April 19, 2021

I thought Religion would offer a Place to Feel Safe, a Place to Belong. But I was Wrong.

Curiosity is the trait that most defines me and my life.

So much so, that in my memoir, Embodying Soul: A Return to Wholeness, I embodied my curiosity in a wild wolf I call Curiosa.

The following story is an excerpt from my book and addresses my relationship with religion, particularly Christianity. In this chapter, we meet Curiosa, and the personifications of Guilt, Shame, and Fear as well.

I have long ago released Christianity, and don’t identify with any other religion or doctrine either. I prefer to stay curious and remain open to all kinds of philosophies and possibilities. Curiosa and I prefer living life this way.

But back at the time of this story, struggling as I was with anxiety and my identity as an outsider, I wanted somewhere to go that felt safe—somewhere I felt I belonged.

I thought Christianity might offer that. I was wrong.

May it be of benefit.

~

“Vasoconstriction”

At this point in my life, I began to think about religion as a shell game, imagining a magician, draped in a black cape, placing a single pea under one of several shells, then shuffling them and asking us to choose the shell with the pea underneath. If the shells are religions, the pea is the “right” religion, and God is the magician, how is it possible to be certain about any choice of religion?

I feared for my soul.

Since leaving Fargo, I’d avoided church and God except for my nightly prayer, hoping that if I just got small enough perhaps I could sneak into heaven through the eye of the needle on a technicality. But now I began to focus on my religious beliefs as a natural consequence of guilt, boredom, and disillusionment.

Todd and I were living in sin, to both our parents’ consternation. Neither of us had jobs to keep us busy, and we were broke. And many of my beliefs about how to be successful in life—work hard, tell the truth, trust authority figures—had shattered. I now had many urgent questions about God and religion, for which I wanted answers. Todd’s religious upbringing had been the antithesis of mine. He had gone through catechism in the Catholic Church, been confirmed in the Lutheran Church, and graduated from a Christian high school. So I saw him as a knowledgeable religious insider and assumed he could handle my questions about God and religion with ease.

One Sunday afternoon at our favorite brewery, two beers in and a third on its way, I decided it was as good a time as any to get answers to these questions.

“Does God really know our thoughts?” I asked.

“Yes,” Todd replied without hesitation, confirming my childhood suspicion that the sanctuary of my mind was being invaded.

“Is it a sin if you just think something?” I inquired.

“Yes,” he confirmed, validating Guilt.

“Is there no other way into the Kingdom of Heaven than through Jesus?” I asked.

“No,” he answered, feeding Fear.

“What happens to people in remote areas of the world who never hear of Christianity or Jesus or have their own faith?” I swallowed hard before asking my final question: “Will they go to hell?”

“Yes,” he replied, apparently unconcerned about the fates of these faceless people. “That’s why missionaries try to convert them.”

I tried to digest this information, but questions kept piling up. What if we are the ones who are wrong? I thought. What if they are saying similar things about us? Could all of human existence and the afterlife in eternity really just boil down to the luck of the draw of where you are born and which shell you choose? I wondered.

I was seeking hope and security but instead grew increasingly incensed by Todd’s arrogance. I wondered why he was deserving of security and not me; then Fear provided the answer: I was an outsider, and outsiders never get to feel secure.

As I kept asking questions, finally—perhaps due to the beer or perhaps because his unflappability had never been authentic—he cracked and, in a tone of mixed frustration and relief, confessed, “Dammit, Keri, this is just what I’ve been taught.”

“But don’t you want to learn more?” I further pressed his tiny window of vulnerability.

He sighed and replied, “Keri, I’ve had religion forced on me for so many years I don’t even want to think about it, much less talk about it.”

“But aren’t you scared?” I asked.

“No,” he assured me.

“Why not?” I pressed.

“I just believe like a child,” he said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked.

He expounded, “I believe in God with the innocence and trust of a child. Having faith means being submissive and meek before God, not challenging him and his every word.”

I stared, dumbfounded. If we believed like a child, wouldn’t we be exploring spirituality and God like a child—with curiosity? I wondered.

I was not satisfied with our conversation, nor was Curiosa. But I didn’t know where to turn next. For the time being, I decided, it couldn’t hurt to try it Todd’s way. Unlike me, he seemed to have no sleepless nights tossing and turning over whether he’d already committed the unforgivable sin by mistake somehow. So I hoped that Christianity was, in fact, the right religion as I pointed to that shell.

“It’s about time you got on God’s good side, young lady. Just repeat after me, ‘No god but God. No way but One,’” Guilt agreed. “Obedience will prove your worthiness, and your life will be filled with blessings.”

“I don’t know about that,” I answered, as I watched Curiosa wane before my eyes.

***

Initially, at least, my meek, new believe-like-a-child approach to religion—and life in general—seemed to do the trick. I experienced less anxiety as we finally both landed good-paying jobs with creative opportunities and regular raises. A year later, having been legally married in a church in my hometown, we had plans to start a family. And as we sampled some churches in Portland, I sat in their pews smiling, donning the skin of a good, obedient Christian woman.

However, one day at work my meek acceptance of Christianity was challenged when a co-worker and friend talked to me about Buddhism and I realized just how flimsy my church posturing had been. Joe greeted me at my work cubicle. He was someone I admired. I loved listening to his easy laugh, the sweet way he talked about his wife, and learning from his wisdom. We chatted easily for several minutes, until the conversation veered dangerously outside the lines.

“Keri, do you know much about Buddhism?” he asked.

“No,” I replied, uneasily.

Everyone knew Joe was a Buddhist, but it didn’t come up often.

“Tread carefully,” Fear warned.

“Buddhists are sinners,” Guilt reminded me. “Buddhism is the wrong shell.”

“Would you like to learn a little about it over lunch sometime?” Joe asked.

“Teamwork, y’all!” Fear said, rallying my emotions. Shame slithered atop my shoulders, while Guilt talked about the sin of questioning God. But Curiosa salivated at the thought of such a conversation.

Back then I didn’t know the first thing about Buddhism, and I fully accepted that Christianity was a flawed system. I was at the doorway of my journey of spiritual discovery but wouldn’t embark on it until several years later. At this point in my life, fear of the unknown proved stronger than the pull of curiosity. Wearing Christianity like a loosened tie around my neck still seemed safer than taking it off.

“No, I don’t think so,” I whispered, tightening that tie up around my throat. “I am a Christian, and I believe like a child.”

“Oh, okay,” Joe said, raising his eyebrows for just a moment before shrugging and walking back to his cubicle.

My heart rate slowed down. My color returned to normal.

“Good work, team. That was a close one!” Fear said. Guilt smirked at Curiosa, both knowing her influence was waning.

Despite my reluctance to engage with Joe about Buddhism, this encounter with him did slightly change my view of the shell game. Knowing someone personally who had chosen a different shell, an individual with whom I had laughed, shared lunch, and occasionally debated, got me wondering if there was not one pea but many and whether there was no black-caped magician trying to trick us—only ourselves.

Today, sometimes I wonder whether if at that time in my life I’d had an on/off switch allowing me to put an end to my uncomfortable feelings about being an outsider and questioner and simply accept everything I was told as the truth, I would have flipped it. Yet I know that while we can temporarily suppress our curiosity, our imagination, and our questions, we cannot ignore them forever and expect to live a fulfilling life because it is, ultimately, our capacity for curiosity that makes human life both challenging and wondrous.

~

Embodying Soul is available for purchase here.

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