Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Jeu de Pommes

I have a theory about the rules of engagement when one discusses religion with someone of strong religious conviction, but they're not very flattering, so I generally try to keep them to myself. Here's how the game works: Imagine, please, that you're playing tennis. Your opponent is allowed to hit the ball ANYWHERE on your side of the court, and if you miss it, they win, and they do the happy winner dance on your gymbag. You, however, are not allowed to hit the ball onto their side of the court -- to do so would reveal defensiveness or weakness of some kind, or perhaps just be overly aggressive. You can only end the game by performing the miracle of hitting the ball so that it balances perfectly on top of the net. You didn't discretely win; you just didn't win, but neither did your opponent.

Back in the early 90's, I was struck by a strong need to dive into the belief system I was born into -- Christianity. I considered myself Christian by default, in the same way that I think of vanilla as the absense of any other specific flavor. But I remember the moment distinctly, and could take you to the exact location on the road home from my office where I thought "You know, I have GOT to figure out whether I think this Jesus thing is for real." This alarmed my Jewish then-husband, whose strong preference, I believe, would have been for me to be as he was -- a completely disinterested Jew. Failing that, atheist or agnostic was probably best. But as I'm inclined to, I began to amass a huge stack of material and started gleaning data points. I read books on both sides, I read everything C.S. Lewis ever wrote, including SUPRISED BY JOY, which is one of the most striking stories of a person's unexpected realization of his conviction I've ever read. I read a stack of "historical Jesus" books, some of which are still on my bookshelf as I type here in its shadow. Heaven help me, I even read EVIDENCE WHICH DEMANDS A VERDICT. I read books on the history of the Bible itself and its translations, and the way that the canon was established. I read parallel translations of the New Testament, and comparisons of the gospels. My then-husband would sit next to me, reading some massive technical volume, and there I would be, trying to decide if Jesus was in fact the savior of mankind.

I was involved in an Internet bulletin board around that time, and there was a lot of discussion about the meaning of life, spirituality, religious beliefs and the like. Every so often, someone would come along and tell us we were all going to hell -- in fact, one of my favorite insane posters literally would post nothing but the words, all caps of course: YOU ARE ALL GOING TO HELL! We couldn't get him to talk, really, until something about Crunchberries caused him to break out of the mold and post one of the funniest razzings I've ever seen about how if you didn't like Crunchberries you were DEFINITELY going to hell. But I digress. There were people from every possible religious viewpoint involved in that board and that discussion, and after a time, we established what we called "the Crom test" -- if you made an assertion about religious truth that could be said with equal conviction about Conan's god Crom, then you were talking out of your butt. Sorry, please play again. A few began jokingly creating the Church of Latter-Day Cromists or some such nonsense -- but at our core, we were all on some kind of spiritual quest, and were good companions on the journey, although our destinations were rarely at the same location.

Sometime in the era of the Time Online bulletin board (may it rest in peace), I made the offer that if any sincere Christian wanted to take the time to publicly go through the process of making the case for Christianity, I'd be happy to go along for the journey, taking each step, one by one, together checking its logic, and identifying any spots where there was a leap I couldn't make and why -- and if they managed to get me through the entire journey, well, that would be one thing; if they didn't, at least we'd know absolutely where the leap of faith was that I was not inspired to take -- and that in itself would be interesting data.

I had exactly zero takers. None. Nada. Niente. Zippo. Zilch. Bupkus.

I think I once even attempted it on my own. I mean, I found likely candidates, people I thought of as knowledgeable and reasonable, yet committed Christians. And BEGGED them to be part of my project. Still bupkus.

By now, I was divorced, so uninfluenced by a Jewish spouse -- and yet, with everything I had read about Christianity and Judaism, I ultimately came to the conclusion that the part I could not make the leap to was the divinity of Jesus. Just couldn't do it. Love the church, but couldn't say the creed with integrity, because I simply DIDN'T believe was I was being asked to profess faith in. God? Okay. Holy Spirit? Uh, let's deal with him later. Jesus? Erm.... No. Nice guy -- can't say he's God. No proof text convinced me that the only or most plausible interpretation was that Jesus was the incarnation of God.

And yet, I believe completely that if God wants you, you cannot say "no." I remember praying, putting it out there -- "God, if you want me, I'm willing -- I just need help making this leap. I believe that if you want me to take it, I won't be able NOT to. I'm ready." Only the sound of crickets chirping, and maybe one eternal heavy sigh. It's been a decade or more since that point, and after five years of study and careful, heartfelt consideration, I converted to Judaism, and have not one time in the years since that act questioned my sincerity, the correctness of my choice, or my commitment to my chosen faith and people.

Several years after my conversion, I met a charming and handsome man with a charming and handsome son in my synagogue, and we were married, and have a child of our own now. If there were ever a time to question my commitment to live a Jew and to raise my son a Jew, it would have been when I handed my beloved 8-day-old son to the mohel for his bris, his ritual circumcision which entered him eternally into the covenant. If I had not been utterly steadfast, there is no way on earth I could have carried through with that act.

And so when I re-read A SEVERE MERCY recently, I was stunned by my husband's reaction. "I want you to promise me that if you change religions, you'll commit to raise Noah as a Jew." I was speechless. He what? Wanted me to promise him that? Why? And why was I so reluctant to speak those words? Was I questioning my choice? After all this time, after making the promise at my conversion and at my son's bris, was I now not willing to stand by it? It left me in a stunned silence that lasted for several days in my heart. Now, when I think about it, it's clear that it was the same kind of stunned silence I'd feel if he were to say "I want you to promise me that if you grow a second head and fly to the moon, you'll still do the dishes." It was just so nonsensical that it almost felt degrading to dignify it with response. But to soothe his concerns, I did share my feelings with him as I finished the book, and particularly the point where the author becomes a Christian. I reported in full honesty that I felt no longing for my religion of birth, or even a shred of loss for having given it up.

But things seem to travel in pairs, and just this week a colleague I've become friendly with and had hoped to have a long and fruitful friendship and business relationship with revealed something that makes me question the meaning of his friendliness. He revealed that he is a Christian, which was no surprise, and that he believes that the only way Jews will get to heaven is through Jesus. I've met this before, and I gave my standard answer -- I accept that God may have many covenants; Jews do not hold a lock on having a covenant relationship with God, and if God opened the door through Christianity to the rest of the world, then hallelujiah -- but nothing in that supercedes the covenant for all time that God established with the Jews. "No, that's not true." He began to speak of Truth, and there being only one way, and we hit quickly on that basic prooftext: "A virgin shall give birth."

Oh Lordy, here we go, I thought. How can I put the brakes on this thing before damage is done to the relationship? How can I prevent this from becoming a test of wills, with my soul the only one in the ante? I have no reason to want to change his religious beliefs, but I fully expect that I have a right to mine, and here's the important bit: I don't need someone else to come check my math for me. I don't NEED to put the mental process I went through in front of another person's scrutiny for validation any more than I would expect to be a voting member in his religious conviction. And I'm sad, really, that opening this door causes me to question his motives in everything about our relationship. I cannot tell now if it is sincere or a "love bomb" to get a notch in his belt for bringing an apostate, or a Jew, back to Jesus. Is he nice because he likes me, or because he's trying to get a "score"? I cannot tell.

I struggled with the awkwardness of the situation, and finally shared some of my anxiety with another friend, a Muslim, who laughed and said "Yeah, I know you're going to hell too." "Because I'm a Jew?" I asked. "Nah, just because you're you," he retorted. Great -- thanks. And suddenly a great window was thrown open in my mind, and for an instant I could see the hand of God on all of these people, all of these beautiful, imperfect, infuriating, frustrating people. If my Christian friend did not exist, there would be a huge gap in the world where he could have been -- the world would be a smaller and less beautiful place without him. It is precisely these differences, and the struggles between us, that make this world so clearly the handiwork of God in my eyes. I saw in a moment so many of the people in my life or in my past who have been a source of anxiety or frustration, whose love was limited and conditional on my compliance with some restriction they put on their world, which permanently damaged our friendship or relationship or even marriage. How weak and small we are, and yet how magnificent and beautiful! Myself, as well -- my emotional scars and my weaknesses are probably the greater influence over the person I am than my strengths and abilities. Certainly, like a child loves that worn, damaged, irreplaceable toy over the one that is new and perfect and clean out of the box, it is the scars and damage that are evidence of our loveableness. You love people not in spite of their weakness, but precisely FOR their weakness. I chalk up the list of people I love, and am overwhelmed that it is precisely the people who have shared their weaknesses with me that I love the most. The ones who are perfect and cool and collected and don't show their emotional injuries like a flag? They don't engender love; they bore me until something makes them human -- imperfect.

My friend is imperfect, and clings to the belief that his improbable choice that he fought so hard but resonated with him and eventually took him for its own like a drowning man clings to a scrap of wood in a stormy sea. I have to remember that his urge to sell me has nothing to do with me. It is his urge to sell himself THROUGH me, again and again and again, that compells him to witness to me. And with relief, and a new trust that our relationship is not permanently damaged, I can rest.


Sigrid said...

With some similarities in our life journeys, from Christian to Jew to writer, I'm blown away by your mastery of the personal essay, and your insight that concludes it. Please keep writing.

sphericalfrictionlesscow said...

Bless your heart, Sigrid -- it never dawned on me that anyone was READING this stuff! Thanks for your very supportive comment!