I was, if not an expert, at least not a novice. In my knowledge of comics, that is. Every Saturday or Sunday for a good many months during my tenth and eleventh year of life I would meet Jason and Joel, classmates of mine at Pine Grove, at the park adjacent to Evangelista Court, where I lived. We would climb the climbers and slide the slides, all the while discussing the intricate layers of past and present that formed the grid of super-hero powers and etiquette, histories and capabilities, writers and artists and storylines (oh my) that formed the crux of our reading. I had been reading comics a little bit longer than the other two, collecting them a little bit longer; I was a veteran. Years later, long after our weekend comic-chats had gradually faded into that slightly purple haze that childhood memories eventually succumb to, that anaesthesic mix of nostalgia and haziness, I heard about Jason and Joel again. From another friend of mine, Mariano, who attended the same high school as they did. As told to me by Mariano, when finding out that Mariano knew me, the two boys turned to each other, grinned, and said in a sing-song voice meant, I suppose, to replicate my own pre-adolescent tone: "Do you believe in God?"
We choose what we want to remember, at some level, unconscious or otherwise, and what I remember about my weekends with Joel and Jason are questions relating to Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk, while what my playmates recollect are my inquiries of a more celestial nature. When hearing about their good-natured mockery of me, I was hurt, almost offended. I had always remembered, fondly, our afternoon bull-sessions; I didn't recollect any religious discussions. Now, from an even more distant vantage point, I can admit that I probably did question them regarding the nature of God's existence, and the ultimate validity of His supposed mojo. I don't remember doing so, but I also don't remember much about nursery school, either, and I'm pretty sure I spent a year there. (Though I do remember the apple juice they served, in little blue plastic cups. That was some good shit, that juice was.)
Raised in a non-religious house, I've always viewed religion itself, the organized kind, with a slightly puzzled detachment, curious but somewhat mystified by the whole spectacle, like an Upper-West Side New York intellectual watching highlights of NASCAR. (Is that where New York intellectuals live, the Upper-West Side?) Thesights and feelings and outright human emoting I could empathize with, even, at some level, yearn for; ti was the logic that eluded me.
I know, I know -- it's about faith, not logic. But the questions I had as a child are the questions I have now:
If you have to give your heart to Jesus to go to heaven, then what about all those people who were born before Jesus? Where are they? And what about all those people who died in the immediate days and weeks following his supposed resurrection, before word got out about his rise from the dead, and the subsequent rules that had to be followed? Were they fucked from the get-go? And what about all those people who were planning to convert, possibly next Tuesday, only to be run over by a Mack truck on Monday night as they raced home on a snowy, slippery road to watch the Leafs play Tampa? And what about all the child molesters and murderers who find God in the clink? What, they get a free pass into heaven, but Nelson Mandela doesn't? And what about the millions of Jews, one billion Chinese, one billion Indians, seventy million Thais, sixty million Vietnamese, and twelve million Cambodians whose faith is aligned with a different deity? They burn in Hell for eternity? I always thought that if there was a God who would do that to His people, than that wouldn't be a God I'd want to follow in the first place. And if Allah is the answer, why does He allow terrorists to wreak havoc in his name?
These are the questions that acquire a deeper resonance after seeing what an unfair shithole a lot of the world really is.
As I get older, as I travel, I'm starting to connect my own dots. They may, in the end, on my deathbed, end up forming a picture that resembles a Rorscach test designed by a lunatic, but so be it. (Or, considering my childhood pastimes, they would probably resemble a Horshack test, given how many episodes of Welcome Back Kotter I've seen. And am I the only who thought the show went to shit when Gabe Kaplan left and Travolta was reduced to the odd cameo every now and then? I mean, Kotter without Kotter would be like Laverne and Shirley without Laverne. Except, now that I think about it, Laverne left that show too, but they kept her name in the title. And if that's not enough to make someone an atheist, then I don't know what is...) I'm beginning to view religion itself as a gradual, man-made response to the sheer unknowability of life itself. Every culture has incrementally authorized its own interpretation of who we are, how we got here, and where it thinks we ought to be going. The fallacy of religious thinking, for me, is the belief that our way, my way, is the one way.
If something is taught to us as children, we believe it. It validates our existence. If we are taught that Jesus is the way, Buddah is the way, Allah is the way, it does not become a learned fact; it becomes an emotional reservoir. Someone much smarter than me once said, maybe it was John Ritter, possibly Don Knotts, that you can't use logic to argue somebody out of something that they didn't learn logic to learn to begin with. Most people's religious belief isn't logical; it's emotional. That's fine; I'm all for emotion. I live for emotion, adrenalized. But when I hear somebody like the Hawaiian-shirt wearing pastor Rick Warren, the author of The Purpose-Driven Life, advise people to "doubt their doubts and believe their beliefs", I throw my hands into the hair and sigh. (The fact that all pastors and priests often seem so damn smug doesn't help, with that calm, confident, condescending smile that arises when one realizes that they have booked a passage to Heaven, first-class, while the unenlightened ones are waving good-bye from the dock, waiting to be trampled by the horsemen coming sometime soon.) Don't question things, he's saying. Don't examine what you believe, and why. Just go along with what you've been taught and what you've been told and what your religion tells you. (And if that plan includes travelling to poor countries and informing their impoverished but good, decent citizens that their entire religions and cultures are based on false principles, and the only way to achieve immortality is to believe in what I believe, well, so be it -- God is great. Never mind that Hamas and Israel are killing each other for religious land. Never mind that a belief in the validity of one's one faith necessitates a belief that all others are flat-out wrong. Never mind that travel is supposed to broaden one's mind, not shrink it, ossify it, close it off. There is a plan, so I've been told, and, between you and me, if you're not part of it, well, hellfire is hot, have you heard?)
Fine. But that's not, well, human. A child is full of doubts, questions, concerns, uncertainties, proclamations. A child looks to the adults for the answers about why the sky is blue and where grandpa goes when he dies, and, all too often, the adult gives them what they want to hear, often in the form of a magic book that has all the answers, an idealized deity set in type.
Maybe I'm biased. I don't know. My church as a child was Marvel comics and the Lincoln Cinema, Ponch on C*H*I*P*S and the Duke boys barelling through Hazzard county, catching the crooks and swigging some moonshine. But I remember those sessions at the park, talking comics and, I guess, guessing about God. They were good times, maturing times. We were out in the world and wondering about it, in our own childlike way.
And maybe, in the end, it's better for adults to point the kids in the direction of their local park and say: "Look, those are tough questions, real questions that you're asking, but we're all novices in this department, and there are no experts, so why don't you head on down to the swings, and shoot the shit about comics and God and life, and see what kind of answers you come up with, because in the end, kid, your guess is as good as mine."