I tried to give this blog post a sexy, SEO-friendly name, like "What Tarot Taught Me About My Religious Trauma" or "4 Ways Tarot Helped Me Recover from Religious Trauma."
But here's the thing: this story is not neatly packaged in a box. This story is also, fundamentally, about me. It's a story of religious trauma, so it has to be: my trauma is not your trauma, my experience with fundamentalist Christianity is not your experience with fundamentalist Christianity.
So what has helped me recover - and still helps me recover, daily - cannot be packaged as a solution.
I have a feeling this is going to be the first of many essays on the topic, so bear with me - and thank you for reading.
This weekend, I got real with folks on Periscope about the reasons I got into tarot: which were, primarily, to heal the wounds from almost 25 years of religious trauma and to construct a spiritual journey that honored my soul and my self.
Let's take a step back:
There are the folks who grow up Christian, and then there are the folks who grow up Christian. Fundamentalist, cultish, "bible-believing" Christian. People who believe that:
- the Bible is literal (only the parts they like, tho)
- and, more troublingly, who believe that the Bible is inerrant: meaning, not at all wrong -- no room for doubt
Meaning, you adhere to its tenants or you aren't a believer, ergo you aren't saved, ergo get the fuck out. Meaning, your entire identity is founded in and reliant on your continued adherence to this literal and inerrant document.
My generation is leaving the church in record numbers, and many of us bear deep-seated, sometimes invisible wounds from cycles of abuses perpetuated in the name of God.
Most of us are Midwestern or Southern; many of us grew up socioeconomically disadvantaged. But we all have the same thing in common: religious trauma, which affects us on psychological, emotional, and even spiritual levels.
Religious Trauma Studies is a relatively new field that has sprung up around the exodus of a generation from fundamentalist Christianity here in the United States. People who have experienced religious trauma can experience a wide-ranging assortment of symptoms that look remarkably like the symptoms of those who experience PTSD.
I'm not here to talk about the emergence of this field, to explain it, to defend it, to challenge it. Rather, I'm here as someone who feels validated by its very emergence. I am someone who grew up fundamentalist, thoroughly indoctrinated (some might say brainwashed), and who left the church at great personal cost.
It is the greatest and most important decision I have ever made.
It was the highest act of self-love.
My story, condensed, looks like this: grew up fundamentalist, developed a feminist streak that always kicked against the fundamentalism that was hard-wired in my bones, caved to the social track that fundamentalism puts you on (read: got married, was a virgin on my wedding night, etc.).
But this is when the story derails: after getting married, my husband and I moved to Boston where I was starting a PhD program. Suddenly, I was in an environment where most people were not Christians – and that made all the difference. Fundamentalism requires insularity, requires you to stay within the community.
Perhaps because a fundamentalist outside of fundamentalism starts to break free.
Long story short: within a year and a half of moving to Boston, I got divorced, came out as gay, and left the church. Most people hear some snapshot of this story and say "You came out. That was so brave." Or "Your divorce must have been so hard. You were so young."
Very few people understand that the hardest thing was to leave the faith.
What my East Coast, agnostic and atheist grad school friends in Boston did not understand was the theology that, as a woman, had been beat into my bones. A husband’s authority is the authority of Jesus Christ, physically represented on this earth (which is where we get male headship within the home and the church).
To reject your husband is to reject the authority of Jesus Christ.
I’d known my husband for a few years. I’d known Jesus my whole life. I “accepted Christ into my heart” (got “saved” from damnation) when I was four, and I “rededicated” my life to Christ multiple times over the years.
Scripture was in my bones. (Still is. You can take the girl out of the church; can't take the church out of the girl.)
My foundation—my world—was in the church, in its people, in the Bible. I understood myself first and foremost as a Christian, as a follower of Christ, as someone who had been saved by Christ. I was depraved; my worth was in Christ. This was the core of my belief system.
Leaving Christianity left my identity in shreds.
It meant I no longer knew myself. I was a shell of a person (major apologies to the friends who had to put up with me that year). I needed to redo everything.
