Tuesday, March 14, 2006

God and Man

This is awkward, because I live most of my life in and among people and pursuits with whom I am now jarringly out of step in my political and ethical commitments.

When I started this blog, for instance, one of the first other bloggers to link to it was a woman who is, by her own description, the daughter of hippies, raised in the mountains of northern California in the 1970s, now married with a 5-year-old child and living as a suburban stay-at-home mom in a Silicon Valley suburb. The casual mentions of Prada and Paris suggest there's a lot of money involved.

I can't imagine anyone more unlike me in attitude and beliefs, but because my other Web sites are concerned with language, poetry, literature, and such topics, she seems to have felt an affinity without reading the political matter, and kindly put up a flattering link.

It's awkward because I don't want to betray her kind words, but when I read her site, much of which concerns the daily business of raising a child, I often meet things that make my jaw drop.

Like the day she heard her son say "God Bless."

I let it go once, and that was enough for me.

"We don't say that," I said the next time. He didn't really even pause, just continued on. But it happened again. "Honey, I said, we don't say 'God Bless.' " I would have gone into reasons, but he didn't seem interested. Why not a simple "have a nice day?" I thought.

I never really made all that much out of it and neither did he, but one day while talking with my husband in the car, Simon said it again. "Who on earth is saying "God Bless" to our kid? I asked.

Finally she brings it up in the presence of her husband, who tells her the boy's really saying "Gotta blast!" Which is something he picked up from the one cartoon he's allowed to watch, "Jimmy Neutron."

Which was the point of the post, to tell a humorous story, but I can't help thinking what will happen to a child who is taught "God" is a dirty word. My prediction: He'll grow up to be a TV preacher. You have to give your children something to rebel into, when the time comes, and if you've put religion outside the pale, chances are that's where they'll end up.

As a secularist polytheist agnostic, I can sympathize with a parent's dilemmas about religion. But if you're going to raise a child to function in modern America, you have a duty to teach him or her about religions, good, bad, and ugly.

Just like if you want to be a serious student of English literature, you have to know your King James Bible inside and out, no matter what you believe, personally.

The whole process can be layered in ironies. When my son was little, after his parents divorced, his mother started taking him to a fairly fundamentalist and uncreative Presbyterian church. I knew he'd have trouble there, as a sensitive and active kid.

As a secularist polytheist agnostic, I was delighted: There's no better way to assure a sensitive and intelligent child grows up to reject Christianity than to subject him from an early age to the bigoted and simplistic version of it. Except maybe to teach it to him in public school, but that broad path to atheism, alas, is now blocked off.

So my ex had my son baptized, and things went wrong from about that point. He hated having water on his face at that age (a result of some bathtime trauma) and he at once turned to the congregation and said, "does anyone have a towel?"

She made him dress in a monkey suit and sit through sermons on hot summer mornings. He used to squirm out of his clothes and at one point was down to just underwear -- he and the Jesus-on-the-cross picture.

And before long, he encountered the hair-raising, blood-curdling stories at the core of Christianity -- God tells Abraham to kill Isaac, his son. God kills his own son. God sends people to hell for eating sushi, "If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother," all that sort of thing.

It's in there. It's a wonder to me that anyone but the most simple, or the most sophisticated, minds can accomplish the art of living a Christian life. "Intelligent, sensitive child" falls right between those safe extremes.

And I knew his mother, or the preacher she'd chosen, would be incapable of putting these stories into the kind of context that would make them swallow-able.

So it fell to me -- secularist polytheist agnostic -- to try to give him an education in Christianity for all the good it can do, for all the light and honor it can embody, and to show him the complexity of it, and the mix of mud and glory. In other words, to find the place where he could plug into the faith.

Then in later years, as his peers in their conservative Christian community rebelled into goth-dom and Wicca, it fell to me to point out the superficiality of those practices, as they are commonly acted out in teen life, and the fact that real asratu or wicca, the authentic form of what the modern New Age faiths palely echo, were ritual, communal, and not built out of personal psychological needs of the moment.

Not to make him one thing or the other, not to steer him into or away from anything, simply to keep him balanced and capable of making his own free choice -- or hearing the voice that calls.

As the gods choose.