The Last Temptation

[Paul, to Jesus] “I don’t give a hoot about what’s true and what’s false, or whether I saw him or didn’t see him, or whether he was crucified or wasn’t crucified. I create the truth, create it out of obstinacy and longing and faith. I don’t struggle to find it—I build it. I build it taller than man and thus I make man grow. If the world is to be saved, it is necessary—do you hear—absolutely necessary for you to be crucified, and I shall crucify you, like it or not; it is necessary for you to be resurrected, and I shall resurrect you, like it or not.”

–Nikos Kazantzakis, “The Last Temptation of Christ”

The basket was nestled on the ground at the foot of a large painted sign; a dozen rocks, professionally smoothed, rested inside like a collection of petrified eggs. “Carry the rock with you as you navigate the labyrinth,” the sign advised, “as you bring your burden to lay at the feet of Jesus, who will join you in the middle.”

Dutifully, I started the path, stepping with moderate care between two rows of landscaping brick that traced a path, winding but never confusing, around the degrees of a circle laid out in a forgotten corner of the Methodist church. The center was directly ahead; I could see that a single transgression of the boundary would bring me to the Christ-filled center in a fraction of the time, but I followed the rules and continued the pantomime of theological confusion. “We walk by faith, not by sight,” the pastor had gently reminded us some twenty minute prior in the worship service. “Perhaps,” I thought, “but such a strategy might leave me with a broken ankle here among the stones.”

I find myself (even now, more than a decade into my apostasy) drawn to these sacred spaces, mesmerized by their spiritual significance and overwhelmed (at times) by the connectivity I still feel for them. During Holy Week the attraction sometimes is especially poignant. The world around me is bursting with new life and possibilities, and every thread of the biological tapestry that surrounds me reinforces the call of “renew, renew, renew.”

It is an odd thing, to be a Christian apostate. The Calvinists among whom I spent my youth decree that I could not be a Christian, and the Southern Baptists around whom I spend my adulthood proclaim that I could not be an apostate. I only know what I was, and what I am now; it is not my business to adjust my biography for the sake of someone’s theology.

The path of the labyrinth is designed to be repeated. It is not a maze—there is only one path possible—and thus there are no navigational choices to be made. It presents the walker with an existential illusion of ambiguous velocity. It’s more or less a two-dimensional roller coaster meant to evoke a kind of abrupt angular momentum of the spirit—a ten minute flirtation with apostasy that placates the supplicant with assurances that Christ is waiting for them when the ride comes to a full and complete stop.

At times such as these, the pull of the Church is strong. Come back, it says, and all is forgiven. There is no saint so bright in Heaven as a penitent apostate on his knees at the altar. My notoriety as a heretic would increase a hundred-fold overnight; the denominational publishers would anticipate my call with bated breath; the hidden heretics in the pews would lean forward to exorcize their doubts with the sheer humility and relatability of my testimony.

The voice on my shoulder gives me no end of encouragement: think of the pastors’ careers you could save, think of the families you could keep together, think of the children spared their parents’ condescension and disappointment.

If you really want to elevate man, the voice continues, you can’t build him a new tower to Heaven. You have to given him wings!

But I don’t want to give wings to man; if he was meant to have them, God would have given them. Life is hard enough here on Earth, and we don’t solve the problems that are endemic here on the ground by elevating man above them. We have to do the hard work, we have to walk the path laid out before us, and we have to keep our eyes open when we do so.

After walking the labyrinth, I found the center. I stood for a moment, expectantly. A sparrow flitted, excitedly, from one branch to the next in a nearby live oak tree. There were no other people around to note my accomplishment. The was no Christ, no other spirit around either. There was only a basket, same as at the entrance, filled with the same dozen professionally-polished stones. I dropped mine among them; I took some small comfort in the observation that mine had a slightly more greenish cast to it than the rest. Perhaps there was some chromium or manganese impurity in the mineral, I don’t know, but I was filled with a profound sense of irrelevance.

I walked the halls of the church again. The parishioners, flush with the excitement of a Palm Sunday service, were now busy availing themselves of the generous brunch buffet set before them. God’s tithes and offerings had sprung for Belgian waffles, French crêpes, and Russian blintzes. Not to mention eggs, bacon, sausage, and of course prime rib, roast chicken, and a variety of other gourmet items. It was most assuredly a communion fit for one of the wealthiest communities in the country, and so I begged a cup of coffee and abandoned my visit.

It would be so easy for me to evacuate the force of my apostasy and return with branches spread before me to rejoin the Bride of Christ. But to do so would be to deny not only myself, but my intellectual integrity. The greatest surprise of my young life was not discovering that I found Christianity to be false, but was discovering that truth mattered to me more than Christianity. To return to her willing arms would no doubt be a comfort, but it would be cold, and forced, and harmful to us both. And I’m not sure that, were we reunited, we would grow to question each other all over again.

More’s the pity.