(I owe this title to Wendell Berry.1)
When I was a kid my parents took my brother and me on a road trip to see the great American West. I may have been twelve; I remember that when one of them bought me a cool cowboy hat and I found a turkey feather to put in it, I thought I was the coolest kid around. We slept at drive-in campgrounds and listened to classic country and we went to see oh so many views. They were the grandest views in the country, some of the grandest in the world. We looked down from the heights of Yosemite, watched Old Faithful erupt in Yellowstone, goggled at Meteor Crater, and peered down into the incomprehensible vastness of the Grand Canyon. And as I followed the family from one view to the next, I thought: What’s the fucking point?
I didn’t think it in those words. (For one thing, I was a Good Kid, and kept myself to a strict rule of not swearing.) In fact I never got particularly close to consciously forming a thought like that. But I do remember that after seeing each sight, though I thought they were quite awesome and all, we all seemed satisfied for the moment but anxious to get to the next one, and we moved on basically unmoved. Nature was for us on this trip a trick elephant, and we watched her most spectacular stunts—come on, blow that geyser!—because that was what Nature was good for. We knew because the conservation movement had said so. It had put aside the National Parks because here were the finest views Nature had to offer, the most pristine landscapes unsullied by the hand of Man, a showcase of that beautifully alien realm where an anarchy of bears and wolves and trees and moss is still allowed to flourish. You could tell it was special because there were signs along the trails warning you to keep off the pristineness. But I couldn’t help but notice that I felt closer to nature on the squishy banks of tiny Burck’s Pond up the street from my house, next to a deteriorating asphalt path for dog-walking neighbors. My brother and I would come up at night, sneaking in through back yards, and catch bullfrogs with our bare hands, grinning with that specially childlike exhilaration, then lob them back into the water. And on that grubby shoreline, strewn with ruined old orange plastic fencing and occasional bits of old paper, I felt as alive as I did overlooking the greatest views of the continent, if not more so. Well, perhaps my nature appreciation faculties were deficient.
On Sundays, back at home, if my mom was persistent enough to drag me out of bed where I’d otherwise be sleeping till noon, we went to church, and it was the same deal. Everyone in the congregation made quite a show of very clearly Being Religious. You could tell from how many times they stood up and then sat back down again, how serious their voices were when they recited the Apostles’ Creed, and how they used words like hallowed and kingdom and thine. The songs were very pretty, but I spent most of my time picking the little communion registration cards out of the holders on the backs of the pews and filling them out with funny names and addresses. I remember the little picture of wine and grapes next to the blanks on that card better than I remember a single word Pastor Curry said. It was okay, though; he was doing all the religion up there at the pulpit, and all I had to do was follow along in the hymnal and sing approximations of the right notes, and I’d be fine. Religion was a spectator activity, and what was important was being there and expressing the appropriate marvelment. Once you did that you could go next door to Wendy’s and get a Frosty.
I am led to believe that Christianity can be a force for great spiritual and emotional good in people’s lives. Perhaps some people can even derive that benefit from a suburban church that’s hemmed in by a huge parking lot and the intersection of two major arterial streets. But its emotional impact on me mostly consisted of introducing me to new depths of emotions like impatience. And discomfort. And I don’t think there’s a single word to describe the emotion of being at a church summer camp with an Australian Survivor theme (I don’t remember if I was sorted into Bonzer or Fair Dinkum tribe) and being expected to sing along to all the stupid songs and getting shepherded through a series of demeaning and not-remotely-fun games with heavyhanded moral lessons by a group of vapidly smiling young adults whose heads you suspect would sound like empty coconuts if they banged together, and fantasizing about burning the whole accursed place down—indignation doesn’t quite say it somehow—but I learned that emotion too from my childhood experiences with Christianity. What I never experienced, never even suspected I could be brought to experience by religion, was awe, wonder, encounter with some entity grander and more ancient and intelligent than I could hope to comprehend.
It wasn’t as though I had never felt that. In fact the pursuit of it was one of the main objects of my summer, evening, and weekend free time all through my teen years. But I pursued it by creekwalking. A creekwalk allowed me (and usually my little brother) to escape the rectilinear world. With the air of smooth criminals, we would stroll down the street past the little boxes made of ticky-tacky until we found that magic spot, the flaw in the weave—a gap between the bushes edging someone’s backyard, usually—where we could slip into the wild fringe where no one goes and no one looks: the creek, and the scrubby margin on either side of it, land topographically worthless to developers, and thus allowed its freedom. We could walk up and down this squiggly, alterdimensional world for hours and hours and never see another human. Evidence they’d been there, sure, like excavations and drainage structures and little dams, but no presence of them except occasional moving cars or machinery far away up on the surface, sighted in passing from odd low angles. Everything we found had an element of mystery to it, in that world. It was uninterpreted. It had grown woolly and feral since its last human contact: old stone bridges had collapsed, carefully bulldozed slopes had turned into tangly thickets of honeysuckle, discarded chunks of metal had rusted into unrecognizable shapes, old bottles poked up out of the dirt and seemed to have been lost from a Spanish galleon (even if on closer inspection they said 7-up). Up above in the world we’d stepped out of, every place was planned out by some human mind to have one interpretation, more or less: House. Store. Gas station. But here, often not fifty yards from that world, everything we looked at was an infinite matryoshka of interpretations, bug on grass blade on dirt in forest, each with their universe of meanings, and the minds that devised the signposted and house-numbered boxes up on the surface seemed impossibly small, because here was a place with its own intelligence, one that genially declined to be subsumed by mine.
