by Ben Llewellyn-Taylor
For most of my life, Christianity defined my experiences of meaning-making in this world. I was raised in the church, came to my own beliefs in high school and college, and shaped my understanding of the world around mine and others’ interpretations of the Bible.
When I began to understand that my worldview was shaped by more than just Christianity, I wondered if it was dangerous to my faith to allow “outside”—that is, “non-Christian”—influences in. After all, outside influences were made out in my faith communities to be a no man’s land of sin and corruption. While all of my youth group friends in high school were listening to Relient K and Switchfoot, I was mining the lyrics of Manchester Orchestra and Bright Eyes. Of course, I also listened to the heavier Christian bands, but I felt far more rebellious wearing a Say Anything tee to Wednesday night discussion groups (never on Sunday morning like the actually rebellious kids).
My friends and pastors often took note, challenging me to be wary of the secular influences I allowed into my headphones every day after school. Unfortunately for them, the words positive, fruitful, and spirit-filled were not words I thought should describe music.
The problem with worship music, even at that age, was that it stopped speaking to me early on. When I felt that God had stopped speaking to me, too, I had no one telling me that God’s voice could be found outside of the church and its songs.
When I first moved away from my parents, I was starting my first job out of college as a teacher in Dallas. Through my teaching program, most of the friends I gravitated to had renounced religion at some point in their lives. A few were actively against religion, and I spent a lot of time trying to defend my version of Christianity to them while sifting through questions of my own. Although I recognized the many criticisms they had against religion, and resonated with most of them, I first learned from my church, my parents, and my mentors that I should work to honor every person’s wholeness, to love people more than I want to, and more than society encourages. What I could not defend was the moment I realized that my particular tradition did not mean every person’s wholeness, and what that meant for my own faith.
While in seminary, a few years after those initial defenses, I found myself surrounded by
Christians who spoke using the language I had grown up with. I did not know the extent to which I had lost it until I was around them, and words like purpose, calling, and God sounded wrong coming out of my mouth, like I was mispronouncing words I used to know. Amy Leach, in her essay “God”, writes, “The people say the word repeatedly, and the more repeatedly they say it, the less I can understand it.” I realized I was no longer at home in any group, had no recourse from the feeling of isolation in every conversation for or against the faith I once lived within.
In Ada Limón’s poem “What It Looks Like To Us and the Words We Use,” the speaker recounts a disagreement with a friend over the language of meaning: “You don’t believe in God? And I said, / No. I believe in this connection we all have / to nature, to each other, to the universe. / And she said, Yeah, God.”
“I refused to call it so,” the speaker says, looking out over the same landscape as their friend.
As I am navigating my own loss of—I wouldn’t call it faith—but faith as it is understood within the Christian tradition I grew up in, I am trying to understand why I have found myself so lonely in this journey, especially since learning that so many friends are navigating similar waters. When I stopped calling myself a Christian, I refused categories not out of rebellion but a loss for description: I am not an atheist, maybe agnostic, but I am not even sure I am not a Christian, since so much of what I believe grew out of that tradition, yet I am certainly not defined only by Christianity.
Categories can help us to make sense of the world, until we feel excluded from them or deny their ability to contain us. Then, categories betray our deeper complexities, more common than I once knew. They rob us of the ability to relate, to find common ground, and often cause us to feel that we have something to defend. What I detest in Christianity, atheism, and any system of belief or lack thereof, is the many forms of fundamentalisms that people fall into, wherein they cannot understand how anyone would believe what they do not. How anyone would disbelieve what they do.
If more people became sensitive to the beliefs of others, if everyone felt safe to openly discuss the intricacies of our beliefs, if those of us who believe what others do not or do not believe what others do were to say, “I see how that could bring you meaning for orienting yourself to this world,” would we reach a plane currently inaccessible to so many? To see that beliefs are not reasons for barriers between us? I find a lot in Henry David Thoreau’s regard for personal belief: “The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind. Why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of the others?”
Of course, by opening the door to so many approaches toward life, how can we agree on pressing issues of violence and responses oriented toward justice? I’d argue that we already do not.
