FOR SOME PEOPLE, RELIGION SATISFIES their search for faith. For others, religion is only the beginning of the search. I discovered this distinction ten years ago, when I lost faith in the fundamentalist religion that I grew up with. Of all the losses that I have experienced, the loss of my faith in the God of my childhood caused the most pain. I was born into religious fundamentalism, and for a long time, it was the lens through which I viewed the world. To people who have never experienced the certainty of fundamentalism, that may sound hard to believe, even silly. But try to imagine waking up day after day knowing that no matter what happens—no matter how bad things get—you have the promise that God is on your side.
I carry that promise in my DNA. It was my inheritance—my father was a Southern Baptist minister of music in several small churches in the Piney Woods north of Houston—but fundamentalism was never my choice. As a child, I was religious by nature and temperament; I played church the way other girls played dolls. When I was seven, during a revival in Pasadena, I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior and was baptized. For years my imagination was fired by the same image of God that Alice Walker described in the novel The Color Purple, the God who was “big and old and tall and graybearded and white.” To me, the Bible was sheer poetry. I loved its stories and images and was consoled by the customs of church—gospel music and dinner on the grounds after services on Sunday. Sometimes I was afraid when grown-ups in church were “slain in the Spirit”—so moved by God that they fainted flat, rolled around on the floor, and spoke in strange languages. But to anticipate such drama was thrilling.
When I was 42, two things happened that cracked the fundamentalist lens. First, my mother died of breast cancer. Less than a month later, my husband, a Methodist minister, told me he wanted a divorce. As I struggled to make sense of my life, I realized that the God of my childhood no longer worked for me. In fact, this particular idea of God hadn’t worked in a long time. I had begun to question it while I was in junior high, when the congregation of my church voted not to accept blacks as members, should any black person be brave enough to apply. When I was in college at the University of Texas, that shameful memory was reinforced by the total absence of blacks at the heavily attended eleven o’clock service at Austin’s Hyde Park Baptist Church, where I was a member. By that time, as a woman who came of age in the sixties, I also found it hard to square my desire to be treated as an intellectual equal by men with fundamentalism’s attitude toward women, which told us to be submissive to our husbands and other male leaders.
As I packed up my belongings from the parsonage and prepared to make a new life, I tried hard to draw on the promise of fundamentalism for strength. But at the time when I most needed the certainty of fundamentalism, I simply didn’t have it. Racism and sexism in the church were not the only problems. I now felt that my childhood conviction was a terrible, imprisoning illusion. It was then that I rejected my religion—which meant leaving the institution of the church—to wrestle seriously with my own personal faith. Sometimes religion can be an obstacle to faith, and that was what had happened to me.
Like many people who lose their religious moorings, for a while I tried other denominations. In particular, I was drawn to the beautiful images and symbolism found in Episcopal and Catholic churches, so different from the sparse Baptist churches of my childhood. Mostly, I tried to come to grips with the fact that, spiritually speaking, I was on my own. Then in 1995 I had a dream that felt to me as big and real as the stories of dreams of Bible characters that I had loved as a child, such as the dreams of Joseph—the shepherd boy with the many-colored coat who was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers—assuring him that God would provide the strength to persevere. In my dream, I was seated in a plain Protestant church that was built in the shape of a circle. An angry, tyrannical minister stood behind a pulpit with his hand raised and his finger pointed in judgment at the members. I stood up and told the congregation that I could no longer be a part of this church because of the minister’s lack of compassion. Everyone turned their back on me. I bowed my head in shame. When I raised my eyes, I saw an ethereal female spirit hovering near the altar. She was luminous and covered with gold and white butterflies. I looked around, but apparently no one else could see her. I could see nothing else.
The dream was an accurate snapshot of how I felt—cast out of the church but imbued with a strong sense of the sacred. Although I had made my intellectual departure from fundamentalism a long time ago, I did not break with it emotionally until this dream. What gave the dream added importance was a series of difficult conversations I had had with my mother as she lay dying. During 38 years of married life, my mother had learned about the things that ministers tell only to their spouses—petty power plays, sexual betrayals, alcoholism, mental illness, and cruelty, of every imaginable description. My mother confided that sometimes she felt that my father and many Southern Baptist ministers she knew well had used faith as a defense against their own fears and doubts. She did not want me to do the same. “Forget about finding the will of God,” my mother advised on her deathbed. “Find your own will, Jan. That’s