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 second in a four-part series by Vanessa James, writing about her spiritual journey of doubt and deconstruction. If you missed Part 1, check it out here.
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.
Hello friends. This is the second part of my Christian Detox and it was a tough one. A lot of my identity was ingrained into this doubt, which is why I didn’t really want to touch it. Even I felt cruel digging into this particular niggle, but truth sits above comfort in my books.
So this blog isn’t for everyone. As I said before, I did this detox in private for my own personal motivation, and I am not out to tear down anyone’s beliefs. Detoxing or purification by nature is a brutal and abrasive process, and I was aiming for a clean slate.
I needed to know my convictions weren’t rooted in default or learned behaviour from an environment I’d never stepped out of. I wanted to separate my conditioning from the truth. I wanted to check religion wasn’t masking the real God. I wanted to cut the lead on my doubts to follow my internal north star. I wanted to put everything through the fire because, for me…the unexamined belief is not worth believing.
5a. Me, Myself, and My Imaginary Friend (logical)
What a good girl I’ve been since we last met: watching debates, reading articles, chatting to my Darwinian friend Red, trying this ‘think for yourself’ thing, buying loads of books and making it only to the second paragraph before my head explodes with so many new ways of seeing the world. It’s all helped me progress into this new territory (the dark side!) but the Hell bells only really started ringing upon two particular mind-shifts.
Firstly: how I view scripture.
No good Christian girl would ever think she could question whether the Bible was really THE INFALLIBLE WORD OF GOD. But in learning of it’s collation and origins a little more (look it up, Christians) it’s now looking more like THE INTERPRETATION OF MAN’S PERCEPTION OF “GOD”.
I can’t argue that it wasn’t divinely inspired, but in recognising the human limitations and cultural biases of the writers, I can no longer accept it quite as literally as I had done before; more as prose or metaphor (in part), aimed to reveal God rather than declare Him. And actually, I’m getting way more out of reading it this way round.
If we are talking metaphors, then it would have been nice for someone to have inserted a disclaimer at the front to say so! Or maybe the writers thought that was already obvious with such outlandish stories and claims in there. The other thing about taking this allegorical approach to the bible is that…well…if Jesus is more a buried, wise nut than a resurrected, divine messiah, then doesn’t the Christian faith lie buried with him? (to be continued…)
Despite this major concern, God still bounced beyond those flawed Holy pages and back into my beliefs, because I knew what I knew. God was so real to me inside that nothing out there could change that. I thought I’d reached my truth base-line until I checked how solid it was, and that sent me straight into my next thinking pot-hole…
As with most home-grown Christians, my greatest validation for God’s existence is in my personal experience of Him. But in recognising how a child with an imaginary friend can encounter similar things, I thought I’d better take another look at me, myself and my potential imaginary friend.
First off, I didn’t realise that personal revelation had such serious side-effects. In getting caught up in the excitement of this exploration, I didn’t factor in how deeply this was going to cut away at me, and honestly, this era of the detox is truly tearing at the fabric of my existence. So this has become a two-sided blog: a personal account and a logical account.
This less watery-eyed outlook is the logical side:
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF A CHRISTIAN’S IMAGINARY FRIEND
It’s difficult to talk someone out of something they weren’t talked into. In my experience, most Christians don’t come to faith through reasoning. It’s not what convinces them or keeps them on course. Faith, by nature, doesn’t make logical sense.
The heart of Christianity isn’t made up of theories, claims, religion, or the institution of the church…it’s relationship. That’s the inner city fortress, and they say the best way to tear a city down is to attack from inside the walls. Maybe that’s why external arrows like the theory of evolution, or doubts on why a loving God would allow suffering or send good people to Hell, or psychological explanations that disarm supernatural claims, seldom seem to penetrate the walls. They’re no threat because they’re outside of what Christians encounter daily and build upon: that one-to-one personal relationship with God/Jesus.
Pull on that and you’re pulling out the final brick at the bottom of the Jenga tower. And when you read the following ‘personal’ blog, you’ll hear me cry “Jenga!”
