Welcome to the Faith, Fully project. If you’re new to the project, you can read more about it and join us if it strikes your fancy. And you can follow us here or on the Faith, Fully Facebook page. You can read every Letter 1, or follow all the letters.
My name is Jeff Chamberlain, despite what my parents will tell you. While my birth certificate does read FIRST NAME: Jeffrey, LAST NAME: Chamberlain, I was never intended to go by that name. Instead, I spent the first 23 years of my life going by my middle name: Christopher. See, my parents suspected that I would be their last child, and wanted me to be named after my father (whose name is also Jeff). However, my dad dreaded becoming known as Jeff Sr., and my mom loved the name Christopher due, I suspect, to its obvious ties to Christianity. Hence, I was shackled with a complicated nomenclature I had to explain to everyone who ever saw my driver’s license until finally, I got so fed up that I decided to start going by my given name.
Perhaps an eerie foreshadowing of my endeavor with faith.
We were raised Episcopal and spent nearly every Sunday of my adolescence at the same church 45 minutes from my childhood home in Indianapolis. A great, daunting structure reminiscent of many other gothic places of worship. I suppose we were more involved than the average parishioner, in that we showed up on days that weren’t Christmas or Easter and made an effort to attend church events. I even spent a few years serving as an acolyte (glorified title meaning “candle holder”) during certain services, which I always appreciated as it made the experience less boring. I soon grew out of the job, though and was relegated back to the pews where I would count the minutes until I could be free again.
Faith wasn’t something that was ever really questioned in our household. We basically took for granted that we believed in the teachings of the bible, and didn’t really think much about it. That’s not to say my family was against questioning, in fact, I think they dearly wanted us to arrive at a faith-driven life on our own, but we never really discussed any alternatives.
I went with it for the most part. There were times I prayed, times I believed I could feel the holy spirit inside me, times I consoled myself with the knowledge of life after death. I even remember a short-lived desire to explore one day becoming a priest, though my hatred for attending Sunday services put an end to that pretty quickly.
My parents were far more concerned with teaching us how to be good people than how to be the perfect faithful. They were probably more progressive than many church-goers and didn’t shy away from flaunting some of the outdated religious traditions. I served as an acolyte, along with my father and brother, for a civil union ceremony between two men at our church, something that shocked and appalled other members of the same church, but remains one of my fondest childhood memories.
As I grew older and started filling into the man I would become, I found myself less enthusiastic about the idea of religion as a whole. I think it was spurred by my discovery of just how many different sects, divisions, and belief systems there were, and all so concerned with being the “right” one. I had friends who were Jewish, Catholic, Methodist, atheist…and I couldn’t shake my worry over what would happen to them when they passed. Or, selfishly, what would happen to me if we were the ones that were “wrong?”
Two events stick out in my mind as landmark moments concerning my faith. The first came when I went to visit a girlfriend in her hometown. I was visiting with her family and they invited me to attend a church service with them. They were Catholic, which I knew was fairly similar to Episcopal, so I didn’t anticipate any surprises. However, in the car, my girlfriend explained that, when it came time for communion, I couldn’t go up and receive it with them since I wasn’t Catholic. If I wanted, I could cross my arms over my chest and receive a blessing from the priest, but I absolutely could not imbibe the bread or wine.
It made absolutely no sense to me. Why did it matter that I wasn’t raised in their church, weren’t we all supposed to be God’s people? I’d received communion hundreds of times before, but somehow I wasn’t worthy to within their halls? My best option was to make a gesture that revealed myself to everyone in the service to be separate and different. I simply couldn’t rectify the idea. These were the people that were supposed to be the chosen ones, doing everything they could to make the world a better place in accordance with God’s will, and here they were actively excluding people. Afterward, my girlfriend and I had a long talk on her porch about what our difference in faiths meant, what she believed would happen to me since I wasn’t Catholic, and how we would raise our children should we get to that point. The answers I received served only to make the pit in my stomach grow larger.
Later, after a disagreement with the changing practices of our long-time church, my family started attending a non-sectarian Christian church that was closer to our home. It was one of the new megachurches that have grown popular in the last decade, with a massive auditorium and a rock band instead of an organ. I started to believe that maybe I had found the place for me. The services were interesting instead of boring, and even a little bit fun at times. They went out of their way to find progressive, non-traditional ways to present their messages like staged readings and interpretive dance. And, since it didn’t belong to any structured belief system, free thinking seemed to be far more encouraged and celebrated.
Just as I was starting to wonder if maybe I could be a faithful person after all, we attended the service that attempted to discuss sexuality. The second I heard the words “Homosexuality is a disease” come out of the mouth of the man giving the sermon, I was done. I refused to allow myself to be a part of a hate-filled entity that presented itself in such a way, and I would not make allowances just because it was “fun” to listen to Christian rock every Sunday. I told my parents I would not be going back to that church, and I haven’t been back there or to any other church since.
That brings us roughly to today. So how do I describe my faith? I don’t really. I certainly don’t subscribe to any one religion. I wouldn’t call myself spiritual as I don’t actively participate in any form of worship. But I also wouldn’t say I’m an atheist, as I’ve been proven wrong too many times in my life to think I can know anything with 100% certainty.
I suppose the most accurate descriptor would be agnostic, but even that seems too specific to be accurate. I don’t like the idea of labels, as they only serve to shuffle us into categories to be judged by the members of other categories. I prefer to keep things fluid and dynamic.
If that seems like a cop-out, I won’t argue with you. But there’s already enough black and white in the world without me contributing.
I like staying in the gray.