Every year is a new adventure and a step into the unknown. For me, though, 2016 was less of a step and more of a leap into a completely different world. So here are some thoughts on what the year meant to me.
Note: I realise on re-reading this that it is specifically targeted at Christadelphians. If you have never been a Christadelphian, it will still tell you some interesting things about my year - but I apologise if it does not all make sense.
To the outside observer, I started my year exactly the same as in previous years: a diligent worker at work, and outside of work a committed Christadelphian. I attended all the meetings, I led talks, I had informed and (hopefully) interesting comments in group discussions, and I served on a couple of committees. But when by myself, all was different. I had to take off the mask and recognise that I was really a troubled and confused unbeliever, unsure of my place in the world. I seem to have been fairly good at hiding this difference from others. But I couldn’t hide it from myself. And I was sick of it.
I have some personal notes from that period. When I re-read them, I am shocked by the strength of the emotions shown: the anger, the uncertainty, the self-hatred, the fear. It’s not too much to say that I was tearing myself apart, and I don’t know how long I could have kept that up. I do not blame friends and family for accepting me as I presented myself. In fact, I wanted them to. But still, much of my anger came when people praised me for being something I wasn’t, or made assumptions about me that were perfectly reasonable but also completely wrong.
So, how did I get in this position? My faith had been weak for years, and almost everything I was learning was pointing away from continued belief in God. I had reached several crisis points in the closing months of 2015. Eventually, I had concluded that I should commit to spending six months reading a variety of works from both sides of the debate. After that I should make an informed decision whether to renew my commitment to belief in God, or whether I should officially acknowledge I no longer believed and resign. While I expected resignation would be the right answer, I did everything that I could to make my reading balanced and not pre-judge the issue (including taking more than half of my reading from the Theist side). This meant a long period of limbo, but it also held the lure that for once I could be confident I was making the right decision. I had also made a number of Christadelphian commitments for 2016, and was determined that I fulfil as many of them as I possibly could.
By the start of May, I had met all the commitments I could, and read many of the books I planned. My preparation wasn’t perfect (when is it ever perfect?), but the time was right to resign. Naturally, this shocked many people. I couldn’t expect otherwise. In reality, I was still confused and scared, but was kept going by the conviction I was (finally) doing the right thing. I am very grateful that the vast majority of messages I received during that period were positive and supportive, but they were still difficult to respond to.
However, time moves on, and I couldn’t dwell on it for too long. By mid-June I was winging my way to London, and I didn’t return to Melbourne till mid-September. So, what did I do?
- I explored the history, culture and countryside of nations with much more (official) history than ours. The history of England particularly interests me due to family connections; Scotland and the Isle of Man added different slants; and Wales has dragons and lots of Morgans (quite a bit of history, too…).
- I visited castles and stately homes, parks and gardens, museums and exhibitions, cathedrals and churches. I even attended a couple of religious services.
- I walked the Pennine Way. I had read that some places on it “challenge the least religious among us to deny the deeply spiritual experience they can provide”. It was a great walk, and I saw beauty and grandeur aplenty, but sorry, no deeply spiritual experiences.
- I climbed the highest peaks in England, Scotland, Wales, and the Isle of Man, as well as climbing high into the Swiss Alps (probably my favourite part of the year). As with the Pennine Way, there were no religious experiences here, but the places themselves are beautiful, and it’s great to be able to set goals and achieve them.
- I travelled to a country (Switzerland) where English wasn’t the primary language for the first time since my last missionary trip five years ago.
Importantly, I left my apologetics books at home, along with the continual argument and counter-argument of the six months before it. I didn’t completely give up thinking about it, but there was plenty to experience in the moment and I needed a break from agonising over the deep things of life. And when I returned to Australia and the real world of work, as everybody has to some time or other, it was like I had a fresh start. My year split cleanly into “before Europe”, “Europe”, and “after Europe”. It was no longer strange that I wasn’t attending a regular Sunday meeting or a Wednesday night Bible Class. It was just normal. And with that break I was able to return to thinking about religion and about deep life questions with fewer “Christadelphian” biases.
