The God of Apple Fritters

June 23, 2006 at 12:14 pm (Uncategorized)

There’s nothing like simultaneously having a kid and becoming chronically ill to raise some questions about God. What was once a nebulous matter becomes suddenly pressing. Which pieces of your religion do you want to pass on to your child? What do you think will happen after you die? And why are you even having to think about dying when you’re 34? Clearly I’m not the only one wrestling with these issues. Harold Kushner’s book, Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People, was a bestseller. And type “religion” and “children” into Amazon’s search engine and you’ll discover a lifetime’s worth of reading.

My husband Jay and I have always known that we would have to confront the G-word. This is partly because we were raised in different religions. I’m Catholic and he’s Jewish. While there is plenty of common ground between the two when it comes to morality and ethics, Catholics and Jews decisively part ways when it comes to the question of the Messiah. There’s no getting around the fact that Catholics believe Jesus was the Messiah, while Jews think he was just a nice guy who got the death penalty.

After we decided to get married, Jay and I pledged to ourselves to raise our hypothetical child to understand both of our religions of origin (let’s call them our ROO). In our minds, there was no reason we couldn’t celebrate Christmas and Passover, Easter and Rosh Hashannah. If it ever came to choosing a religion, we would arm our hypothetical kid with knowledge of both Catholicism and Judaism and let him or her pick the path to follow.

The only flaw in this logic is that neither Jay nor I are what you would call tremendously religious people. To instill our now no longer hypothetical but very much real son with the nitty gritties of our ROO would involve practicing them with some degree of diligence. I feel lousy and sick a lot of the time, so rising early to go to Mass on a Sunday is often the last thing I want to do. Jay feels the same way about running home from work to light the Shabbat candles on a Friday evening. Then there’s the tiny problem that both Jay and I have some concerns with aspects of our ROO. It’s tough to think about drilling religion into Andrew’s brain when we aren’t sure we like everything about our faiths – it sometimes feels it’d be trepanning more than kindly planting ROO seeds.

So, for the first two years of Andrew’s life we’ve done what any sensible person in our situation would do. We’ve half-assed it. We’ve practiced a Judaism and Catholicism-lite. We go to Church sporadically, but always make the biggies – Christmas and Easter. We celebrate the major Jewish holidays and play Jewish music CDs. I make a mean loaf of challah. But there’s been a distinct lack of rigor about the whole project. And that’s actually been OK with us because Jay and I don’t like zealotry. The last thing we want to do is raise a little fundamentalist, regardless of the stripe. I know we’ve disappointed both of our families, but, as we remind ourselves, our parents got to raise us exactly how they wanted. Now it’s our turn to mess up a generation.

The other day someone asked me if I was not actively participating in Catholicism because of sarcoidosis. She wondered if I had a hard time believing in a God who would allow me to become ill, especially at a time in my life that I expected to be joyful and good. Underlying her question, I think, was the short-fused problem that plagues all religions all the time. The title of Kushner’s book says it succinctly. How indeed can a just and good God allow suffering and pain? It’s all very un-Godlike given the tenets of faith.

As I told my friend, getting sick hasn’t damaged my lukewarm faith. No, my God train has kept puttering along at the same low speed. As I’ve written here before, though, what getting sick has done is make me pay attention more closely to the suffering around me, which has made me realize that having a chronic illness in the wealthiest country in the world isn’t the worse thing that could happen to me – especially since I have health insurance. But thinking about all the kids perishing in far-away countries because they had the misfortune to be born under a stupid dictator or during a drought does make me wonder about God’s supposed omnipotence and omniscience. However, just like my own illness hasn’t pushed me outside the walls of the faith, the monumental suffering in the world isn’t necessarily deal breaker for me.

I suppose this is because I am comfortable with the concept of the divine as a remote, non-interventionist force. It’s only when I begin thinking of God working daily miracles in people’s lives – that he might cure the chronically ill or prevent a bomb from dropping on one baby’s crib – that I start to feel squeamish. Because then I have to come to terms with the fact that if God were to choose to heal me, then it would also within his power to heal everyone. And he’s not.

