Religion class was perhaps my favorite in early grade school. The teachers and nuns would gather us around and tell New Testament stories of the life of Jesus. Most of the stories are rather uplifting. They had good lessons as to how humans should treat each other with empathy. It seemed that Jesus was a rather humble and cool dude. I’m not exactly sure what he did for a living. He seemed to have a lot of free time.
Growing up, I was a skeptic for some unknown reason. That is not to say that I was cynical. I just noticed that there were so many competing, and mutually exclusive explanations given for the way the world worked. I realized that I had to either, A, choose which person or group to believe, or B, try to understand the world for myself. Given that the former was simply a guess based on the persuasion of personality, I gravitated towards the latter. I suppose that some parents would glean from this that they should carefully shield their young children from competing ideas. I personally disagree. Care and guidance should be given, of course.
Religion class was going fine and I was enjoying the philosophical lessons that resonated until I hit sixth grade. This was the year that we all got “confirmed”. St. Peter’s school took this seriously. Not only was it a part of our daily religion class but we came to school at night for special confirmation classes with various priests. They explained to us that when we were baptized, we had no choice. The sacrament of confirmation is similar to baptism except now we are choosing it for ourselves and we must be sure. Most of all, we must be sure. To test us, they gave us tough hypothetical situations that made us think hard about what it is to be a Christian. One of the scenarios was based in nazi Germany. By this time, I had already come a long way in forming my mental framework as to how the world worked. There were still a lot of details to be worked out, there still are, and always will be, but all had already been lost from the school’s point of view.
Finally, after hearing enough times that we had to be sure, it occurred to me that they must actually mean it! I privately went to my teachers, during the much publicized time to voice our concerns, and informed them that I was not sure. “Everyone has doubts, but deep down you are sure” they said. “No, even deep down, I am not too sure” I replied. “I know it doesn’t all make sense, but that is where we need to use faith” came the ball back over the net. Talking about it in this way, it seemed like faith was an entity of something that came in a bucket. Something that could be used as spackle to fill in the cracks. I just needed to go to the store and buy me some more of that. “No, actually, I am quite sure that I do not believe” I finally confessed, realizing that beating around the bush was going nowhere. I can’t even figure out how the conversation stopped, but it did and right at that moment. Things just continued on again, as if nothing had happened. It left me wondering ‘did I just dream that I had a conversation with them?’ The ceremony was beautiful. The music was good too. I appreciated my brother Chris being my sponsor, really.
We tread along our paths thinking that we have complete choice and control over our beliefs. While this is technically true, in practicality, children usually grow into adults, keeping the same religion and views of the tribe that they were born into. Not only is the pressure intense, but once “truths” are implanted into our young, sponge-like brains, the rest of our lives are spent cleverly picking out the knowledge that supports what we already ‘know’ to be true. Contradicting facts and ideas are somewhat unpleasant. They crack the framework of how we understand the world and are generally not given a great amount of inspection and are brushed aside.
The universe is vast, wondrous and will always be beyond complete comprehension. It is useful to try, however, as the comprehension that we do have allows us to build such things as cell phones and GPS, not to mention the joy of witnessing things such as gravity waves from distant black holes colliding or figuring out how DNA makes plants and animals into the way that they are. Humans have many stories to help them explain their world. That’s what we do. It is a common part of our social behavior. For better or worse, it is a much used tool that people use to influence the social fabric. Every society has their own stories.