December 12, 2021
“I feel like I’ve been lied to my entire life.”
This was said to me by a spiritual care client a few years ago. As I held the space for her journey to heal from religious trauma and reclaim the spiritual power that had been taken away from her by religion, I understood her sentiment all too well.
When I began my deconstruction journey by leaving church, my deep fear of being alone in this spiritual wilderness would quickly turn to anger as I recalled the countless times I had been gaslighted (because it’s never the fault of church leaders), and the times I had been forced into submissive obedience (because members of the church are all sinners who can only be redeemed through a convoluted salvidic system that is a moving target).
It was in those moments that I would spew those same words in an attempt to release my anger and reclaim what was lost, although I had no idea how to heal and move on.
What was can be no more
Although there were times when I longed for community and the comfort that can be found in like-minded souls coming together for worship, my deconstruction journey turned towards healing when I accepted that what was can be no more. This revelation came when I understood that leaving any situation is never easy, especially when there is trauma involved. For me, the unknown of my future was less dangerous than returning to a harmful, hurtful and anything-but-spiritual situation that existed in church.
Trusting the spiritual wilderness
For many of us who have made the choice to leave church forever, the most challenging aspect of healing from religious trauma and deconstructing from a toxic theology is the spiritual wilderness -- that dark abyss where one loses all their identity that was tied up in their church experience and have no road map on what comes next.
People crave community and togetherness. This is what church offers so many people, even those who reject the theology but stay because they are comfortable.
I tried “faking it in the pews.” While it may work for some, it didn’t work for me and others like me. We who were in leadership positions or were viewed as a threat because of our relationships within the church, nothing but absolute submission and an outward expression of our faults to show the congregation that we accept the church leaders’ authority over us would appease leadership. For me, it was a never-ending stream of phone calls and emails from well-intentioned church members pleading with me to submit, with phrases like “I’ll pray you’ll remember your place in our church family.”
Looking back on those early days of my leaving church while I was still attending church, I can see that I absolutely was a threat to church leaders. I would not remain silent about the hypocrisy, the back-room meetings where a select few would undermine the decisions the volunteers had made to complete church projects, the refusal to share church finances with congregants yet continually pleading for more revenue to cover unspecified expenses, the preaching of prosperity gospel that inferred blessings on earth were directly linked to your tithing to the church, and the sermons aimed at guilting church members to do and give more -- all unpaid of course -- for the “glory of doing the Lord’s work” -- because “if you have time to watch TV on the weekends, you have time to work at the church.” (yes, this was actually said).
The continual barrage of church leaders and members pleading with me to come under church authority began to exhaust me, and I eventually realized that the only way to silence this was to leave. Looking back that no doubt was the intent, because I was in an either/or situation -- submit or leave.
And so I left.
The spiritual wilderness that I found myself in took me through some hard truths that I was finally ready to face. I won’t lie and say deconstruction was easy. It wasn’t, but I would do it again if it meant that I landed where I am today -- healing and helping others do the same.
Some people who deconstruct desire to return to church or a spiritual community that will enrich and nurture their spiritual journey. For many of us, however, with deconstruction came the awareness that church is not only no longer a requirement for our spirituality, it is a hindrance to our spiritual journey.
This is the first step for the deconstructionist who chooses the spiritual but not religious path. Our embracing this path as our truth does not mean we reject yours that leads you to church -- although it would be irresponsible of me to not place a hard stop here and openly condemn some churches’ role in inciting extremist views that lead some to believe that they are morally and spiritually superior to other humans.
We who walk this spiritual but not religious path do so with no need for hard rules around our rituals, our practices, nor do we feel the need to vocalize our beliefs. While that may seem counter to the way some understand spirituality, allowing a fluid spiritual experience that is unique for each human is central to the spiritual but not religious path.
The spiritual but not religious path is often labeled “spiritual light” by those who seek to condemn it, but the truth is it is anything but light. It is hard, sacred soulwork that demands personal accountability for the spiritual sojourner to show up, do the work, and heal the wounds that are preventing them from showing up in the world as a better version of themselves.
This outward expression of faith that calls for sacred activism in a hurting world is often lost on those whose religious beliefs reject the pain in the world and treat our human experience as “we’re just passing by” so why bother with petty things like caring for the earth and all of its inhabitants?
Why bother indeed
This isn’t an essay defending the spiritual but not religious path. It doesn’t need to be defended. It just is and will continue to grow and flourish beyond the control of religion with or without my help. The data clearly shows that every day more and more people are turning away from religious dogma and looking for something….”else.”
That “else?” Beloved, that is between you and your spiritual wilderness. But let me assure you that the work you do here in the spiritual wilderness will point you to your sacred true north in ways that people like you and I could not find in church. Here is where we learn that religion was never supposed to be the keeper of an individual’s spirituality: it was to be a nurturer. Religion weaponized spirituality when men who controlled the church’s leadership and finances figured out that even more power and riches could be had if religion was mandated through the powers of government.
So many people who find themselves in the spiritual wilderness -- myself included -- fear the future because it’s hard to see the path that will give you hope and anchor you spiritually.
Trust that the path is there.
Trust that what you need will arrive at just the right time to help guide you on your spiritual but not religious journey.
Trust that the Holy can be found outside of church -- all you need to do is to learn to look for it in the hidden moments of your day.
Trust that the healing will help you release that which no longer serves your highest good.
Trust that each day will be Holy.
Trust that you are Holy.
Trust the Holy in the everyday.
This is where the healing -- and living -- begin.
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