Cross Purposes

Molly stood up, grabbed her bags and headed for the door.  Our “Wellness” circle of housing-and-health-challenged people sat stunned.  We knew Molly was quirky, even for an eclectic group of people from the street.  But what she did next rattled everyone a little.  She stopped, turned, walked across the room, reached up and snatched the wooden cross from the wall.  I cut her off under the exit sign but she pushed passed onto the sidewalk.  “Molly, please give that back; it doesn’t belong to you,” I tried to reason with her.  She stood close and I could see her thick makeup was starting to run.  “I’m taking this!  I don’t care who it belongs to!  Why do churches put crosses up so high we can’t touch them, anyway?” Leaning in, her eyes took a quick scan of my face for a reaction.  I only raised my eyebrows and swallowed a smile.  She whirled around, making a show of her disgust, threw back her hair and stormed away down the street, clutching the stolen cross.

Several days later I entered the free dining room, off the busy downtown street, and saw that the cross—a colorfully painted and laminated piece of art from El Salvador—was back on the wall above the doorway where Molly stood in line along with hundreds of other women, children, men and a few dogs, talking, laughing or shuffling silently through to get a hot meal, as they did every day of the year.  Molly’s mental illness was acute, and it caused her to act cute sometimes; at other times, obviously, not so cute.  I found Molly sitting alone.  She looked up and smiled, “Sit down by me, Chaplain Chris.”  I smiled and put my tray down, sliding onto a cold folding chair next to her.  After a few moments Molly said, “I’m sorry I took the cross.   I gave it back to the kitchen this morning.  You know, I can’t understand why churches have crosses.  I mean, why don’t they have statues of Jesus doing something for people, you know, healing someone or something?”  Now I really grinned and nodded.  “Great question, Molly; that’s a very good question.”

This story, pilfered from a heavy bag of tales collected over my years as an interfaith chaplain, when I, with much fear, trembling and questionable courage “re-presented the compassion of the faith communities” in the county jail and on the streets of Marin County, California, illustrates the challenges, frustrations and stunning moments of crazy clarity that were my daily bread (more stories are collected in the book, My Address is a River).  The ironies and paradoxes were regular fare.  That day as I sat with Molly eating the free food provided by the St. Vincent’s Catholic community, I thought how wonderfully bizarre is this execution-centered religion in which I was raised, trained and ordained.  Her wild comments set my wild mind to work.  Later I discussed Molly’s street-wise wisdom with my colleagues.  I think we even made it a topic for our next “Wellness Circle,” the weekly gathering Molly had stormed out of that thieving day.  For years I have quoted the words of this delightfully nutty woman, words that question the very foundation of the (nutty) Church—oddly enough, a fractured foundation impaled on the spire of every “house of God,” evidence of a sort of skewed and skewered spirituality.

Stealing Molly’s questions to carry in my own mental backpack all these years I continue to feel they are central to a precise and honest critique of the religion that shaped my life—the religion of the cross.  Every religion has its central icons, but ever since childhood, crosses have been powerful symbols.  There were the crosses on and in every church—large and small, short and tall, gold, silver and polished wood, there were crosses in graveyards; crosses in movies my family would watch like “King of Kings,” “The Robe” and “Jesus of Nazareth.”  Then came more interesting films that inspired my youthful days as a “Jesus Freak”—films like “Jesus Christ, Superstar,” “Godspell” and even the hysterical “Life of Brian” (with that classic closing scene of the guys singing and swinging on the crosses).  I saw images on the television of burning crosses in the South, used to intimidate and terrorize Black families.  As my eyes widened along with my vision, the art world gave us Mapplethorpe’s crucifix in piss and the large gold cross between the large breasts of a very-nonvirgin Madonna.  Hollywood gave us “The Last Temptation of Christ” and the ever-passionate Mel Gibson brought us the bloody “The Passion of The Christ.”  Nothing quite as controversial to Christians in a Christian-saturated culture as a cross.  A friend gave me a cross made of nails for my ordination and a few years later I had a Celtic cross tattooed on my upper arm (since then I had a Chinese yin-yang symbol of balance etched into the center—now I consider changing it, with a smile of irony, to a tree).

One could say, and I think argue effectively, that we are obsessed with crosses.  They are the most popular jewelry, they are seen in virtually every town and city in America, they cover our cemeteries and they are constantly placed side by side with the flag.  Crosses and flags seem to go together, like nuts and chips.  Perhaps one day all those little stars by the stripes will be replaced by little crosses (the day America dies and Christianistan is born).  Crosses are held, kissed, rubbed, caressed.  People love crosses.  Well, at least, the ones who think they show fashion or faith.

