Awash with Wonder

When God Became a Shameful Word

OpinionShannon Butler11 Comments

Once, I stayed up all night talking to a boy I had just met. For reasons that escape me now, I was explaining why I didn't want to date him or anyone else. Embarrassed but earnest in my conviction, I tried to verbalize the new kind of faith I had only just discovered:

I know this sounds weird...but something in me wants a higher purpose and a higher love. I don't want a soul mate. I want to know God. And not a church on Sunday morning, prayers before bed God. I want to know the God that’s within me...and I don't want the distraction of a lesser love.

Pious and possibly the worst "It's not you, it's me" (or "it's God") speech

in history, but I believed it. I had finally separated from the religion of my childhood, and I felt relieved to still believe in


. Despite promises that I was saved by grace, Christianity had always left me plagued by thoughts of my inescapable sinfulness. There was no sin for me anymore – at least not in the way that I had been taught – but there was God.

I dated that boy anyway, and maybe that’s when God became a shameful word for me.


I took a

Gnostic Gospels

course in my junior year of college. A Catholic priest led the discussions, and at first, I was angry and defensive. I no longer identified as having any faith at all, but I still could not easily deny that the religion of my youth was not the truth. I hated his quiet contentment and ability to reconcile the Jesus of the Gnostics with the man described in the Christian bible. As he spoke about the political and historical influences that shaped the creation of the bible, I felt betrayed. Why had no one told me? Why had I never questioned the validity of a book claiming to be the word of God but written by men?

Slowly, as the discussions progressed with people in my class – Muslims, atheists, Christians, Catholics – something in me awakened.

I learned not to take everything so literally. I learned that it was not sin but unconsciousness that we needed to be saved from. We needed saving from our own blindness – not because we were sinful, but because divinity existed in us and we could not see. I learned about a Jesus, who in the Gospel of Thomas, said,

"If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you." I liked him better.

I left that class no longer believing in a savior. Instead, I saw God as a light in me that I shared with everyone else. I felt buoyant. Connected. Radiant. I no longer had religion, but I had God.


Yoga was the first time

I experienced pure love

unlimited by the pettiness of relationship.

Starting yoga was originally just another step on my never-ending journey to be physically beautiful, but, as is the case with most people, it soon became something bigger than that.

I was lying in savanasa, utterly spent, and trying to clear my mind of all thoughts. Unexpectedly, I began to feel a cracking in my heart. It was almost as if someone was holding my heart in their hands and lovingly tearing it open, in the same way you would break bread at family dinners. I felt warmth traveling through me, and memories of everyone I had ever loved played on my closed eyelids. All of a sudden, it just came to me: Love never goes away.

Love never lessens

. I would love these people forever, no matter our relationship now.

I felt deep love that wasn't 


 on anyone else's love. 

Yoga taught me to feel connected to other people and to myself. I added new words to my spiritual vocabulary. I thought of Love as a word that should always be capitalized; I wanted to give it the power of a name.

I started to believe in universal consciousness, in the idea that we were all one. I wanted to rid myself of my body, to tap into the energy, or divinity, that existed in me and everyone else.

And yet, I felt more connected to my body than ever. Nietzche once wrote, “There is more wisdom in your body than your deepest philosophy” and yoga showed me the truth in his words.

I was able to accept the paradox of being deeply rooted in my body but also being something other – something not physical or easily defined. I felt free.

I began to use the words “god” and “love” interchangeably until I stopped saying God altogether.


Somewhere along the way, I started to feel offended by clichéd expressions of God. I didn’t want to hear that someone would pray for me. It felt separate, like they were afraid to reach into my chest and hold my pain. To be with me. To sit with me through the uncomfortable and the difficult. I didn’t want to hear that God had a plan. Who was their God? I wanted them to name their God and I wanted the name to be an extension of theirs – a part of them, an expression of their divinity. I was ungracious and unloving and unaccepting in all the places that I wanted to be open-minded. I had lost the sense of reverence for something bigger than me, and in the smallness of my humanity, I could not embody all the things I hoped to be.


While laying on the beach, my sister casually tells me, “You date boys where the most exciting thing to ever happen to them is you.” This simple truth was a reflection of me rather than the people who were unlucky enough to date me. I chose lovers who did not wow me, whose love was uncomplicated and undemanding. I didn’t want to risk, and I didn’t want to give anything of myself that would make me feel incomplete when I left.

And I was always going to leave.

For a while, I explored Buddhism. It worked for me because there was no mention of God, but the main attraction was the idea of non-attachment. My experience of Buddhism is surface-level at best (and at twenty-three, isn’t everything?) but the practice of non-attachment spoke to me. Mostly because I didn’t have to try that hard to be unattached. Moving constantly had taught me not to get attached to places or the people in them.

When I was trying to embody love, 

I was always battling against the idea, deeply ingrained in me, of temporary relationships. Buddhism allowed me to lay down my weapons. In Buddhism, you recognize that everything is temporary – emotions, situations, relationships, life – and instead of constantly struggling against this truth, you allow the core of who you are to be unaffected by change. Change is the only constant in life, and non-attachment is how you learn to become bigger than the restrictions of the unenlightened human experience.

But you (or at least, I) have to somehow balance non-attachment with deep love and respect for other people. You have to be willing to invest in them. You don’t have to be defined by them, but you do have to be willing to risk yourself for them.

Buddhism left me with no God and no love.


Constantly seeking,

I found Taoism


Taoism also emphasized non-attachment, an acceptance of What Is. Again, one God is not at the center of Taoist belief.

But I found that with Taoism, it was less about saying that God did not exist, and more about accepting all that we cannot possibly know. It was about learning to talk about the world and our experience of the universe in less concrete terms. I hated my experience of Christianity because of its refusal to be unsure, the absoluteness of its explanations. I want to ask questions and not know the answer.

Tao allowed me to be human 

– on my knees but still powerful. 

Slowly, my heart softened to God.

To the revelation of my God


When my book of Tao mediations said, “Adoration of your god is more beautiful than lovers, more fulfilling than feasts, more valuable than mammon” only to on the next page say, “There is no god in the sense of a cosmic father or mother who will provide all things to their children…we need gods because they embody the highest aspects of human aspiration,” it didn’t feel like a contradiction. I understood and accepted it, because there is not one God that fits into clearly defined theologies. Instead, there is only the divine spark within each of us, as varied and complicated and exquisite as we are.


Recently, I discovered

A Return to Love

by Marianne Williamson, and it has affected me more deeply than any other spiritual text. Williamson used words and ideas I associated only with Christianity in an entirely new way. I can no longer see God as shameful, as a silly idea unhappy people use to delude themselves. To do so speaks of my own arrogance rather than my evolution. I believe that we have created faith, and that in practicing our faith, we validate it. But I do not believe that we have invented God. Maybe the word – but not the nameless thing we keep trying to name.


Years after the late night conversation with that first boy, but only days after I finished

A Return to Love

, I found myself talking to a new man. He spoke about a time in his life of intense creativity, where ideas for art just came to him. I responded, “Maybe you were talking to God” and he replied, scornfully, “Are you kidding?”

I wasn’t.

God had crept up on me.

I felt reverence again

It isn’t about religion; it is never going to be about religion for me. But I need to give the thing that is bigger than me, bigger than us, that orders the universe, and gives me hope – I need to give that being a name. In casual conversation, I use God. When I am overcome with gratitude, despair, or simply just trying to connect, I whisper,

YHWH, Father, Love, thank you, thank you, thank you

. Sometimes, I use no words at all.

Please share your experiences with me.