Increasingly, if people claim a religious identity at all, it is one they have chosen rather than been ‘born into.’ Indeed, I think we may well be heading toward a situation where all religious identity is chosen between many options, or considered optional and rejected outright.
Although the possibility of opting out of religious participation entirely is a few hundrd years old (a gift of the Enlightenment), I think it is unprecedented that so many people now either opt out, or, as my favorite novelist, the Canadian Robertson Davies said in his final novel, “you have to find the religion you can stand, and that can stand you.” That can take some doing. Like finding the perfect pair of jeans, it may not happen on the first try.
My own upbringing and experience indicated that if I ever formed a religious identity, it would be one I actively sought–not one that I inherited. My parents, married in1954,were not the first interfaith couple (Jewish woman, Roman Catholic man, though neither practicing the tradition in which they were raised). They were married by the director of the New York Society for Ethical Culture.
Because my father was not a practicing Catholic at the time of their marriage, my mother did not agree to raise us in the Roman church. We did not attend any religious services as a family for the first 10 or so years of my life, although sometimes we attended church or synagogue with the appropriate relatives when we were visiting them or there was some major celebration marked by a religious ceremony.
It was sort of nice, and I didn’t think much about it, except when other kids said they were going to visit their cousins–I would ask, “The Catholic ones or the Jewish ones?” They said they only had Baptist (or whatever) ones, and I felt bad for them. Not having both seemed like you had been cheated somehow.
But it was Girl Scout Sunday that made me fall in love with the Episcopal Church. All of the Catholic girls went to mass at Saint Columba. Church of the Resurrection was the only place that was happy to take a large number of kids without a proportional number of adults to keep them in good order.
It had all the stuff that appealed to my seven-year-old self: wonderful music, a book I could use to follow everything that was going on, and yards of embroidery. (Okay, one of my most loyal lifetime friends would ask, “What’s changed?”) I begged my mother to start taking the family to church, and this one could be seen from our front door.
So, my mother duly investigated. The ‘body and blood’ part of the service did not sit well with her Jewish sensibilities, and we went ‘church shopping’, evetually ending up at the Hopewell Reformed Church which did not have all the good stuff. It was okay–there was a choir I could sing in, and once I grauated to Juniors (age 9), my troop met there. I was baptized for a second time (I was born in a Catholic hospital, and the nursing nuns thought all babies in need of emergency baptism). The youth group was nice enough, but it never really felt like the best fit. By age 16, I thought I was pretty much done with church. Although I was a good student, I was also a smart-aleck at school, and I was in enough trouble there that I didn’t need to get up early and wear my best clothes to get scolded more on Sundays. (I’m sure that’s not what the intent was, but it was how I felt.)
University, and the first round of master’s level study, gave me about a dozen years of what I consider healthy de-churched questioning and exploration. It was after my mother’s sudden death in March of 1989, when I felt I needed something, and I looked to a church in my new city of Dayton, Ohio, to provide it. It was an Episcopal congregation, and it felt like a homecoming.
But it was definitely a choice. I’ll say more about this as things go on, but it’s important to say that if you can choose an identity, you can also un-choose it. That needs to be taken more seriously than is usually the case.