As Good Friday was approaching, I was reflecting on one of the most consequential events in human history—the death of Jesus of Nazareth on order of Roman authorities. Paula and I were both raised Catholic, and, through different paths, ended up as ex-Catholics. As ayoung woman, Paula began visiting other churches as well as synagogues. My break with the mother church was more abrupt. “Losing interest” would be an understatement.
My dad taught for many years at my home city’s only Catholic school, and so it was especially embarrassing for him when I refused to go through the rite of Confirmation. This was not simply a case of being stubborn—though I had a well-deserved reputation for stubbornness. I also caught a whiff of hypocrisy. When we were rehearsing the event, our C.C.D. teacher told us that each of us would tell the priest why we wanted to be confirmed. I asked him, “What if I don’t want to be confirmed?” This threw him off his rhythm. I can’t recall his precise words, but the sense was that I should say something even if it was untrue.
A less maddening adolescent would have gone through the motions, reciting words that meant nothing to him, and put the procedure behind him. Instead, I announced to my parents that I’d decided not to be confirmed. Neither of my parents was pleased by my decision, but my dad was especially vexed. Catholicism was central to his identity. He grew up in the 1920s and ’30s, when Catholics were mistrusted by the Protestant majority.
When I met Paula, I was pleased to learn that she, too, was an ex-Catholic. For years we didn’t attend church. But we reconsidered our church-less lives once we were expecting our first child. We met with a minister in an Episcopal church in Harvard Square about baptism, and the first question I asked her was whether her church welcomed agnostics. Her response surprised me. Not only did her church welcome agnostics; the minister suggested that, she, too, at times, allowed doubt into her faith.
When our son was in preschool, Paula began taking him to the Episcopal church during Advent and then for Sunday school during the school year. At first, I did not attend, but these were years when I was reading a fair amount about Christianity and other religions. Of all the books I read, the most consequential for me was James Carroll’s Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews. I’d been reading Carroll’s column in the Boston Globe for years, and his perspective was unlike that of any other writer I knew. He mixed politics and religion in unexpected ways. In the mid-1990s, he won the National Book Award for his memoir An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War that Came Between Us. In the sixties, Carroll’s dad was an Air Force lieutenant general who directed the dropping of bombs in Vietnam; Carroll at that time was a young Catholic priest opposed to the war.
Constantine’s Sword was a more ambitious work. When I held this 700-page tome in my right hand recently, I was reminded that I still have vestiges of carpal tunnel syndrome. As the subtitle suggests, the book is about anti-Semitism going back to the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine, under whose rule, fledgling Christianity emerged as the state religion—with calamitous consequences through the centuries for Jews.
My main takeaway, some fifteen years later, is Carroll’s heterodox interpretation of Jesus’s resurrection. The death of Jesus was, first of all, a disaster for his followers. Their gatherings, according to Carroll, “were like those of a bereft circle, and they were built around lament, the reading of texts, silence, stories, food, drink, songs, more texts, poems—a changed sense of time and a repeated intuition that there was ‘one more member’ than could be counted. That intuition is what we call the Resurrection.”
Carroll continued: “To the eyes of faith, Jesus was really present. Whether a video camera could have recorded his ‘appearances’ or not is less important than the fact that for those who loved him, and for those who sensed the full power of the love he’d offered to them, the continued presence of Jesus was no mere delusion…His presence, of course, was different now.” Carroll went on to underscore the concept that “This is not knowledge of Jesus, but faith in him.” Carroll describes himself as “one of those haunted friends who found themselves incapable of believing him simply gone, but I am also one who knows him in the first place only through the story those first friends gathered to tell.”
Do I share Carroll’s interpretation? Anyone with a deeply secular outlook on life—and by this I mean, a skeptical one—has a hard time conceding that the laws of natural science were once suspended for a brief period twenty centuries ago. The best I can say for myself is that I am consistent in my unknowing.