I never say that I’m completely certain, but the last few months have strengthened my conviction that I did the right thing. I am at peace in a way I could never be at the start of the year. I continue to learn new things which point away from the authority of the Christian Bible and the existence of the all-powerful God described in that Bible. Things which I would not have picked up, even as a doubter, while still in the religion. Which is not to say that I view all Christadelphians as deluded people who are not worth spending time with. I know how strong the evidence can appear, and I know that many are lovely people who do lovely things because of their belief. There were many who had the ability to make my year harder and chose not to, and I’m very grateful for that (in all honesty, it was turbulent enough already). It is a source of regret that I see many of my friends less frequently than I used to. But it’s better than talking to them more frequently, but through a mask. The reality is that with most good friends there will be some areas of life where we disagree, but we can still get on. For some of my friends, this year added “religious belief” to the list of disagreements - but for other friends it removed “lack of belief”.
So what else changed? Being no longer a stranger and pilgrim or a citizen of heaven, I did some very Australia-focused things for the first time. In February, I visited Canberra, the home of our government (and not a lot else). I also climbed the two tallest mountains in mainland Australia (both in the same day). In June, I followed my legal obligation as an Australian citizen and voted for the first time. As I was overseas I could have avoided it, but decided to cast my vote in London at the beautiful Australia House (trivia: usually the largest polling station in federal elections). In fact, I cast it in the gap between visting the politically important Lord’s Cricket Ground, and seeing the precursor to our present day peaceful handover of power in Shakespeare’s magnificent Macbeth at the Globe.
I also did some things on Sundays that I would otherwise have been unable to do, like attending the MCG Open Day and a Sunday chamber orchestra concert. To be clear, I would never have resigned purely to rebel or to take control of my life. I liked the regular structure of the week, enjoyed services and discussion time, and thought commitment was an important thing. In fact, for a few weeks after resigning I struggled to keep track of which day of the week it was, because the regular markers had suddenly gone missing. However, seeing as I no longer believe it right to attend, I’m not sorry to take other opportunities when they offer themselves.
I live out in the Dandenong Ranges with national park over the other side of the road, and have always been a keen walker (when time permits!) Since I returned from 1,000+ km walking in Europe and found both Saturdays and Sundays mostly unoccupied, I have tried to make sure I do some walking both days. Even so, there are still worthwhile places within 5 km of my house that I have rarely or never visited, and I would like to change that. Sometimes you need to go to the other side of the world to be reminded of the beauties in your own backyard. Lots of birds around, particularly kookaburras, crimson rosellas, and cockatoos. There’s plenty of wildlife around, too, particularly near sunset. A couple of evenings ago I came across a fox cub. Tonight I watched an echidna dig into an ant nest, then was surprised by it crossing the trail in front of me, coming within inches of my feet.
It’s high summer. The days are warm (read: hot), and they are also long, with the sunset coming late. After heavy rain and an overflowing creek I probably won’t be burnt out of my home for at least a few days. Life is good.
This week I attended the Boxing Day Test first day for the first time, along with 63,000 other fans. We lost a session to rain, but it was still a good day. With rain predicted on all five days we were afraid it would end in a tame draw, but yesterday good Australian batting and a Pakistani collapse gave us an exciting victory.
It’s been a year of highlights and of lowlights, largely due to stepping out into the unknown. I’m certainly not happy with every decision I’ve made and every action I’ve taken during the year, but overall I’m happy with where it’s ended up. Too much of my summer break has been spent indoors writing rather than out in the sun, but it is a relief to write some of this down and share it. Much of my understanding of the world has come through reading, writing, and discussing, and I look forward next year to sharing and discussing more of what I’ve learned. I don’t know what’s coming in 2017, and I’m sure it will have twists and turns, but I really hope it will have less upheaval than 2016. Anyway, I have good reason to look forward to it, and I guess I’ll know by this time next year what it actually looked like.