Behind me, many leagues down a long and forlorn road lay the ruins of a city. Years have passed since a raucous mob burst through gates once thought impenetrable and pulled down walls once thought insurmountable. In the interceding years, rains have washed the fire-blackened soot from the streets. Ravens and swallows have built nests in the partially exposed timbers of burned-out houses. Rabbits have built warrens beneath the stones of the empty square and squirrels scamper along upper ledges, gracefully bounding across the void when they encounter a collapsed facade. No people reside here anymore: they all died in a futile attempt to defend the doomed polis as torches set it ablaze, fled in terror at the destruction, or else departed in its wake to seek greener pastures elsewhere. With that description, it would certainly be easy to look upon this scene in sadness and remorse, but not so for me. Were I to travel back along that rutted road to the place I left long ago, I would not see the remains of a place once happy and vibrant, but one that was full of oppression, confusion, and heartache. I would feel neither regret nor loss, but something akin to a soaring contentment, perhaps not unlike to the sort of feeling a freeman might experience were he able to look from a place of safety upon the decrepit estate of his deposed former master. This city is not a real place, as you may have guessed by now. It is instead a metaphor for something that once existed within and held great power over me but does no longer. That thing would be my faith.
This is an image I’ve written about in the past, and to which I keep returning because it paints a vivid picture of how I felt some years ago when I last came out of the closet. It also continues to be a window into my feelings at present, as my desire to find explanation and guidance for this life in ancient holy books and smoke-filled sanctuaries has withered away to nothingness. When I embraced my sexual identity, I simultaneously realized that a quest for heteronormativity had been essentially the sole driving force of my born-again life from the moment of its inception. All else flowed from this one elemental drive. Almost every waking moment of every day from the point when my sexuality first awakened within me around the age of thirteen was a constant struggle not to think about guys, not to think about guys, not to think about guys… well, you get the idea. Every prayer included at least one supplication to the Lord of Heaven for assistance in my fight against the “spirit of homosexuality” (to use Charismatic Evangelical parlance) that dwelt within me, constantly tempting me with bulges and pectorals and asses so perfectly sculpted that it should have been a crime to sit down on them. The barbarians were at the gates, and they never once gave up the assault.
There were times when I would let my guard down and look out upon the faces of the assailants and, when I did so, I saw not the snapping, snarling hellhounds I’d always been told I’d see. Instead, I saw the faces of people who could easily have been my friends; wild and ecstatic they were in a freedom I could scarcely understand. It was all a deception, my faith-driven inner self would tell me. They were enticing me out of the safety of my citadel only so that the yawning gates of Hell could open wide and swallow me up, body and soul, into the Lake of Fire. I believed that line for quite some time, for reasons that are hopefully understandable. I saw friends and people I had once known embrace their true selves and witnessed a cultural sea change where gay people went from a derided and scorned underclass to a minority group making leaps and bounds toward the equality they deserved. As I stood atop my battlements, the voices I’d listened to all my life—the voice of the Church, the pastor, the family member, the generic loud-mouthed conservative Christian moralizer—shrieked all the louder, continuing to warn me to be wary, to be vigilant, to stand fast against the forces of darkness that appeared in the spectral form of glittering adonises with heart-melting smiles. So, still, I resisted. Still, I prayed and beseeched God Almighty for deliverance and, still, none came. Nothing. Not a word of encouragement, not even a sign that he was listening to me at all.
Then, one day, something quite unexpected happened. It was as if scales had suddenly fallen from my eyes and I at last could see clearly. Before me, beyond the walled protection of my refuge, everything still looked the same. I still saw the promise of self-acceptance and freedom to be who I knew I was on the inside. As I turned back to look upon my fortress of refuge, however, it was as if I at long last saw what was really to be seen. It was a place devoid of color, of air, of life. It was a grey prison and the people wore shackles upon their feet. My own feet, it so happened, were shackled. So, then, at that moment, something within me broke open. It was as if I reached down and snapped the restraints from my ankles with superhuman strength—or perhaps it was that their strength was merely an illusion, but who can say? It was then as if I flung open wide the gates of the city and, at long last, I met what lay beyond, face-to-face. When asked what to do with the prison that had held me captive for so long, I took up a flaming torch in my hand and said to the jubilant masses, “Burn it to the ground.”
So, it burned.
