Photo: Thatcher Keats
And the particular truth I would like to share with my godchildren has to do with spiritual uncertainty. For me, spirituality inevitably entails a healthy dose of uncertainty about my religious life. In fact, uncertainty is as reliable a part of my practice as church on Sundays.
Perhaps a little history is in order. Despite my mother's interest in church and things spiritual, I was completely indifferent to religious education in early childhood. I went to church, as young people did in the suburbs, but I often felt that the insular, coffee-hour Christianity of Connecticut, the inwardly directed instead of outwardly directed faith, left me out, rather than in. I never had many friends at church; I never served as an altar boy. I even found praying mystifying. What was it people were doing when they pressed their palms together? To me church seemed more about show than substance. Sometimes I thought I understood church and wanted to be part of it. But more often I had little interest at all. I'd never been baptized and neither was I confirmed. Like many kids my own age, I guess, I thought of the whole church experience as a bit sentimental. The tales of Jesus' birth and resurrection were lovely stories, but were they more than that?
This skeptical approach was fine for my early life, at least until I started experimenting with drugs and alcohol. After a number of teenage experiments with LSD in the mid-'70s, I had what is often called a bad trip. In the grip of this drug, I suffered a lot of florid hallucinations, nightmares that became too real. In the aftermath of the experience, feeling unsturdy and fragile, I decided I needed to get baptized. I needed, I thought, the framework of churchgoing, I needed the security of it, and in this fraught and uncomfortable time, all the simplistic pieties of the church of my childhood seemed suddenly generous, bighearted, and welcoming. This is the kind of conversion experience that I can recommend to my godchildren, I think, the kind that has little to do with the herd mentality of churchgoing. I can recommend a spiritual life that is about wanting a direct experience of whatever God is, and which finds its origins in spiritual need.
It would be great if I could report that baptism changed everything, that my spiritual life ran in a straight line thereafter. But in my later teens and early 20s, I merely supplanted the drugs that made me think with drugs that prevented thinking, alcohol first among equals. Drinking has a long tradition among writers, and I wanted to write, and so I felt encouraged to apply myself ambitiously to the goal of having a drinking problem. And the first thing that got in the way of this was a spiritual life.
In local bars I spent a good eight or nine years feeling proud of militant atheism. Atheism, especially as articulated by thinkers like Marx and Freud in their astringent criticism of everything God-related, now seems to me a particularly fervent kind of spiritual belief. Atheism, I suspect, is just as certain as fundamentalism. But also favors nihilists. At the time, nihilism was the best I could do. Upon achieving a bankruptcy of the heart in my mid-20s, of the sort that alcoholism seemed uniquely equipped to deliver, I put aside the bottle, whereupon I finally came to feel, in earnest, that what was happening inside churches was something that I couldn't afford to avoid. I couldn't avoid the seriousness of it, I couldn't avoid the generosity of it, I couldn't avoid the sobriety of it. It wasn't much later that, as a more upright citizen, I acquired my first godson, Dylan.
We Hear You!