I loved the cross too.  Until mine broke.  The cross, and by this I mean The Cross, tumbled down to shatter at my feet.  This book is two stories.  One is the story of how and why that happened—what caused me to leave the faith of my fathers and mothers.  The other story is the surprise, the good and simple path of living that I discovered post-Church, post-Cross—my life after faith.   I think this is worth the sharing.  I suspect that Molly would agree.  The image I have in mind is her defiantly playful and childlike run down the street after stealing the cross.  Maybe I’m doing the same thing here.  It’s a liberating lunacy; a creative craziness, you might say. And like Molly, I may hand it back when I’m done—with a whole lot of splintering questions nailed to it.

Fundamental Questions

I’m no longer a Fundamentalist, but this book addresses basic, foundational questions, and presents solutions—tentative, adaptable solutions—and maybe even a few “answers.”  The answers I offer, shoulder to shoulder with some of my heroic, heretic companions such as Paine, Burroughs, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Wright, Fuller and Muir, are not to be mistaken for final or even complete responses.  They are my responses at this time, in the best way I know to articulate them.

The main questions I am responding to are:

*Who and what has been crucified in the name of the cross?

*How does a person of faith lose faith and make a conscious choice to let go of God?

*Why choose to leave a community, a family of faith, and ordination?

*What happens when God moves away and Nature moves in?

*If there is no super-natural, can there still be hope beyond death?

*Does religion still offer something valuable to the world?

*Who are the spiritual insurgents to lead the way forward in this non-violent revolution?

*Can a “natural spirituality” provide a sustainable, simpler life?

*How can a person live a meaningful, contented life after faith?

These questions and my responses will undoubtedly lead to more explorations throughout my life.  What I try to lay out here is simply my own map, not for another to follow, but to learn from and perhaps begin sketching one’s own chart or trail for the adventure ahead.

The Broken Cross and Beyond 

In 1992 and again in 2000 I made a kind of kindred pilgrimage to Scotland.  Seeking, in part, family roots, I was surprised to find no Highlands except for the craggy and clouded mountains of that name—the wild and wet region distilled to drink in the peaty waterfalls and ancient Caledonian forests.  The “old country” is steeped in a history as rich and mysterious as the fog over a deep, quiet loch or spacious glen.   I quite literally touched the history, and my own ancestral roots, by climbing high waterfalls, hiking into the deep woods, sitting to eat lunch on gnarled knots of roots, and by entering aged castles, estates, museums and churches.  The buoyant boy Johnny Muir seemed near, running and climbing with youthful exuberance, especially when I strolled the soggy muirs of his home town of Dunbar near Edinburgh.    Throughout Scotland I found graveyards particularly interesting.  Many churches can only be accessed by meandering a forest of gravestones.  That told me a great deal.   Yet it was one misty afternoon, shortly before I boarded the silver airship for the return from the “old country” to the “new country” over the ocean of the sky, that I drove along a single-track road, over verdant hills and landscapes bounding with spring lambs and Highland cattle, out to the ruins of an old chapel.  Inside and outside the roofless ruin of the sanctuary were lichen- and moss-covered, wind-sculpted markers.  At the time, I was captivated by anything Celtic and the ancient designs on the gravestone crosses were fascinating.  I read the names, traced the knots with my chilled fingers, and guessed or imagined the lifestories of my country-folk buried there.  Then I saw it.  Resting back against a damp wall, in the far corner of the chapel-cemetery, was a broken cross.  It had fallen from a nearby grave.  Under it—dark, rich earth.  Above it—a cold, cracked wall, but something else.   Emerging from behind the graves, in back of the fractured cross, were greening leaves of a vine, peeking out of the darkness and shadows.  I snapped a photograph.  Over the years, as I’ve studied that photo, I’ve reflected on that crumbled metaphor, carried back from the soggy country of my ancestors.  That fallen and broken cross symbolized and perhaps foretold the future fracturing of my faith.  And more importantly perhaps, the living, greening vine offered a gift, a hint of hope and healing—of an abiding and abundant life after the crumbled cross, a life after faith.

This book is no repair manual, no mending of the broken cross.  It is an honest sauntering along the rough and ragged edges of a shattered and scattering spirituality—where every living tree sends roots and branches, scatters seeds and fruit in myriad directions to become a sacred virescent symbol, every Celtic knot becomes an invitation to unravel mysteries—or let them be.