Discussing the pictures depicting lynchings in the Jim Crow era, Susan Sontag says we might be moved to see the white Americans who lynched Black Americans as barbarians, or we might realize that at any given point in history “one person’s ‘barbarian’ is another person’s ‘just doing what everybody else is doing.’”
Throughout 2018, thousands of children at the U.S.-Mexico border were separated from their parents. Many of us watched in horror and spoke out, knowing all along that someday our nation as a whole will likely forget we did it and never acknowledge its evil. We want to know that someday someone will pay for it. History hasn’t given us cause to believe that.
To justify these separations, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited Paul’s words in Romans about submitting to the laws of a government. This misuse and outright abuse of governmental power in a nation that claims to separate church and state was then met by opposing scriptures, condemning Sessions and the current administration as a whole by using different interpretations of biblical texts.
I would have joined the chorus had I not become tired of going back-and-forth with the Bible.
“While the names of God were spoken by the best and the worst, by the clean and the dirty, … ” Pablo Neruda wrote, “with suspicion and hope they studied the possibilities / of killing and not killing each other, of organizing themselves in rows.”
If I could trace the steps back to my faith, to recognize where I lost ground, those steps would read like a litany of cracks leading to a barely noticeable break. Where did I stray? What steps did others take that I did not?
S.I. and Alan R. Hayakawa define language as an attempt to “make something happen,” but this attempt does not always produce results. Sontag, writing about our experiences looking at images depicting death, distinguishes between the acknowledgment of suffering and the protest of suffering. And that, too, our protests do not necessarily mean we have the power to stop something evil. Thus, the pursuit of meaning does not necessarily mean we have reason to be hopeful.
Furthermore, Sontag seems to reject the notion that a collective memory is altogether possible. We might look at the same picture depicting someone’s death and say, “Obviously war is bad and we should do what we can to stop it.” But Sontag posits that “no ‘we’ should be taken for granted,” especially when it comes to regarding someone’s pain. The same photograph depicting death of some kind could bring “a call for peace” from one and “a cry for revenge” from another. Thus, honoring all responses to life and death may be impossible.
Does that mean we shouldn’t try?
Malcolm X, often discussed for his shifting religious beliefs from the Nation of Islam to the larger Islamic community, encompassed an entire religious orientation within his statement: “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I’m a human being first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.”
I would like to find a language that does not divide people by religious or nonreligious, Christian or secular, this and its opposite. We are not labels to be made sense of, but humans with meaning barriers that could be traversed.
Like a region’s language, can we not become multilingual in what brings meaning to each person? This is not to say that each of the various religions seek the same mountain peak, but that we might understand why others seek a mountain particular to them, why some may not seek one at all. Within each language, there are a variety of vocabularies that converge or depart, depending on where you go and who you surround yourself with as you speak these languages.
There must be a way to frame human experience so that each of our complexities is honored. It demands of us that we don’t try to attach our personal labels to others, and also that we not try to simplify what was never meant to be simple.
One of my greatest anxieties about writing is that my family will see me differently, will worry over my ambiguities. After reading a previous nonsermon, my sister texted me a quote from Mary Morrison: “The new road is not marked at all, and I am feeling my uncertainties strongly.”
Audre Lorde: “The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference.”
Conversely, when it comes to pain, we would do well to remember that we can only sympathize with people’s experiences of it because we each have our own personal sense of pain. But we should never assume that pain can be shared in the same vein that joy can. If a friend stubs their toe, having done it myself before, I can feel their pain. But when women share how sexism affects them, I would be remiss to say I know their pain. I can acknowledge their pain because I have felt my own and do not wish it on anyone, but I should not overemphasize—and consequently erase—the particulars of this reality. Because I have felt my own pain, I can believe yours, and both wish for its end and work to prevent my complicity or direct involvement in it.
But to deny another’s experience of pain and fail to respond to the truth of another’s reality—to what religion does this belong?
Matthew Zapruder writes that it is not a lack of information that causes people to disbelieve in inequality but a lack of imagination: “They are cruel because to them, others have become an abstraction, and cannot be truly imagined.” To him, poetry can be the answer to reinvigorating a spirit of imagination in our culture.
