The issue of what one actually believes came up one day recently, specifically vis-à-vis religious belief. And in the course of that discussion I was asked how, if I don’t adhere utterly to the doctrines surrounding belief in an Abrahamic God, I found myself in the pews of a local church on occasional Sundays.
The answer is not simple, but I will answer by raising another question – how could anyone, given the way children were raised by my parents’ generation, actually believe anything?
Take holidays, for example. From my earliest memory, Christmas has been about Santa Claus, flying reindeer, and sap-filled evergreen trees cut down in their prime and hauled into the house to be decorated with myriad baubles and hundreds of points of electrical ignition. Christmas was about presents and parties and lyrical music that was trotted out only one month a year.
Later it was explained to me that, no, Christmas was really about Baby Jesus and “Away in A Manger” (do you ever use the word “manger” any other time of the year?) and frankincense and camels and peace on earth goodwill to men (and, one assumes, women, boys and girls.)
“But what about Santa Claus?” one asks.
Oh, that’s just a fun myth, one is told, and what do you want for Christmas this year?
“That depends. Is Santa Claus gonna’ bring it?”
There is no Santa Claus.
“Then you lied to me about Santa Claus?”
Well, it was just a fun, little white lie.
“And is Baby Jesus and the manger and the angels on a midnight clear all a fun little white lie, too?”
No, that’s all true.
“How do I know it’s true?”
It’s in the Bible and the Bible doesn’t lie.
“Santa Claus is in Gamble’s Department Store. I sat on his lap. I’ve never sat on Jesus’ lap.”
Even if all of those objections were turned aside or just ignored, more questions about Christmas would come up later when we heard about the virgin birth and then actually understand what virginity is.
“Hey, wait a minute, I just got an A on my biology test and it was about reproduction. You wanna’ explain this?”
It was an immaculate conception.
“Nothin’ about immaculate conception in the biology book. Is the biology book wrong?”
It’s … erm … incomplete.
“Why are they teaching us biology out of an incomplete textbook?”
Why do you ask so many questions?
Easter wasn’t any better. First there was a big bunny and chocolates and eggs, which made no sense at all, and that all turned out to be another Santa Claus white lie. After that we were told, no, it’s really about an innocent man being nailed to a cross for a crime he didn’t commit and then he died and came back to life and went up to Heaven to live with God, but he’ll be back someday and the world will be perfect.
From start to finish, the whole religion thing was just too bizarre to register as reality in my brain. I mean, it starts with a snake giving an apple to a naked lady in a garden and ends with some guy’s psychotropic nightmare about a dragon and a pregnant lady and a seven-headed beast. It didn’t help that my father, who never lied to me about anything except Santa Claus, and later apologized even for that, said he didn’t think any of that stuff was really true, except maybe Exodus and The Begats, but it was still worth reading and heeding because there were great lessons to be learned.
Over time I came to my own conclusions and they are not unlike my father’s, although I have some very real doubts about Exodus.
Pop was right about one thing, though; amid all of the toil and turmoil and smiting and fighting and treachery and blood and unbelievable inhumanity, there are lessons to be learned. My problem was always that the only way I could squeeze a good lesson out of a biblical scripture was from Jesus’ parables. The widow’s mite is my favorite, up there with the prodigal son.
But there’s more to our American religious tradition than just those two stories. As I approach the winter of my life it is important to me that my life means something, that I do something that is worthwhile to others. And I’m smart enough to know now that I need help figuring out how to adhere to the values and standards necessary for me to do meaningful work.
That’s why I go to church, because there are people who have studied the scriptures and are better educated about them than I and can wring some pretty potent messages out of those old tales. Christmas becomes a celebration of the simple beauty of new life, about humility and the value of innocence; Easter teaches us about eternal hope and transcendence and that we humans are more, much more than just the most advanced mammals on Earth.
Those messages help. A lot.
And it’s not even important anymore that no one can adequately explain about that stupid rabbit and his chocolate eggs. I just like chocolate.