Tuesday, April 28, 2009

And now for something completely different...

Inspired by listening to too much This American Life, I thought, if you don't mind, that I'd tell a few stories. Rest assured that those of you waiting for me to bitch about the Pope or something will most certainly be in luck by the next post, but for now I'm going to indulge myself. Please believe me when I say that I whole-heartedly apologize for what you may or may not be about to read.

In the great land of Canada, where I was born, Catholic school receives as much funding from the government as the regular old public schools do. I believe this is because of some deal struck a long time ago with the French, with whom many deals in Canada are and were struck, but I can't really be bothered to look it up. As a result, Catholic school is free, so pretty much all Canadian Catholic kids go to Catholic school. I was no exception. I am not sure about the exact religious beliefs of my parents, but I think that in all likelihood they are, in actuality, both atheists. My mother, in the tradition of her Jewish father (who abandoned the faith pretty early in his life), has a strong disdain for organized religion, and my father is the kind of Catholic who believes Jesus matters more as a symbol than as someone who actually existed. But, they were both raised Catholic, and therefore so was I.

Not long after I turned five, my dad was transferred at his job, and we moved to the United States. As Catholic school was not free there, I did not go. I did, however, have some trouble making friends in my American kindergarten class (having moved there mid-year), and my teacher decided it would be best to hold me back another year until I got adjusted. My mother was not pleased.

When I say "my mother was not pleased", what I mean is that I find it hard to believe that said kindergarten teacher survived the altercation that ensued. She would not re-think her position, however, and so I was sent to the local (not free) Catholic school, where they felt it would be fine for me to enter first grade. It wasn't long after that my trouble with the Catholic Church began.

Some time at the beginning of first grade, my teacher took us on a tour of the school and the church. We were told that at Mass, we would eat Christ's body (once we had received our first Communion). As a five-year-old, I, of course, assumed that they had Jesus' dead body in the back, and that they carved it up for every service. Nobody had bothered to explain otherwise.

When I was nine, I went to visit my mum's sister, whose religious beliefs are limited to "the Party Plane" (which is where people go to party after they die). I had been having some trouble with reconciling what I had learned in science class (evolution) with what I had learned in religion class (Genesis), so I asked my aunt, "What is the Garden of Eden?" 

"It's a myth," she answered, to my great relief. Unfortunately, it was soon followed by "that Christians believe." I can pinpoint the start of all my trouble with the Church to that exact moment. It was Christianity versus logic, and even as a 9-year-old, I had to side with logic. Of course, we later learned (in junior high) that these things did not have to be mutually exclusive. The Bible taught us one kind of truth (the why) while science taught us another (the how). But, the time it takes to get from nine to twelve is a long time for a kid, and in that time I had started to form some other, more pressing questions.

I can't remember when it started, but at some point during Mass, I developed a problem with the call-and-response thing. There is a point in the Catholic Mass (and, I believe, in most mainline protestant services) where the priest says "let us give thanks to the Lord our God," and the congregation responds "it is right to give Him thanks and praise." Sitting there repeating those words with a bunch of droning kids who probably didn't really understand what they were saying started to get to me, and I began to wonder "is it?" This question in my head really bothered me, and I suspected that I might be possessed. I started getting stomach aches every time I went to Mass and did everything I could to get out of it. I tried explaining my theory of possession to my mother, but she freaked out at the mention of it and told me not to say that. I guess old superstitions die hard.

Of course, we were later taught (in high school) that questioning our faith was a good thing. But, the time it takes to get from twelve to fifteen is a long time for a kid, and in that time I had started to have some doubts about the virgin birth (convenient excuse?) and the resurrection (the apostles didn't even recognize Jesus when he came back! Didn't it occur to anybody that it might have been somebody else?).

I still prayed every night, but I removed Jesus from my prayers. I still loved Him, but it became clear to me that he was not divine. I started to explore other religious paths. I asked my grandpa about Judaism, and he proceeded to explain to me the moment he lost his faith. "We were in shul," he said "and they were telling us the story of Abraham and Isaac. Now, G-d gave Abraham a son when it was thought that he and his wife were too old to have children, and Abraham cherished his son. But then G-d told him that if he was really a man of faith, he would sacrifice his only son. So Abraham took Isaac up on the mountain, and he almost killed him, but an angel stopped him just in time and said he had proved his faith and could keep his son. But it doesn't matter that He took it back. Any G-d who would ask someone to kill their child to prove their faith is no G-d in my mind." Needless to say, that story didn't really help me.

I then decided I was Hindu (which was related to the fact that I really liked Indian food, art, and music, and enjoyed wearing bindis to piss off all the Catholics at my Catholic school). My aunt (the one who believes in the Party Plane), however, suggested that I might want to think about the role of women in Hinduism before I committed myself. Of course I later learned (in university) that Hinduism is less one religion than a collection of mythologies that are sometimes as closely related as Christianity and Buddhism, and that the role of women in Indian society varies from place to place and is more of a cultural phenomenon. But, the time it takes to get from fifteen to eighteen is a long time for a kid, and in that time I had learned that my attraction to India was an aesthetic one, and that I was just being silly in calling myself a Hindu.

In high school, I had the great fortune of being accepted to a math and science school for math and science nerds. It was a half-day deal - we spent the mornings at the nerd farm, and the afternoons at our home schools. I loved the nerd farm, because I met other liberals there (liberals were a rare breed at my Catholic school). I also met a kid who took particular issue with belief in God, and chose to argue it logically. "Think of the numbers in pi," he said, "they are random and go on infinitely. But in those numbers, if you look long enough, you can find any numerical pattern. That is the nature of chaos. There's no reason to believe that this universe, with all its natural laws, is anything more than just a pattern in chaos."

