(1 of 5 in the Pragmatic Path to Agnosticism)
There are Jews?
I came to the US from Ireland when I was fourteen and went to a public high school in Florida. There were a few unusual qualities about my school: I could take Hebrew as a foreign language; I got all the Jewish holidays off; and a lot of my fellow students were Jewish. To most readers this won’t seem too strange.
To me, well, it was shocking. I didn’t think Jews still existed!
It wasn’t that I didn’t know about Jews. In Ireland I’d learned a lot about them: God chose them as his people. He guided them to the Promised Land. They eventually fell out of a state of grace with God, which required God to send his only son Jesus to save them and mankind. They rejected Jesus and crucified him. And then they disappeared from history.
OK, one exception: one Jew appears again in the 1500’s in Venice where he lends 3,000 ducats in exchange for a pound of human flesh (which, when adjusted for inflation, is one of the worst deals in the history of the butchering profession)(1). But that was it. They were never heard of or talked about again.
None of my Irish teachers ever explicitly said that the Jews died out, but I assumed they did(2). Yet here was a school full of people my age who not only claimed to be Jewish but, counter to what I thought Jews would be like, were the same as me except they had different holidays with unpronounceable names.
Maybe I had not gotten the full picture of the world so far?
Over the next few years several more cracks appeared in the sheltered picture I had painted of the world. My best friends were either Jewish or protestant. And they were good people. I struggled with the concept that, to my understanding of Catholic doctrine, my protestant friends were condemned to external damnation (Jews got special dispensation in the doctrine, and instead went to Limbo where they served as babysitters for all eternity to unbaptized Catholic babies(3)). For a God that advocated love to all mankind, this seemed a little odd.
Confused, I spoke to my priest about it. Fr. Black (an amazing priest by the way) acknowledged the conflict, told me I should discover with God how best to interpret the doctrine and suggested I pray to ask Him for understanding. I did pray, a lot, and during my prayers came up with the idea to seek out more knowledge about different religions.
So I enrolled at a local community college in some comparative religion courses. I learned a little about Islam, Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and others. I started buying books on my own to learn more about them. I became a sponge and immersed myself in whatever spiritual resources a seventeen year old can find. I even read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance because I thought it had something to do with Buddhism (not really, but on the other hand I still recommend The Tao of Pooh).
One interaction from that period ate at away at me– in the last class I took, an Islamic student pointed out that in her understanding of Islam, non-Muslims could not enjoy the same rewards in heaven as Muslims.
The concept of Protestants being condemned to hell had unsettled me, but hadn’t forced me to break with the church; I think mainly because in Irish Catholic teachings the Protestant faiths were consistently represented as the oppressor, and a turning away from the true Faith. My instinct at the time was that Protestants probably didn’t deserve to go to Heaven. Plus few Protestant faiths, especially the Church of England which I was most familiar with, was so draconian as to damn all other faiths. But Islam, I knew nothing about, had few preconceptions, and yet here I found out that not only did Catholicism damn Islam; Islam essentially damned Catholicism (although not quite as dramatically).
Mutual Exclusivity, a Loving God and Yiddish
It was this contradiction that led to my deciding to reject Catholicism. Why? Because I couldn’t reconcile this logical conflict: Muslims believe they worship the one true God, and that other faiths are inferior. Catholics believe they worship the one true God, and other faiths are inferior. Both faiths profess that God is all merciful and loving. And yet, if you both religions are right, then the other religion must be wrong. It’s the classic liar’s paradox. It was inconceivable to me that a God who loved mankind, created mankind in his own image, watched over mankind, and one day would redeem mankind, actually had decided that all mankind was damned. (Why this logical inconsistency in doctrine is the one that tripped me up, versus countless others like the concept of the Trinity, I don’t know.)
In the words of my new friends: Oy vey!
I was confused and I was angry. I felt I was wronged. Between the logical inconsistencies, the things I felt had been hidden from me (like the fact that people who follow other religions are often loving good people), and the fact that I personally had never heard from my anthropomorphic God, I felt I had to do something.
So I lashed out by doing something I’ve often done when I have trouble coping: I broke completely, cold turkey, with the thing I couldn’t grasp – the concepts of God and Faith that I’d grown up with. (Which led to “Jesus Cathy, We’re Raising Heathens!”).
Nature Abhors a Vacuum
And looking back on it, well, nothing new here really. It’s a text book example of a teenager rebelling against his parents, and trying to make his own mark in the world. You could probably mad-lib a blog entry on it (I know I did…).
What I hadn’t appreciated at the time was, while I had rejected God (with a big ‘G’) and Papal authority, it left a part of me unfilled and incomplete. Simultaneously I went off to college, where a new Faith awaited to fill the hole left by Catholicism. Not only that, it was a cool, awesome, shiny, exciting new Faith that was sure to upset my parents even more!
(which I’ll continue next week…)
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(1) I had to study “The Merchant of Venice” in Ireland for my Junior Certificate in Ireland.
(2) As a side note, certainly no one ever mentioned that 6 million Jews had been murdered in World War II — my experience of Irish history was completely silent on this point. Some have opined that this was out of a collective guilt the Irish felt about being neutral in World War II. Possibly. Also likely is that in the limited time available to teach history to children the Irish education authorities focused on national issues to create a cohesive national story that would create and inflame the passions necessary to maintain an independent nation. Regardless, it’s inexcusable. But before Americans erupt in outrage, I point out that each culture selectively culls and teaches the history they want. For example, very few Americans are aware the US spent several decades occupying countries in Latin America (in particular Nicaragua) mainly to protect the economic interests of the Chiquita Banana Corporation (then called United Fruit Company) but this is heavily taught by countries that want to view the US as a potential adversary. Countries teach what they want their kids to think as adults, not necessarily the complete truth on any subject.
(3) This is not completely accurate. Catholic doctrine teaches that people who do not accept Jesus Christ into their hearts through baptism go to Hell. Two big theological problems show up with this though. One is what happens for people who are too young (the unborn and babies) who die before they can be baptized; does a just, loving and merciful God condemn these innocents (Augustine thought so)? The other is what happened with people like Moses, obviously good people who enjoyed God’s love, but who lived before Jesus was born and hence could not have accepted him into their hearts? To solve these two issues, Catholic doctrine (over centuries) evolved two concepts for something called Limbo. One, the Limbo of Infants was a place (separate from hell, heaven or purgatory) where infants went when they died because (still suffering from Original Sin) they were ineligible for heaven (this concept has recently been dismissed by the Catholic church, and replaced with a concept of “I don’t know, but seriously, would God do that… (see section 1261)?)” The second concept, the Limbo of the Patriarchs, was a place that existed where people like Moses and other Jewish prophets, people who existed before the life of Jesus and hence could not have accepted him into their hearts, went when they died. Then, when Jesus was resurrected, the Limbo of the Patriarchs was emptied and all the Patriarchs ascended to heaven with Jesus. In the catechisms I was taught growing up, these two concepts were often intermixed, and I developed the (incorrect) understanding that both Limbos were the same, and the Jews hung out with all these infants essentially providing free babysitting services.