The tl;dr version of this blog post:
@@Tarot helped me rebuild my life.@@
Even though I left the church, I couldn’t just shut my soul off. While in charismatic, fundamentalist churches (think hands in the air, speaking in tongues), I’d had more profound spiritual experiences than I can count. At the time, they were interpreted as the Holy Spirit, or spiritual gifts (like of Knowledge or Discernment) manifesting themselves. One of my favorite things about being a Christian, back in the day, was “spiritual gifts.” Cause I knew I had them.
Today, I recognize that those experiences are similar to what psychically inclined folks might call claircognizance, clairvoyance, and clairaudience. Basically, I’ve had too much weird shit that was most definitely not of this physical world happen to me to ignore the fact that the spiritual was definitely real, even if Jesus as God wasn’t.
I was looking for ways to connect with my soul, basically, because shutting that part of me off was a one-way street to dark depression (again). The problem was, I had no idea what that looked like. I tried liberal, progressive churches to no avail. I tried just saying I didn't believe in God.
It didn't work. I felt empty. While I knew my Christian friends would attribute that to me having turned my back on God (because the #jesusfilter is real and is always on, even if you've left the faith), I attributed it to the reality that human beings have great capacity for Spirit, period full stop.
So what was spiritual without being Christian? What kind of spiritual practice would allow me to love myself for me, and not only because I'd been "saved" from eternal damnation by a god I wasn't sure existed?
Welp, I had a lot of friends in grad school who did tarot - some seriously, some for shits and giggles. I ordered a deck. I started reading, sometimes with friends.
Unknowingly, this amazing tool for self-discovery presented itself.
I took to tarot like a duck to water, in part because humanities people are just hardwired for this kind of shit. Tarot utilizes major skills I learned over the years as an English grad student: basically, tarot reading is "close reading" a set of cards. You take the context of your question and the position of cards in a tarot spread, take the history of each card’s meaning and juxtapose it to your intuitive read and also the unique artwork of the particular deck. And you tell a story.
@@Tarot is revolutionary in that it places you at the center of your story.@@
It places responsibility on your shoulders for your decisions, for your outcomes.
It entrusts you with the tremendous work of creating your own life.
Tarot has taught me more about myself, my past, my behavior, my personality, my strengths, my weaknesses, and—more than anything else—my potential than 25 years in the Christian church did.
I've always kept a journal, but my journal today looks very different than the way it did then. Back then, entries about the day's minutiae turned into desperate prayers, pleas to God to change things, confessions of sin, general self-flagellation.
When I journal my way through a tarot reading, the emphasis is not on my personal debasement and perpetuating an internally learned cycle of shame, but rather on acknowledging the cycle at hand in order to maximize it and to change what needs to be changed for my greatest good.
Basically, tarot is a practice you can use for self-reflection, creative journaling, divinatory practice, and more. It’s a tool of self-reliance, of looking inward in order to understand the patterns in our lives. And it is for this reason that it is not trusted by the Christian church.
Tarot doesn’t threaten fundamentalist Christianity because it is “witchcraft.”
Tarot threatens fundamentalist Christianity because it teaches people to trust themselves.
And fundamentalism is a creed that will not survive if its adherents learn to trust themselves.
In re-membering my identity after leaving the church, the greatest revelation was that I had poor self-esteem. That I did not trust myself to make decisions. That I had, as those studying religious trauma have written about, a particularly cultivated learned helplessness about my own life.
Tarot has helped me restructure, reorganize, and re-member my life in ways I never thought possible in the initial wake of post-marital devastation.
I have learned how to take responsibility for my actions.
I have learned that I have an active hand in creating my own outcomes. (Institutional oppression is real, but calling oppression “God’s will” and just accepting the probable outcome is no longer an option.)
@@I have learned how to trust myself. @@
Here's the tl;dr version of this blog post:
Tarot, at its core, is just storytelling.
It empowers me to be the storyteller.
And being the storyteller of your own life, my friends, is the greatest heresy of all.