This is a GUEST post. Every now and then we’ll get another writer in to take on a topic that’s been on their mind. This article is the first in a four-part series by Vanessa James, writing about her spiritual journey of doubt and deconstruction.
Vanessa James is a film/TV composer by day, singer-songwriter by night, radioactive at lunch, and trespasser by derelict buildings. She lives by the sea in Brighton but was born by the main road in Bradford to a wild Colombian mama and a polite English papa, which keeps her confused, but multi-coloured.
I’ve been on the most amazing truth-seeking journey in the last few years, still ongoing, and I hope it never ends because curiosity keeps my waters fresh.
At times it’s been harsh, lonely and confusing and I often wanted to retreat to my default belief-comforts because leaning into doubt is like leaning into a spike. Some nights I was brought to tears when seeing some of my childhood beliefs go through the fire and not survive; but it was inside that loss where a brand new space opened up, and where as an individual I grew so rapidly that I almost couldn’t keep up with myself.
What you’re about to read are a series of blogs I originally wrote for my own motivation, to keep me pushing through doubt in pursuit of truth, and to force me to carve out my own set of beliefs rather than letting conditioning, culture or conformity define them for me. I originally made this journey in secret so that I wouldn’t feel pressured to please any party or be swayed by anyone’s opinions – but now I’m in a stronger place.
So for the sake of any other curious cats out there riding a similar roller-coaster and finding it a bit tough, I’ve decided to go public. There’s a lot of brutal honesty in here, even some personal diary entries, but I hope it will help some of you know that you are not alone.
1. In The Beginning…
‘If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.’ – René Descartes
Raised within the bosom of Christian culture, I often felt that to doubt, or to think outside of the Christian syllabus, would invite an attack of the enemy on my unguarded mind.
Well, guardians of the straight and narrow, if God was God, he wouldn’t need protecting, right? Real truth will stand all fire. Even doubt-fire. And if God Almighty who has all power and dominon over darkness really does live within us, then why fear grabbing a coffee with that pathetic dark-side? See what Lucifer-Vader has to say. See where the doubting questions he plants in our unguarded minds really take us… because what if Lucifer’s voice is actually mine?
I once heard this:
‘The greatest advantage of speaking the truth is that you don’t have to remember what to say.’
This might resonate with many Christians because a lot of us tend to borrow the truth straight from the pulpit. We’re given some great pre-packaged defense arguments and tag-lines and they can become our personal mantra – our truth – except we didn’t ask the questions to carve the journey there ourselves.
We can end up sounding like robots – repeating the same things – but robots with conviction! Good lord, how couldn’t you take your hat off to Christian conviction? Look at the wild stories we have to plug: Adam and Eve, Jonah and the Whale, the Easter story! In all my life, why have I not heard any Christian say: ‘Hang on, this sounds absolutely ridiculous. It’s really hard to believe. I’ll dig deeper to see if I really DO believe this for myself.’ But no. Instead, most pull out the pre-made evangelical lines. There’s some good ones out there too. From C.S.Lewis, to J.John, to the witty sign-makers at churches around the world.
But what’s my line?
I’m V. I’ve been a born-again Christian my whole life. ‘Sold out for Christ’ was a trophy term I earned in my youth. My family, friends, and other people of influence around me have all been loud followers of the faith. I was born into a large, charismatic, vibrant and strong-cultured (especially for young people) church in the UK. It became my greenhouse where I grew a hard-wired Christian code to live by, and call me big-headed but I’ve been a damn fine vegetable of that greenhouse.
My life has been spotless and wholesome. I’ve made sacrifices and offerings, volunteering for most of my life, even being involved with some of the big names and rock stars of the Christian world (show-off). But behind all that, I’ve had a deep and personal relationship with God too. Heck, I’ve even cracked jokes to Him whilst running for the bus, or shouted up “Dang! Good job!” when dazzled by a classy leaf, a glittery bug, or starstruck beneath the stars.
So, Christianity is at my core. It’s my default framework. I’ve channeled life through its system – and it’s worked. It’s successful, incredibly fulfilling, and in its own way liberating. But it’s time for a little experiment. I’m a good been-there-done-that Christian candidate, because my heart has been in it 100%. But I have a mind too. And one I’m no longer willing to re-align or ‘protect’ with the use of the usual Christian-jargon condom when it strays to the dark side.