THE PERKS OF HAVING AN IMAGINARY FRIEND
Evidence to strengthen my imaginary friend case has, sadly, been too easy to pluck from my own ‘experience of God’. In the same way a child finds companionship, comfort and even council in having a personal relationship with their imaginary friend, so did I. (Except I get to keep my friend into adulthood by calling him ‘God’ #socialacceptance).
My friend, however, offered way more than a talking kangaroo called Bloo, because whereas a child will usually see their invisible friend for what they are, Christians (by their hardcore unified belief) make their invisible friend opaque. And when their real friend is the ultimate superpower and ruler of the world, the relational payoffs really blow whatever Bloo offers right out of the Holy water.
THE PERKS OF HAVING MY IMAGINARY FRIEND
– SECURITY TREASURE
The emotional treasures I stood to gain with the undoubted belief that my life was held in the protective hands of a supernatural, never-changing master power, who loved me unconditionally and guarded my steps, gave me a sense of security like no other. It produced peace, rest, courage, confidence, happiness and other byproducts cultivated inside such a security, and I credited those blessings to God. A God who existed outside of my own head.
But maybe those blessings really are just a product of my ‘created reality’. And when that internal reality yields external results, then our original belief in it all is reinforced. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy, and all of it feeds our desire for our imaginary friend to be real. I think my head hurts.
– EXTREME SPORTS WITH CHRISTIANITY
My lifetime’s stock of good external results had reinforced my trust in the God of the Bible, enough to have taken many ridiculous leaps and risks off the faith spring-board; even putting myself in life-threatening situations because I was so sure, because when you believe that either side of death is life and that God has a firm hold on you, you lose fear in the fragility of your life. Well…I did. Too many Hallelujah’s and not enough horror films maybe.
God was my bodyguard and I was his Whitney, and it fostered a security beyond wisdom (I think it’s called lunacy?) I’ve either been incredibly lucky, or my guardian angels really do exist (holding their shaking heads in their hands).
Another bonus of having my imaginary friend is that he opens the door to fellowship with fellow-sheep – a community of other adults who believe the same. It’s a perfect breeding ground to grow confidence in a belief and behaviour that, if taken out of context, does seem a little strange at times. But the herd has power, and if you can’t line up with the unified current, you face the fear of disconnection and shame – and who wants that! Outside of conformity is where you can end up feeling like a faulty black sheep. It’s not that nice. Baa.
– MORE THAN A FRIEND
He’s also ‘Father to the fatherless’. My mother is an orphan who’s lived an intensely traumatic life. It’s through her firm belief in God that she finds a sense of belonging, identity, purpose, a lineage, and a spiritual family; all the things that abandonment and orphanhood left her without. It’s quite beautiful really and I’d never try to convince her that she may be living inside potential delusion; it would do more harm than good.
For someone like her, it’s clear to see she has nothing to lose and everything to gain inside of it. But I am not my mother.
Like any imaginary friend, God is perfect, constant and loyal. ‘He will never leave you or forsake you.’ Of course, if it is your own recipe of illusion then you probably would leave out the betrayal ingredients. But when the light of reason casts a shadow that suggests you might be the chef, you can end up feeling like you only betrayed yourself, wondering: ‘Did I just voluntarily adopt a split personality disorder?’
‘What? Who said that? … Him! Her!’
– TALKING TO OUR IMAGINARY FRIENDS
Talking to my imaginary friend (or for social acceptance: prayer) often brought me clarity, wisdom, insight, a feeling of liberation, and even a changed heart towards the subject of the prayer. Again, I credited it all to God, but could the power of prayer just be the power of self processing and the spoken word? Take that stereotypical silent counselor scribbling notes whilst you lay on a couch, or being in the presence of a quiet listening friend, eventually you’ll probably come to your own conclusions, understanding and clarity by yourself. Wisdom can be found inside reflection for believers and non believers just the same.
