In the forests of the night

July 19, 2006

Obligatory warning: long post. Much religious auto-biography and reflection on piety and faith. Some heresy. Proceed with caution.

(But, sweet reward awaits! Gratuitous WonderBaby photo at end!)

A month or two ago, Amalah wrote a powerful post about her struggle with issues concerning faith. A couple of days ago, Nancy took on the same topic. Both wrote from the perspective of lapsed believers, of women who had grown up with faith but grown apart from faith. Both struggled, in their posts, to make sense of their relationship to God and Church. For the sake – for the possible sake – of their children.

Both posts hit me in the gut. Hard. I’ve been wrestling with these issues for, well, forever. Since my own faith started taking sucker punches from Real Life – divorce, death and other tragedies that make the voice waver as it recites the 23rd Psalm. Oh, yeah, and a young adulthood spent studying political philosophy, and reflecting upon the political uses of religion, most of which reduce to pacifying or mobilizing the masses. Hurt, and reason: both have a sobering effect on blind faith.

I was once a passionate Catholic. As a teenager I thought seriously, if briefly, about becoming a nun. (This in my goth phase. Yes, I was a Catholic goth. I wore a rosary as costume, but I took that rosary seriously, by God.) Not so much because I felt strongly about commiting to my faith, but because it was fascinating and I wanted to make it my own: all of the esotericism and the Latin and the mysteries and the feeling, at once giddy and solemn, of tapping into some deep vein of meaning. I would sit in the dark in my room during thunderstorms, looking out my window and trying to wrap my head around the relationship between God and Nature, trying to work out the theology of Milton and Blake and Big Blue Marble. I read the Bible for fun.

(You would have wanted to be my friend, for sure. I was good times. A bit intense, but really! Fun!)

I was into it. I loved it. It provided both security and stimulation, soothing me to sleep and pricking me awake, for a very long time. But then I grew up, and the stars threw down their spears.

I grew up, and my family – that had long been so solid, so secure – hit difficult times, and my parents split up, badly, and I left home and made all the bad decisions and took all the dangerous steps that disillusioned Catholic girls who leave home at 18 make. My mother declared that God had abandoned her, and me, and us, and insisted that she would herewith keep faith only with Mary and the saints and that I should do the same. God was a mean old guy who provided no comfort because He could not, my mother insisted, be trusted. He’d turn on you. He’d turned on her, and on us, after we had prayed so hard for Him to guide us and keep us.

I wasn’t sure that I agreed with my mother, but with every bad thing that happened in my life and in the lives of others, as the world came to seem uglier and uglier, my commitment to the Church waned. My faith waned. And it took a direct hit when, in my very late teens, after I had left my broken home to try to find my own place in the world, I was informed by a well-meaning – and very Catholic – boyfriend that I was going to hell. He had discovered, by finding and reading my diary, that I was tainted by sin (a long story, and a whole ‘nother post). And, after going to confession to consult with a priest as to whether my sins might taint him, he informed me that God had told him in the confessional booth that he could no longer associate with me. I was corrupt, I had committed a mortal sin, and I was going to hell.

God told him to break up with me. And that was that. It was absurd, unreasonable, and just enough to tip me over the edge that I was already teetering upon. This was not my Church, not my God.

It was, in a twisted way, my Lisbon Earthquake. I thought: how could a just God, a reasonable God, inspire such nonsense? And then I thought: what evidence have I ever had that God was any of those things? A few moments of spiritual epiphany while watching cute altar boys light candles and a succession of thunderstorms didn’t weigh up very well against broken families and death and starving children in Africa and fucked-up twenty-year-old boys spouting nonsense about God’s greater plan for their dating futures. Clearly, God was, as my mother said, a dodgy piece of work.

I wanted nothing to do with it, with Him. That day was the last day that I ever went to confession.

And then I went off to university and began studying philosophy and that did nothing to restore my faith. I began studying the Bible as a book and God as source material for art, literature and politics. I presented papers on how modern philosophers used women as figurative representatives of conventional Christian morality. I argued that some philosophers suggested, quietly, that women could be understood as the ultimate practitioners of moral deceit and use this deceit to their greater strength and that this practice reflected the politics of the Catholic Church and of Christianity generally and that this revealed all variety of interesting things about morality and virtue and the power of women.

I liked these arguments. A lot.

