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God and Other Imagined Lovers

By Carolyn B. ~

Jesus was my first unrequited love.

The so-called “relationship” urged upon me from my earliest days by born-again Christian family and teachers set a pattern for decades of equally frustrating and lonely experiences in the arena of human romantic love.

What exactly is this “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” anyway?

To begin with, it involves a lot of prayer: that is, earnest talking to (often pleading with) an entity whom one has neither seen, heard, touched, or grasped with the senses in any way. One pours out one’s heart into silence…and listens to silence in return. At least that was always my experience.

The responses, of course, are supposed to be found by reading static words out of a book: a book, one has been assured, came straight from the mouth of God. It still takes a robust act of the imagination, however, to construct any kind of give-and-take between oneself and these Iron-Age writings, however poetic they happen to be. In the end, the effort is all one’s own.

Imagine telling someone you had a personal relationship with Mr. Darcy. They would probably just assume you meant you had a literary crush on an imaginary, if well-drawn, character. They might start to be concerned, however, and rightfully so, if you began to obsess about Mr. Darcy constantly, if you eschewed engagement with the world in favor of reading Pride and Prejudice over and over again, if you spent all your time writing letters to the character. Yet this is exactly the behavior that is encouraged when it comes to a barefoot carpenter from Nazareth whose legend was invented during the Roman Empire.

The damage this did, at least in my case, was twofold. First, it gave ample excuse to an already painfully shy child to retreat into an imaginary world of my own making, where I could take the tiniest shred of interaction or interest from a real live boy (whom I would then turn into a projection -- some kind of idealized and wholly unrecognizable person) and blow it up into a legendary romance.

Second, the imagined “relationship” with a “perfect” being set the bar impossibly high for mere humans. If I live to be a hundred, I will never forget the words my mother said to me while we were sitting at my grandmother’s kitchen table, en route to my first semester at a secular college: “No man will ever satisfy you.”

My atheist best friend found this hilarious – what did that say about my dad? – but anyone who has been raised in a born-again household knows exactly what she meant. As Marlene Winell writes in Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving Their Religion:

You were taught to think you needed life to be ideal. You were probably told that you had a void in your life that only God could fill, because only God could fill it perfectly. The implication was that you had to have your needs met perfectly. That is, only Jesus could truly understand you, and you needed to be understood completely. Only God could give you enough purpose in life, and you had to have a grand, compelling purpose.

It would be a long, long time before I would be able to shake myself loose from this kind of thinking, and those damning words – terrible words for a young, inexperienced girl to hear from her own mother. It felt tantamount to a curse. (I was over forty before I was able to finally experience the fulfillment of having my needs met in a relationship.)

But to return to the harmful social habits one can learn from fundamentalist, born-again Christianity: I also learned that invasiveness equals love.

When the stakes are heaven or hell, after all, who can afford to respect personal boundaries? My mother and I were great fans of Rebecca Manley Pippert (an evangelist every bit as irritatingly perky as her name), the Barbara Walters of fundamentalist proselytizing. She could ferret out the fears and vulnerabilities of her evangelistic “targets,” sometimes reducing them to tears, and then soft-sell them the dogma like an inveterate pickup artist.

In her mind, of course (as in ours), this was “for their own good”…but now I can only shudder at the bald emotional manipulation that forced a “cure” upon people that I know to be worse than their dis-ease.

The very idea of love itself was warped and contradictory as well as invasive. Among these good Christian women, soupy sentimentality was rampant — yet “Biblical” beliefs often demanded an almost sociopathic withholding of empathy. With sensibilities seemingly derived from a Thomas Kinkade painting, they loved to imagine their soft-focus, handsome white Jesus cuddling fuzzy little lost lambs. When it got down to brass tacks, however, these devout mommies neither spared the rod on their own little lambs nor batted an eye at the outright sadism and inhumanity of their capricious and abusive Old Testament “Father.” Cruelty was discipline, and discipline was love, and love was invasive. Any therapist worth their certification can tell you how dysfunctional this is.

I must add to this the core belief, inherent in the faith, that all human beings are thoroughly corrupted by sin, blackhearted and virtually irredeemable (but God/Jesus for some baffling reason loves our worthless butts anyway). Not to mention the anxiety a believer constantly carries, about doing something to rouse the ire of God and lose his or her salvation. Neither of these things creates the basis for a healthy self-concept or any kind of self-confidence, although the born-agains will piously insist (no doubt quoting Paul) that their confidence comes from God. (The good Lord taketh away, and then he giveth?)

So just to recap: I learned that love was sentimental, yet invasive; a one-way proposition fleshed out by the imagination; that nothing less than perfection would do; that there was something fundamentally wrong with me; and that I could never relax.

How this played out in my life over several decades, even after leaving the church at seventeen, was extraordinarily painful. After failing spectacularly and agonizingly at my first attempt at a “real” relationship in college (the boy preferred my closest girl friend), I started to withdraw like a nun, or more properly, like a Tennessee Williams character, into the invented life of my mind, an activity at which I’d had heaps of practice.

I obsessed over the slightest indication of interest from men I’d vetted as close-to-perfect, usually driving them away with overwrought letters (which bore little relation to reality) and other forms of overwhelming pursuit, in an escalating cycle of anxiety and self-loathing. Whenever one of them would shatter my bubble (like a piece of the glass menagerie), I would spiral into a near-suicidal depression. I was staking my self-worth on these men’s negative responses (rejections), as I had once staked my self-worth on the non-responses of a silent God (rejections).

The relationship may have existed only in my imagination, as had my “relationship with Christ” – but unlike with Jesus, at least I could see and interact with these objects of obsession, these living, breathing, human men, who were beautiful. They were always beautiful. It’s no wonder there are so many prohibitions against idolatry: it’s much easier to worship beings that are accessible to the senses, whose existences are not in question, who can reply to your entreaties -- even if it’s just to tell you to leave them alone. For me something was always better than nothing…that nothing I’d found so many nights on my knees beside the bed.

What began to snap me out of it, fortunately, was the film Notes on a Scandal with Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench. Watching the Dench character scribble in her journals about Blanchett’s, inventing imaginary intrigues and schemes that spilled over into bona fide psychosis, made me squirm. I saw myself in that mirror, and the image wasn’t pretty. It would take several more years for me to make the connection between trying to have a “relationship” with an unavailable deity and inventing relationships with men where only a tenuous connection existed, between feeling inherently unlovable because of a punitive theology and needing to prove myself unlovable over and over again.

My hope is that by sharing these insights into my own experience, I might help others who have been similarly handicapped, and shed some more light on the evolving subject of religious recovery. I have the deepest gratitude and respect for pioneers in this field like Dr. Marlene Winell and Dr. Valerie Tarico. I am also unutterably grateful to Francis Schaeffer’s apostate son Frank for writing his hilarious and healing autobiographical books on growing up within a fundamentalist “royal family.”