I was a “pretty good” Catholic for my first fifteen years. (Of course, the first seven didn’t count, not officially, since I was under the “age of reason.”) Sure, I had a few questions; that’s how kids are.
Being a “public” (a Catholic in a public school), I had to attend weekly Catechism classes. I ran into trouble with the very first lesson in my little green book: “Q. Why did God make us? A. He made us because He loved us.” That didn’t make the least bit of sense to me. How can you love people before they even exist?
A few years later, I had much more serious issues with Transubstantiation. Father Kenny told us that by performing his Sunday rituals, the little wafer really became the body of Christ. “You mean, like, symbolic?,” I asked.
“No, no, no! Really and truly, even though no microscopic examination or chemical or physical test can detect it,” he answered. Apparently, his really was a bit different from mine. Okay, I thought, call it what you like; I’m sticking with symbolic. But I had the good sense not to mention this to Father Kenny: he was kind of a scary, authoritarian guy. (He was also promoting real ritual cannibalism, which ought to scare anybody, but that went right over our heads.)
And then there was that whole business about Original Sin and the Redeemer. It seemed to me that eating the Forbidden Fruit was hardly a big deal. Heck, hadn’t we all swiped an apple or two at one time or another? And it wasn’t as if God was down to his last apple and the angels were going hungry; Adam and Eve had been surely just “breaking a rule,” not really causing any harm.
Yet God had a major hissy fit. He not only threw Adam and Eve out of Eden, he also spread the blame on all their descendants. Besides issues of fairness and justice, did that even make any sense? But the weirdness was just beginning: the clincher was that God would partially relent (except for the Original Sin bit) only if humanity would first torture and kill his only beloved son.
This certainly seemed a bit extreme. Torture and death to atone for swiping an apple? It boggled the mind! But besides that detail, nobody seemed to notice that God’s logic was totally backwards. I mean, when we swiped grapes from Farmer Ring’s vines, he always hollered, “If I catch you, I’ll cut your ears off!,” which also sounded pretty extreme. (The one time he did catch anyone, however, he made an exaggerated production of getting out his pocketknife, conveniently letting go of the culprit and allowing him ample time to run away.) So we might have expected that if God was so almightily pissed off at humanity, we would be the ones who would have to pay the piper, not him or his son. It just didn’t make any sense. It was like Farmer Ring making us cut his ears off.
But despite these few minor quibbles, somehow I never for a second doubted the overall picture of a wise and loving God. Without much thought, I guess I automatically assumed that because all these explanations came from grown-ups, there must be something that got lost in the translation down to kid-level. Someday, I was sure, it would all make sense.
At age fifteen came my anti–Road-to-Damascus epiphany. Catechism classes for teens were on Monday evenings, taught by a well-meaning and patient lay teacher. He put up with endless hassles from smart-ass punks who would rather have been almost anywhere else. A few of us would sit on top of the tables at the back of the room and ask “trick” questions just to try to trip him up.
On that fateful day, I thought I had a great stumper: “We learned in biology class about dinosaurs and fossils and evolution and stuff, so how does that fit with the whole Adam and Eve thing?” But our teacher wasn’t the least bit flustered: “The Church doesn’t have a problem with evolution. Remember that the Bible was written thousands of years ago, for the people of that era. You could hardly expect God to explain DNA to those folks; they needed a simple story they could understand.” Hmm, pretty good answer. Had to give him points for that one.
But later that night as I was drifting off to sleep, his explanation was churning around in my head. “So, with no Adam and Eve, then there must have been no Garden of Eden . . . and no temptation by Satan . . . and no Original Sin . . . and no need for a Redeemer.” I sat bolt upright in bed. “So who the heck was that Jesus Christ guy?” The whole house (church?) of cards started to tilt. I was petrified of divine retribution for my blasphemy, expecting to be fried by a lightning bolt at any second. But there seemed no way around the chain of logic.
After hours of sleepless agonizing, I decided that a wise and loving God surely would not deal too harshly with mere mortals for using the brains that he himself gave us. I hit on a plan: in the days ahead, I would look at the world as if God didn’t exist and see where that view came up short. If there were things that truly needed a God to explain them, then I’d know I was going down the wrong path.
But there weren’t.
In fact, things started to click into place. All those people suffering from horrible diseases and natural disasters that an all-powerful God could have prevented without lifting his little finger? Just what we’d expect to find if he didn’t exist. Creeps that got rich milking poor-but-honest suckers who were taken in with vague promises of heaven? Mosquitoes? Leeches? Eyeglasses? It all fit.
The following Sunday, while dutifully sitting in Mass but totally ignoring the service, I experienced a dazzling spiritual awakening. I could almost see the radiant light streaming down and hear the swelling strains of a heavenly choir. Only it was totally nonreligious: Without God, everything finally made sense!