I struggle to believe that prayer can activate God to change a situation or remove a problem. What about prayers answered by chance or in response to a resulting ‘God-powered’ positive behaviour that comes with that post-prayer faith? New behaviour attracts new results – that’s easier to believe. And how about all those unanswered prayers too, if we honestly add the results up, who knows, would we see more unanswered prayers than answered ones?
As for answered healing prayers, that’s not unique to the christian faith. What about placebo drugs, placebo thinking, Kundalini healing, these modern-day energy healers that work with natural energy to get results, what about mass hysteria effects (particularly witnessed in crowds of super-charged religious believers) or all the other powerful psychological effects on the physical world? These considerations and more make me hestitant to believe God-prayer really works as I once believed.
The only thing I can be sure of right now is that talking to God, even if he is an imaginary friend, can help you deal with your problems in a more positive way. Like a super-charged therapy session. But still, the benefits of problem-sharing with a therapist or standard imaginary friend fall short of the benefits of talking upwards:
PERK #1 – Casting your cares to a power you truly believe can manage them, releases strength, hope, positivity, and a place for you to leave those concerns. Some evangelicals call it the ‘Divine Exchange’: you give Him your rags and He delivers riches. #win-win
PERK #2 – Believing you are accepted and forgiven by the highest power (however naughty your confession) releases you from the shame and regret of your mistakes, granting the empowering, liberated sensation of feeling ultimately right with the world. #peace
PERK #3 – Having a source, reason and inspiration for forgiveness enables you to heal up quicker and move on like a grudge-less rock star. Mind you, believing your enemies will be dealt with by a fiery, end-times, thunderous God does help a little. #justice
PERK #4 – Believing that every person is created, loved, and has purpose, helps you find value, acceptance and compassion for any scumbag. It’s an anti-raging product that turns you into a Christian peace dove. #flanders
These are just a few Biblical promises that appear to be coming to pass, but what if it’s just the manifestations of a relationship with a superhero imaginary friend?
WHEN OUR IMAGINARY FRIEND TALKS BACK
Everyone’s imaginary friend talks, suggesting ideas and adventures, and always speaking in a way we understand and like the most. Although history, culture, and word of mouth have created a template for how my imaginary friend talks: like Yoda, but lower.
Tone and style aside, my friend doesn’t just offer fun chat and kiddy banter; it’s often riches of wisdom, revelation, guidance, or knowledge, and all in an epiphany that convinces me that it must be God! (Or Yoda, and I’m using The Force.)
God speaks to Christians in any way that they’re prepared to listen to. A big one being ‘The Word’ (The Bible). It’s said to be alive because when you find that spookily appropriate scripture (amongst all those pages of wisdom and teaching I might add), it just seems God-breathed.
God also speaks through circumstance or surroundings. Take a can of crushed beans at the supermarket: if it reveals something so precisely appropriate for your situation, it’s divine! ‘…and God said to me: Resistance, child. You may get crushed but remember you’re still full of beans. Y’know?’ —for example.
The thing is, if you’re searching for wisdom, clarity or an answer, you’ll probably find it. Because ‘need’ is a greedy leader, a hunter that can decipher nourishment from anything, hungry for understanding and inner peace. In a state of need I’ve even found nature or a painting to be able to activate wisdom inside of me, or bring clarity, even signpost a solution. Inspiration is in the eye of the beholder and the world is full of mirrors if you’re looking.
Reflection (or meditation) can indeed lead to a personal enlightenment, but again, Christians often credit moments of epiphany, revealed wisdom, or awakening to The Voice of God. Maybe it is.
But what if it’s just our higher selves?
THINGS I CAN’T FIT INTO THE IMAGINARY FRIEND BOX
It’s fair to state that none of this proves that God isn’t real, and I’m not sure anything can (a topic in itself). But it does provide logical explanations for things I solely credited to God and the spiritual realm. Personally, what’s winning my tug-of-truth war is the belief that I may have been blessed by a me-made God. I don’t want to believe it, but the weights on the scales are leaning me that way right now.
