It’s Sunday morning and I’m sitting in a comfortable armchair in my parents’ house, on one of my three or four annual retreats from the world of academia. Today my morning routine was different from the rest of my family’s: I woke up around 9:00, took a shower, and am now lounging comfortably while trudging through Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter—a rather apt choice of reading material given the present course of my reflections. I hear the garage door open, the opening and shutting of car doors, and finally, my mom, dad, two brothers, and sister slowly filter in through the front door. My sister of eighteen years sits across from me and casts a slightly inquisitive but mostly accusatory glance towards me.
“Why weren’t you in church this morning?”
I still haven’t told her. In fact, of those whom I’ve known for longer than three years (really, since I began pursuing an academic career in earnest) only three have heard it from my mouth: my mom, my ex-girlfriend, and my best friend from college. And only one of these confessions resulted in an unaltered (or rather, uncontaminated) relationship.
My girlfriend-at-the-time tried to be understanding and sympathetic; she told me her love for me had not changed, and this was true. But there looms an early unacknowledged tension, a lingering inequality of relationship, among two, one of whom loves the other first and foremost, while the other loves a deity first and the former second. Two years later the tension had run its predictable course and now I’ve spoken to her five or six times since, a pathetic number considering what five years of intimacy had built.
Thankfully, my best college friend’s dispositions towards me remain unchanged in all important respects. The same cannot be said of my mom’s. I still remember, about a year ago, when a seemingly innocuous conversation about settling into life in Columbus turned into a referendum on my lacking appropriate beliefs and attitudes towards that same deity that the other woman I loved loved:
“Well, it’s certainly different from Calvin, and even Mississippi. I think I told you before, but even at Mississippi, half my professors were Protestants and all of the graduate students were some form of theists. Here, there are a few Jews, only some of whom actively practice, and then mostly atheists and agnostics. And among the graduate students there’s two or three Catholics, a Protestant, and the rest are atheists. So really it’s kind of interesting. I think I fit in pretty well here.”
“Wait, what do you mean?”
Now I realize I said something I shouldn’t have. “Well, you remember, we talked about this, in the car, when I decided to break up with Emily, we talked about it, how, you know, I don’t believe all the things that—”
“Well, I know, but you didn’t say that… well, you didn’t say you were—”
Of course, the conversation eventually continued, and mostly consisted of me attempting to convince her I was still a human being, still the same person whom she raised, still a loving son. Moreover, I felt the need to establish that my loss of faith wasn’t a byproduct of studying philosophy in an academic program—a likely culprit in the eyes of my conservative West-Michigan mother. I tried to talk about the way I’d never experienced God when I ought to have, and to explain the way I felt when I sat in church or read the Bible or prayed. But I could hear it in her voice when we uttered our farewells—she was deeply hurt by my revelation. I knew she wouldn’t sleep that night, that she would fitfully pray to the God I no longer believed in over my lost soul. I knew she felt the guilt of a member of a community of faith who fails to instill that which is so important to herself, into one of those whom she raised. I knew that for her, the knowledge of those few mental states in my head—those beliefs and attitudes concerning God—caused her much pain and grief, and would continue to do so. And still now, I know that on account of my mental states, she will probably lie on her deathbed, with most things in order, but this one thing still weighing on her conscience, without the comforting thought that she will see me again.
And so these mental states of mine—this my scarlet letter hidden behind the lock and key of my dissembling face—I continue to hide from those Christians who love me. Unlike Hester, my secret isn’t bursting forth from my body; mental states are easier concealed than a child.