I suppose you could say I finally saw that my faith played no other role in my life. It was a series of fortifications behind which I hid in an increasingly futile and personally destructive attempt to keep what the Church called my demons at bay. I had been warned all my life that beyond the protection of a Christian morality and steadfast resistance to my own natural impulses lay a precipitous downward spiral into disease, destruction, and death. All of that was a load of bullshit, I discovered. As my fears evaporated, I didn’t know what else there was for me to say to God. The only thing I knew for sure was that my system of belief no longer fit me. It was like a set of clothes that had grown too small, which I deftly ripped off and threw away.
I suppose it’s likely this illustration portrays the entire affair as quite sudden and I wish I could say that the demise of my faith was quick and painless, but it was not so—quite the contrary, in fact. It was a long, slow, and torturous demise that lasted several years, some before and some after I made peace with my natural self. That said, for a vast stretch toward the end of its existence, it was blissfully comatose. In fact, so deep was this slumber that scarcely can I point to the moment when it finally breathed its last. You might say I noticed its lifeless state when it started to putrefy, when the language and tenets of that former worldview began to feel anathema to where I had progressed intellectually and my professing even a perfunctory belief in them began to feel disingenuous. I recall a conversation I was having last year over drinks at a bar with a guy I had just recently met when out of curiosity I asked him if he was religious. His father was a Christian preacher, he told me, and had a habit of denouncing the LGBT community, meager though it is in Korea, as degenerate and demonic from his pulpit. He’d left the faith behind him, and only used it to keep up appearances when he was around his father. He then asked me if I was religious and my near-instant response surprised me: “I used to be.” Even as I said the words, it shocked me that they had come out of my mouth. Even more shocking was how natural and honest they felt as I said them. In the space of a few moments, I consciously realized what I suppose I had known deep down for quite some time: that, yes, I once was religious—very religious, in a sense—but was no longer.
The guy and I hit it off well that night and we stayed out late enjoying the unexpectedly vibrant bar scene in his little backwater city not far from Seoul. By the time we made it back to his apartment building where I was planning to sleep on his floor that night, we were both feeling a little wobbly—and a bit friendly, too. No sooner had the elevator doors sealed shut than our lips were locked. This was perfectly all right with me; this guy was quite a specimen, and I may or may not have copped a feel somewhere around the eighth floor. He lived on the seventeenth floor so we were well acquainted with each other by the time the doors slid open. We made it inside and both collapsed into his bed where we awoke the next morning with respectable hangovers, not the hate-the-world-for-a-day kind but definitely moan-like-a-zombie-for-five-minutes. As I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, the words I had said the night before came back to mind and I searched as deep as I could within me for some feeling of guilt or remorse or regret or something and felt…
I felt not even the slightest twinge of a sense that I had pronounced the end of my belief in the Christian Godhead in haste or, more to the point, that I had done anything wrong the night before with this guy I’d just met. We were both interested in each other and decided to have some safe fun as consenting adults. This wasn’t the first time a situation like this had happened and I doubted (rightly) that it would be the last. I don’t think it quite dawned on me at the time, but this marked the beginning of a new phase in my life: one in which I hadn’t renounced or abandoned my faith, but, for a multitude of reasons, realized that I had simply ceased to believe it, had moved beyond it, and no longer felt obligated to abide by its moral tenets. I was going to write my own rules. The shattered city’s last stalwart denizens had packed their carts and sought new life elsewhere, accepting, I guess, that it probably wouldn’t be rebuilt. I don’t know what can prepare a person for that, and I certainly wasn’t prepared. So shocked and confused was I by this new revelation that I simply pushed thoughts on religion and spirituality out of my mind for a time.
I was baptized around the age of six or seven. I remember vividly the Sunday morning service at my dad’s church when the pastor’s wife sang a hymn that I’ve since forgotten but the words of which stirred my heartstrings in a way that I interpreted as the call of something beyond to take the only thing I knew to be the next step. As the service ended, I tugged on the sleeve of the pastor’s suit coat and whispered into his ear, “I’m ready to be baptized.” Soon thereafter, I knelt with my dad by his bedside and repeated after him a short prayer that asked Jesus Christ to “come live in my heart” in some nebulous and theologically ill-defined way typical of Evangelical churches in the rural American South. The next Sunday that I visited my dad (my parents divorced before I was two years old and I visited my dad every other weekend), I put on my swimming trunks and descended into the baptistery behind the pulpit. As I held my breath, the pastor quickly dipped my head beneath the water and raised me back again, an act that signified the death and burial of my sinful former self and my resurrection as a redeemed child of God. The casual observer might justifiably point to this moment as the beginning of my faith. Well, not so fast, I would caution. I was in the second grade.