Going behind God’s back like this has made me feel as though I’ve disarmed His powers (or my belief in them) and like I’ve exposed electricity for what it is and it’s not just sparky magic power! Seeing alternative mechanics behind ‘blessings’ and other gains that I’d previously put down to a fruitful relationship with God has moved me along the detox road like a lime green Subaru on the Autobahn. But I’ve still a way to go. I’ve still got Christian residue.
To view the world through atheist eyes would require dismissing the spiritual realm, and for me that’s going to take some reasoning thanks to witnessing a lifetime of scenarios that appear like the works of the spiritual world. I’ll spare you all the details, but in short:
Besides hearing demons being exorcised out of people I knew, or regularly hearing testimonies of miracles and supernatural breakthroughs that I can’t explain away with mass hysteria, hypnosis or other psychological explanations, or experiencing acute coincidences multiple times (enough for people to think I wore the same lucky pants everyday), what I’m more hung up on is spiritual insight: when God, or the Holy Spirit, supposedly speaks, reveals, or impresses something specific onto a believers spirit for them to deliver to another person. Like a sixth sense.
I’ve witnessed it many times and all too often it’s been correctly insightful, personal, detailed, appropriate, timely, and just plain spooky; especially if it confirmed something that the recipient already felt God was telling them. I’m not ignoring the times it’s not matched up too though, that’s important to note. But when it’s right, and it often has been, it’s like the stars line up and you can’t help but get caught up in mystery and desire, leaving me to wonder: how can an imaginary friend do that?
To answer ‘God’ would be quick and easy confectionery to satisfy my emptiness. Maybe I’ve not learned enough names and labels outside of the spiritual dictionary to explain these things in a more human and natural way yet; I bet Derryn Brown has answers, but I’m too anaemic in knowledge and opinions outside of the Church right now to stop the word ‘God’ from filling the gaps!
Don’t worry, I’ve not abandoned myself. Gripping to a resolution comfort blanket is not very sexy so I’m gonna try something new: instead of claiming empty land with a God flag, I’m going to try and live with the gap. To let mystery be mystery and not try colour it in with an unfalsifiable answer just to satisfy my questioning. Meanwhile, answers on a non-heavenly postcard… Derryn?!
5b. Me, Myself, and My Imaginary Friend (personal)
I write this entry with great sadness. Forgive me for my lack of usual sunshine but I suspect this might be the darkest phase of the detox; the moment the penny drops from the head to the heart, the moment those light rays of clarity pierce through the skin of reason, the moment I start to see that God might just have been my imaginary friend, and the moment that begins to painfully make sense.
It’s left me feeling unable to do much besides sit still in the dark and soak up the view. I think what I’ve gone through is what I can only describe as a kind of humiliating grieving process. I know it sounds over-dramatic, but at the dizzy summit of this revelation I’m seeing how I might have to rewrite my reality, my worldview, my identity, my purpose, and the history of my existence from scratch: because Christianity fully shaped those things for me. It’s the structure I built myself upon.
Moving your boundary markers without knowing the price and without the right inspiration to catch you in the after-gap, does not come recommended.
These in-the-moment diary entries are pretty embarrassing, but honesty is my main offering in all this so I’ll take my blushing like a Russian doll.
DIARY ENTRY #1
‘This imaginary friend explanation is making my Christian mind bouncers turn fascist. However, confining my thoughts to my old Christian syllabus got me this far: a little trapped. I like exploring, but right now I feel like a scared child on the edge of iced water. I think this might hurt.’
DIARY ENTRY #2 (Next day, 3pm)
‘I’m no Spartan doll but THIS. IS. HARD. Why isn’t there counseling to catch falling angels like me?! Stay inside your cotton-wool ball, Christians. Unless you fancy feeling like you’re inside an ‘Inception’ dream where reality collapses around you.
So this is what it’s like to feel you’ve been living a lie. Ouch. My inner Christian child hopes to GOD that this is the delusion, that God will do a big dipper dive and pull a miraculous rabbit out of his hat. Please? That’d be so much easier for me.