My story, soaked as it is in Scotland and every home I have journeyed through, offers the reader only a brief saunter through the forests—among the evergreens as well as the stumps.  My message is simple: you can leave the faith of your childhood and be o.k. It will be difficult, challenging, lonely at times. You will no doubt find Doubt a constant, and necessary, companion. Yet, there can be a meaningful, renewing life after faith.  On the far side of faith there is open land, waterfalls, glens, oceans to cross.  There is music, poetry, laughter and deep contentment. There are countless open trails for exploration and discovery.  The natural way is continually open and inviting to us.  There is always opportunity for exodus, good news, resurrection, freedom—to use ancient biblical frames.  And this freedom is true liberation because it is rational, responsible and, as the old Janis Joplin song sings it:  “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose; nothing ain’t worth nothing til it’s free.”  And speaking of freedom.

I Shall Be Released

One bright afternoon I took the elevator to the top floor of the Civic Center, an oddly beautiful building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.  The doors opened and I stepped out to face dingy beige cement walls, security cameras and a thick bullet-proof window with a woman in uniform staring at me (was she annoyed, amused or apathetic?). Passing through the heavy doors that buzzed before and behind me, I entered the other world we call Jail.  It was my usual day to walk my “rounds” and with gray, short-sleeved shirt, white plastic collar, Birkenstocks and Greek fisherman’s hat, I was easily recognized by inmate and deputy alike as the very Marin Jail Chaplain (My home for the greater part of my life, Marin County, north of the Golden Gate bridge, has been a refuge for the off-beat, new age and Nuevo-rich since the 60’s.  Though it has its share of poverty and ordinariness, Marin is, with all its natural beauty, an epicenter for wealth epitomized in George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch and the homes of “stars” like Carlos Santana, Bonnie Raitt, Huey Lewis, Cuba Gooding and many more.  It was here Robin Williams went to school and launched his career. Marin’s large homeless population, segregated immigrant communities, $30 million-dollar underground jail and California’s only Death Row at San Quentin testify to something not quite right in paradise). I set off down one dimly lit corridor to see a young black man standing on a steel crossbar straining to look out.  As I walked up he asked me to peek out the thin, clear part in the frosted window tantalizingly near and tell him what it was like out there.  Though I was only a few feet away I leaned to the thick window and described the sun on the golden hills and the bay glistening a mere mile away.  As I turned back and moved close to the dusty black bars of his cell, “Ben” pushed his arm through the narrow opening and put his closed fist in front of my face.  “Here, I made this for you,” he said with a big smile.  I raised my eyebrows and opened my hand.  A small woven cross on a string fell into my outstretched palm.  I could tell it was carefully and tightly wound with thread taken (against jail rules) from the edges of the thin white cotton blankets handed to every prisoner.  “Thanks, Ben,” I said, turning it over in my hand.  Ben was nodding.  I slipped the cross over my head and positioned it just below my collar, touched it, and shook Ben’s big dark hand.

There were many such gestures of respect and appreciation I received over those ten years inside.  Though I was an interfaith chaplain, representing Christians as well as Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Sufis and other faiths, a cross made and given in that bleak context—handed from a dark cell inches from the light of freedom—held meaning.  During those intensely wonderful years, a rough-looking man tried for murder gave me his pen drawing of the bowed, thorn-crowned head of Jesus, a young prostitute gave me her colorful sketch of a smiling Christ and a young man who killed a child placed a sword-swinging image of Kali—Hindu goddess of fierce, protective motherhood—in my hand.  Each an image of faith, of hope.  Each a gift from someone with nothing, given in the dark, walked out into the light.  Faith has its gifts.  Or perhaps the gift reflects plain and simple goodness—one human being to another.

There are great gifts beyond the confining walls of faith.  In his seminal essay on Self-Reliance (1841) the former minister Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “Whenever a mind is simple and receives a divine wisdom, old things pass away—means, teachers, texts, temples [,crosses] fall; all things are made sacred by relation to it . . . in the universal miracle, petty and particular miracles disappear.”  Emerson’s “simple mind” has nothing to do with a blind simple-mindedness that denies the power of reason and truth.  The “divine wisdom” throws open the windows and doors, jumps the artificial fences and walls of the mind set in stone. And, such tough-as-titanium wisdom understands that some doors won’t open easily, and maybe not at all. This is not religious or faith-based wisdom.  This is universal, borderless, boundless and wild.  As the small creatures who shared my one-room cabin in the island woods reminded me, old things do pass away, crumble and die—while the goodness of Life marches on.