My aim: to break out of my default system and conditioning and see things from life on the other side. No holding back. I just need to know I’m not living this life out of default or obedience to something I’ve not really tested. I’m not setting any hard rules as to how I will detox – those practicalities will fall where my mind leads. I’ll be flinging the doors wide open, exposing myself to other opinions, faiths, perspectives, philosophies and, of course, science. If I reach the atheistic bottom and bounce back, then I’ve only gained. If I reach the bottom and stay there, well, as long as I’m being authentic and true to myself, I’ve still only gained.
I’ll admit, I’m scared. Stepping outside the flock won’t be an easy ride. What about my supernatural-power identity, my disciplined emotions, my God-pleasing values, my heaven-high perspective, my destiny-based security, my peace? Those, along with every other goodie, will surely be rocked. Who knows if detaching from my God-code will turn me into an unbalanced, raging Hulk, or if swatting the God-fly on the wall will make me as unconcerned for good as was Hitler. I don’t know! I don’t know how I’m going to react, or what I’m going to find, or more honestly: who I really am apart from God.
I hope I’m a good soul.
For now, my only focus is to go in search of truth. Real, untarnished, non-poetic, original, truth. But I’m no scientist, intellect, philosopher, writer, religious expert… dammit, I’ve not even read that many books outside of the Bible or other Christian material (just yet). For now, all I’ve got is my life, my experiences as a born-again Christian, my honesty, my questions, and my willingness to ‘go there’.
So, here I go. My road to Damascus. Along the way, I hope this inspires the religious to chew their own food instead of pointing fingers or believing anything blindly, and to encourage others to free your naturally questioning mind.
It’s not the ‘enemy’, it’s probably just you.
I’d rather live with questions that can never be answered, than answers that can never be questioned.
2. The Day I Took Eve’s Apple
Before I take you on my travels, I should fill you in on the origins of this quest.
Now, before you say: “Great Merlin’s beard! Look at that brave heroine. That warrior of faith on her mission horse. Her raven hair flying in the wind. What courage to test her beliefs with such fire!” Yes, before you say that…I have a confession:
I’m reacting to a knock.
Many Christians have endured and overcome (< hit christian word) such knocks. But maybe I’m just too curious. Scripture-bandaging on my past knocks has certainly kept me walking another 500 miles with hope, strength, and a positive mind. Many times. But now… well, here’s the back-story:
The first step in getting here was moving city, leaving my charismatic church hive and landing into a little church of weird and wonderful people – including a man who cremated corpses but there was free cake so I stuck around. And I loved it.
I allowed myself to be provoked by those honest questions. Except the new information became harder to integrate. Layer upon layer, I was gaining a different perspective. I was left with a lot less to be sure of, but I was still Christian-strong.
Years later, I return to my old church hive. My mother wants me to go to a Christian concert with her. I go. We dance to Jesus’ very own brand of rock and roll. I sing. I smile. I sit.
The healing big-shot guest springs up on stage to ask any asthma sufferers (hello!) to run laps around the car park and see what happens. Besides sounding like fun, I was feeling experimental; or more so, prepared to see a miracle. Inhaler-less, I surrendered my life to the ridiculous, in sureness that I’d not suffocate as I otherwise would, and as my Grandmother did.
A few laps of running like a gazelle with a pack of wheezy, giddy strangers and I was doing okay. In fact, with each running step, I was being convinced. We were called back in. No tight chest. My fellow gazelles leapt onto the platform declaring they’d been healed. I snaked back to my seat thinking ‘nah…’ and other skeptical thoughts.
Except, not only could all those turned heads see my lungs were wide open, I could too. All the ingrained teachings on ‘The Power of Confession’ I’d once heard, re-surfaced. A dreaded whisper: ‘To fully receive and secure your healing, you must step out in faith and declare OUT LOUD that you are healed.’ (Oh shut it atheists. This was my mother-tongue.) So, I did. I walked under those flashy stage lights, and upon telling the sea of people that I’d been healed, felt like Spiderman receiving a bravery badge at city hall; and even punched the air in excitement. Yes I did.
Glory moment over, lungs still as springy as a Cocker Spaniel, I decided to ‘check’ my healing a little further. I peg it up and down the main road. I’m still fine. I’m convinced.
So, the next day I go for a run, and with the returned bravery of Spiderman taking his first webby leap off a skyscraper, I leave my inhaler at home. Except, there’s a twinge in my lungs. So, as a good power-Christian is taught, I put my hands on my chest and prayed out loud with passion. Even telling Satan to ‘jog on’. Even running a little harder to demonstrate I had no doubt.