I get pangs of wanting to lapse for Christian comfort food, except I can’t help talking away every crumb before I can eat any of it. I feel stuck. Like I’m truly mid-detox.
DIARY ENTRY #3 (4pm)
‘This is horrible! I get surges that nearly knock me over the more I see that this now is probably the real side. Or am I kidding myself? Which is the real mirror in this wacky house? Ahh! Not being able to trust my mind is the worst.
I’m in confusion quick-sand and sadness is the weight.’
DIARY ENTRY #4 (5pm)
‘NOW IS THE TIME FOR A GLORY CLOUD, GOD!
ANY MINUTE NOW WOULD BE JUST FINE!’
DIARY ENTRY #5 (7pm)
‘Oh but it’s been such a nice bubble. Elating. Why can’t it be real?!! Why can’t I crawl back in and shut my head up?
Oh shut it you little china-doll!!’
DIARY ENTRY #6 (8:20pm)
‘I don’t want to think of the years of waste. The years of losing myself. Or more so… never knowing myself.
Who the devil am I?! What’s the point of me? Does my existence even matter? Was I just a lottery lucky ball that made it through to life? Hmm, not sure someone born in barren Africa would say “lucky”. Feel like I’ve just found out I’ve been adopted at 30.’
DIARY ENTRY #7 (10pm)
‘Reconstructing from here seems impossible but I can’t see a way back either. Talk about being a born-again Christian, I feel like a born-again Human! Naive, inexperienced, out of my peer group level, like a Never-Never land child who’s never grown up in anything other than the ropes of her home land [Christianity]. OMG I’m bloody Flanders!
Now to live amongst well-travelled adults and not stick out. I could really do with another ‘me’ out there to walk with. Anyone? ’Dare to live’ has just taken on a whole other meaning.’
DIARY ENTRY #8 (10:35pm)
‘Is religion just a club for people who can’t stomach the idea of being members of the Void Club? Because this newer view of reality is so damn bleak in comparison. I guess waking up out of a heavenly dream is never pleasant. I’m disappointed, grumpy, and I think I may have killed my positive-outlook power station.
Oh how I would be the life and soul of every party right now!’
DIARY ENTRY #9 (11:20pm)
‘SHHHHIIIT! NOOO HEAVEN!!!’
DIARY ENTRY #10 (11:40pm)
‘I’m so incredibly angry at myself! Stupid girl, sleepwalking yourself out of your mind; allowing someone else to imprint their beliefs onto your brain and then them masking the right to question those beliefs with religious fear-mongering. I should have seen it. Why did I take it all so literally?! So deeply to heart? What a waste of a brain-development time.
My life looks like a neglected battlefield from here. The army I’ve trained my whole life to fight the enemy and afterlife consequences have evaporated. Like I’ve been living inside a big game, then suddenly discovered there’s never been anything to play for. All those efforts and disciplines: wasted. I feel robbed. Like I’ve missed out on a lot of living and real learning.’
DIARY ENTRY #11 (next day, 2pm)
‘Ok I’ve calmed down a little. Christianity isn’t a cruel joke. It’s taught me some great principles and values. It’s a solid and good structure to have hung from and Jesus ain’t a bad role model at all. I’ve lived well. Been happy. Not turned out too bad. The Christian perspective helped me through tough times and brought me hope I couldn’t buy in a bottle. I should be grateful. I am.
But the hard pill to swallow is upon realising it was a placebo – that my choice and voice were not the primary ones in getting me here. My choices and actions have been based on an illusive cause and motivation.
If there was never a hell to run from, no heaven to hope for, or no God to make proud, what would I have done, or become?
Hmmm… considering my highly introverted, zero self worth, impressionable start, I’m not sure I’d be in a great place to be honest. Hard to tell. But Christianity definitely pulled out strength, courage, a sense of identity, a belief that I was built for something great and that, with God, I could do it. None of that was naturally in or around me much to develop.
Shame my curiosity has gone and killed that superhero in me now. But maybe I can be my own superhero. I’ve always wanted a cape.’
