On Easter Sunday, my five-month-old twins were baptized in the Catholic Church. This is a big deal for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact I basically consecrated them to a god I’m not even sure exists. And yet, despite my skepticism, I have no regrets.
I haven’t always been incredulous of Christianity, mind you. Quite the opposite. As an adolescent, I was a Bible thumper. I never would have called myself that at the time; naturally, I considered it a pejorative. And while in retrospect I still do, I understand how painfully accurate a description it was. I was a hand waving, prostrate praying, praise and worship junkie. I had been called into the ministry, served as the leader for our Youth Drama Team, and was well known among a church membership numbering over 2,000.
My memories of those days dwell in a menagerie of affection and chagrin. I imagine that’s true for a lot of folks who grew up in similar ecclesial communities. Charismatic churches with rock bands and weekly altar calls can be emotional playgrounds for the faithful. But when one falls off the monkey bars, it’s a long way down.
Doubt is a curious thing, isn’t it? It can be beaten back, but it can never be fully stamped out. Some Christians will tell you a modicum of doubt is a healthy part of faith. And I’d agree. A faith untested is a weak faith indeed, but doubt is also like a cancer. I hate to use that analogy because it unfairly maligns doubt as something destructive. Perhaps it is; it certainly felt that way for me as a senior in high school when I began doubting certain doctrines of my church—mostly the
miraculous magical bits. I endeavored to reason these doubts away. But fighting doubt with reason, I found, is like putting out a fire with matches.
It wasn’t long before I left for college. And the more I learned there, the less I felt like I knew God. Within a couple of years, he had gone from being an omniscient father with whom I had daily conversations, to a vestige of man’s early understanding of the universe.
I remember sitting in an anthropology class one morning as a junior. The professor, an eclectic woman by any measure and a perennial favorite among the student body, was discussing the role of folklore and mythology in shaping world religions. In the middle of her lecture, she paused, disconnected from the material, and quietly observed: “I don’t know how anyone could be a student of anthropology and still have uncompromising faith in their own religion.” It wasn’t meant to disparage the churchgoing students in the room; I don’t even think it was meant for anyone other than her. But it meant a lot to me, and it still does.
I wish I had the faith I did at 16, but my head won’t get out of my heart’s way. I suspect that’s probably for the best. So why then submit my children to a belief system that I find mostly unbelievable? The answer is simple, a modicum of faith is a healthy part of doubt.
Just as I could never be a fundamentalist Christian, I could never occupy the opposite end of that spectrum either; I find atheism and Christian fundamentalism equally arrogant. While one ideology professes to know the true nature of God, the other professes to know that God has no nature at all. Both require an astounding leap of faith to traverse the gap between what is actually known and what isn’t. As I see it, the best thinkers are the ones who never stop questioning—who can’t stop, because of a niggling notion that there’s always something more to be known.
I hope my children recognize faith and doubt each as positive expressions of the human condition, and that neither are mutually exclusive. In order to do that, I have to allow them the opportunity to explore teachings with which I may not wholly agree. One day, Greyson and Charlotte will be old enough to form their own beliefs, but until then, it’s my job to read them the menu. It’s why Ashley and I deliberately chose four godparents who represent differing religious perspectives; only one is a practicing Catholic.
Eventually, our spiritual horizons may broaden. Maybe we’ll visit mosques, synagogues, and temples. But that’s some years down the road. There’s a fine line between raising critical thinkers and confusing young children. I want them to experience the faith of a child, to understand how powerful it can be. But I want them to learn discernment as they grow into young adults.
I think Paul the Apostle said it best in his letter to the church at Corinth. “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.” The Corinthian Christians didn’t accept the resurrection story nor did they believe in the symbolic sacrifice of the crucifixion. In context, Paul’s counsel was meant to encourage them to grow stronger in their faith…to be less childlike in their pursuit of Christ. However, out of context, the irony is exquisite (and equally valid).
If my children grow up to be keepers of a faith, I hope it’s a faith mitigated by doubt. If my children grow up to be disciples of doubt, I hope it’s a doubt tempered by faith. But my greatest hope is that whatever their beliefs, they aren’t handed down by someone else—including me.
One of the best ways to set the Internet ablaze in a comment conflagration of rhetoric and emotion is to share your thoughts on religion. For the time being then, let me politely submit that I am a doubting Baptist and my wife is a cradle Catholic.
So Sunday, we stuffed Charlotte and Greyson into some classy duds and took them to mass at Ashley’s parents’ church.
As has become our custom post-babies, we arrived a good ten minutes late. For a fun exercise in mortification, I strongly recommend walking into a chapel with two infant-filled carriers while trying to remain invisible. This last piece is crucial. You have to want to die of embarrassment as people begin lifting their heads from prayer to acknowledge your clumsy, unbalanced shuffling at the front of the church, because that’s where your wife’s family sits. And you can’t take a pew in the back, because you have to sit with the family. You have to…because they’re waving you over. They’re practically taxiing you down the aisle like a jetliner before takeoff.
The whispers eventually grew quiet though—the gazes were redirected downward—and we settled in for the service. Now, most parishioners will tell you that you haven’t been properly churched unless you’ve had to actively tune out someone’s crying child during the service. The cries don’t have to come from an infant, mind you. They could erupt from the toddler who was told to stop flinging his Hot Wheels down the pew, or the four-year-old who slipped off the kneeler she was using as a balance beam. Infants, though, are noise bombs with capricious detonators, and we were carrying enough explosives to send shockwaves halfway across town.
So, I waited through all three readings. Not a fuss. I sat through the homily expecting a cry, a wimper. Nothing. Charlotte was in Ashley’s arms and Greyson asleep in his carrier between my feet. I thought surely it would happen during the Eucharist. Father would bless the babies and they would twist themselves into a wicked fit. Nope. In a shocking display of exhaustion, both babies remained completely silent.
Like I said, I don’t always believe in the Heavenly Father, in Jesus, or in the Holy Spirit. I really don’t know to what extent the spiritual realm exists, or if angels occupy it. But I’ll tell you this: at Sunday mass, there were at least two angels in our midst, and they slept through the whole service with nary a peep. Thank God.