I had a fairly normal childhood. Most weeks I attended Sunday school, sorting through crayon nubs to color pictures of farm animals, children, and disciples all clustered around Jesus with looks of adoration. During the week, I went to school and waited for recess to play the sport of the season. Like many others my age, I developed a love of dinosaurs. One of my prized possessions was a natural history book packed with beautiful illustrations of extinct animals from the Paleozoic to the Cenozoic.
Imagine my surprise when one of my Sunday-school classmates smugly announced that scientists were perpetuating a great fraud by promoting evolution. Those who truly understood Christian teachings knew that the dinosaurs and the other creatures portrayed in my book were all part of the original creation. Found wanting, they’d been drowned in Noah’s flood.
I was young, and though something didn’t sound right about this argument, I figured that it was another of those things I would revisit after I was older and had seen more of the world. This wait-and-see attitude would be sorely tested when I was twelve. My parents told me that I was old enough to start coming to grips with the ways of the world. To help me do so, they enrolled me in special classes instead of Sunday school. It was time to prepare for my baptism by immersion.
Fortunately, most of my friends were also taking the classes. Our instructor was an older church member, a New Deal Democrat who relished telling us about a Jesus who helped the poor and ministered to the sick. He loved to quote Matthew 25:40: “Whatever you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me.”
We spent Sunday meetings reading Bible verses about the Sermon on the Mount, with Jesus blessing the meek and warning that we cannot serve both man and mammon. I was as indignant as the rest of my classmates when we read that Jesus was tried by the authorities for such “radical” teachings and crucified. I felt proud knowing that I was going to join an organization that had upheld these ideas through two thousand years and had spread them across the world.
When I arrived for the final class, I was ready to make my commitment. I could tell that many of my classmates felt the same way. Our instructor went around the table and assured us we were ready for the next step. Then he left, and an associate pastor entered the room. The excitement was palpable. “Are you ready to accept Jesus Christ as your savior?” he asked.
“Yes,” we answered in unison. Even as I joined the chorus of affirmative answers, my mind whirled. What did I just agree to? I had just said I wanted Jesus to save me. In class we had learned that Jesus tried to save the poor and unfortunate. Was I supposed to admit that I was “poor and unfortunate”? How could that be, when I was well fed and had plenty to wear? What about the destitute in Appalachia? The starving masses in Africa and Asia?
Or were we somehow talking about life after death? Why would I have to accept Jesus to enter heaven? By agreeing to help save the poor and unfortunate as he had taught, wasn’t I already assuring myself entrance through the pearly gates? What was going on? Maybe I wasn’t ready to understand these things. Maybe I still needed to grow up a little more. I felt shame that my parents thought I was ready when, clearly, I was not. I dared not let them know; I did not want them to realize I had let them down.
So I went ahead with the baptismal ceremony. I accepted the congratulations of the other members of the church. But all the time, I felt like a fraud. Just wait until you’re older, I kept telling myself. All will become clear.
I remained in that state of limbo for several years. I attended church most Sundays and a weeklong church camp every August. My brave mask remained secure until just before my senior year of high school. One evening, as we filed into the chapel, each of us was handed a thin wax candle. The head minister stood near a brazier at the front of the darkened space. He lit his taper and told us how he’d accepted Christ as his savior and had devoted his life to serving him. He then asked each of us to come forward and witness our own testimony.
I sat in the pew with downcast eyes. I sensed the room emptying. I could hear my friends and classmates reciting their love of Jesus. I could hear their joy at being among the saved. But I felt no joy. I felt lost. Jesus had lived two thousand years ago; how could I love someone I never knew? Wasn’t everyone saved who tried to do as he commanded? I was willing to help the poor and destitute, but I knew it would be hard work and not necessarily something to relish.
At some point, I recognized that I was one of the last few still in the pews. So I jumped to my feet and joined the short line in front of the brazier. When it was my turn to light my candle, I mumbled something about loving Jesus and hurried from the room, avoiding eye contact. I dodged the groups of friends clustered outside and wandered aimlessly across the grounds until I reached the swing sets. As I sat down on one of the seats, my cousin joined me. He was only a couple of months older than I was, but we had attended different schools. We were no longer particularly close. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
I couldn’t answer him. When I tried, I burst into tears. “Witnessing can be emotional,” he said. I nodded, still mute. He questioned me from several starting points in search of the source of my emotional distress. I knew he was trying to help me, but I also knew I could not tell him the truth. I was a fake! I hadn’t truly accepted Christ. I didn’t even know what it meant to accept him. I was a hypocrite who was just going through the motions.
For the next year and a half, I lived with the shame of that moment. A hollow man, I strove to absorb everything I was taught but secretly despaired that I would never find out the most basic truths about Christianity. How could I carry on without understanding the driving force behind two thousand years of progress? The United States was founded on Christian principles, was it not? Was I doomed to live in the country of my birth as an outsider?
I was aimless during my first semester at the municipal college. I didn’t know what I wanted to study. I hung around with some of my classmates from church and tried to act like I was still one of them, but it was a strain. Between classes, we would gather around a cafeteria table and discuss the subjects we were studying. One afternoon, only three of us ringed the table. Two were complaining about one of their philosophy professors. Something the professor had said had led them to conclude that she was an atheist. Of course, I had heard that term used to describe Communists and other “undesirables,” but I had never given it much thought. One of my high-school classmates had announced that he was an atheist, but we figured he was going for shock value and mostly ignored him. But for a professor to take such a stance was something else entirely.
I listened with great interest as they described her caustic comments about religion. One of my friends demanded: “How can anyone imagine a world without God? How can anyone ever conceive that this is all there is?”
Silently, inwardly, I took him up on that challenge. I tried to imagine that the life we know, the life of everyday experience, was indeed the sum total of existence. To my amazement, I succeeded! I suddenly realized that there was nothing else—just the moment were living in, each moment bound to the one before and the one that follows.
For a short time I felt lost, alone in an endless ocean of time. Only me, isolated, on my own! But I also felt exhilarated. I was the product of billions of years of evolut
ion. My predecessors had struggled to stay afloat on this sea and had passed on to me the methods they had inherited to do so! One of the greatest of these bequests was the irrepressible desire to remain alive in any circumstance. I realized that this was what prompted so many people to want so desperately to believe they were immortal. This accounted for the spiritual somersault they made from helping others to helping themselves live forever—a feat of mental gymnastics that I suddenly realized I could never bring myself to undertake.
At that moment, I was truly born again—reborn outside of born-again religion. I knew I still had many things to learn. But other things I would never learn, because they could not be learned. I could not accept Jesus Christ as my savior because there was nothing to be saved from. Furthermore, helping others is not something we should do because it grants us eternal life or because it’s what true Christians do. We should do it just because it is the right thing to do.