There’s an image to which I can’t help but return. It’s one I’ve written about at least twice in the past year and it continues to be something I often contemplate. It’s an image of ruins, and I’m standing in the midst of them. Even so, to say that the ruins represent my life would be a gross exaggeration and wholly inaccurate. My life is demonstrably not in ruins. Quite the contrary, in fact: I’m the happiest I’ve ever been, and that’s not an exaggeration. In the time that has passed since I came to this country, I’ve built a life for myself according to specifications and desires all my own and, in some ways, it feels like I’ve finally started living. The picture of ruins that often comes to mind represents life before February 25, 2013, the day when my plane first set down in the Republic of Korea, one year ago this week. When I got on the plane in Dallas, I didn’t leave behind a life I ever hope to resume and that sentiment only strengthens with time.
That’s why I feel a need to qualify my use of the word “ruins.” As it turns out, ruins can mean and represent a great many things to different people. Ruins may be the result of neglect or of intentional destruction. Or, in other words, ruin can be wrought by time or by man. Ruins could mean something like Mohenjo-Daro, for example, abandoned for over 3,500 years and whose crumbled foundations are among the little that remain and are known of the civilization at whose center it once stood. It could mean the Forum Romanum or the Athenan Acropolis, structures that were once the main stages at the crossroads of the most powerful cities of the ancient world and which still stand as stark reminders of that bygone era. Or, it could mean something like the surreally abandoned cities of Pripyat in Ukraine or Oradour-sur-Glane in France, modern cities emptied under very different traumatic circumstances but whose memories and remains are still quite raw and fresh. It’s funny how such a small word can encompass so much meaning.
It’s worth remembering, as well, that even the most ancient and decrepit of ruins were once new and gleaming. Certainly, the average citizen of Rome at the height of its imperial hegemony over the known world never foresaw the day when the barbarian Visigoths and Vandals would sack and loot the city. Similarly in my own life, not until near the end, not until the things I had once called my demons at last burst through the gates of my resolve, did I see that any prospects of a life for me as I had once envisioned it were virtually impossible. But, the funny thing is, I found that I didn’t really care that much. The battle was one into which I had been conscripted anyway, to be honest. Indeed, I found myself joining the invaders in pulling down the battlements and barricades and setting fire to everything they’d once encircled. Perhaps, in the frenzy of the moment, I forgot how easy it is to tear something down but how difficult it can be to pick up the pieces. For someone raised his entire life to believe in unquestioned truth about almost everything, doubt is something to fear, something requiring the construction of deep walls and ramparts that it might be held at bay. They don’t ever prepare you for what follows when those walls come crashing down, though; not really. After all, it’s not exactly a part of the game plan, you know.
I don’t really know what I believe anymore, belief (or at least the illusion of it) having been the underlying bedrock of my old life. That’s really the point of my words here. Any clarity that I’ve hoped deep consideration of the matter would bring has not arisen. Instead of finding answers to my questions, I’ve found that I don’t particularly care at the moment what they are. Whether my predisposition to like men is a sin according to Christianity or not, it is what it is. If it isn’t, then maybe I’ll again find myself one day in a church with uplifted hands; if it is, then I won’t. What use could I have for a belief system that precludes me and people like me on the basis of immutable traits? Whether my sexual orientation is an affront to God or not, he has consistently shown a profound disinterest in changing it. If it isn’t thus, then I’ve got nothing to worry about; if it is, then God can have my respect once He’s explained to my satisfaction the logic of a Creator taking offense at His creation for things beyond its control. In the open letter I published a year ago revealing my orientation, I wrote, “And if it should come to pass that I was wrong and one day stand before God to face His stinging rebuke and rejection, then it will happen that I probably never knew Him anyway and will resign myself, as best a frail human being can, to consignment in the outer darkness.” Now, I would say that not only would it be resignation with which I face the prospect of damnation, but what I hope would be a steely determination fueled by the knowledge that a god who would give breath to a Creation designed for abomination and destined for ultimate rejection deserves and is worthy of nothing from that Creation. The power to create does not alone imbue a Creator with worthiness; a worthy creator is rather one who accepts responsibility for His creature and, if it’s broken, either fixes it or accepts it as it is.
