In Julia Sweeney’s “Letting Go of God,” she recounts her religious experiences and how she went from a Catholic to an Atheist. She tells that she has, in her recent past, felt God and His spirit upon her but following a visit from two Mormon boys, she begins to wonder about, as she puts it, “… I wasn’t sure if I believed what I so clearly felt” (330). She talks to God daily but decides the boys raised some valid points and sets out to find a church of her Catholic faith to attend regularly in order to seek out answers of the many questions that have been coming to mind since the Mormons’ visit. She found one that suited her in that it was liberal, dedicated and full of emotional feeling. Yet she wanted to believe the prayer the congregation recited in unison as much as feel it, so she attended a Bible study in which she begins to see things differently than she realized. Sweeney soon realizes that what she has been taught to believe and how she reads the Bible are not at all alike. Right from the beginning, she learns that the Bible starts with two conflicting stories of creation and thinks, “Wow, for all those people who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, or that every word of the Bible is true, they can’t even have read the first two chapters of the Bible” (332). She makes similar discoveries throughout the Old and New Testaments and by the end of the study she finds herself quite frustrated by what she has believed all these years and how it conflicts with all that she has now discovered. This ultimately leads her to a decision to stop believing in God. This change in belief was well thought out and not one made without some struggle.
When I first started reading Sweeney’s story, I was very intrigued and interested in hearing more of what she had to say because when the Mormon visitors asked her the question, ” ‘Do you believe God loves you with all His heart?’ “(327). I stopped and wondered if I, myself, believed that. It was the ultimate question she posed to herself that set her on her journey in seek of an answer. She starts by saying, “Now, if they had asked me, ‘Do you feel that God loves you with all His heart?’ That would have been easy. I would have honestly said, ‘Yes, I feel it all the time. I feel God’s love when I’m hurt and confused and I feel consoled and cared for. I take shelter in God’s love when I don’t understand why tragedy hits. I feel God’s love when I look with gratitude at all the beauty I see.'” And then she says, “But since they asked me the question with the word ‘believe’ in it, somehow it was all different” (330). This really hit home for me because I too feel God’s love in many ways, without question. But what do I believe, exactly? And secondly, is what I do believe because I trusted someone else when they told me what they believed was true or do I believe it because I personally have come to do so based on my own experiences?
In order for me to answer these questions, I must explore a bit of my own religious experiences throughout my lifetime. God was rarely discussed in my home and we only said grace when we had company who suggested it. As a child, my mother’s parents, Memaw and Pappy, were Methodists and my father’s parents, Nana and Bumpa, were Baptists. I went to church off and on, sporadically, with both sets of grandparents and learned the many Bible stories that are taught to young children in Sunday school. I was baptized when I was eight which was a big deal and a proud moment in my Nana and Bumpa’s life. For me, it was just something that was expected. I also went to a private school at the Nazarene church until I was in fourth grade. In fifth grade I went to a public school which was so different it was almost traumatizing and by sixth grade I was back in a private school, this time in a Baptist church. But that ended quickly when I called my mother in tears one day begging her to come get me because my teacher had terrorized me with angry talk of fire and brimstone and told the whole class that our parents were all sinners and going to hell and we would all likely follow. And finally, when I got caught skipping school for five straight weeks in eleventh grade, I was once again placed in a private school at a Pentecostal church. My mother thought it would be wise to attend the church so it would look better for my sister and me as students. So for that reason, we did.
Within weeks of attending the church, I started hearing what was being said instead of only hearing the words, and knew something real was missing in my life. The more I heard, the greater my need to find that missing piece. After one particular service one Sunday morning, I went home, and in the privacy of my own bedroom, I started talking to God without the parameters of memorized prayers. I spoke to God as if He was sitting beside me on my bed. I asked Him if He was there and yes, based on what I felt, I believed He was. From that moment on, I spoke to Him every day and started to make major changes in my life. I lived every moment around my connection to God. I believed then that I believed He loved me and wanted what was best for me. I believed because I had no reason not to, because believing felt right, and because I needed to believe. I was confident in my faith.
The following year, the choir director from my church and his family, took a position at a church in Oregon and when I graduated from high school, they invited me to come live with them. So one day in July I left Florida and my family and moved to Oregon. In less than a year I started making choices in my life that I knew were not acceptable in the eyes of God and it wasn’t long before I started avoiding Him because of my shame. I got involved with a married man and later married him myself. I left him seven years later and got into a relationship with a woman and shortly thereafter, started using drugs at age 27. After another seven years and a long series of events involving my children, I stopped using drugs and went into treatment which led me to Narcotics Anonymous and unexpectedly I found myself face to face with God. This was not where I wanted to be at first. I had, without realizing it, limited myself to believing only what I had been taught by the people in my life, in that I had willfully and intentionally sinned after having known God and therefore God had turned His back on me as I had turned mine on Him. Over the course of 14 or 15 years I had allowed myself to believe that God no longer wanted me because of the way I had chosen to live my life. Fortunately for me, through NA, it was pointed out that I needed to look at my personal experiences and beliefs and decide for myself if such lack of forgiveness fit. So I spent a lot of time remembering and thinking about my walk with God from years before and came to the conclusion that I had to ask God Himself if I was worthy of His forgiveness and love and presence in my life again. As a result, I talked to God for the first time in a long time and as strongly as that first day in my bedroom, I felt a peace within and truly believed, and still do, that He has forgiven me and loves me with all of His heart.
I talk to God, or pray, everyday. It’s not necessary for me to kneel or fold my hands together or to close my eyes or even to bow my head. I talk to Him where ever I am, whenever I want or need to, sometimes out loud and sometimes not. Having God in my life and believing that He is there keeps me grounded and keeps me honest. I have learned to believe from within what I have experienced firsthand and what works for me. I don’t disbelieve everything I am told by others, but I do take what fits and leave what doesn’t. I heard once that faith is simple. When you need light, you flip a switch and there it is. You don’t worry or wonder or question whether or not the light will turn on when you hit the switch. Similarly, when you call on God, He is there. I, unlike Sweeney, don’t need proof and validation of my belief in God through past events recorded in the Bible. As with anything written, interpretation can be as different as night and day from one person to the next. I see the Bible as recordings of things witnessed and experienced by many people. What matters to me today is what I witness and experience in the now and that is how I determine what I believe.