At such a tender age, I could no more be expected to make informed decisions or form meaningful opinions about matters as fraught and complex as Christian salvation as I could about compound interest or linguistic relativity. I did what I saw those around me doing because I was too young to be anything but a product of the culture into which I was born. I had doubtlessly seen someone else, perhaps a little older than myself at the time, baptized some weeks before and knew this was something I was expected to do at some point.
No, for the real beginnings of my faith, you’d have to look much more recently, just a little less than seven years ago. That was around the time I started studies at Oral Roberts University, which I selected both because it was a respectable distance away from home and because it was a Christian “university,” which I calculated would be an easier sell to my religious family. Don’t get me wrong; I was somewhat of a Christian before then, but more in a Southern American cultural way than in any other. As an 18-year-old recent-graduate of high school, the main enticement of ORU was a chance to escape my hometown and live in the “big city,” which is what a town of 300,000 like Tulsa seemed like to me then. However, after I arrived and awkwardly stood through an hour-and-a-half-long commissioning service, 70 percent of which consisted of the campus spiritual leader speaking in tongues non-stop, something felt amiss. As I stood with my hands thrust sheepishly into my pockets feeling like a back-alley mutt at the Westminster show, I looked around at the scores of people my age who had grown up in Charismatic youth groups with their hands lifted high and eyes closed and looks on their faces suggesting the backs of their eyelids were a window upon the Throne of God. Discussing and unpacking all of the feelings I experienced would fill an essay all its own, but I can definitely say that the most prominent and prevailing feeling was jealousy. I wanted to feel what these other kids were feeling, or at least what it looked like they felt. A few weeks later, as I was alone in my dorm room with some contemporary Christian worship music playing, I worked myself up into a sufficiently intense emotional state that I started yammering in gibberish and believed it signified that the Holy Spirit himself had descended on me with the gift of tongues and that I had finally and truly experienced God in a real and tangible way. If there was a point when my faith was truly born, that was probably it, bizarre though it was.
As irony would have it, the birth of my inner spiritual life was also the moment it began dying in haste because this was when I finally grew deadly serious. This was when I resolved to break the cycle of guilt and repentance that had dominated my life in the years since I’d discovered I liked men. This was a battle and, damn it, it was a battle I was going to win. Drawing upon the strength of God Almighty and his angelic hosts, I was going to defeat this assault from the Enemy and I was going to be a normal, God-fearing, heterosexual, woman-loving, child-producing, tithe-paying man with a fish sticker on the back of his minivan or else die trying. The fundamental flaw in this plan was that I actually believed God would “heal” me—all I had to do was pray long and hard enough. Furthermore, the moment I became serious about my faith was also the moment I started asking serious questions about what it meant to believe it. As time went on, the answers I received to those questions simply grew less and less compelling and seemed to fail to take into account the true complexity of the world and of humanity as I saw it. I quickly tired of the showbiz brand of Christianity one encounters at places like Oral Roberts University and in megachurches across the American South. The more I attended these gatherings, the more they increasingly felt like expressions of a particular political ideology than any historical definition or expression of Christianity. I sought God in mainline denominations, the Catholic Church, and, ultimately, in the Orthodox Church. The latter of which still feels like perhaps one of the most authentic Christian experiences possible, especially if authenticity is measured in terms fidelity to historical practices. Every time I attended the Divine Liturgy, I felt as though I had stepped back in time to those centuries immediately after the death of Christ, as though this were the closest to God I could hope to feel. Even so, the underlying unresolved issue of my sexuality remained. I would lie in bed at night thinking about how great it would be to snuggle up against someone and then pray for forgiveness the next morning that the someone I couldn’t help but imagine had been a man.
