As liberal social movements enter the mainstream, more and more young people struggle to reconcile their personal beliefs with the faith they may have been brought up with. As a result, many of us either break from it or attempt to reinterpret what we have been taught. Here, a young woman who recently reconnected with her Catholic faith examines the trials and tribulations of a modern believer, and the spiritual tug of war that ensues when one’s inclusive liberal values meet a singular vision of grace.
“Moral relativism is a dangerous thing,” the Archbishop intoned. “Only the Bible is true.” He gravely addressed a host of challenges to the Church in this time: nontraditional family structures, the normalisation of homosexuality, gender identities etc, etc.
It was the day of my confirmation – the final step to becoming a full member of the Catholic Church. For months, I had eagerly awaited mass every Sunday, to hear about our Lord and his love and mercy. I’d even invited my closest friends to church to celebrate. But now I was listening to the archbishop in the midst of an unanticipated sermon about Alternative Lifestyles, and half of us had been named as threats to the very community I was going to join. Can you blame me for my unenthusiastic “yes” when asked to pledge to turn my back on sin forever after that homily?
God’s first test, and I’d barely passed.
“God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” – John 3:17
People have been leaving the church in droves. I was one of them, and then I came back when I was nineteen to be confirmed.
For years, when people asked me what religion I was, I always said I was “raised Catholic” which is code for “I’m Catholic but I haven’t been to church except for Easter and Christmas and I don’t support the Church’s stance on many things and I feel bad about it”. The biggest reason for my leaving, I suppose, was that I didn’t feel I needed God anymore. I trusted my moral compass more than an institution with fast-fading moral legitimacy.
I went back because for once in my life I needed God to tell me what to do. I think that is what religion is for: when you really hate yourself to the point when you can’t even look at yourself in the mirror, and you think yourself the most terrible person in the whole world, who else do you want forgiveness from but God Himself? Every time I went for mass, the priest said something that soothed a wound – God wants you to return to Him, you are God’s prodigal son, Peter denied Jesus three times and he was still loved.
I cried at nearly every mass. The opiate of the masses is acceptance.
“There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.” – Proverbs 16:25
The honeymoon period was not to last. After spending four years as a heathen, I admit my memory of the Bible was hazy. Thus, when, during my first mass in years, the priest led the congregation in prayer for various peoples, including our brothers and sisters of other religions, my wary guarded heart fell to warm fuzzies.
But I, like many Christians, tend to forget (usually deliberately) that heaven is not open to people who are good simply because they are good. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith.” – Ephesians 2:8. Meaning heaven is for God’s followers only, no matter how good of a person you are.
The Church does its best to downplay this extreme position – partly because we are in a modern cosmopolitan world where inclusivity reigns, partly because fallen men are in no position to judge on behalf of God. But there’s no getting around the horrifying fact that the Bible explicitly says that my dad, my classmates, and my friends who don’t believe in the Christian God aren’t going to heaven. But faith is absolute, faith is extreme.
Two weeks before my confirmation, my class was provided a tiny booklet called “Going to Confession”. It was very handy. It was printed with the exact lines we needed to say, and a helpful list of sins frowned upon by the Church. All I had to say was: “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. My last confession was 4 years ago and these are my sins. I lied to my mother and said things I shouldn’t have. I’ve been losing my temper too much. I like girls at least as much as I like boys. I support the right to choose abortion. Also, I don’t really plan to stop doing the last two?”
After falling back into the arms of the church and the comforting embrace of God’s enduring love and mercy, hearing my catechist – a really sweet and funny lady – tell us with a laugh that it wasn’t normal for love to exist between two people of the same gender (and then various classmates pipe up with varying scathing takes on the Hot Issue of Repeal 377A) was sobering. There is Jesus’ all-encompassing love. There is also a hell.
“Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers – none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.” – Corinthians 6:9-11
My human feelings and desires and instincts, shaped by my upbringing in a cosmopolitan, liberal environment, often lead me to choose to ignore certain beliefs of the Church. I like to chalk things I don’t like in the Bible up to mistranslation – English doesn’t capture the real meaning of the original Hebrew! – or the human authority in the Church pushing an agenda led by their personal bias. But I’m not just questioning the Bible, I’m rejecting whole tenets. Actually, by definition, I am already a heretic.
A Protestant friend of mine who grew up in a much more devout environment but since distanced himself from the Church tells me that readings of the Bible which gloss over God’s wrath and justice, to focus on Jesus the “ever-loving, ever-patient shepherd who supports feminism and LGBT rights”*, distort unpleasant tenets of Christianity to “fit more comfortably into a modern worldview”.
I can’t argue – the archbishop’s homily was a sharp reminder that God’s judgment exists, no matter how carefully priests have papered over it for the benefit of modern congregations. (I suppose very few appreciate damnation and hellfire.)
*I go to a Redemptorist church, which could explain some of this.
