I have this complicated relationship with religion, the result of a childhood spent in a Fundamentalist church with a mother who took her religious education duties very, very seriously. Very seriously. As in, drill a hole in my head and pour in the Truth kind of seriously. Once I was comparing notes with a friend who is a great-nephew of the renowned 20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. My friend recalled a childhood of animated dinner-table discussions, intellectual inquiry and a wide exposure to a variety of religious faiths and practices. "Gus," I said, "you spent your childhood swimming with the dolphins. I had my head held down in a bucket of water." Even now, years later, I can't think of a better way to describe it.
So when Rebecca, who has been active in a local church youth group for several years and loves it, was included in a confirmation class as a matter of course, I felt very unsettled. Was this really a good idea? Did I want her to sign on the dotted line to endorse the stand of the United Methodist Church on every single issue? Was that what "confirmation" meant? And who the hell (pardon my French) needs confirmation, anyway? Do they really check your passport at the door to heaven?If so, I'll hang out with the illegal aliens in hell.
But striving to be an enlightened parent, I decided to put this to Rebecca herself when she asked me what I thought about going to confirmation class. "Well," I hedged, "are you doing this because you want to, or because you want to please other people, or because you think it's expected of you?" Rebecca said she wasn't sure; she'd get back to me. A few days later, she said she'd decided not to go. And that was okay with me.
So why was it that on Sunday (yes, I go to church, mostly; I said this was complicated), when what would have been her confirmation class stood up in front of the congregation and there was this big to-do about welcoming them into the church--why did I feel so ambivalent, so left out? (Left out? my brain said. She opted out, and you supported her.) And at the same time, another part of me was just pissed off. The arrogance of man-made rules for how people should relate to their God! And still another part of me had grave doubts. What if this was a window of opportunity for Rebecca--not to hop on any particular bandwagon, but to take the whole question of questioning seriously? What if I had just helped to close the window? And all that was before they got to the part about asking the congregation if we would support and guide these newcomers in their faith. Me, a guide? Talk about the blind leading the blind.
Die-hard atheists and believers (and really, they are just two sides of the same coin) have it easy. Even agnostics have it easy; they don't spend a whole lot of time thinking about this stuff. People like me--we have no idea of what we're doing, but there's no escaping the nagging sense that in our search for some answers, or at least some intelligent questions, we may be marching ourselves and our impressionable kids right into outer space.