A good friend of mine recently told me that they are “detoxing from Christian fundamentalism”.
Curious about what that meant, I probed him to share a bit more.
“Religion kind of ruined me, made me something I never thought I’d be. When a friend stopped coming to church with me, or expressed objections, I sort of cut him off. That’s not the way a Christ-like individual would behave. I even hated my Dad for a few years just because he did his interfaith thing and I didn’t get it. I never thought a few years later he would be trying to convince me not to identify publicly as an atheist…he says it’s just another form of fundamentalism.”
Something about this rang a bell.
Living in Asheville, a New Age and Healing Arts mecca, I witness spiritual fundamentalism constantly. I have even dabbled in it myself, as a matter of fact. But since the average spiritual seeker of Asheville (most of whom are not actually from Asheville) does not identify as Christian, it can be a bit harder to see the fundamentalist walls that surround them.
When I first got here, I felt like I had finally found my community — the weird, eccentric, earth loving and crystal-slinging hippies that ate organic food and did lots of yoga and really loved their dogs.
I attended “Native American” medicine circles, healing grief rituals, Peruvian ceremonies, went to herbalism school, worked at a New Age store doing Tarot readings, went to ecstatic dance meet-ups, did breathwork and goddess workshops, and a lot of Vinyasa Flow yoga.
As time went on, something funny started to happen — or rather, something didn’t start to happen.
All of that peace, understanding, healing, and clarity I thought I’d find through all of it never came.
Sure, there were moments of all of the above (I faced some old issues and worked through some things) but a nagging feeling of dissatisfaction grew the more I searched for satisfaction.
Why? I wondered. What is missing?
My life looks good on New Age paper, why do I feel so jaded and frustrated?
The answer actually came to me when my husband and I started going to Church again two years ago.
I can hear all you New Agers and Yogis gasp in horror.
Give me a chance to explain, this is a pretty big revelation!
We started going to Church again because we were craving community. Despite all the “community” in Asheville, we still were feeling isolated. All the spiritual community seemed hard to access and cliquey.
We ended up at the First Presbyterian Church downtown where our musical skills (me and my husband are actually part time musical geniuses, FYI) were utilized and our youth and more progressive viewpoints were truly appreciated in contrast to the more old school Christian attendants.
It wasn’t easy for me to start going back to church though. Being a Tarot reader, herbalist, and general skeptic of Christianity made me feel like I was walking into a den of lions that were going to pounce on me and all my blatant heathenism as soon as I sat my butt in a pew.
But of course, that didn’t happen. Everyone was incredibly nice and welcoming.
Like a lot of my friends, I had actually grown up in a quasi-Christian household. My mother would drag me to Church every Sunday in downtown Albany where I’d go to Sunday School and sing “Yes Jesus Loves Me” and squint my way through minuscule bible passages.
Around 11 years old, I coincidentally started getting sick every Sunday morning around 9am. Sunday morning cartoons were nothing compared to Saturday morning cartoons, but they beat the alternative of another incomprehensible sermon. My mother would see through my thin story, but often let me get away with it and drove to church alone.
Even at that young age, I felt something missing in my experience of spirituality.
There was something huge and unfathomable I could sense behind the veil of droning verses, age old hymns, and even the baptisms that occasionally took place, but it wasn’t clicking; the Holy Spirit wasn’t getting in. So I left Christianity, like many of my fellow spiritual seekers.
I turned instead to the religions of other cultures. I was drawn to Buddhism especially, and then Hinduism, and then moved on into studying Shamanism and energy healing and more New Age practices. Soon my spiritual identity was a mishmash of almost every religious and spiritual foundation I had come across, with the exception of the one I’d inherited: Christianity.
When I went back to Church a couple years ago, it was with a pretty big ‘spiritual ego’, though I didn’t know it then.
But going back also filled me with humility.
I felt like a child returning to the parent from which I’d run from.
I was filled with conflicting emotions at my return — anger, sadness, confusion, joy, but more pressing was the desire to find out why I had really come back.
And yes, I found an answer.
By turning my back on Christianity, the religion of my ancestors and heritage, I had turned my back on a huge puzzle piece: the most gigantic missing link in my search for spiritual peace.
At the heart of Christianity, beyond all the distortion, wounding, and suffering, lies one of the most important spiritual keys.
Service to Others.
It’s that simple.
Jesus’ main message was to serve and love others.
(You don’t even have to believe that Jesus was a real person to get down with that.)
Coming back to Christianity, the main difference I noticed between it and any other spiritual practices I had come across was that it was the only one that made a constant practice of selfless community service. Church members were always participating in food banks, raising money for non-profit organizations and helping the less fortunate.
The puzzle piece clicked loudly back into place.
The dilemma of today’s spiritual seeker is that they have become self-obsessed.
In our efforts to heal our wounds, find our peace, and dissolve our ego, we have actually created an ego of monstrous proportions.
The self-serving spiritualist.
Despite this, I would bet that many of us come from Christian backgrounds, or families that have deep Christian or Catholic roots.
Many of us branched out and away from those roots, for many obvious reasons. But now, it seems essential to me that we return to gather what was lost when we fled. Even for those of us that never identified as Christian, there is wisdom there that we cannot afford to turn our backs on through jadedness if we are on the spiritual path.
Just as we have welcomed so many other philosophies and theories into our hearts, perhaps it is time to welcome that of Christianity as well. Perhaps it’s time to redefine what Christianity means to us now.
Is that not the biggest spiritual leap we could now make?
While my husband and I aren’t attending Church anymore, I learned more about my spirituality and myself in that brief return than I had in all my spiritual searching thus far.
I was reminded that Christianity is beautiful in its essence and that serving our community and others can be more rewarding than a thousand hours of meditation and all the ecstatic dance of a Saturday afternoon.
Fundamentalism can occur anywhere.
We, the spiritual seekers, must beware of the ways our spiritual searching has served to only isolate us more, which in turn has created more suffering than healing.
The ways in which it has generated more questions than answers. The ways it has made us more self important in our suffering and less humble in our humanity. The ways it has made us a tribe of cliques and pretension rather than a community of humble souls in service to the world.
Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to loosen our grip on healing ourselves and freeing ourselves from suffering.
Maybe it’s time to stop finding ourselves and time to start losing ourselves to service for others.
It could be as simple as reaching out to a friend in need, helping a neighbor with a project, or bringing a sandwich to the homeless person who begs in front of your office building. It could mean volunteering for a non-profit that needs some extra hands. It could mean calling your mom and really, truly listening to her.
It could be anything in which you forget yourself for a moment, and give selflessly to another.
And maybe that giving, those moments of selfless service, can become just as essential a daily practice as yoga, meditation, or prayer.
Because maybe only through this service can we truly find the freedom and community for which we are searching.
“For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” Galatians 5:13
Author: Monica Bethelwood
Editor: Sarah Kolkka