I was about six the first time it dawned on me to ask my fifteen-year-old brother who the man on a stick he wore so conspicuously around his neck was. This was before the phrase “personal savior” had entered the public lexicon, so he explained to me the long way around that Jesus was a man who was also the Son of God who had died for our sins so that we could go to Heaven rather than to Hell when we die.
This was a lot for a six-year-old to unpack. So I did what any sensible child of that age would do. I lay in bed pondering what sins were, what Heaven and Hell were, what I had done in my life that was so terrible that someone had to die for me, that someday I was going to die and…wait, what? Then I proceeded to have five solid weeks of night terrors, until the resilient forgetfulness of youth and my parents’ repeated assurances that mortality was a long way off and I didn’t have to think about it right then pushed the ugly thoughts aside.
They took away my children’s Bible for a while. (And my book of children’s fairy tales when they realized that it, somewhat peculiarly and alarmingly, contained a telling of Bluebeard buried toward the back of it, but that was only tangentially related.) They attempted midnight Mass at Christmas, but by then I was on the lookout for the suffering dead man, so the giant crucifix hanging over the altar and all the smaller, desperate Jesuses in various stages of misery lurking along the aisles in the Stations of the Cross sent me off on another five weeks of panic attacks.
My mother stayed home with me the following Easter while my father took my brothers to sunrise service. I guess they didn’t want to spoil my birthday, which happened to fall on that Sunday. So I consoled myself with chocolate bunnies and bright chick Peeps while my brother, with his man on a stick, sat enraptured yet again by the tale of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection that for me hung like a pall over an otherwise delightful day, because the assurances that, after all, Jesus had come back to life again never seemed to take.
And that was my introduction to Christianity.
The Unformed Mind
Throughout my childhood my mother was, religiously, a dabbler. She circled Catholicism as a lodestone but drifted off to many other – mostly mystical – traditions, including Sufism, paganism, witchcraft (white and black variants), Bhakti yoga, the Fourth Way teachings of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, and Buddhism through the lenses of Trappist monk Thomas Merton and popular philosopher Alan Watts. My father was none too pleased that she had books by satanist Anton LaVey in the house, and made her hide them in a bedroom closet when he entertained business associates, but as her interests were more academic than practical he mostly retreated to the sofa to fall asleep to weekend golf and let her read…whatever it was she was reading.
I was happy to dabble with her, though Satanism bored me, my yoga tended toward Jnana and my Buddhism toward D.T. Suzuki, and I had a fascination with divination – ouija boards, the I Ching, tarot cards – that she found unseemly. But I spent most of my pre-teen years wrapped up in Greek mythology. I didn’t believe in Zeus and Athena and Apollo, of course, but I wouldn’t necessarily have minded if they were real. They were powerful, promiscuous, and petty, but they were also approachable, intelligible. Even the tale of Orpheus, the musician whose love for the dead Eurydice drove him into the underworld to retrieve her only to lose her moments away from her return to life, charmed me – though by any reasonable measure I should have recoiled from it with the same horror that I did Jesus and the Resurrection.
As I approached adolescence I began to ponder why that was. So one summer I embarked on a project to read the Bible from beginning to end (though parts of Genesis and the totality of Leviticus confounded me, and in my prepubescence I found the Song of Solomon hopelessly icky, and it took me a long time to get past Ecclesiastes because I kept re-reading it – it was, and continues to be, my favorite book of the Bible). Although I couldn’t have phrased it that way at the time, my discomfort with Jesus and the trappings of the religion he left behind stemmed primarily from acute feelings of cognitive dissonance. Here was an individual who was a man and a deity. A man who knew his ultimate mortal fate and hated and feared but accepted it because the mantle of his godhood was waiting for him out the other end. A man who came not to bring peace but a sword, but who also blessed the merciful. A man who died and lived. A man who we as mere mortals were supposed to emulate but DON’T YOU DARE THINK YOU’LL SUCCEED AT IT! Because that would be arrogance, and he was unique, and far beyond us, but also loved us, everyone one of us, as individuals. All the contradictions threw me sometimes literally off balance, leaving me queasy as I read.
My mother was circling in tight orbit around the Catholic Church at that time, and encouraged me to come along to early morning Mass (we skipped Sunday because she was utterly uninterested in the priest’s sermons, which in her mind contaminated the purity of the liturgy). Somewhat to my surprise, panic remained at bay. I was touched by the old women who knelt, veiled and fingering rosary beads, before the Mass began. I was mesmerized by the call and response between priest and parishioners, and the intense sobriety of the altar boys as they attended their duties. And I was perfectly happy having a trained individual at the altar, acting as intermediary between me and a terrible, and terribly confusing, God.