In my mind, God had watched over me for so long – as He was then. So why wasn’t He helping me? I knew the faith ropes, and I couldn’t have done any more. My own lungs start crushing me and I collapse on the floor, furiously shouting, ‘Look at me! This is so easy for you!’ My prayers were intense, but I couldn’t beat the darkening clouds. I was panicking. Flashes of my Grandma didn’t help. I was at the bottom of a hill. No phone. No one around. God was leaving me to wriggle on the floor.
There had been times before where I’d not seen God pull through, but this time my mind seemed to skip that stepping stone of ‘Maybe God is using it to build your character’, or ‘Maybe it wasn’t the right time for you’, or ‘Maybe God just let you down’. Because the God I’d come to know, read about, believe in, the God that did all those miracles in the Bible, wouldn’t have let me down in that moment. Call it naivety or call it faith, but I whole-heartedly trusted God. It’s maybe why, instead, my mind leapt right over those stepping stones, across the river, and land on the only conclusion it could find: that none of this was actually real.
I wasn’t even angry at God. Because if He doesn’t exist in your mind, He’s not there to get mad at.
Everything looked different. Stark. With no outline to reason things with. My mind raced in a fence-less field. My hand chased after it, taking the minutes. And I suddenly felt ravenous for new thinking, knowledge and information, as if I’d been hibernating for decades. I felt terrified, dangerous, but alive.
I didn’t hide my lapsed healing results from the Christian folk who asked in the days following (even though it felt like shooting a puppy with a shiny rainbow smile.) Their responses were the usual: ‘Keep believing, receiving, and praising; Job was tested too. God is probably doing a greater work in you through this.’
But no longer could I take that medicine. Or this one: ‘Maybe you doubted too much? Peter began sinking in the water when his faith turned to doubt.’
Oh rack off! My faith was textbook.
So there you go. It’s worth me saying that as much of a bitch as not getting healed was, I’m not reacting out of anger, disappointment, or revenge. Anger only distorts vision and I want a clear view if I’m to undergo this journey whilst staying true to myself.
No. I come in peace, as a balanced, curious, open-minded guinea pig (give me straw). And as much as my wheezy, drama queen, victim self wants to jump into bed with Dawkins (no sexy stuff), I’m not going to suffocate Christianity’s airtime on healing just yet. I’ve seen too many things and heard of too many miracles to not observe that.
Plus, I want to explore, not decide… just yet. I’ve lived long enough being decided.
3. Be Transformed By The Renewing Of Your Mind…
So said the Apostle Paul in Romans 12: 2.
My faulty-healing sparked the Opening of my mind,
Allowing new information in for Renewing my mind,
Which, sure enough, lead me to Be Transformed.
…The Bible is too true! Paul – you nailed it!
Here’s how that looked in practice:
What grinds my gears about religion is that it’s so decided. The fat lady has sung and has carved her hymn in stone. Yet each religious camp claim THEY are the ones with the truth; that everyone else is deluded and on their way to hell, limbo, or returning to earth as a woodlouse.
Václav Havel warns us:
‘Follow the man who seeks the truth; run from the man who has found it.’
My hands are up. I grew into an ignorant patriot of my religious camp. Inside, the volume is loud and the current is strong; because where there’s thousands of passionate patriots all incubating under one roof in unity and agreement, there’s power. The environment is surged with it. I found it all-consuming and addictive, and I felt fueled with a sense of cosmic purpose and satisfied by a feeling of otherworldly significance.
Yes, otherworldly. Those raised hands may look like they’re summoning down the mothership, but actually everyone’s already inside it. I even heard some Christians refer to themselves as ‘aliens’. I used to say: In the world but not of the world and sang songs about Heaven being my real home with more gusto than a glee kid. But when the show is loud it’s natural to dance. Especially if, like me, you were born into it, knowing no other voice. Not even your own.
Since my failed healing, I’ve become like a magnet to anything that doubts the validity of Christianity. What’s new is that I really listen. I don’t defend. And apologies to the Apostle Paul for selectively picking my own truth from his verse earlier ^ but it appears that’s what I’ve been doing all along: selecting only the information that confirms my beliefs and disregarding the rest as Satan! My confirmation bias has been such a satisfying keyhole to look through for processing information, that I’d not realised I wasn’t actually thinking for myself. I was scoring goals. It made it hard to see something as basic as this:
Belief is subjective.
Like the child who undoubtingly believes in Santa Claus, their belief makes him exist. Believing it makes it so.
Although it has all felt entirely real to me as a believer, it’s not actual truth. It’s personal truth – perspectve – A lens I’ve used to try make sense of the world and the powers that I believed were controlling it. This may seem obvious to some, but not to a fort-holding believer.