This idea was devastating to me. I did not believe it at first, mostly because I didn't want to. But one day (in the shower, hilariously), it really hit me. There is no God. This realization did not come at a good time. 10th grade was a pretty shitty year all around, and losing my faith did not help. I was not at all a happy camper.

We moved to another city in the summer between grades 10 and 11, and I was fortunately not forced to return to Catholic school. Furthermore, my dad really didn't like the Catholic church where we had moved ("bunch of yuppie WASP-wannabes"), so I was never forced to go to Mass (except, of course, on Christmas and Easter). I still did not feel comfortable with my atheism, however, and had begun to form a new notion of the divine. It seemed to me that if everything was infinite, and so much was unknown, even more unknowable, then there must be something that encompassed it all. Something bigger and stronger than humanity could ever fathom. I began to think of God again - this time, not as some deity created in our image, but as the Sum. The entire breadth of existence, in all its unfathomability, was God. I took comfort in this.

In grade twelve, I did some research into eastern philosophy for a project I was doing, and found an interesting theory that came from Hinduism. The idea was that there really was only one God - Brahma - who encompassed all of existence (aha!) and that each and every deity recognized by man was a manifestation of this God, and as such evangelism was a ridiculous concept. This idea grabbed hold of me immediately. If God encompasses everything, then everything would be a manifestation of God, not just the various worldly deities. The difference, however, must have been faith. Not in the traditional Biblical sense, but in a philosophical sense. It was faith in the oneness of everything; faith in the beauty of life; faith in the goodness of humanity. This was an idea I could get behind and as such I eventually returned to Jesus, whom I had abandoned but not forgotten.

And... here I am. It seems funny to me that I found my Christianity through philosophy and Hinduism, but I guess the world sometimes works in mysterious ways. I realize my beliefs are not conventionally Christian (and definitely not conventionally Catholic), but I'm pretty happy with them. Everyone's brain works differently, and logic, like everything else, is not a universal constant. What makes sense in my head may not make sense in others. I think it is really, really important, however, to make sure that you get to your faith from a place of logic. If that logic is "the world is beautiful so there must be a God," then great. If it's "this God business doesn't make any sense, so F that S," then more power to you. What we all need to remember, I think, is that staunchly as we may believe something to be true, none of us actually know. I am 100% certain that my belief system is correct, but I do not actually know. Evangelism is a ridiculous concept.

I sometimes frighten myself into believing in the Christian right's idea of Hell (a place where everyone who doesn't believe in the exact right thing gets stuck to suffer for all eternity). But then, fear of eternity seems to me to be the only reason to believe those things, and I won't live my life that way. As I said, I'm pretty happy with what I believe.

The end.


John said...

I loved this! The story of Abraham and Isaac always really pissed me off, too. Thanks for another great reminder that not all Christians are homo-hating hillbillies.

Phoebe said...

That Abraham story rankled with me too. I never got my mind around it to where it could be ok. Also the Noah thing. To drown every living thing not in the sea, except for one big boatload = indefensible and unnecessary. I guess I'm supposed to go, "Well, it seems wrong, but I'm not God". But that just doesn't work.

Cate said...

Thanks for this! I'm a new reader, and an agnostic, and it's really nice to hear a story of responsible, logical, and respectful faith. It makes Christianity seem a lot more appealing (probably closer to the message most churches like to think they're spreading)

Jocelyn said...

John - I think you'll find the majority (or at least a very large minority) of Christians are not homo-hating hillbillies. The homo-haters are just a lot louder than the rest of us.

Phoebe - You know, it never bothered me when I learned about it in school, but then they made a point of emphasizing the fact that God didn't actually make Abraham kill Isaac, and therefore was a loving God. Hearing it the way my grandpa put it really turned the story around for me.

As for Noah, I can't remember ever taking issue with that story, but at this point I'm not sure why. I guess I was probably pretty young when I learned about it, and therefore enchanted by the idea of a boatload of animals. Sodom and Gomorra, on the other hand, did not sit well with me at all. Especially poor Lot's wife.

Cate - I can't claim to speak for Christianity as a whole, but I do believe that in every faith (or lack thereof), there are responsible, logical and respectful people, just as there are douchebags who are convinced that the "fact" that what they believe is right means that everybody else is wrong. Except Scientology. Those people are all nuts.

Hannah said...

A Jesuit priest explained to me that a lot of the stories in the Old Testament were an ancient people's way of explaining what they couldn't understand. The Israelites needed to comprehend how they got there, why their lives were so hard, why bad things happen, etc. I think sometimes you have to take the OT and think of it as the history and stories of an ancient people and forget about the religious aspect of it. It makes a lot more sense that way.

Jocelyn said...

Hannah - I wholeheartedly agree. Unfortunately, this is not something that my former Catholic school thought to explain to little kids while we were learning about these stories for the first time. I doubt most Catholic schools give kids enough credit to really help them understand these things in a bigger picture sort of way.

By the way, have I mentioned lately how much I love the Jesuits? They are a rare (outspoken) voice of reason in the Catholic Church.

Hannah said...

Yes, I love the Jesuits that I have known. There has been much Jesuit education in my family for two generations. They teach you how to learn, not just what to learn.

Jocelyn said...

Which, I assume, is one of the reasons they are so often at odds with the Vatican.

I have several Bazilians in my family. From what I can gather, they are a lot like the Jesuits, but have a much smaller presence.

Hannah said...

They've been at odds with the Vatican off and on for 450 years. you know how boys can be.

Thanks for sharing your story. I think it's interesting to know how people arrive at their beliefs.

Lucky Fresh said...

Thanks for your story! I have a quote above my desk at church from some (probably) Buddhist dude whose name I forget that goes sort of like this: "Why do we worry? Whatever path I'm traveling, I'm going home."

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