One of my first and formative lessons at Yale was the utter ineffectiveness of religious appeals to those who do not share your faith. As a result, I tend not to lead with my faith when making introductions or arguments. Increasingly, however, I’m realizing that A) much of what I enjoy talking and writing about involves religion or spirituality, and B) people should understand where I come from so they can disregard me with reason!
I grew up the son of a fallen-away Catholic mother and an … atheist? agnostic? closet Buddhist? … father. I made my First Communion somewhere around fifth grade, during a church-going streak of a couple years, as I recall – but my spiritual upbringing was shaped as much by Dad and his Little Grandma, a remarkable, diminutive woman who raised him up right – on the Bible, if not in the Church. To this day, he’s one of the most Christian people I know, despite the fact that he sees no evidence or need for a God, per se – benevolent or otherwise.
So I arrived at Yale in 1992 a country kid of relatively modest means and an old-fashioned upbringing not tied tightly to any particular faith tradition. I roomed with six other guys whose views and values were as different from mine as our hometowns – rural Remus, Michigan, versus Cape Cod and Walpole, Mass.; New York; Philadelphia; Chicago; L.A.
They grilled me over my views on abortion, abstinence, drinking, you name it. I believe I surprised them on two counts: my strict adherence to these values despite being nearly half a country from home, and the fact that I didn’t reference the Bible or God in my arguments.
I didn’t because A) from a religious perspective, I wasn’t sure what I believed, and B) the non-religious majority in the room didn’t buy faith-based arguments and dismantled our one strongly Catholic suitemate simply by asking why. (He quickly discovered that although he believed precisely what the Church taught, he had no idea why they taught it.) Instead, I pursued these discussions as dialectic, working out the truth of my values through their constant challenges. In the meantime, that first semester I took a class in physical anthropology, focusing on human evolution, and quickly fell in love.
I majored in anthropology and studied human evolution for four years. Halfway through, I took a summer job at Wall Drug (yeah, that Wall Drug – the one with all the billboards) and fell in love again, this time with a cradle Catholic. And I learned a couple things in the process.
First, I learned that, on the whole, scholars who study human evolution are generally great critical thinkers, quick-witted and skeptical, and they generally lack a family life. (They seemed like a terribly smart and lonely lot.)
Secondly, I found out that a cradle Catholic and a skeptic-in-training make a pretty mean team in the search for Truth.
Jodi’s quiet faith, and a wonderfully honest and human priest named William Zink, brought me back into the church (not to mention my mother, who, like me, is now a lector). I’m Catholic and proud to be so, although to this day I sometimes have doubts and misgivings about the Church, its teachings, and my own faith* – and I’m not at all convinced that we’ve cornered the market on the Kingdom of Heaven.** But I know what I get from the faith tradition I practice, and it’s too good to give up and go looking elsewhere.
Besides, where would I look?
we watch for signs
signals too dim to light our way
stop us dead.
we wait – for what?
an invitation is ours
each day; each moment
we are born again
to do more good
to do better
god is god the everpresent
he leaves not
each dawn an easter
each day a rebirth
27 sept 01
I’m never sure how I feel about that poem as creative writing, but when I wrote those words, they seemed like a revelation.
Life is a constant series of rebirths – perhaps the most dramatic in my life is described in an essay called “Thomas and Me,” which can be downloaded here.
It’s long; ask Jodi if I can ever tell a short story. Feel free to share your thoughts.
* Father Bill told me that even priests have their doubts and not to let mine get in the way of experiencing the fullness of life in the Church. He also assured me that the head on my shoulders is God-given, and that, as long as I continue to seek, I’ll be alright.
** You’ll see on my short list of favorite books “The Power of Myth” by Joseph Campbell and “Living Buddha Living Christ” by Thich Nhat Hanh. I don’t necessarily buy everything these fellows are selling either, but they make for compelling reading. Jesus said, “I am the Way,” right? I believe there are a lot of non-Christian people walking that Way, narrow or not!