I loved the ritual, and stopped thinking about the theology. So for that summer at least, Christianity – Catholicism in particular – became part of my religious and mythological oeuvre, one voice in a chorus of many. But fall came, and school started, and I had many other things to occupy my time.
By the second half of high school, I was ready to be done and on to university. I cut classes, though I mostly fled to favorite teachers’ free periods so I could hole up in a corner and write. I couldn’t wait for the day I could eat lunch on a grassy hillside with my nose stuck in The Brothers Karamazov, surrounded by hundreds of other students who didn’t give a damn about either asking me to join them or deliberately snubbing me, because we all had too much work to do. I had friends in twelfth grade but not close ones, participated in a few activities but not deeply, and had no intention of going to either the prom or Grad Night at Disneyland. Not looking back, I told myself. Only looking forward.
But a few weeks before the end of the school year the entire senior class seemed swept up in a certain sentimentality. An End was coming. We stood on the precipice of childhood, and soon we’d be in the free fall of adulthood and there would be no turning back. Nostalgia was rampant, and even though we were still living the moments we were wistful for the teachers, perhaps from their perch of genuine nostalgia, indulged tearful groups of girls lingering on the quad after classes had already started, and lugubrious boys likewise gathered too long outside the auto shop.
Nostalgia, I discovered, abhors a vacuum. Suddenly I was rather sorry that I lacked closer friends with whom to explore these strange new feelings. After a day or two of gloomy self-pity I noticed a coterie of tight-knit kids that I’d never paid much attention to watching me. They drifted closer. They invited me into their circle. They were funny, and friendly, and seemed to know exactly how I felt. I sat with them at graduation. I accepted their invitation to a couple of early summer parties.
Then I accepted their invitation to church.
The Path of Belief
We didn’t go to a Sunday service but to a Thursday evening “worship night” tailored to high school students. There were flashing colored lights and rock music. The youth minister was charismatic and vibrant, and made devotion to Jesus feel like a flirtation. It had the emotional tone of Bacchanalia. I always rather prided myself on my detachment, but it was virtually impossible to be unmoved by the frenzy of delight that surrounded me. Reading and studying were my passions, but I was still a teenager, with all the hormonal disruption that implied. Maybe I was missing out on something. Maybe there was a better place to focus all these unwieldy stirrings of ecstasy than on boys. Before I knew it I was responding to the altar call, accepting Jesus Christ into my heart as my personal savior. My new friends were so happy. And so was I.
That lasted a few weeks. Because I was who I was, and the youth minister was who he was, and the high school service that followed the main service (yes, it was that kind of church, ready to occupy every night of the week and all weekend with activities if you liked) was far more Bhakti than Jnana, far more Alan Watts than D.T. Suzuki, far more heart than brain. But just as I was wavering in my commitment and seemingly out of nowhere, an older man approached me one Sunday between the services. He was the college youth pastor, he said. He was amiable, but sober. He ran through his entire educational history as if I were interviewing him for some university tenure-track position. He said that although I was a little young he thought I’d be a good fit for his group, and invited me to join.
And he was right. There was an academic patina to the college youth activities. Everyone carried annotated Bibles, and commentaries on the Bible, and some people were learning Hebrew and Greek. There were seminary students sprinkled into the mix, and I loved talking to them about what felt like advanced, thorny problems of theology. The music was quieter, just guitarists and singing. I played, and wrote some worship songs myself. Emotionally I was considered a “baby” in the faith, full of questions and doubts, but was so relentlessly inquisitive that I was sometimes allowed to teach Friday night Bible study, then given my own “discipleship group” of young women (no mixed sexes, of course) who had been going to church longer than I but were content to listen to the Word of God rather than parse it.
As for my discomfort with Jesus, it was all easily explained away. He was a God who took on manhood the better to love us. He was a shepherd with a cudgel, merciful to his flock but relentless in protecting them from the forces of evil and apostasy. Sure, the suffering of the crucifixion was a Thing That Happened, but it was all erased by the glory of the Resurrection, a gift granted to us who believed so we wouldn’t have to be afraid anymore. That was, in fact, part of the litany of Why Catholics Aren’t Christians, because they insisted on gazing relentlessly upon His suffering rather than His Triumph.
At first I drove my parents crazy, then they began to be alarmed. But I didn’t care. I’d finally found a place where I really fit in. I was doing interesting things, and good things, laying a foundation that would support me and those I cared for as we reached out for eternity. It was like returning to the Garden of Eden. I couldn’t imagine ever leaving.
