Dangling from the Divine

My religious journey began at a very young age, as an observer rather than a participant. My home, while often filled with sacred music, literature and art, was largely secular. My parents were raised in religion-neutral families, and though my mother in middle-age did manage to achieve an official conversion to a big-deal denomination, it hasn’t, well, . . . stuck. She wanted to believe and that desire was boosted by a near-death experience; I’m sure a kind of faith swirls around deep inside her to this day, but she’s just not a "congregation person."

Some of my secular childhood was colored by a somewhat disturbing infatuation with, okay, here it is, Raymond Burr, of all people, which resulted in my logging untold hours of Perry Mason reruns. A diary entry from that time reads, in my childish handwriting, the result of this research: "One must confess in order to be convicted." It was my first recorded stab at scientific analysis—can anyone tell me there was a Perry Mason episode in which the perpetrator did not confess? Jeez, it screwed up my impression of criminal law, but I give it credit for developing my desire to make logic out of chaos. Raymond Burr and James T. Kirk possessed my heart, but my brain belonged to Spock.

It is precisely this logic which led to my first religious debate, with my mother and her good intentions. I was asking about the afterlife, something she had some first-hand inkling about, and she answered diplomatically, "Some people believe you go to heaven."

"But nobody really knows," I said.

"Yes, they do. They know."

"Well, yeah, but they don’t really know."

"Yes, they do. They know."

"They believe there’s a heaven. But nobody really, really, really knows."

And so on. I was amazed that my reasonable mother refused to concede this logical point.

Within a couple of years I found myself in another disputation with an adult, and my argument did not change dramatically. I was sophisticated enough to know that no evidence would be shown me that would satisfy my junior courtroom sensibility, but I expected there to be something. Something concrete. Anything.

I did learn in these and other interactions that religious people weren’t idiots. I was a daily fixture in the big Catholic household full of girls next door, and they even trained me to say grace in payment for mooching dinner. I was the Godchild of Reform Jews. I was classmate to Baptists, Presbyterians, and Quakers. I’d been to umpteen Lutheran hotdish conventions in big blond wood churches on my dad’s side of the family. None of these folks were temporarily or permanently insane—they were funny and learned and logical and reasonable, or irritable, ignorant, generous and satisfied, just like anyone else. But, what did they know that they weren’t telling me? What was the closing argument? There had to be something else, because I just wasn’t getting it.

I apparently have some terrier in me. I enrolled my heathen self in college and proceeded to pursue a degree in religion. Maybe they wouldn’t tell me as a freshman, but I was bound to find out something by the time I got to my senior seminars. I went at my bible study classes with a passion, learned all about "Q" and the masoretic texts and the Greek and Latin translations of the original Hebrew. I dissected psalms and picked favorites. I was up to my neck in biblical knowledge.

It was worse than I thought.

Some of this stuff made no sense. Approved text was one thing, but who threw out all those other nutty documents? Were we supposed to swallow the stuff about people living hundreds of years and all those stories about incest and slavery and sacrifice? It looked like an awful lot of spin was going on.

And Christianity, it seemed, was based on these four guys. Four guys plus some ghostwriter, who mostly, sort of, kind of, agreed with each other about this man who may or may not have have claimed divinity and may or may not have been resurrected. Holy Mother of Pearl! This was it? This was the closing argument?

Wow, that was asking a lot. My mom was wrong. Nobody knew what the hell was going on, if this was any indication.

But the funny thing was, a conversion was going on. Across the globe on the other side of the equator, a girl caught in the swirl of a mudslide ended up in a hole of cold, dirty water, tangled in the limbs of her dead family. Hours and hours and hours later, she died in that hole, wet and terrorized and cold all the way through. They had not been able to free her—from a hole, a pool of mud, why in God’s name they couldn’t get a girl out of hole—not a well, not a drainpipe, not a fallen parking ramp—I will never understand. But they didn’t, and she died. I read about it here, like I’d read about other children dying and turned the page or changed the channel. I don’t know why the inability to get one girl warm and dry brought on such existential despair, but it did. And I came to two conclusions out of it. One based on reason, the other on choice.

Life, my life and this child’s life and death, either had meaning or it didn’t. I had no evidence either way. This is where the leap comes in. Out of fear, out of hope, out of a hunch, I chose meaning.

Choosing meaning required, by my logic though perhaps not everyone’s, belief in an agent of meaning. This is as far as I go, logic-wise.

I converted to Reform Judaism in my junior year because its umbrella was wide enough to cover some of my special appendages. It was not a religion who would have the pins knocked out from under it if startling new scientific facts emerged. I would encounter no censure of my sister who is dear and fair and supremely just and a lesbian. It supported my opinion that faith was fickle and slippery and even absent, but righteous behavior was doable and praiseworthy. It combined the best—yes, the best—of humanism with worship of God, the aforementioned agent of meaning. And because Israel, as a concept, as a great big Hebrew ark to the half-drowned survivors of the Holocaust, dazzled me. Because I felt like a Jew. It was a mostly logical decision, but even Spock has his human side.

I earned my degree. I noticed an odd thing about my fellow religion majors—that despite all the required classwork in Islam, Judaism, Eastern Religions, and Denominations and Sects—everybody but me came out the same way they went in. Their particular Calvinist, Methodist, Catholic, Muslim or otherwise traditions didn’t get shook. How could a small, Minnesota Lutheran college confirm all those ideas? Was I the only one going into this with an inductive as opposed to a deductive method? I mean, some of those Protestant camps are barely distinguishable. How can it be that not one kid said, "Damn, those Baptists are right about infant baptism, now that I think of it."? Or, "I know why I never dug the pope—I’m a latent Episcopal!" There wasn’t even a switch from Presbyterian to Congregationalist—or from Missouri Synod to Wisconsin Synod Lutheran. I know that people do switch. I had a friend who was an incorrigible congregation-hopper for years. But, why not religion students? People with all that information?

I guess it has to do with the leap. Everybody leaps to their comfort level, and for someone who’s been setting Baby Jesus in the manger every Christmas Eve, he leaps straight into Matthew without needing to look very closely at the thirty million Hindu deities. He figures he knows all the hymns from his church anyway, why freak out his parents? For women preachers? For liturgical semantics? Forget it.

For someone like me, looking for a good reason to leap, I leapt as far as I could. I still call myself a Jew, though the synagogue doesn’t see much of me and I spend far more time reading science paperbacks and watching the Discovery Channel than wading through scripture. I guess the religion of our childhood holds us tighter than we want to believe. Maybe it's even futile to struggle against it. I leapt, I leapt with my whole heart to that slippery handhold, but that old black magic, reason, had its hooks in me first and won’t let go.

Copyright, Ari McKee, 2000

Click here for another essay from Ari entitled "The Gods are Taking a Meeting" from When Falls the Coliseum.