected as part of our community. I love the idea that the ‘kingdom of heaven is at hand’, meaning right now in this moment it is accessible.  I think it can be part of a meaningful life to seek to understand in implement these teachings, as well as to seek out other sources of wisdom to inform one’s worldview and benevolent actions.

I love Joseph Campbell’s sentiment that there are truths that can only be expressed in metaphor, and that all religions are equally true (in the metaphorical sense). Mormonism was my inherited spiritual dialect, and Christianity the primary spiritual language. I no longer consider myself a practitioner of Mormonism, but strive to take with me all the best parts.

There are also beautiful messages about Christmas as it translates to a more secular viewpoint. My youngest wants me to read “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” every day. Sometimes I need my heart to grow three sizes. I grew up watching“It’s a Wonderful Life” and enjoyed seeing the difference one person could ostensibly make in the world. I particularly love Dickens’ Christmas message, brought by the repentant character of Marley ‘mankind was my business’ and Scrooge, who ‘honored Christmas in his heart, and kept it all year.’ Hoping that we can all keep Christmas in this way.

Chiaroscuro

Chiaroscuro is a play of light and shadow. Finding noisy messy lovely life in all the shades between.

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10 Responses

  1. Wendy says:

    Beautifully and poignant, my friend.

  2. SC says:

    This is powerful. Thank you for showing us how to find beauty anywhere, even among the diverse teachings and beliefs of others. As somebody who is going through a faith transition myself (because of the way Mormonism treats women, LGBTQs, and children) I am amazed at the way some refuse to see the good in those whose beliefs change mid-life. Your perspective here embodies the Christ-mind that the Biblical narrative strives to teach us: that in humbling ourselves as little children we can become more loving and united. I am seeking a community where this is the case, and where all of God’s children are equals. Thank you for teaching me here the exact sort of mindset and leadership to seek after in my new tribe as part of this faith journey. Happy holidays to you and your loved ones!

  3. Sally says:

    I’ve been asssessing the metaphorical take-aways from Christmas this week myself. Thanks for taking the time and energy to share your thoughtful evaluation. The promise that we can always and continually build a new life is ironically fitting for those of us who are considering whether Mormonism/Christianity is real to us anymore.

  4. Ziff says:

    I love this post, Chiaroscuro. I love how you’ve expressed so much of the difficulty of finding that a religion that used to be a solid foundation turns out to crumble and has to be reconstructed to have any meaning left at all. Although my experience has been much less painful, I think I’ve followed many of the steps that you have, and I love how you express the difficulties here.

    In particular, I relate so much to this line. This was very much my experience of Mormonism growing up. It never quite fell together like it was supposed to, so of course I was sure that the problem was with me, because that’s the only narrative I knew.

    “It was easy for me to believe it was my fault whenever religion didn’t play out for me how I was taught it should.”

    I also love that you’ve rebuilt appreciation for the pieces of Christianity that still resonate with you, because this connects with my experience too. What a beautiful post!

  5. violadiva says:

    Touching and relatable. Thank you, friend.

  6. Ari says:

    Thank you for writing this. Yours is so similar to my own journey. (I’m so glad I found Mormon feminists! For a while, I thought I was the only one.)

    Like you, as my literal belief has faded, I thought for a while that I could stay in as a non-literal believer. But, I have also kept a list of the pros and cons of Mormonism. And as the list of pros shrank, the list of cons became huge — and began to be generalized to all of Christianity. For example, (1) the belief that we’re not coming back to this earth — the idea that Jesus is coming shortly to burn the earth (and the wicked) creates a disincentive that prevents us from taking care of the earth. (2) The dark-future meta-narrative — the idea that the world keeps getting more wicked — causes us to have an automatic bias against progress, because we assume change is more likely to be bad than good. (3) A belief in the cosmological evil makes us fail to see that evil actually comes from ignorance (as Socrates said); instead, because we don’t recognize the “devil” in ourselves, we assume he must be in the other guy — the one who sees things differently than we do — and we give ourselves a pass when we do evil out of ignorance.

    I could go on and on. My list is long. I don’t know what to do about my Christianity.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for writing and sharing this. I have been navigating new waters of faith and this Christmas season had been…..different. I appreciate having some of my thoughts articulated out, as I haven’t quite gotten that far yet on my own.

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