My decision to leave the church (small “c”) and the Church (capital “C”) was, and is, in part an affirmation of the truth spoken by social reformer Frances Wright 180 years ago.  In her lectures on religion and morality this early preacher of human rights and reason said, “My friends, I am no Christian, in the sense usually attached to the word.  I am neither Jew nor Gentile, [Muslim] nor Theist; I am but a member of the human family, and would accept truth by whomsoever offered—that truth which we can all find, if we will but seek—in things, not in words; in nature, not in human imagination; in our own hearts, not in temples made with hands” (Reason, Religion and Morals). Truth is slippery and dangerous but it must be crossed, even if it’s cracked and thin over the icy river; it’s found in specific, tangible things, in Nature, and the most tangible but fragile thing we know:  our selves.  The present story is more a story of repairing and restoring the search for truth than fixating on fixing brokenness in reason or religion.  It is a description of what I am not, yet it is a greater investigation into the things of nature and the heart and the mind than an eye-witness account of the rubble of the temples.  It is what and who I am, and who I am as a part of something much grander.  As John Muir once replied to a friend who was urging him to write his autobiography, “I am not anxious to tell what I have done but what Nature has done—an infinitely more important story” (Letter to Richard Gilder, March 1899).  I can only hope that this book presents a similar honor.

The reader may be in a position to see the cracks in the structure, the fractures in the foundation, or, like the victim of an earthquake, desperately ready to crawl out or be pulled from the rubble and wreckage.  As one pastor told me recently when I asked about his church, “You did the right thing getting out of the church when you did!”  So you may wonder why you are still inside.  You might ask, as I do, Where is my roofless chapel, my broken place offering life, light, freedom?  Where are the gestures of kindness, goodness and basic values that do not depend on another world, another “higher” plane, a Judge above?  Where is the Beauty beyond the brokenness?  These questions only point to the great challenge that lies ahead.  Out of the rubble of quake and landslide, down the trail, over the looming boulders and roiling rivulets of religion, along the shorelines of Truth, awaits something in-credible—unbelievable, that is, beyond belief.  Religion cannot go there with us.  Happily, said Nietzsche, once the river of religious feeling breaks over the banks and finds enlightenment, it “throws itself into art” and sometimes politics and other times science. There can be something in-credibly creative beyond the flood of faith.

There is a fulfilling, meaningful life after faith.  This is good, not bad, news.  It’s what we have inherited, our right to seize and claim for our own, our responsibility, our choice.  Crumbled and tumbled icons may litter the path, but a light and enlightened heart will learn to leap the obstacles and bound on with deep gratefulness and expectation, and pause to chip (or blow) away the senseless separations of sectarianism.  I invite the reader to take lots of lung-filling breaths, keep a light step and walk, roll or paddle alongside. With freedom in one hand and responsibility in the other, a startling and stunning sense of liberty and adventure will lead us on.

Chris Highland

Marin County, California, 2010



One thought on “Introduction

  1. My message is simple: you can leave the faith of your childhood and be o.k. It will be difficult, challenging, lonely at times. You will no doubt find Doubt a constant, and necessary, companion (see note). Yet, there can be a meaningful, renewing life after faith. On the far side of faith there is open land, waterfalls, glens, oceans to cross. There is music, poetry, laughter and deep contentment. There is a fulfilling, meaningful life after faith.


    Just to let you know these words in your introduction meant alot to me and moved me to tears, as I had left the faith of my childhood, only to find myself an agnostic for about a decade afterwards. This has not been without its, loniness, pain and doubt. Over the past 5 years or so, while attending field geology trips with the local community college, I have become fascinated with the natural world with a realization that the longing and emptiness which still permeated my soul needed to be dealt with so I have been as time permits, allowing myself to connect with nature. I also have found a source of spirituality in art, music and poetry, and for a sense of community and connection I have over the past few months been attending the local Unitarian Universalist congregation. I find this gives me a safe place for my exploration without judgment. I still have been trying to come to terms whether faith is necessary in an earth centered spirituality or not, because I most assuredly do not have faith in any sort of traditional religion, and I have a hard time having faith in humanity.

    I will continue to read your book as time permits and give you any feedback or ask any questions if I have them.


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