DIARY ENTRY #12 (5:20pm)
‘Approval addiction is kicking in. No one I know has ever turned from Christianity. Everyone will be so confused and disappointed. If I take this road I’m going to isolate myself.
Right. I’m gonna take a hint from the small voice inside saying I’m more important than peer pressure and an exclusion risk. I already feel very alone in this so what’s to lose, hey.
Better to be divided by truth than united in error.’
DIARY ENTRY #13 (a few days later)
‘Had to attend church. Couldn’t fake it. Its a pretty lonely place to be when the people around you share a whole other world view. People I love, trust and have grown to respect are looking at me with those eyes that say: ‘you’re going the wrong way’. Not an easy thing to be around.
It’s a bit heartbreaking to see the image of my spiritual father crumble. There’s not much to hold onto out here. Makes me aware of how much I need a new tribe around me asap.
*pulls ram horn out to assemble ‘the others’*.’
DIARY ENTRY #14 (a few more days later)
‘Even after all this I can’t help but draw towards the light like an auto-pilot bug. This thing is seriously deep. Core beliefs are I guess, and convictions are hard things to bury or talk away. These pillars and roots feel stronger and more present than I am. Like I exist more in my superhero imaginary friend than in my own simple skin.
Maybe it’s a case of the old habits. Or that the changing of a heart takes longer than a changing mind. Or that some parts of me are unchangeable (I hope not). Or that once you’ve been open to the spiritual realm, you can’t see the world without having that sense in your vision. It’s left a vacuum that feels way deeper than what poetry, art or music could fulfill. God is a deep-pan, unique gap to refill and it’s keeping me here – despite all my efforts. Will I be mid-detox forever?
I can only think to keep pulling apart the questions and causes for my original beliefs and just take it easy. Enjoy the different views along the ride; this is only base camp.
Hovering in uncertainty is a very unsettling position for a raised absolutist!’
So this is the darker side of discovery and exploration. Sadly, my view right now looks pretty colourless and two-dimensional, but of course it would: look at the heavenly high road dripping with angel mist I’m coming down from!
So before I start spending every waking moment watching E4, eating cheese slices and looking at cat videos in a mouse onesie, I better remind myself why I’m doing this: because I don’t want to live by another man’s version of truth or allow myself to be deceived by a potential false reality, and I don’t want to hide my full colours (or the world’s) anymore, however dull they may be in comparison.
So what if my road looks like a strip of junkie carpet right now? It’s my road, and I’d not swap it for anything. Not even that enriched version inside a comfy, communal cloud of joyful, rosy candy floss. And what am I greeted with for not chasing cosmic goosebumps anymore? The crap revelation that what’s on the other side of this wall might just be a great big VOID.
So this is the price I pay for being curious:
I can no longer sing from the same old hymn sheet. For the illusion to work you need trust. Once the trust is broken, the illusion is burst like a balloon and the truth behind the false reality is revealed. And jeezy-creezy it makes a hell of a bang! Leaving reality looking devastatingly unromantic.
A great strength has actually been my atheist friend Red, who’s enthusiasm and fervour for life has proved there’s colour and beauty further down this bleaker looking road. ‘We make our own romance!’ he says thespianishly. And I kinda like that: rather than believing that something out of my control makes the magic, instead to believe that we are the magicians, powerful enough as co-creators to put on the greatest show in the world, something that when brought to life may even feel a little other-wordly. Somewhere in that hippy box is the deeper dimension I’m looking for anyway.
So a little glimmer of fun has just begun for life on team humanism. I’ve still got a way to go but I’m learning so much along this journey of looking out of different perspective windows. I’m enjoying walking my own path and handing so much trust to myself to experience this. My old wirings long to find a holy book for this side of life to follow and obey, so maybe I should start my own Bible for now. The Vible! Beginning with:
Never let anything stop you from learning.
Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.
Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.
Along the expedition, go make your own romance.
Comments : The Allowed is a safe space for people of all backgrounds who are wrestling with faith and doubt; many of whom may have had negative or traumatic religious experiences. Please be respectful and kind in any comments you make.