Monday, August 16, 2010

True Conversions No.11: Faith Interrupted

Faith Interrupted: A Spiritual Journey
Eric Lax
Alfred A. Knopf: New York
c. 2010 275 pp. illus. US$26.00
ISBN: 978-0-307-27091-7 (hardbound)

“I came to the obvious but difficult-to-accept conclusion that my son’s perception of his religion was not at all unusual for a young person, and that what I wanted for him—a personal sense of the excitement of Christianity—was something he would have to learn for himself…. He would have to discover it and test it—verify it…and make it his own, in his own life, in his time, through his own encounter with the living God.”

So opines author Angelo Matera (Faith on the Edge), when confronted with the discomfiting knowledge that his teenaged son did not share his own religious convictions. Faith, we are given to understand, is a gift. Yet it never ceases to surprise and befuddle us that what we cannot seem to impart the essential DNA of our deepest beliefs to the next generation. The discovery and acceptance of faith must, ultimately, be a free, conscious and personal decision.

Author Eric Lax has written a deeply personal memoir on precisely this subject. He wrestles with the enduring conundrum of conscience and consciousness: that while he deeply respects the religious faith of others, he cannot accept that same faith for himself. In a way, this is not a memoir of Lax’s own faith journey. More aptly, perhaps it is the spiritual biography of the two people in his life he appears to admire most: his father and Episcopal priest John Martin Lax, and his best friend, George (Skip) Packard. The course of Lax’s narrative is partly a “coming of age’ narrative and partly a description of these parallel and simultaneous journies: Lax’s own gradual drifting away from belief, and his father’s (and Skip’s) increasing embrace of and commitment to the Christian faith.

Lax provides a loving description of the Episcopal liturgy which has framed and informed his worldview from his earliest memories as an acolyte assisting his father at Holy Communion at their parish in El Cajon, California, through his experiences at church school, then summer camp, and student years at Hobart College. Lax’s hold on the Anglican tradition is a heavily aesthetic one: the beauty of the liturgy captures his senses, imagination, and emotions. (There are several, unnecessarily long descriptions of liturgy as well as verbatim citations from the Book of Common Prayer) But, apparently, the aesthetic attraction has worn away with time. The faith of his father/s is not sufficient to address his deeper longings for meaning and understanding.

At the same time that Lax charts his own drift from Anglicanism, he records in admiring detail the growing faith of his college friend, Skip. Coming of age on the cusp of the Vietnam War, Lax struggles with the decision to request “conscientious objector” status based upon his religious beliefs, and serves a two-year stint of duty in Micronesia as a Peace Corp volunteer. Skip, meanwhile , joins the US Army, attends Officers Candidate School, and sees active combat. Upon his return from Vietnam, Skip enrolls in seminary and is ordained first as an Episcopal priest, and ultimately as a bishop.

The figure of Lax’s father, the dedicated, humble, and kindly priest, is always within close reach. Lax appreciates the depth and strength of his father’s (and Skip’s) convictions, but cannot embrace them himself. Doubt about dogma stands in the way. For his part, Lax gradually disengages from church attendance over time: the more he consults the creedal statements of the Church, the less willing he is to give assent to its doctrines. “… shortly after I turned thirty I noticed a drift away from my secure faith. It was a course of omission, not commission—of what I happened not to do rather than what I decided to do.” Lax’s stance is neither rebellious nor condemnatory of the church. It is simply a matter that the church is no longer relevant to his life: “I felt part of the Church, an insider in a genteel and socially prominent faith. Unfortunately, this meant that I found comfort more in feeling connected to the establishment than to the Holy Spirit.”

Interestingly, he seems to draw comfort and consolation from the wry wit of Woody Allen (Lax has written two books on the comedian’s life and work): “Woody’s conviction (and annoyance) is that as much as we might like there to be a personal God in a universe where wrongdoing is punished and virtue rewarded, we only kid ourselves into comfort by believing it. His aphorisms and observations about God (e.g., “I think the worst you can say about (God) is that basically He’s an underachiever.” ), religion and faith are widely quoted, in part because they’re pithy and funny and in part because they lead to reflection.”

The trajectory of Lax’s spiritual journey is not unique to his generation—women and men reared in a mainline Christian denominations who realize that the church no longer holds the hope, promise, or consolation of their formative years: “I wasn’t looking to lose it; I just suddenly noticed there was a separation I had never known. I was like a car whose tires all have imperceptible leaks. Everything runs smoothly, until suddenly four flats bring you to a halt.” The separation from that tradition and grounding elicits more nostalgia than bitterness; there is a quiet sadness and recognition of loss: “I still find myself at home in a church, but now it is more like revisiting the home in which I grew up.”

This is an honest account of one man’s spiritual experience, but it still leaves one wanting to push, delve, and discern more deeply on the nature of belief. “For all my childhood,” Lax writes, “it was as if faith were part of my DNA, determining but unseen.” “Faith, I guess”, he concludes,” is like love: It withers when unattended.”

No comments: