Lost: I Stop Going to Church

[This is the third installment of my memoir, The Long Walk Home. Click here for a complete table of contents.]

Decision-makers at The Cilley Academy—led by the principal and school minister—had determined, in their great wisdom, that religion classes were ample substitute for religious worship. Train the intellect and the heart would follow, or something like that.

So, in senior year, freed of the need to leave bed on Sundays for anything more onerous than periodic visits to the “butt room,” I fulfilled the new requirement by taking a single religion course, taught by Charles “Chuck” Dickens. With a graduate degree in philosophy and a previous career in publishing, Dickens had been recruited to teach English at Cilley, but by the time I came under his spell he was chairman of the religion department. It was unclear whether this was a promotion.

Dickens was a kind, inspiring mentor, and in his class we read Protestant theologians like Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, and the Jewish Martin Buber. But we also straddled the murky borderland between Judeo-Christian religion and existentialism patrolled by the likes of Søren Kierkegaard and that still darker crossing between existentialism and atheism, where Albert Camus hung out. We read faith-challenging books like Barabbas by Par Lagerkvist and The Myth of Sisyphus by Camus, with its terrifying opener, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”

It was a riveting statement, to be sure, especially to a seventeen-year-old less than certain about God or self; but it hardly seemed directed toward virtues like faith, hope, or love. The relevant question now apparently was not how to be saved or even how to be good, but whether or not to kill myself.

In my last winter at Cilley—and no season resembles hell so much as boarding school winter—I wrote in my journal: “Sitting here in religion class. Totally unprepared. Totally bored. Totally oblivious. Totally insecure.” By this time, despite the ministrations of the school minister and Mr. Dickens, I had given up firm Christian belief or practice, anyway.

My journal page asked: “Did I gain anything by rejecting the beliefs of my family and childhood or did I totally lose? Also, my reasons for agnosticism were totally intellectual. Hyatt’s class. No emotion. Bad.”

This entry was shorthand for a crisis of faith. “Hyatt’s class” is the clue. Hyatt was Henry “Highball” Hyatt, incandescent polymath, English teacher, and theatre director. Hyatt’s class was English 4M, for Mythology. Its core text was Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and its message seemed to be this:

Each of the world’s religions is nothing more or less than a working out, within its particular culture, of universal mythological archetypes. Of course, the meaning of archetype required many hours of thrashing around the old apple barrel. For myself, I came away with this further understanding of Campbell’s main point:

There’s something about the human imagination that needs heroes and their heroic quests—stories of men and women who undertake voyages in search of something, overcome obstacles, and return home bloodied but triumphant. Within Campbell’s overall scheme falls every “hero” from Odin to Buddha, Mohammed to Christ. In Campbell’s relativistic worldview, the hero is a creation of human psychological need. Therefore no hero is more important than another. Campbell was a way-paver for the rampant religious relativism of the early twenty-first century.

For me, The Hero with a Thousand Faces was a great leveler, a wrecking ball slammed into my tottering edifice of faith. The book told me that I no longer had any moral imperative to follow the teachings of Christ, per se; those of Buddha or even the Norse gods would do as well. Maybe even those of John Updike. If memory serves, Updike’s The Centaur was on the 4M syllabus, since it contains, or Hyatt suggested that it does, the same archetypes as the Bhagavad Gita and the New Testament.

God was dead, all the gods were loose, and it was Katy bar the door.

NOTE: This is a brief excerpt from my book-length memoir The Long Walk Home, copyright © 2015 by Webster L. Bull. All rights reserved.

To read the next excerpt, “Lilliput: Where the Ways Parted,” click here.

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