And I liked that, on one or two occasions, during mid-summer lectures in which I related these and similar arguments, a thunderstorm would roll in and lightning would flash right after I said something about Nietzsche or Machiavelli and godlessness.

It was an ambivalent relationship. Philosophy was more interesting when it was transgressive, and it only really felt transgressive when it confronted and challenged my faith. So faith became a way of keeping things exciting, of pricking myself awake when I became complacent about Liberalism and Secularism and Rationalism blah blah blah. I became an opportunistic believer, using God and belief in God as a tool to advance my own learning.

Then the Husband and I decided to start a family, and there were problems, complications, and for a while it looked like we couldn’t have a family. But then the path opened up and I became pregnant and thankful. I struck bargains with God. I swore up and down that I would raise a believing child if He let this child come into the world. And when more complications emerged I swore harder. I went to sleep murmuring Pater Nosters and Ave Marias. I prayed.

And I meant it. I prayed with full acknowledgement of my own confusion, my own ambivalence. I couldn’t do otherwise; there was no comfort in prayer unless it was confused prayer, if that makes sense. But my promise to give my child the opportunity to experience faith was not confused. I meant every word. I wanted – I want – my daughter, my children, to know God. As I did.

I do not want this because I think that it will make her, them, morally superior beings (I don’t think this, not at all). I do not want this because I want to secure them a place in Heaven. I don’t know that I believe in security-patrolled Pearly Gates; I do know that it is possible to be ‘good’ without God (but please do not ask me to unpack that statement here.) I’m not looking for spiritual guarantees or moral failsafes, if such things even exist.

I want this because I want my children to have a meaningful choice in the matter of whether or not to embrace faith. And I don’t think that they will really, meaningfully, have such a choice if they are not exposed to faith from an early age. It’s all well and good to take a principled position against what might be called an indoctrination of faith, and to insist that exposure to religion is something best left until children have the maturity of reason to critically evaluate organized religion, but that position pre-determines its own end. If faith is set aside in childhood, and reserved for later examination and evaluation under the bright lights of reason, then it’s doomed from the start. Reason is antithetical to faith, especially in its first age, when it is clung to like a brass ring, when it causes us to chortle with delight at knowing, to thrill at being let in on the world’s secrets (Chrissi is still a baby because she still believes in Santa, right Mommy?) It is only the strongest, most hard-won faith that does not pale at the approach of reason. Reason shatters faith, exposes belief as simply that – belief.

Who among us would ever have given Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny or Tinkerbell a second thought if we had only discovered them in the age of our reason? We might be amused or entertained by them, but we could never take them seriously. But when we meet Santa Claus in the innocence of our youth, we give him a chance. And we’re well-positioned to decide, when we’re ready, whether or not we want to continue believing in him. If we never believed in Santa as children, we can’t be said to have ever made the choice to not believe.

So it is, I think, with God. I’m not suggesting that God is a character of myth or fantasy, as Santa is generally understood, although many have argued and do argue that God is exactly that. What I am suggesting is that belief in God usually (not always – people do sometimes ‘find’ God and religion later in life) requires exposure to the real practice of faith before one learns that faith is, or appears to be (appears to be), contrary to reason. It requires having someone say, emphatically, insistently, that yes, Virginia, there is a God. It requires, yes, some sort of indoctrination into faith during childhood. Saying yes to religion. Talking seriously and respectfully about God and church and faith. Reading Bible stories. Attending church or synagogue. Saying prayers. Watching Little House on the Prairie. Some or all or variations of the above.

The problem? I no longer do these things, for the most part. My faith, such as it is, is quiet, private. It is something that I subject to scrutiny every time that I pull it out for inspiration or for comfort. It lives in the strange space that I’ve craved out in my soul for those things that I fear and love and am confused by and ever will be confused by. I’ve made my choices, it seems, if living in a state of such critical ambivalence can be regarded as a meaningful choice.

But I don’t want to make that choice for my children. So how do I create the opportunity for my children to have a choice, a real choice? For them to really, meaningfully explore the option of faith, and take that option seriously? Do I suck it up and re-enact the rituals of the religion of my own childhood, and swallow the hypocrisy as well-intended? Or is there another way?

How do you find your way when the path is dark?

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    chichimama July 21, 2006 at 7:41 pm

    I was raised nothing and was baptized this year because we wanted to raise our children in a religion. And having been raised believing in nothing, it is hard to swallow much of the mumbo jumbo, as I call it. I don’t have time to really expand right now, but we went with the Episcopal Church instead of the Catholic because it allows for more questioning and doesn’t believe as much in the punative side of God but still has the same basic service etc (or so my husband claims).

    Susan July 22, 2006 at 12:33 am

    Ugh, so much to think about, so much to consider, so few words to work out a meaningful response. Thank you, again and again, for making me think. And the picture at the end? Totally choked me up. Such purity, such innocence. It fills my eyes and my heart. I wish you peace as you go down this path… I’m stumbling along it, too. Just not quite as eloquently!!!

    sparklykatt July 22, 2006 at 9:09 pm

    How interesting that you brought this up now. Just last week I was thinking that we should be exposing our son to his Jewish faith. My husband is Jewish, and while I’m not, I did promise to raise our children Jewish. After Prince Alexi’s adoption, we had to convert him to Judaism because I’m not Jewish.

    But other than the traditional Jewish, generally non religious customs, we don’t live a particularly Jewish life. So how will PA know that he’s Jewish. How will he know what Jewish is?

    I’m not much in to organized religion. Frankly, too much shit has happened for me to believe there is a God, at least the kind of god I would like there to be, out there.

    If PA is going to learn he is Jewish, then it will have to be my husband who teaches it to me. After all, he’s far more qualified than I, the shiksa he married.

    So I should probably talk to him about it, but if I do, I’m afraid he’s going to make me go to synagogue with them. And that would require actually talking to people I don’t know. Oy…

    Emily July 23, 2006 at 7:20 pm

    Dearest HBM,
    I am a proud atheist. I was raised by a staunchly atheist father and a flaky, non-committal, semi-agnostic, semi-Zen Buddhist mother. I am raising my children atheist. I have absolutely no ambivalence about this whatsoever. I choose to raise my children under my own value-set, which includes not only the lack of belief in any deity, but also the belief in, and insistence upon, the application of reason and critical thinking on all matters. I have no doubt that my children will thoroughly think-though their own atheist upbringing, and then (most likely) determine that it was good and correct, as I have done throughout my life. I have never felt that religious choice was ripped from me. Religious and philosophic conversation were ever-present in my home life, and the conversation was *always* that—a *conversation*. My parents always presented me with alternate views. You will indubitably do the same. So why all the fuss? Why are you trippin’, mama?
    As you have stated, faith is experiential. As a secularist, you *cannot* provide this to your children. You cannot have things both ways. You are a thinking person and the matriarch of a thinking family. You are not living under J.C.’s magical spell. So be it!
    My lack of ambivalence about my decision to raise my children atheist stems not from arrogance, but from many years of thought on the subject. Even as a (very!) small child, I questioned my parents’ choices; they were clearly ‘out of the fray.’ I understood that in some respects, my parents’ irreligiousity put me at odds with other children, adults, and society as a whole. I understood and intuitively sensed the danger in this. But in the end, I came to believe that my parents’ raised me in this way because they were strong, intelligent, and proud people. They had the courage to tell me the truth. Thank God for that! (har-har)
    After all, He’s not there! He’s not there, mama! Or do you you doubt this? Maybe you need to figure out where you *truly* stand on this issue. Is He there or isn’t He? If He’s not there, don’t lie to your kids about it. That would be immoral.
    As far as I’m concerned, the Christians and religious fanatics of all stripes are hijacking our world. The more “out” atheists there are running around, the better. We’ll have a more loving and moral world as religion begins to fade.
    P.S. I think that you’re GREAT, and I’m totally intimidated by you, and by your vast legions of commentors. So even writing this is a “thing” for me.

    Lowa July 23, 2006 at 10:10 pm

    I don’t have time to read all of the comments, but I have skimmed.

    I agree with you totally. I was raised by a Baptist and an atheist. My mother (the Baptist) never forced anything on us. We of course attended church with her when we were very young, but when we got old enough to decide not to go (ten or eleven years old, depending on the person) she did not make us.

    My father, the “atheist”, after years of debates with my mother, and seeing how the church and all really made her happy, changed his mind when he was in his late 40′s. He thought and thought and realised that there was no way there could not be a God. It makes no sense at all. He now leads bible studies at their church and is a Christian.

    As I said, we were never forced to attend. My siblings and I have gone in various directions. One of my brothers and I have a very strong faith and attend church regularly. Another says he thinks there is a God, but that is about it. The other says he KNOWS there is a God, but doesn’t like oragnised religion.

    My husband and I take our children to church. They enjoy memorizing bible verses, reading bible stories and praying. They are very kind, loving people. Our oldest is almost 14 and isn’t thrilled with church lately. It isn’t that he is questioning his faith yet (we talk openly about anything and everything) but that he just gets bored.

    We don’t push it. We tell them to question things and not just accept what someone tells them. We have just come out and said, “This is what we believe. It does not mean you need to believe the same thing. Read about things. Explore. Figure out for yourself what you believe.”

    I have a friend who was forced to go to church. So many people have bad experiences, it is a real shame. Not what God wants at all. She did not want her kids to feel like she did, so she has never taken them to church at all. She wants them to figure things out for themselves, but I really think i tis easier if they are exposed to it early, like you say. Doesn’t mean they will always come back to it, but it doesn’t hurt at all.

    It really has to do with religious experience. So many churches and “christians” are so two-faced and hypocritical and it scares people or turns them off. Those churches and people get so arrogant and think they are better than others who don’t share their faith and they forget that God loves all his children equally. He gave us free will. We can choose, He just hopes we chose correctly. He didn’t send his son to earth for no reason, after all!

    crazymumma July 24, 2006 at 12:13 am

    OK, I did not read the other comments as I wish to speak pure. Good Gawd woman can you write. That being said, both of my parents grew up during WW2, my Mother esp having hideous experiences. Both Left God, on principle. I grew up in a state of almost anti faith. YET, 2 years ago, my older girl, discovered the ‘idea’ of god, the ‘idea’ of a greater being. We have let her explore that road at will, thru picture bibles (explaining our own confusion all the while), thru certain friends converting to Judaism, thru her own exploration of magic and Wiccan thought.
    As we have no truly defined faith, we have told her to find faith inside, and to take from many faiths and streams of thought to create her own.
    They get pretty deep at about age 7….be prepared…Anne

    Nancy July 24, 2006 at 10:09 pm

    I am here; sorry it took so long — I have been wanting to sit down with your post when I’ve had absolute quiet to concentrate. Shows you how my week’s been.

    Normally I read all the comments before making my own but I had to jump ahead first and say: yes. And yes. And yes again.

    I don’t understand why it’s so easy to let one negative influence in the religious sphere turn us off to the whole process and faith — but what happened to you (conceptually) is what happened to me. In my own religious education, things were attributed to God that were not godlike. I could not reconcile that with other things I had been taught. Also, I had such trouble with the “all or nothing” nature of the particular Catholicism I was raised with: so condemning rather than forgiving. (and yes, I went through the “how can God let the children starve in Africa thing too”…)

    I love this: “I prayed with full acknowledgement of my own confusion, my own ambivalence” — it’s what I’ve struggled with due to my own black/white religious upbringing. To pray without being certain that I believe has always seemed sacrificial, but I do find comfort in prayer when I’m hoping there’s someone listening. I need to learn to find comfort in the ambivalence myself.

    And your reasons for wanting to expose your children to religion early make sense. I have heard so many agnostics/nonbelievers who said they were raised to find their own way with religion — not really exposed to any one thing, but with openness to all. I don’t think that’s necessarily bad, but without having exposure to something more specific (such as a particular religion) children may lack the constructs to compare and contrast. It’s like with writing: easier to poke holes in a straw man or a concept document, than a group of ideas that have no weight and shape.

    Final point, and then I’ll stop with my novel… I struggle with the fact too that my faith has become mostly private, that it’s of-the-moment rather than rote and ritual as it was in my youth. I find the latter more compelling than I used to, but I believe my real learning and celebration of faith is in private. I want to understand too how I can convey that to my kids.

    Now I will go read the other comments. Thank you for this wonderful post, and for linking to mine. I am glad if I had any role in helping you put such wonderfully thought-provoking words together.

    Ruth Dynamite July 25, 2006 at 6:48 am

    These comments are so revealing! Who knew that so many people were disillusioned with organized religion?

    I’m right in there with you. As much as I want to give my kids “constructs to compare and contrast,” as Nancy says above, I can’t find any place to start. No religion seems to fit.

    I was raised with no formal religious anything by a non-practicing Jew and a once-practicing Christian. My two siblings and I were given the freedom to choose. None of us has chosen anything to date.

    Thanks for your thought-provoking, intelligent post, as always.

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