Actually, and in all honesty, I’m currently unsure whether I still believe in God. I continue to be open to the possibility because I want to believe that there is a benevolent Creator who will one day right the world’s wrongs. Maybe that means I’m weak, but it is what it is. While the underlying narrative of Christianity as I understand it makes sense, there’s enough blood on the hands of Christians and of the God of the Christian Scriptures as well as enough shaky logic in those Scriptures to give me pause. In the end, that’s all I can really say about my faith at this point. I guess you could say I’m an agnostic who’s open to the idea of knowing, if it’s possible to do so. On November 10 of last year, I published an article on this site concerning my fraught relationship with faith, the Church, and things in between over the past year or so. Toward the close of those thoughts, I wrote,
I guess the biggest question–and the one for which I have no answer at present–is what comes next. I feel as though my faith is a chaotic mess of toppled buildings and broken down walls, like a city in the aftermath of plunder by a marauding horde. A smoky haze hangs over an eerie silence, for all the people have been put to the sword or carted away. Everything that was built has been reduced to rubble, at least partly because the foundations were faulty, and here I stand, in the middle of it all, wondering what I’m supposed to do next. Where do I go from here? How does a man fit into a Family that more often than not tells him he’s broken in need of repair simply because he’s predisposed to love differently? How does a person who’s agnostic on so many things find solace among people who so often demand certitude and ideological purity? The hell if I know.
I do suppose, though, that here, upon the vacant ruins of my faith and with the very stones that were thrown asunder, is as good a place as any to raise my Ebenezer. With true cinematic flourish, I lift my eyes to the heavens with the positioning of every stone, praying, ‘Hither by Thy help I’ve come,’ probably the truest prayer I think I’ve ever prayed.”
The thing that’s been on my mind a lot lately is wondering at what point does a mass of ruins become just a meaningless jumble of tumbled bricks and timber? When does an Ebenezer become just another heap of stones among many? I guess one could say it’s when, first, the poignancy and, finally, the memory of their meaning is extinguished. The world is littered with the remains of cities and civilizations that were once the centers of the lives of countless people. It obviously makes one wonder why–and at what point–people just decided it wasn’t worth it to rebuild after some sort of calamity and sought greener pastures elsewhere. The “why” part of that equation became clear to me a while ago: never undervalue the allure of a fresh start in a new place less burdened with memory. Increasingly, the corresponding “when” component is also becoming clear.
With the passage of time, I’ve come to the realization that I didn’t lose a relationship with God, but that I never really had one in the first place. The language and façade of the Christian religion was something I absorbed by osmosis–and quite convincingly–as the culture was so saturated with it. It was also familiar and, despite my frequent doubts about a wide variety of things, the devil you know is sometimes less intimidating than the one you don’t. The locus, the fulcrum of my faith was in my desire to correct a part of my being that I had been led my whole life to believe was wrong and broken. My sexuality isn’t wrong, however, and nor is it broken; it’s merely different. The questions and criticisms I have not only of American Evangelicalism, but of Christianity and religion in general are not the result of a faithless and rebellious heart, but of an inquisitive mind that is profoundly disinterested in “because we say so” or “because the Bible says so” as answers to complicated questions. If the Church and the Faith are both unable to hold up under such criticism and scrutiny or to present a narrative of morality and redemption that can fully encompass a human experience as varied and vast as there are people who have lived upon the Earth, then both will inevitably end up atop the garbage heap of history exactly where they will deserve to be.
When I look behind me, I see nothing I want rebuilt. I see no dreams whose pursuit I want to resume. I see nothing but a ruin that no longer bears any meaning for me. That’s why I’ve left it behind, surrendered to the forces of wind and time. Whether He’s there or not, I’m not going back to try to find God amid the rubble. Rather, it may be that, at some point in the future, in some new place, and if He really does exist, that I will find Him and we can start over again from square one. What I know for certain is all of the anxiety and confusion I used to feel about how someone like me could fit into the world I came from is long gone, as is the power that world held over me. I would like to believe in a just and loving God and believe that all of everything has happened for a reason greater than we can fathom but, at this point, I can’t say that it matters one way or the other to me. Whether life is the result of a grand design or the product of a series of incredible accidents, it is still beautiful and precious and undeserved and worth experiencing to the fullest measure fortune has granted us.
Back home in Oklahoma, just a few dozen yards from my family’s house, is a man-made mound of stones holding erect a branch of Bois d’Arc wood. On cool, clear evenings in spring and fall, I’d love to walk out through the tall grass and lean against it to watch the sun set behind the hills in the west. I’d wonder from time to time what it was, with theories ranging from an old claim from when the lands around my home were opened up to settlement to a burial marker for a once cherished pet. I even asked other people what they thought every now and then but, though they’d often posit a theory of their own, they’d admit that they really didn’t know and probably no one did anymore. Now that I think about it, though, I realize I was approaching it the wrong way. While it obviously meant something to someone at one time–maybe even something important–it is now clearly meaningless, nothing but a heap of stones.