So when this did penetrate my religious cladding, enter: The Renewing Of Your Mind!
DIARY ENTRY :
‘Questioning and doubting is one thing, but this has really got to my roots. I’ve clearly been too holy to have walked through life without seriously considering that what’s felt 100% real to me might not be the actual truth. How can I trust myself now if I thought this was all so unquestionably true? I feel pretty confused, disoriented and I don’t know what to believe right now. It’s like the old record I was zealously dancing to has suddenly cut silent and I’m awkwardly looking around. I feel like a bit of a fool… but a fool who’s awake.’
4. The Disorient Express
Since my renewed mind showed me that my truth wasn’t necessarily THE truth, I can now say: tah-dah! I’m outside of my religious mothership! My spiritual holy-water bubble is not yet burst, but at least I can see through it.
And it’s a friggin’ (< hit christian swear word) jungle out here!
There’s the surrounding religious camps who also hark ‘Truth!’, making me wonder: have you ever been on the outside of your own head? Their different colours and expressions in trying to encase truth still intrigue me.
Then there’s the endlessly seeking world of philosophy. What… no answers?! How will my mind cope with no order! Buddhism and Quakerism fascinate me with finding spiritual fulfilment outside of Mr Deity.
Then there’s ancient traditions and spiritual rituals. I recently got stuck in a room with a toothless, accordion playing, indigenous shaman in South America. It was beautiful. Nearly put Shine Jesus Shine as my #2.
So there’s wisdom and riches to absorb from everywhere. It’s tantalising and exciting, but honestly… I’m split in two. The Christian half fears I’m making a huge mistake, all whilst comforting itself in knowing God’s not surprised and is big enough to let me wander. And the other half says ‘shut up, geek’!
That aside, all options ahead seem to be flirting with me, each one a new adventure. But alas, after much disorientation, you’ll be glad to know I’ve picked a track. Here’s how I wandered up to it:
In searching for truth, I thought it’d only be fair to visit other religious camps to hear what they say from their loud, monotone, wasp-tight, ancient foghorns. I thought it’d be enlightening. But the more I looked into organised religion, the more I felt it’s all just another statement of a similar truth.
DIARY ENTRY :
‘If we broke all the barriers that separate one religion from the next: the prophets, stories, practices etc, things that culture may have built…would we see that the essence is the same? To follow a pre-carved path that aims to connect us with the original light? (labelled ‘God’ in my case). It’s hard to see when each so firmly believe their religious packaging is the actual embodiment of truth. (Been there. Done that. Got the dove T-shirt.) From this leg on my ladder, it seems they’re all looking for the same thing, but there’s no unity. Just that awful sense of superiority I once had. ‘Never is the work of the enemy as true as in the division of unity.’ I heard somewhere.’
Seeking original truth along the underground tracks of religion was the plan…until I got sidetracked by a flag waving atheist called Red, merrily bellowing: ‘Stop looking for truth in fake places!’
‘So I’m now thinking of hijacking this search for original/universal religion as it might only lead me to more Santa-Claus believing people like myself. Problem is, I’m not detached from Christianity enough to reach Red’s atheist plane either. Why do I feel I have to believe in more? Ok…I don’t need to, I just DO! – Oh hello, is that the default section talking?!
If I could escape this deeply ingrained belief that something greater exists beyond me and that God is real, even if He can’t be proved – then I’d feel I could see clearer and this detox would be an easier task. But right now, everything that makes me up can’t deny the deeper world, the spiritual realm, The Great Designer. It feels more like instinct than belief. And this is like trying to ignore one of my senses.
Maybe I’ve noted too many coincidences, miraculous stories, or been ‘under’ for too long. It’s just… my life, especially my mothers miraculous life to get me here, makes it all harder to believe in coincidence over destiny.
Will I ever detox fully? Or is it true that:
“Once a daughter of Narnia, always a daughter of Narnia”?’
So it seems I need to escape my spiritual conditioning a little more before I can reach a fuzz-free viewing plane. I’m not sure how. Atheism just seems like a good foundation to shed my spiritual and religious defaults, thanks to the lack of flower-power built up around grounded facts.
From there I’ll build up. But only if I find something undeniably and arrestingly true. I don’t know what that looks like just yet. The many guises of truth scare me a little right now. I just pray I don’t get caught inside delusion along the way. A note to the Christians: if Jesus really is the way, truth and life, then I should find him en route, right? I’m staying open to that, but I’m willing to see something else too.
For now, it’s time to try to catch the monorail to Dawkins’ spiritual’less camp to see how their burning bush was lit by a physical match!
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