The Dark Night of Agnosticism
But the longer I stayed, the more walled I realized the garden was. As I “matured” in my faith I was expected to absorb some hard truths. The amiable, sober minister had moved on and left behind a young pastor just out of Talbot Seminary who believed in Doctrine with a capital “D.” He gifted me books with titles like Women and the Word of God and said I really needed to work on my subordination for the sake of my future husband, because I was too arrogant and prideful around men and scripture taught that someone had to be the head of the household for a marriage to prosper. He packed me off to the church psychologist to work on my excessive introversion, which was “unseemly” for a godly woman. He sharply circumscribed my Biblical reading, saying that for the sake of my spiritual growth I should stick to the book of Matthew and some of the simpler epistles, because the questions that arose from more sophisticated books would only stunt my spiritual growth and I really shouldn’t be asking them anyway. He said I needed to work harder on converting my parents, unless I wanted to witness their suffering in Hell in the afterlife. (Cognitive dissonance welled up again – how could Heaven be a place of eternal delight if I had to watch the eternal suffering of those I loved?)
Worst of all, he handed me a stack of tracts called The Four Spiritual Laws and a quota of students on campus to hand them out to. It felt like the ultimate betrayal of everything I adored about university – the ability to sit unmolested in public, the ability to think one’s own thoughts in silence. I tried it once, and it was every bit as horrible as I expected: a contented young woman struggled to be polite but was clearly uninterested and annoyed that I was interrupting her reading. After a few minutes I snatched the tract back out of her hands, apologized for disturbing her, and fled. The Four Spiritual Laws went into the trash, and I told the pastor that I supposed I had to spend more time with the psychologist before I could be successful as a proselytizer.
At the same time, I had taken a philosophy class to satisfy a general education requirement. Then I took another, and another, until I was edging toward a minor to accompany my major in English. There were some old-school faculty in the department, ministers in all but name who preached their doctrines to the undergraduates and expected us to chant them back untarnished by our own puny ideas. (One actually shouted in response to a student’s timid foray into novelty, “Don’t you dare try to express an original thought until you’ve studied Plato for twenty years!”)
But then there was the other kind of professor. If a thought was new to you, and hard-won, then it was worth thinking and expressing. For those individuals philosophy was a process, not a corpus, guiding their students from baby steps of rationality to increasingly sophisticated – and eventually novel – ideas. I once attended a colloquium where an Aristotelian scholar spent nearly an hour engaging seriously with a non-student guest who believed in auras, in the hopes of leading him even a tiny way down the path of skepticism. Watching his unflagging patience led me down a path too, as I realized that for him, and other professors who subscribed to the same philosophy, converting someone to reason was a painstaking process, involving listening to a person, engaging them in the mental space they occupied, nudging them as far toward critical and correct thinking as they could bear and counting even incremental progress as a success – because after all, perfect reasoning for we imperfect humans is an ideal, not an achievable reality.
My experience with converting someone to faith, on the other hand, was disco balls and altar calls and promises of fellowship now and for eternity. It had emotional appeal, but not rigor, and certainly no compromise. There was no such thing as a half-conversion, and time was always of the pressured essence – because after all, you might die in a car crash the very next day, and then hell would be the wages of your reluctance. And such an open and messy discussion, replete with apostasy, was out of the question. The head pastor of my church once told me that he would never entertain questions from Catholics in an open forum, not even with the goal of converting them, because he was first and foremost the shepherd of his flock and they needed to be protected from wolfish, dangerous ideas.
That was the beginning of the end of my time with the church. Because the “wolfish” individual was my mother, and she was so insulted that she stood up and walked out in the middle of the service, never to return. At the university, on the other hand, the professors were delighted when she attended colloquia, and even though a few of her ideas lay somewhere on the continuum between “strange” and “outright wrong,” they treated her with unfailing respect.
I wasn’t the only discontented college student at the church. Some shared my dislike of the intellectual restrictions placed on us. A few young men with intelligent and independent girlfriends were uncomfortable with the rigid gender roles. Others were uneasy with a growing trend toward protesting Planned Parenthood clinics and an increasing hostility toward gays. A good friend of mine turned into an avid anti-abortion protester and studied psychology partly with the goal of helping “cure” the “unfortunate homosexuals.” Her plan and even her pursuit of a psychology degree didn’t survive repeated contact with an amiable gay friend of ours (making me wonder who would benefit more from some form of “conversion” therapy), but her moral certitude regarding what struck me as deeply personal choices wreaked havoc on our relationship and, in the wider context, my relationship to the church.
