My wife and I are at the very beginning of this particular journey.
Our children are four and two, and to them church—they call it “little church”—is a lovely nursery at our New York City parish, though they love leaving through the big nave, past a mosaic of St. George slaying the dragon, while the choir rehearses between masses. (We go to an early service.) Still, I have given a lot of thought to the questions ahead.
I am, I should note, a sacramental Christian, not an evangelical one. I do not have what many people I know and respect have: what is called “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”
Rather, I believe in the essential historicity of the biblical story—that the God of Abraham formed a covenant with the people of Israel and that, in the first century in Judea, a son of Israel, Jesus of Nazareth, offered his followers a salvation history. It was a unique offering, one that involved a human atoning sacrifice and a physical resurrection—a series of events, grounded in time and space, that, mysteriously effected the forgiveness of sin and, ultimately, promised eternal life.
I take comfort in the idea that, in the words of the Psalmist, God’s “truth endureth from generation to generation,” and that the Lord will one day, in an image Saint John the Divine borrowed from Isaiah, wipe all tears from our eyes. To atheists and skeptics I say: there are worse things to believe.
But I am also one of the more unemotional Christians you will come across. My mind wanders at mass, and I sometimes wonder whether the faith of which I am a part is in fact the product of some creative first-century religious fantasists who could write beautifully and compellingly. In other words, I doubt.
To me, though, doubt is an essential element of faith. Without moments of confusion and despair it is difficult for me to see how one can reasonably hold fast to the creeds of the church, since for me doubt (not cynicism, but honest doubt) has generated a kind of analytical interest in history and theology that, at least so far, has always brought me home again. “The test of our faith,” said John Henry Newman, “lies in our being able to fail without disappointment.” To the idea of failing without disappointment I would add that we may also doubt with disbelieving.
I am currently and unabashedly trying to make my children creatures of religious habit. Like most children, ours love ritual, and they have begun joining us at the altar rail during Holy Communion. My son, the four year-old, finds the whole enterprise engaging, and I can tell he is at least intrigued by the drama and the costumes of a high-church Episcopal mass. (Liturgy is itself a drama, performed to convince an audience of the reality of things they cannot see.)
If they can, as I did, absorb the rhythms and rituals of the faith—and the powerful language of the Book of Common Prayer—then they will, I think emerge from childhood seeing religion as part of the tapestry of life, something inseparable from, say, taking walks or going to the movies, all of which we also do together.
This is why the distinction between sacraments and emotions—between going to church and saying your prayers rather than waiting to be “born again”—is critical. Sacraments do not depend on how one feels; they are, rather, the product of millennia of human experience and rigorous thought.
My goal with my children is to make faith seem anything but extraordinary. I want them to think of it as the most ordinary thing in the world. In this I am following G. K. Chesterton, who once wrote: “I am ordinary in the correct sense of the term, which means the acceptance of an order; a Creator and the Creation, the common sense of gratitude for the Creation, life and love as gifts permanently good, marriage and chivalry as laws rightly controlling them. …”
Elsewhere, he added: “The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of to-day) free also to believe in them. He has always cared more for truth than for consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them. His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight: he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that.”
What better gift can we give our children than the ability to see clearly? They may choose to reject what their eyes behold, or avert their gaze, and make their own way through the darkness, putting aside the faith of their fathers, and, as a committed believer in religious freedom, I would ferociously defend their right to discard their old man’s superstitions if they choose to do so.
Before completely letting the matter drop, however, I would point out that tradition is not to be discarded lightly. A bit more Chesterton: “Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea. We will have the dead at our councils.” The dead may be wrong, but they may be right, too, and the workings of a sound mind will weigh the evidence fairly and openly.
Finally, a word from the South. Flannery O’Connor, the great Roman Catholic writer from Milledgeville, Georgia, attended a dinner party around 1950. One of the guests, a lapsed intellectual Catholic, allowed that he thought the Eucharist was “pretty good” symbol. O’Connor rose up. “I then said, in a very shaky voice, ‘Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.’ That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it … except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.” I have never come across a better definition of “sacrament” than this off-hand comment of Miss O’Connor’s. A sacrament lies near one’s “center of existence”—always there, in victory and defeat, in hours of joy and hours of grief. Feelings come and go; sacraments endure. Recall Jesus’ command: Do this in remembrance of me. Do this—it is a command to take action and to keep the feast, things which we must do no matter how we might feel on any given Sunday, or any given day.
It is this constancy that I hope to give my children, this habit of heart and mind to be disposed always to give the testimony of what the epistle to the Hebrews calls the “great cloud of witnesses” the benefit of the doubt. I do not want them to live an unexamined faith. I want them to question and poke and prod, to doubt like Saint Thomas—but, in the presence of convincing evidence, to fall with Thomas to their knees, and be thankful. For what, in the end, is my religion, but love for one another, and belief that once, long ago, upon a cross, a father committed the ultimate, unthinkable act of love, giving his son’s life for all others?