My friend finds himself unable to adopt these views, for, as he puts it, “Christianity is a totalising religion, not just a small part of your identity or some sort of aesthetic posturing.” Thus, “people who walk away from the Christian faith are not necessarily those who don’t understand the tenets of Christianity, but rather, those who understand them best.”
But perhaps practising faith doesn’t have to be so cut-and-dried. A Muslim friend of mine explains that she felt distant from her faith when she began to “understand the social role of women in [her] religious community” and felt she couldn’t “conform to the way of life it demanded of [her].” In spite of that, she feels that Islam aligns pretty well with her personal philosophy, but when it doesn’t, such as in the case of feminism or gay rights, she “tend[s] to prioritise not being a dick to other people as opposed to the doctrine of [her] faith”. It’s more about following the spirit of the book rather than the letter.
For years, I also shared the belief that as long as I lived out values like mercy and kindness and selflessness I’d be a good Christian. Yet a non-Christian can live a secular life and practise those values all the same. I can’t be a Catholic if what I follow are humanist values rather than God’s Word.
“So, because you are lukewarm — neither hot nor cold — I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” – Revelation 3:16
Religion is a whole bottle of a hundred pills ranging from the size of a pea to a snooker ball. You swallow the entire bottle or you throw it all away. It is unapologetically built on dogmas you absolutely are not allowed to question (leading to ten-year-old me growing disillusioned). There is a single truth (the Bible). So how do you say, without a shred of doubt, that you are a member of your religion when you outright disagree with something God says?
Sometimes, I am able to hope that my personal beliefs and my faith are not so opposed. A Catholic friend of mine who still practises, reminds me that conflicting beliefs can coexist. She chooses to deal with doubts that the church’s teachings have been “corrupted by man’s agenda” by “being open to learning” through face-to-face conversations with people of different views. (She also really loves watching the Middle Ground video series). “Having compassion and receiving it in turn” is ultimately the most important thing to her as a human being and a member of her faith.
My Muslim friend has also found a relatively comfortable way to exist as a queer woman and a Muslim. She tells me Islam is not so much about “God’s wrath and more about forgiveness and peace” and sends me an article by Fauzan Alavi about Islam in India. He argues that “gross misinterpretations of the Quran are part of our life.” For example, the practice of triple talaq does not exist in the Quran. For her, the conflicts between her values and Islam lie not in the religion “inasmuch as the patriarchal communities in which it exists”.
Similarly, I’ve always clung to the hope that everything standing between me and my faith was the fault of the people in the church. The corruption, the misogyny, the bigotry, the real intentional harm it has dealt to people who didn’t fit their idea of a perfect Christian was all them. Not God. God is on our side. It’s all because of interpretation, I say. The sin of Sodom wasn’t homosexuality, it was being a bad host! I admit I have always preferred the revisionists.
But what if I’m wrong? What if God actually is a bigot? What if at the pearly gates – presumptuous to assume I’ll be there in the first place but bear with me – I’m told, “It is a sin to lay with a woman as with a male, but if you repent you will be forgiven.”
(The famous “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” from Leviticus 18:22!)
I cannot accept that for some, a life of repression and damage is the alternative to hell, while others are able to sleep easy regardless of who they love. I might be alone in this feeling, but salvation is less precious to me than believing that God is loving and merciful and ultimately wants for us to show the same to everyone else. I returned to the church because of it, and I don’t know what I’ll do if, against my deepest hope, His love is really so conditional.
I don’t know if I’ll ever reconcile my personal beliefs with my faith. I am embarrassed to call myself a Catholic when I’ve cherry-picked my beliefs and ignored the verses that don’t fit, don’t agree with a third of what the leaders say, and confess only half my sins. I am embarrassed saying I’m bisexual when I can’t/don’t really want to come out and I don’t know know what to say about these issues.
I really hate to invoke the haloed word “identity” but there’s no way to negotiate these clashing personas – the flawed-but-learning Catholic and the unrepentantly-out-and-proud modern person, without feeling inauthentic and fraudulent. I’m not really either of these people and where does that leave me?
Once, I asked my catechist how we can believe in science and creation at the same time. She said, “If we explain the theory of relativity to cats, they cannot comprehend it. But that does not mean it does not exist.” Family and priests alike have told me faith isn’t complicated, we just have to entrust everything to God. I understand why many Christians would rather go through a life of unambiguous faith. Infinite benefit awaits. Yet the thought of repressing the doubt I feel towards certain beliefs scares me so much more than the thought of losing faith (and going to hell).
People being who they are without punishment matters a lot to me. My faith matters a lot to me, too. My catechist crafted a really persuasive analogy, except cats don’t care about physics, and people care about their beliefs.
I do think that it is in our nature to be contradictory and make things difficult for ourselves. And I suppose I’m okay with wandering everywhere and settling nowhere, for – when it comes to be choosing between my personal values and my faith – struggling eternally to reconcile both might be better than choosing a side and losing one or the other.
First-Person is a narrative column by JUNK, exploring the real lives and perspectives of people in (or influenced by) Southeast Asia. Have a first-person story to share? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org for collabs.