About half a dozen of us broke away and formed our own discipleship and study group, deciding that we could certainly manage just as well without all of the structured leadership. Within a few months I discovered that we were managing precisely as well, right down to our very own tiny despot who began circumscribing what we could read and discuss (Buddhism was out of the question, even for comparative purposes, even the relatively secularized Zen variant), and suggesting gender-segregated study groups.
I was working on a Master’s in philosophy by then, haunting coffee shops and bars with likeminded individuals for whom no cows were too sacred and no light of scrutiny too bright. Bruised egos and tattered ideas were an expected part of the process (though as budding professionals ad hominem was off the table). If the Christianity to which I’d been exposed was so fragile, I decided, how correct could it be? I studied ethics, discovered just how thorny questions of the Right and the Good were, and wondered, if the Christianity I practiced was so cruel in its certain morality, did I want to be a part of it? And so I wandered off, rejecting organized religion but leaving the question of my faith in a kind of broken limbo.
The Chimes at Midnight
In the intervening decades I more or less vigorously defended the notion that agnosticism was the only rational position to hold regarding the question of God’s existence. It’s only in the past few years that I’ve been prodding at the word “atheist” to describe myself, slowly coming to grips with the notion that agnosticism is a fig leaf I’ve been hiding my burgeoning unbelief behind.
My atheist husband (the church warned repeatedly about that!) has always been quite frank about thinking that the notion of a deity was at best of dubious value. You pray and – what? feel a response? Because certainly no one is literally talking to you, and if they are, you have a different problem. And I never really had an answer to that, because even when I was most devout the prayer circles felt like a kind of self hypnosis, and the college pastor telling me that feeling would go away “after a while,” when I was more “mature” in the faith, whispered “Stockholm Syndrome” even in my desperate-to-be-receptive ears.
The rise of organizations like Focus on the Family and the Moral Majority drove a few more nails in the coffin of belief. Social intolerance sprang up like hydra heads in the wake of their pronouncements, from the frothing hatred of individuals who were harmlessly trying to live and love as they liked to the demonization of women who were accused, in defiance of all available evidence, of wielding abortions as casual birth control. Ersatz anointed representatives of an otherwise silent God began cynically manipulating the United States conservative Christian population as a voting bloc to ram through political agendas to gut useful social programs and enhance the pockets of the wealthy. It may be facile to say, “all that happened and no one was struck by lightning,” but the thought did occasionally cross my mind.
And I suppose the assaults on science of the past few years have been the shovelful of dirt on the grave. I have tried to understand why we as a nation would reject taking precautions against a possibly catastrophic and irreversible sequence of events. Leaving aside the lunatic fringe who would welcome the end times and the Second Coming, I’m left with this. In an informative article recently in the Atlantic, “How America Lost Its Mind,” Kurt Anderson pointed out that “academic research shows that religious and supernatural thinking leads people to believe that almost no big life events are accidental or random.”
And how does that relate to my experience of Christianity? From my time at the church I learned that choice is drained of all meaning if by definition any outcome is the correct one because God wills what he wills. And risk is drained of all consequence if God’s love ensures that the faithful are insulated from the aftermath of their terrible choices.
It’s a nasty, vicious circle. And when it comes to matters like climate change, it’s an exceedingly dangerous one. And I can’t believe in a God whose world has such acolytes in it.
Rationalists, proclaimed another study I read, are a minority in the country. And until I’m willing to stand up and say, “No, I won’t believe in things I don’t have evidence for, not even the belief that one should suspend belief or disbelief,” I don’t feel entitled to count myself among them.
I won’t say unbelief doesn’t make me a little sad. The last time I visited the New Camaldoli hermitage for a writing retreat it seemed as if a window of four foot transparent glass separated me from the monks and the liturgy which they so cherish, and I felt a deep sense of loss. But loss is a fact of life, and so is choice, and I no longer want to abdicate the one to indulge what may very well be a fantasy of protection from the other. The wounded Earth lies all around me. And the God of my youth remains silent.
Do not pass by my epitaph, traveler.
But having stopped, listen and learn, then go your way.
There is no boat in Hades, no ferryman Charon,
No caretaker Aeacus, no dog Cerberus.
All we who are dead below
Have become bones and ashes, but nothing else.
I have spoken to you honestly, go on, traveler,
Lest even while dead I seem talkative to you. – Anonymous ancient tombstone