When I was growing up, we had to go to church and Sunday School every Sunday. No fussing, no arguing. We went, period. For me it was a time when I had to get into uncomfortable clothes and sit without fidgeting on extremely hard wooden pews listening to prayers and sermons that I didn’t understand. As the adults contemplated eternity, I had a direct experience of it as the minutes slowed to a crawl and I struggled with a crushing boredom. My grandfather would produce a pencil and taught me to fill in the Os, Qs, Ds, Bs and other kindred letters in the church program. That was an enormous help. And thank goodness for Mrs. Carney’s fur stole directly in the pew in front of me. Those glass-eyed members of the weasel family draped across her neck—now that was interesting! And thank goodness also for the hymns that broke up the monotony periodically.
I stopped going to church when I left for college, but when my children were little, I began to feel I wanted to preserve some of what the church experience offered: the weekly rhythm where Sunday is a special day, the opportunity to consider what is right and wrong, the stories from the Bible, passed down through so many generations, and the singing. And so I began a Sunday hour where I told them the stories from the Bible. I did it partly for what some now call “cultural literacy”—so that when they heard some allusion to David and Goliath they would not just give a blank stare. The professors of the English department where I once taught used to shake their heads gloomily over the current batch of students’ lack of knowledge of these stories that are fundamental to our culture. Some had never heard of the Garden of Eden, for example. And why should they, if their parents were atheists or among the “Nones”—those people who check “None of the Above” when asked about their religion in surveys? The Nones are growing at a rapid rate throughout the world. Understandably so, when you look at the havoc wrought by fanatics convinced that their religion is the only true one and everyone else may be enslaved, raped, or slaughtered. The rise of the Nones is one of the main reasons I undertook to write my book on the Seven Universal Sacraments: we need to preserve the sacred in our lives, even if we have given up on traditional religions and we need to fight fanaticism with reason.
In my private Sunday School I told the Bible stories as stories, and when it came to God I fell back on the word Mystery: some people believe there is a God who created the world, who guides our daily lives, who we can pray to for comfort, and who spoke directly to these people in these stories. Others believe there are different gods, or that there is no God. Much of this is a Mystery and difficult to understand. I tried to foster a curiosity, rather than indoctrinate, and judging by the results in my adult children, I was successful. They had the example of extremely pious, even fundamentalist Christian members of the extended family, and on another branch, some serious atheists. I tried to make them think and keep thinking.
After I had gone through the Old Testament stories I moved on to Jesus so they would understand what Christians profess to believe and could at some point join their forebears in accepting that religion as their own if they wanted to. After the Bible we read stories from other religions, and talked about the beliefs of their faiths. We would also sometimes read non-religious stories with a moral or an interesting message. To end the session we would sing some of the old church hymns, just so they would recognize them. All in all it was a very satisfying experience, a low-key ritual that I looked forward to each week, and I hope they did too. I recommend it highly, but you have to start early.