One day, I simply grew weary of this cycle so I demanded an answer from God. Either I was broken and He could fix me, or I was merely different and fine just as I was. One way or another, though, I had and still have no intention of going through life alone. Neither did I have any intention of spending my life in a passionless marriage with a woman. Despite my ultimatum, there was nothing but dead air to be heard on the prayer line. It didn’t happen all at once, but that was the moment I knew I would eventually acknowledge who I was and waste no more time trying to mute the immutable. After I came out, the drive to pray evaporated within me almost overnight. I told myself it was because I wasn’t sure what to say to God anymore, but in all honesty, it was more because I was no longer convinced anyone was listening on the other end. The dissolution of my belief becomes a little hard to chronicle after that point. As I said previously, I simply reached a point where I realized I no longer found the Christian narrative a compelling solution to the world’s problems. It’s too simplistic, too Western. There are too many logical holes and too little historical corroboration. I can’t definitively pronounce it a farce anymore than a true believer can prove it fact but I definitely can’t say I find it remotely credible any more.
It’s doubly ironic how the loss of one’s religion can actually bring about a more in-depth examination of life and death. If not Heaven, then what? If not by the hand of God, then how? If all that awaits the human consciousness after the death of the body is eternal unconsciousness, then what is the point of anything? Then I started thinking about how insipid these kinds of questions are. Why is it somehow necessary for life have to have some sort of intrinsic meaning to make it worthwhile? I mean, I can’t speak with any certainty on these matters (and, honestly, no one really can), but my life is most likely the result of a complex series of accidents.
Eons ago in a long-forgotten tide pool, against all the odds, the right cocktail of chemicals came together, fused, and formed the first living cells. Ages later, the first complex life forms took the first intrepid steps out of the primordial sea and began colonizing the barren landscape. Still millennia later, the earliest members of Mankind ventured out of Africa and their descendants eventually filled all corners of the globe. Twenty-five years ago, my parents—two people who were not right for each other and whose marriage was likely doomed from the start—came together and created me. Across the vast expanses of cosmic time, had an infinite number of events transpired even slightly differently, it’s quite possible that I would never have existed. But they didn’t happen differently, and I do exist. If there is some sort of deity responsible for it all, then I invite him to reveal him/her/itself to me because I have a lot of questions for him/her/it. As is more likely, however, there is no deity working the levers of the universe. For reasons that even the brightest human minds can’t yet fathom, the universe and life and we ourselves simply exist, and for no particular purpose. I can personally attest that to be much of the draw of religion: it provides a simple, bite-sized meaning to a cosmos our frail minds are not yet and may never be fully evolved to comprehend. When viewed from one perspective, this concept of a universe devoid of intrinsic meaning can be a terrifying premise. It can also be liberating, as it has been for me.
If what awaits me after my death is an eternal and dreamless oblivion, then that’s all the more reason to make the most of the time I have before my elements return once more to the Universe. If my very existence is owed not to the machinations of a god but to an unimaginably fortuitous combination of chance circumstances beyond anyone’s control, then how much more beautiful and rare and precious does that make the life I or any of us have? How much more important is it for me and for everyone who has received this gift of life to drink it in for all it’s worth? What would that even mean exactly? I suppose I don’t see any reason why it can’t mean anything a person wants it to mean. I know that, for me, it means doing my best to avoid the beaten path, laughing as often as possible, and finding a special someone who will walk with me on this journey as we help each other try to make sense of it all.
Behind me, many leagues down a long and forlorn road lay the ruins of a city, but that’s not important now. I’m happy to allow what is past to stay in the past. What’s more important is what lies ahead, just over the crest of one final hill, which is a yet another city. This place is different though. There are no irrelevant holy books written by nameless desert oracles long ago to interpret here, no prognosticating moralizers screeching from pulpits or busy intersections, no temples or shrines offering up song or sacrifice to faceless gods in a nameless Beyond. This is a place of openness and questioning and searching. It has no walls to keep at bay the world without and no shackles to hold captive those within. It is, simply put, a place where life is free to happen as it may, in all its beauty and messiness and sadness and elation. It is a place where I don’t need the promise of Thy Kingdom Come to experience the joy and wonder of life on Earth, though I can’t see why it wouldn’t be a welcome revelation. If there are gods or goddesses somewhere out there who can hear these words, I would extend to them an invitation to join me here in this place. After all, if they did indeed create me, then they likely know I am open to intelligent persuasion. Let them be warned, though: if they’re currently worshipped by any of the organized religions I’ve yet encountered on Earth, they’ll have to a do a lot better than any of them have done. Still, I’m willing to listen.