I’m taking an A-term course called “Spiritual Autobiographies,” that starts in a couple of weeks. We will be reading several autobiographies and excerpts and workshopping elements of our own. This memory work can be really helpful in clarifying and learning to articulate one’s “personal theology.” I feel like I’ve made some big strides with discernment myself over the past two years of my MDiv, and part of that is gaining the courage to dialogue with my own memories. The following is an excerpt from a Q&A on developmental versions of faith from a formation course I took my first semester in seminary. I’ll be looking back and sharing some more work on this in the coming weeks…
How would you describe the faith you had as a child?
As a young child I was either godless or so godful the idea of a singular and personal God did not occur to me. My family, which was essentially a family of orphans with very little in the way of intergenerational relationships beyond the nuclear, was utterly savage until I was about eight years old. It was the classic Hobbesian “war of all against all,” my parents included. We fought and struggled and hunted and loved like Lord of the Flies, each worshiping whom he or she pleased when and how she or he wanted — and aside from the secularized version of Christian holidays, which we celebrated with pagan abandon, I don’t remember stepping into a church until my tweens.
We didn’t pray to God, we wished upon the stars, which we kept in a magical, flickering box in the den. Of course, we had a home shrine, like everyone we knew, and we worshipped a vast panoply of gods there, each of our own choosing: Wonder Woman, Shazam!, Charlie’s Angels and the Six Million Dollar Man could all be communed with at the family shrine, each at its own time one night a week. Our evening rituals were usually communal, of necessity, and we often took our meals together at the shrine. The gods offered a sentimental education, taught us about love on boats and fantasies on islands. There were “Jeannies” in bottles and witches next door.
All of which was consistent enough with the mystery and magic of the world around. There was a forest nearby and cornfields down the way into which we could disappear from the adult world and the safe, ordered grid of suburbia. Or I could disappear into books. From the Time Quintet of Madeleine L’Engle to C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, these were worlds of adventure only children could enter. The Bible had nothing on the books of my childhood. The Christian undertones of Lewis’s series were mostly lost on me; the sense of adventure was not.
When I was around eight years old, my mother, encouraged by a family friend, dragged us to church for the first time, but “Church”, as we called the whole experience of institutional religion, was still but one of many spaces of communal identity formation, and had to vie with the home shrine, the weird day-time culture of neighborhood latchkey kids (a kind of underage omertà, with everything from role-playing cops and robbers to what today we would definitely consider actual kidnapping, false imprisonment, and prostitution) and little league, for our attention. The latter was such a huge part of our family life I thought it must be the reason Church was on Sunday mornings: so that we had the afternoons free for baseball. So, honestly, by the time we “got religion” it was in competition with television, literature, school and sport in my burgeoning cosmology.
The practices of weekly communion, the long confirmation process with its confession of faith and baptism, were no more or less mysterious than the rules and rituals of sport. Church may have been a little less dangerous (no actual curve balls whipped at you at high speeds), but these places, practices and ways of relating were all of one great, fairly undifferentiated jumble, and often the secular was experienced as more transcendent than the sacred (if you have ever been to a night game at Fenway Park or Wrigley Field or Camden Yards — all places of sacred pilgrimage in my youth — you will know exactly what I mean).
I understood none of it, but also, I think, understood intuitively that none of it was about understanding, really. You dressed a certain way — for Church in a shirt and tie with slacks and penny loafers, for baseball in odd-fitting pinstripes with stirrups and cleats — piled into the station wagon, and did The Thing. Dressing up was fun, and usually after The Thing there was food. In the case of Church there was brunch, which I have always loved. In the case of baseball: pizza and jukeboxes which in those days played Joan Jett, Debbie Harry, and Kim Carnes. You know what I’m saying? The gods were good.