The trouble was, having had these encounters that were, I now believe, of fundamentally the same nature as the experiences of a devout Christian in church, I had no idea they could be understood—might even best be understood—in any way you could call religious. My father taught biology and chemistry for eleven years. His father was a career high school science teacher. My mom’s father was a tenured professor of general science for his whole career. Within my milieu it was conceded that religions exist, and they probably (maybe) have some kind of validity to deal with some nebulously defined sphere of human experience. But anything not clearly labeled religion was felt to be quite obviously in science’s exclusive domain. I took a high school bio class and learned a few more things to appreciate while on a creekwalk, but I never learned a thing about why I appreciated them or, worse still, what that appreciation might mean.
I did catch occasional glimpses of another way of seeing things. I was an all-devouring reader and somewhere found a copy of John (Fire) Lame Deer’s Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions. Lame Deer’s description of a spirit quest made a strong enough impression on me that even though I haven’t reread the book since I was probably eleven years old, I still remember his four hot days, with no food in the dry red dirt, with the quality of a legend or a bedtime story. But like when I pushed through a book on string theory as a teenager, I read Lame Deer’s book when I was too young to really digest it. His story became just a story, something with a tenuous connection to “the real world” perhaps, but certainly not to my real life. In my real life religion was what we did at church. And since what I did at church was basically to wait for church to be over, the word religion came to have no useful meaning at all for me.
Nonetheless, whatever it was, it seemed important to a lot of people, so I tried to come up with a definition that felt right. While I didn’t have much luck with that, I did burn through a whole stack of bad ones. First I redefined it during catechism class as a thing that stresses me out because I have to make up some stuff about how Jesus makes me feel, even though I’ve never met the guy, and then tell it to a hundred people and try to make everyone believe it, even myself. In high school, as I learned about the world, I redefined it again, without being aware of it at the time, as a bundle of just-so stories that had all been conclusively disproven, but that I still had to tell people I believed in—in a metaphorical sense, whatever that might mean—or I would go to hell one day. When I left home for college, it took very little time for me to come into contact with atheists, enough of them (for the first time in my life) that I had to take them seriously, and very quickly the fragile wall I’d built around that house-of-cards definition came cascading down under the weight of clear rationality; I redefined religion again as a mass delusion that people buy into because their parents told them to and they’re too afraid of Hell to give the matter a second thought. And at that point I shed Christianity and just dropped the matter entirely. Poor religion. It never stood a chance.
It certainly didn’t help that Christianity, as I learned it from every source I encountered, was all about escape. Its overriding goal, the direction all its theology pointed, was to get you off this vale of tears, this wretched space rock, and into heaven where you belonged. Sure there was a little more to it, but that stuff was minor details; the important thing was the Earth is a shitty place and you should be focusing on making sure you go to Heaven once you’re done here, instead of an even shittier place. Now, I had no problem with going to Heaven, although it sounded a little quiet and I might get tired of all the lyre music. But getting there wasn’t really a goal that motivated me. As I understood it, all I had to do was say out loud that I believed in Jesus, and I was set, so it really didn’t seem like that big a deal to focus on when there were plenty of interesting things happening down on Earth. And all this trash-talking of the Earth really put me off. I happened to really like the Earth. It was a great home, very comfortable. Summer evenings by a Canadian lake, particularly, were about as good as anything I figured Heaven could provide, as were snow days when instead of going to school I could walk through an ice-coated world to the Graeter’s up the street and get an ice cream cone. Why was everyone in such a hurry to get to Heaven? It seemed frankly suicidal and unhealthy to me. And anyhow I noticed that even the most faithful Christians I knew hadn’t carried out the logic of their creed to its inevitable conclusion and jumped off a cliff. That was all the proof I needed that people didn’t really believe that strongly in Heaven, or at least figured it probably wasn’t quite all it was cracked up to be.
I’m no expert on Christian sects. I imagine there are some out there whose understanding of the relation between Earthly life and the Hereafter is more coherent and healthy. But the Christianity that was presented to me amounted to an offer of escape from the place I loved the most, and it was singularly uninspiring to me. The process of casting it off was traumatic, but mostly because I had to make sure I was really sure I didn’t believe Hell existed before I made a decision that would otherwise get me sent there, and also because of all the other people who cared about me and still thought there was a Hell and I was now headed there. But I cleared those hurdles, along an utterly typical just-got-to-college trajectory, and when I found myself free of the constant cognitive dissonance and fear of divine eternal retribution, I found also that I didn’t miss a single amen of it, and I never looked back.
In The Art of the Commonplace, p. 96 (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2002). ↩