Sunday, January 20, 2008

Sunday School

Religion was never a very big deal in my family. My mother was raised a Roman Catholic but left the church as soon as she was able, turned off by priestly behavior she had witnessed and believed was hypocritical. Her resentment was deep and lifelong, but it did not make her irreligious. She just knew not to take religious matters too seriously. In fact, she had strong beliefs, but they were strictly her own. She never tried to push them on anyone else, least of all my sister and me.

As for my father, I never knew what his religious beliefs were. He was a newspaper reporter and therefore a cynic about most things; I wouldn't be surprised if he went to his grave a doubter, but that's just my guess. He and I nor anyone else in the family ever talked about it.

I went to college in Kentucky and had my first experience of culture shock there, amazed at the influence the church had on peoples' lives, and at the family crises that arose as children went off to the big city and started learning about things outside the hellfire-and-damnation context of their fundamentalist upbringings. (I did have a crisis with my family, but it had to do with race. I haven't figured out how to write about that yet.) My own religious schooling had been entirely pro forma. My parents wanted me to have some kind of religious foundation but I never sensed that they cared much that I had religious belief, just that I learned about it. My family was living here in Arlington when I was born and I've always thought I was raised in the Episcopal church because there was one within walking distance of the Arlington house. I was 2 1/2 when we moved further out, to Falls Church, Virginia. We eventually joined the namesake church of that city, where I was confirmed, again pro forma, at age 12. I stopped going to church as a teenager, when, one Sunday morning as I was getting up, my parents, from their bed, where they with all good sense were sleeping in, told me to get dressed to go to church. I asked them why I had to do that if they could stay right where they were. They had no answer and that was that.

The Sunday school classes I did go to as a kid were memorable, but not for the religious molding my young mind received. My fourth grade Sunday school teacher had been an intrepid explorer of the world's dangerous places. Every Sunday he regaled the class with stories about close calls he'd had with various wild animals. Never a bible or prayer book was cracked, but maybe he thanked God he survived and made it a religious experience. I don't remember. The next year's teacher taught us about astronomy and the planets. At least that had something to with heaven, or at least the heavens, I guess. He had the class out to his house one night so we could look at the moon through his telescope. Very cool. Even my confirmation classes, which are supposed to imbue young people with Christian and Episcopal doctrine, are most memorable for me now because of the questioning spirit in which the young priest-teacher conducted them. In a session about hell, I asked him point-blank if such a place exists, and he gave me the type of answer you'd get from an intelligent philospher. Does hell exist? This priest basically didn't know. I wish I could thank him now for his blessed honesty.

I have friend in his mid-50s who has lately discovered atheism. He has all the hallmarks of a recent religious convert. He's joined groups, goes to lectures, gets into arguments with believers, and, if nobody stops him, will talk, nonstop, all day, about the good sense atheism makes. He'll berate anyone who doesn't agree. I call him a "born-again atheist." He and his arguments embody the polarization on this topic that has taken over our dear country, whose success as an experiment depends on open-minded pluralism. To think the fundamentalists in South Carolina can't vote for Romney because he's a Mormon and therefore "not Christian." To think the discussion is even taking place....

If there is a hell, maybe this is what it's like.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

great post..it seems that there is little room for either questioning or tolerance these days,and
i know i'd prefer democracy to theocracy...greg mpls

Ralph said...

Know what you mean, Greg. Maybe things have been like this before and they got better? We can only hope. And vote.

michele said...

I grew up areligious (without religion). My father described himself as an agnostic. My mother said nothing. My brother says she was the "closet Christian" in our family. My brother and I are more straightforward than our father was, we're atheists. We have never tried to persuade anyone to our beliefs. It's just what we think and we don't talk about it. (We've read all the lastest writings on atheism with great interest, but the writings are still just confirmation of what we've believed since childhood and not reason to proselytize.) We think what we think and others are should be/are free to think what they think. The issue is, however, that many people/religions think that others should think what they think. So while we are tolerant/encouraging of other peoples beliefs, we find to our dismay that many are intolerant of others beliefs and so we find that we, in turn, are intolerant of intolerance. Iris Dement was right.

Ralph said...

"Intolerant of intolerance." Michele, you took the words out of my mouth. We as a country must get back to that place. I really think we were there once, in our living memory.

Kat said...

We were the beginning of the paling of the fervor of Irish Catholics. I went to parochial school almost all the way from grade one to high school, even managed a Catholic college, but it was there all the questions began and didn't seem to have an acceptable answer. My final every Sunday mass was one where I walked out in the middle of a sermon about supporting the war in Vietnam. The priest even stopped me as I was making my exit and asked why I was leaving. I told him and left. Haven't been back much since then.

Ralph said...

"No man is as island," right? We trundle along in our own worlds, but we aren't in coccoons, after all. The great events of the day can push us in directions we'd never imagined for ourselves...