This Sunday’s reflection returns to the Greenbelt festival again, this time on the Sunday afternoon of the 2016 event. I found myself comfortably sat under a tree, in a very pleasant spot, watching the world go by. Some games were going on. A few other people relaxed in the shade. Others walked to and from festival events and the food vans.
The big revelation of that time under the tree was that I realised I’d stopped believing in God. I think it had probably happened a lot earlier, as it was some time since I’d meaningfully attempted to interact with God, and I’d been absent from church for a year by this point. But it was there, right at that moment, that I realised a couple of important things.
First, was that my faith no longer mattered in any meaningful, everyday, practical sort of way. My spiritual journey had, in essence, come to an end. My thoughts on whether God existed or not no longer had any direct implications on how I lived.
Second, having concluded that I’d long since stopped being a “Christian”, I realised I wasn’t sad or upset about that at all. I’d simply moved on.
Later on at the festival, I met up with an old friend who had come along for the day, and we went to see a major speaker in the Big Top venue. She had another friend of hers with her, someone she knew from work, and we got into conversation, having not met before. I explained a little about how I was an ex-Christian, and how I got there.
Her instant reaction was to feel sorry for me, like a tragedy had occurred, and for the first time I felt a need to defend myself. I did so reasonably tactfully, I hope, in saying that the loss of my faith would only be a tragedy if I actually viewed it to be such. It could be viewed as a tragedy if it genuinely resulted in me being in danger, or harm, and some Christians believe that of course, in thinking that walking away would result in me being in danger of hell. Said friend of a friend wanted to pray for me – I declined, again I hope politely, for the first time in my life. For the first time, I felt confident that I didn’t need saving, and didn’t need people to feel sorry for me for not sharing their beliefs.
Of course, what no-one told me, back in 1990 when I first became a Christian, is that you’re not allowed to leave. There’s no exit strategy. You’re supposed to reach a point in your life where you accept the message, accept your need for God, and live the rest of your life – on this earth and beyond it, forever – within a very clearly-defined set of boundaries. If you ever feel a need to step outside them, you’ll make a lot of people panic about your wellbeing.
I will reiterate again, though, that you can step outside those boundaries, and it’s 99.9999999% unlikely that the sky will fall in. You might lose certain things. I did, to some extent. I lost the sense of community and belonging, and the sense of certainty, that had drawn me to faith in the first place, but those things had been ebbing away for a very long time. I realised that many of my ideas were developing in a way that evangelical Christianity wasn’t going to accept, and that I had to move well away from it to move on, and properly be what I am.
I carried on going to Greenbelt for social purposes, as a lot of my friends were there every year, but as it happens, the last year I went was 2018. I intended to go again in 2019, but at fairly short notice I had an opportunity to visit the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, and I blew the budget on that. The 2020 festival was cancelled, of course, and the 2021 festival was much scaled back, with none of my friends going. I’ve decided not to go this year. It served me well over the years, but the time has come to move on to different things, and explore new ideas.
So…my Sundays under the trees, reflecting upon my life and ideas, have come to an end. They were good, and valuable, and my years of faith and going to church and the festival have been absolutely foundational in my life, but things come to an end. There’s exciting new possibilities ahead.