In truth, I’ve never felt inclined to enter the camp of the interventionists. I remember when I was a teenager and a very good bicyclist, one of our neighbors in our Louisiana subdivision told me that I should be thankful to Jesus that I was such an excellent athlete and was winning so many races. “Why?” I asked, not even bothering to hide the snottiness in my tone, “Is Jesus out here training five hours a day?” (This same person also tried to exorcise demons from my mother’s injured arm.)

I used to think that the only people who believed in a meddling God were the wacko Christian fundamentalists – like my Louisiana neighbor. But I have come to realize in the past few years that this view of divine power is also shared by some of the touchiest-feeliest people out there. And it still makes me crazy and queasy to hear about it, even if the person proposing that God is a busy bee buzzing around the world fixing things is a nice liberal living in California. Take Anne Lamott. This author of books about spirituality and writing was a drunk and a drug addict who turned her life around – with the help of Jesus – when she discovered she was pregnant. She’s a great writer – very droll and ironic – but sometimes very, very messed up. I just read an essay by her in this month’s Oprah magazine (I told you, I love reading trashy magazine when I am at the doctor’s or the gym) about overcoming an overeating episode. Lamott used to be a bulimic, but she conquered that bad behavior along with the booze and the cocaine when she found religion. But, as this essay relates, she was going through a difficult spell and decided to go on a food binge. Here’s where it gets icky. She went to the grocery store to pick up some apple fritters, her once-favorite binge food, and discovered that the store was out of them: “In the history of Safeways, they have never once run out apple fritters. I understood instantly that God was doing for me what I could not do for myself.” Excuse me? God is buying up all the apple fritters so that you don’t eat them? What’s next? He’ll do the stairmaster for you and then magically apply the calorie deficit to you? I mean, he’s God after all. He could do that.

This is the most narcissistic, solipsistic , navel-gazing, and self-serving notion of God I have encountered in a long while. For her, God isn’t the ruler of the universe, the dispenser of justice, the mightiest of the mighties. No, he’s a helpful buddy in the quest for self-fulfillment that preoccupies Americans. He’s not emerging from the whirlwind as he did with Job, bellowing, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth…Or shut the seas with doors.” Lamott’s God is a twelve-stepper like the rest of us, working miracles through the apple fritters, fretting about waistlines. But what about the people without apple fritters to worry about – or bread and water for that matter? Why isn’t God extending a warm, soft hand to help them?

I know a lot of people who believe in Lamott’s God. Many of them don’t actually bow down to a single, unified deity. Instead, they talk about “the universe,” as in, “I’m ill right now because the universe wants me to learn to deal with my issues of powerlessness” or “This divorce is putting me right where the universe wants me.” It’s a notion of the cosmos as an ordered, thinking sphere, ruled by forces of, if not benevolence, then of planning. It’s not what I think of when I think of the universe – I hear the winds of space ripping across planets, stars imploding, asteroids careening towards Earth, cosmic dust settling in the blackness. I see my own version of the monumental and impressive whirlwind of the Old Testament. It is so grand, so massive, so impressive, that, as God reminds Job, it is completely outside our understanding.

Which brings me back to Andrew and my goals for his religious education. What do I want to pass along to Andrew? I certainly don’t want to raise a child who is so self-absorbed that he thinks God is buying up the apple fritters. Or a boy who thinks his religion has given him all the answers and that’s why he gets God’s help. I want him to feel the mystery and the smallness that I feel when I stand beneath the black dome of the sky at night and watch the stars. Some of these stars are so far away that even though they have ceased to exist, we still keep receiving their light. I want him to feel the common threads of humanity and life that bind us. I want him to wonder – to wonder about what forces made us and then reclaim us and also to wonder at the power of it all. I guess what I want is for Andrew to believe in forces outside himself. I want his spirituality to push him to transcend himself, to remind him that not everything is about him. Will he get this in a church or a synagogue? I don’t know. To be honest, I don’t know how I feel about my or Jay’s ROO. I don’t know. But not knowing and being a little afraid feels like a good place to start.

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