Friday, November 18, 2005

Growing Up and Out

From GetReligion we have an unconversion story in the form of an article in the NYT by Mark Lilla. (I'm sorry, but the article has now passed into the NYT archives.) It's interesting reading, and in some ways insightful, but in two aspects it seems very naive.

Perhaps the premier myth of the modern times is about growing up, and what it says is that growing up is about putting away childish things and accepting limits. Well, and about accepting sexual appetites, but thankfully we don't have to consider that aspect this time. Childhood is about comfort and illusion; adulthood is about living with the scars of disillusionment. Therefore growing up means growing out of religion, that source of comforting illusions (or so the myth says).

What first strikes me about this is how very much it is not about growth, but about loss. And conversion stories are, by contrast, all about growth and gain. We need only look toward Surprised by Joy or The Seven Storey Mountain to see modern examples of this. And I pick these two because in both cases the real life story didn't end there, and both Lewis and Merton wrote extensively beyond these works. In Merton's case his thought and faith continued to develop, both in ways that exceeded (in one sense) the pure piety of his first book. Lewis went beyond his easier, more palatable works into an inexplicable marriage out of which arose the astonishing power of Til We Have Faces and the astonishing honesty of A Grief Observed.

But neither of these latter works is about adulthood, per se. One must remember that the narrator of Til We Have Faces looks back on a long life now converging on its end. Both books are, in a way, about leaving adulthood, for death.

I did not know adulthood myself as loss, but as gain. My schooling was very difficult, and its story is one that I think might gratify my old teachers. For came upon the end of high school as an experience of coming into my powers, and came to college not a man (for technically I was underage anyway) but the growing shoot of a man. What I put away of childhood was very different from what the myth would have me put away. Pain was given to me and innocence taken away from first grade; the rest of my growing transcended that.

The other thing that struck me were the numerous blanket statements made about what teenagers do or think:

All teenagers are dogmatists; a teenager with a Bible is simply a more intense teenager.

But one of the dirty little secrets about adolescence is that the young fear the very freedom they crave. They intuit the burden of autonomy and want, quite literally, to be "saved" from it. That is no doubt why, as researchers tell us, the average age of conversion is in the early teens.

It took years to acquire the education I missed as a young man, an education not only in books but in a certain comportment toward myself and the world around me. Doubt, like faith, has to be learned.

I think all of these statements are untrue. Or at least, they are too broad. The vast spectrum of temperament, if nothing else, overwhelms any teenage tendency to dogmatism, fear of freedom, or faith. I would indeed say that what is striking about teenage expressions of all these things is how impermanent the expressions often are.

But I do think I know why teenage conversions are the most common. After all, I am a teenage convert myself. And the obvious reason for this has to do with a phenomenon seen over almost all of Western Christianity-- and Judaism, for that matter. It's called a bar mitzvah in one place, and confirmation in another, and believer's baptism in yet another. All of these connect to the notion that a teenager is old enough to take responsibility for his own religion. The custom of the ages leads one to expect commitments to religion at this age. And who knows? Perhaps the Spirit seizes upon this age as one in which to make Itself known. At any rate, it should not be surprising that when teenagers take up responsibility for their own faith, their first act is very often to redirect it from its childhood course.

And speaking of ages, I also note that Mr. Lilla's whole faith history took place three decades ago. Time has turned his complains about the intellectual ghetto of evangelical Christianity upside down. This is not to say that there does not remain an evangelical shallow end; but such lack of depth can be found almost anywhere. (Liberal "intellectuals" can get it on public radio and TV.) Liberal religion is in denial as to the vast armies of reasserters (to use the phrase popular in Anglicanism now) arrayed against them. Crossover between evangelical and Catholic and Anglican writings is par for the course; the very Anglican Lewis has become a very evangelical prophet.

I'm closing in on the 25 year mark on my own teenage conversion, so I suppose I shouldn't be too hard on Mr Lilla. Given teh coming Anglican crisis, reassessment may well be in my future, after all.

No comments: