“Papa, why don’t we go to church anymore?”
“Well, that’s a pretty good question. To be honest, I thought I was the only one who wanted go. Besides, we’ve been so busy that most Sunday mornings we're pretty tired and just want to enjoy having some quiet time together as a family.”
Friends would laugh at the notion that I am the one in my family most interested in church. I’m a declared agnostic; I don’t know what I believe, and I feel strongly about that. I find fundamentalist religion of all stripes completely unconvincing––and that includes atheism. The planet will likely soon reach a population of seven billion. It seems unlikely that any one of those people has the answer to, as Douglas Adams put it, “Life, the Universe, and Everything.” My wife and I were both brought up in the Catholic Church, where the body of Christ is served as a Styrofoam-like wafer and women are second-class citizens. That didn't work for either of us. But we do share an appreciation for the value a church community can provide.
One Sunday morning last fall––after our usual, enormous breakfast at Martannes Burrito Palace––we walked past our local Unitarian Universalist church just as service was letting out. It seemed like we knew everybody and everybody’s children, and we stopped to chat and kill some time. We knew that the Unitarian Universalists welcomed all people and tended to emphasize kindness and love. I even have a fairly hardcore atheist friend who attends the services on occasion. So we made plans to visit.
To tell the truth, I liked it a lot. Close friends filled the rows of chairs in the small room. My children enjoyed the singing. The “sermon” was like an entry-level lecture in social justice––a bit boring at times but also very agreeable to my way of thinking. A short time into the service, the children were whisked away for religious education. What was that about? Apparently, they learned that people have a lot of different values and traditions, and that we can learn from all of them. Not bad. The UU folks even served cookies and coffee, which I saw as a big improvement over the Styrofoam-like Jesus wafers. We came back for three or four weeks in a row.
Then life happened. We stopped going to church just as quickly as we had begun. My wife often works a twenty-four hour shift on weekends. I sometimes have gigs. Often, we just want to enjoy a moment of peace, and Sunday is about the only time we can find it. If God needed to rest on Sunday, surely mere mortals like us ought to be excused for being too whipped to leave the house. Sadly, we haven’t been to church this year, though we do continue to eat at Martannes at least once a week. The funny thing is that I was the one who most wanted to continue going to church.
Now that my daughter is asking about it, I suppose we will attend some more services. I suspect she might be as interested in seeing her church friends as anything else, but that’s a good enough reason to go. It sounds like a reasonable idea on Friday afternoon. We’ll see if our enthusiasm holds until Sunday morning.
My children––probably like yours if you are a parent––are always asking questions. It can drive me nuts sometimes! But I know it’s what they are supposed to do. I believe it is part of my job as a parent to make sure their curiosity about the world is never diminished. Writers talk about finding a “jumping off point” as if it’s something we need to go find. It amazes me that kids are always standing there at the precipice ready to jump. We could learn from that. We’d be better for it.
I greatly value my children’s public school education. There they will undoubtedly run smack into ideas that I have not given them and of which I don’t approve. They’re going to need that. After all, Papa is only one man. He is wrong about some things. Mama is only one woman. She is wrong a lot less often than Papa, but she still doesn’t know everything. We should hope our children’s lives are wider and richer than our own. They’re going to need more than we can give them by ourselves. It’s an uncomfortable but necessary truth.
It’s funny to see my little boy deal with the issue of God. There are days when I feel like I have a little evangelical on my hands, “Papa, God is everywhere. He made everything and he knows everything! He’s even in the trees!” His exuberance can’t be contained. Of course, he hears this from his fellow classmates. It’s good that he hears it. I simply ask, “How do you know?”
I have deep reservations about the approach taken by most of the homeschool crowd. It isn’t that it is impossible to do a good job homeschooling; I have a friend who clearly has been doing it very well. The problem is that most homeschoolers don’t do it well, and a big part of their failure begins with the very reason they want to homeschool their children: They want to protect their children from ideas that differ from their own.
I taught school for five years in Chicago, and I’ve continued to volunteer and work in school settings. Every single time I have witnessed a homeschooled child re-enter public school after homeschooling, that child was unprepared both academically and socially. The failure on the part of the parents was catastrophic for the child. And why? Because the parent was certain the child should not be exposed to ideas that might cause them to question their religious faith. Shame.
If your faith or religion can't hold its own against hard questions and challenges, I suggest that there is probably a good reason for it. What does that really tell you?
I hope my children maintain my own sense of wonder at the Universe. I hope they always embrace the mystery of it, and I hope they never attempt to box it up neatly the way religious fundamentalists do. There is too much to it. I believe the folks claiming the most certainty are the biggest frauds. However, I am aware of something far more important; I must let my children come to their own understanding through exploration and questioning. I can guide them. I can lead by example. But in the end they must decide for themselves what they believe.
I can’t let them do that by keeping God out of their lives. They’re going to bump into God whether he exists or not, and they need to be ready. I just hope they can address it with an open mind and a willingness to ask hard questions.
And I hope in some way they can find both peace and joy in asking the questions, regardless of whether or not they find answers.
“Papa, why don’t we go to church anymore?”
“I don’t know. We can go on Sunday if you’d like.”
~ Chuck Cheesman, copyright 2012