Swaps and the Catholic Atheist

I have been back in the U.S. over Christmas in the Midwest, which is where I normally spend this time of year. By now, some of my old friends and relatives have read Faith, and some have liked it quite a lot. Others aren’t sure what to make of me, the Catholic atheist.

Still others, including some people very close to me, worry that I’m doomed. It is in that context – at home, worried about this book, surrounded by friends and family – that I reflect on growing up as a reader, and significantly, a believing reader.

Looking back, I see now that my belief in God, like a great many of my beliefs, was shaped by the fact that important people in my life, most notably my father, died when I was young.

Once they’d died, God provided them a place to live forever. And from the Catholic services that accompanied these deaths, to the consolation dished out by friends and relatives – often literally by way of endless casseroles – everyone had told me that I could join them someday if I was good.

So growing up I was good. I was well behaved. I prayed hard in church. I did my chores. And, perhaps most importantly, I did well in school. I lived believing that God had my life, and eventually my death, safely under his control.

In those days, there was little about God that was particularly amazing. While significantly better, for all its reality Heaven was hardly more of a miracle place than the local grocery store in the middle of my small town. Now I’m more concerned with finding the right balance between being a good mother and my personal well-being.

Instructed in Bible stories in the same way I was taught about the American Revolution and the Civil War, I considered Moses and Jesus, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, as historical equals, heroes of the very same kind: liberators, great and valuable leaders, wise men. It mattered to me as a child that upon entering Heaven someday, I’d see my father and grandparents again, yes, but after those reunions, I’d also be able to pay visits to all my childhood heroes.

This all made sense to me. Good people who died went to the very same Heaven I would go to. God was there with Jesus at his right hand and people like my dad and Thomas Jefferson and the Challenger astronauts all rubbing elbows in the clouds. And while this may sound very fanciful now, I assure you it took no imagination at all back then.

It makes some sense, then, that while I read a lot as a child, I had few, if any, literary heroes. I never followed the Pevensie children through the wardrobe into Narnia or Frodo Baggins all the way to Mordor.

Reading was, in one sense, just another thing that I could be good at. If reading made me smart, reading more made me smarter. For boys like me raised on Encyclopedia Brown and The Hardy Boys, reading expanded the mind in the same way a math problem did. In terms of problem-solving, 2+2=4 is just as true as The Butler Did It. Yet, since I knew the difference between fiction and non-fiction, The Butler Did It could never be as important as Lincoln Freed the Slaves.

And because God controlled it all, every other truth paled in comparison with the one Truth that Jesus Saves – just so long as we believed in him and were good.

I no longer believe in God, or certainly not in any way that I would have recognized as a child. Most of the people I grew up don’t even recognize it now. There is no more Heaven. God has no control over anything. God exists only in our imaginations, which is no little thing. As far as I can tell, it’s where God has always existed.

And in some ways, believing this affects my reading. For one, I’m hardly as voracious as I once was. Like most people I know, I tend to have a few books going at a time – right now, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, and Ted Kerasote’s Merle’s Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog – but with my growing obligations, it sometimes takes me a month on the subway to finish a novel. It’s not unheard of that I’ll go a week without cracking a book at all.

And while I still like Jesus way more than Frodo, nowadays they live in very much the same world. I’m not denying that Jesus walked and talked and was an important and radical teacher. Through the stories told about him, he remains for me that model of ethical living: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Turn the other cheek.

Blessed are the poor. Judge not, lest you be judged. But he lives today, again, much like those literary heroes I ignored as a child, through the stories told about him and maybe a little less technical stuff will get us a little more life.

And as for God, as I see it now, God is nothing – really nothing­­ – but the demand that we live well in this life. And in the Gospels, it seems Jesus often knew this as well as anyone.

You love your neighbor and your enemy in the here and now. You bless the poor for their sake. You write in the sand – as it was written Jesus did – to reveal to each of us our common humanity. Now it’s all good so I finally can get some decent night’s rest