Often, when people in today’s world say “there are two sides to every story,” what they seem to mean is that we should give racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia a chance to be heard out. As if these bigotries should be given equal weight to the people who suffer under them. “You also had some very fine people on both sides,” those infamous words of the president in reference to the white supremacists on the day that one of them killed a woman with their car.
Certainly we can find a way to honor different orientations to life, but not the ones that uphold prejudices, bigotries, and oppression as means to wholeness.
I contain meaning apart from my identity as a teacher. I contain meaning apart from my identity as a spouse, a son, a brother, a friend. I contained meaning apart from my identity as a Christian, but was it other people’s judgment that made me feel I could no longer contain meaning within that identity, too? Or my inability to disregard their judgment, to feel I could resist it?
The term for the ever-increasing population of nonreligious people in the world is “nones,” as if an entire generation is growing up apart from any meaning. Certainly this cannot be an invitation to forge community in spite of a lack of belief in the supernatural. Certainly there is more to gather around, to orient ourselves to, if only each other.
I wish someone had told me growing up that all of my obsessions—music, film, poetry—could exist under the same roof as my Christianity. Because no one did, because some said they couldn’t, because I believed them, I left one home for others and I haven’t felt whole since.
Kurt Vonnegut, in his novel Mother Night, wrote this mantra about meaning: “To be to each other, body and soul, sufficient reason for living, though there might not be a single other satisfaction to be had.” I think all of us, of any religious persuasion, would do well to focus on each other in the here and now rather than on some distant world that may be real for some, but so far has been sold as a lonely and not altogether inviting place. Thoreau’s take on this sentiment: “Talk of heaven! Ye disgrace earth.” Not that the religiously inclined should give up hope in an afterlife, but I do think we look too far past this one at our peril.
Despite our attempts to seek or evade meaning, the story of each of us goes on despite intention. We mean apart from our stated beliefs. “Us, the most fleeting of all,” Rilke wrote. But, he goes on, “to have been at one with the earth, seems beyond undoing.”
A friend sent me a clip from a Bon Iver show, where Justin Vernon wondered at meaning and posited that there might not be anything apart from us, anything greater than the friendships we forge and what we give to each other in relationship. The video was taken at his Eaux Claires festival, which many of my friends have taken a pilgrimage to yearly. They often cite a line from the festival, in reference to the rivers running through the city where the festival is held: “We do not know better than the river.”
The river has become a mantra, a meaning-giving symbol for each of them in different ways, but it did not take shape for me until I was preparing to say goodbye to a few of the friends who are moving away and bringing a close to an era in our group. On one of the first days that I realized the family I made apart from my own blood would soon be spread across the state and country, I stumbled upon a line from Czeslaw Milosz: “When it hurts we return to the banks of certain rivers.” (In his own musings on poetry, Milosz stated that a poet’s contemplations of the world for him acquired a religious dimension.)
I’m still trying to learn what it all means, what was lost and what gained in the process. I’ll return to the place where my rivers converge and let the currents speak, or else be washed away in the undertow that pulls me back to that which lurks beneath sayability, that which is above anything I might think I mean.
1. Amy Leach, “God,” Things That Are (Minneapolis: Milkweed, 2012).
2. Ada Limón, “What It Looks Like To Us and the Words We Use,” Bright Dead Things
(Minneapolis: Milkweed, 2015).
3. Henry David Thoreau, Walden (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1854).
4. Pablo Neruda, “Gautama Christ,” Winter Garden, trans. William O’Daly (Port
Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 1986).
5. Malcolm X with Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Grove Press,
6. Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
7. Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 1984).
8. Matthew Zapruder, Why Poetry (New York: Ecco Press, 2017).
9. Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night (Fawcett Publications/Gold Medal Books, 1961).
10. S.I. and Alan R. Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action (Boston: Harcourt, 1939).
11. Rainer Maria Rilke, “The Ninth Duino Elegy,” trans. Stephen Mitchell.
12. Czeslaw Milosz, “I Sleep A Lot,” Selected and Last Poems: 1931-2004 (New York: