Axioms of Faith

Finding a language of belief

In mathematics one must accept certain axioms, certain truths. Ten in all. Most important, one must accept the theoretical concepts of a point, a line, and a plane. Their existence cannot be proved or disproved, but they are the beginning of understanding geometry. My instructor explained, "You can’t prove anything from nothing....When you write a dictionary, if you don’t have any words, you can’t define any words."

We’re a generation trying to write a dictionary of belief without words. Spoiled. Confused. Unwanted. Unformed. We have no place from which to begin. But faith persists, and all around me I find believers.

Dallas Thompson’s head is never unplugged. He sits in the back row of my third-period journalism class wearing headphones. As the heavy metal crescendos in his ears, he scribbles down his thoughts on scraps of paper, thoughts which will later become ’zines (home-made magazines). He seems to write in time to the music. The music pouring from the earphones is loud; we listen in, though we cannot make out the lyrics. But Dallas’s mind makes sense of the noise. In it he finds prophets who preach truth. I wonder if, for him, silence is noise. Dallas is a believer. He distributes vegan literature, and in the animal-product-free lifestyle he finds commandments and a strict code of conduct. He bathes once a week. He lives simply. He uses his earnings to buy high-priced organic foods. He recycles his plastic juice bottles, and every day he carries a lunch box to school. He carries a lunch box when other hard-core kids eat hamburgers and French fries and carelessly leave their cardboard trash behind. With other vegans, Dallas feels less alone. He knows, intuitively, that there is more to life than leisure, and he seeks ultimate meaning in a dairy-free diet. He tells me he wants to have the words "Vegan for Life" tattooed across his chest. "I’m not gonna pussy out and become a vegetarian like so many vegans do," he says. "I believe in veganism."

Like me, Tim Ross is an International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma student. Our classes are more rigorous than advanced placement and we are tested by international standards. Our exams are sent across the globe. The first-born son of strict Republican parents, one a nonpracticing Jew and the other an atheist who was raised Presbyterian, Tim gets top grades in the hardest classes. He wins at international science fairs. He wants to go to Columbia University and then train to become an astronaut. He wants, more than anything, to make his parents proud. So he works hard. He takes a Russian-language class at the local community college, competes in Stephen Douglas debates, volunteers, and builds, builds, builds his résumé, as we all do. Tim is a decent guy. I envy his transcript.

Freshman year, Tim was baptized at Radiant Assemblies of God, a local fundamentalist church, six months after he joined its youth group. But his devotion dwindled and he no longer believes in Christianity. He’s too smart, that’s all. As he matured, the youth group didn’t, or wouldn’t, mature with him. They were still preaching about why you shouldn’t kiss on the first date, and doing "trust falls," while Tim was struggling with existence of the Trinity and with materialism. There wasn’t enough at Radiant for Tim, who always demands more from life and first visited the church alone. The church was too dogmatic. It never encouraged inquiry. In Tim’s eyes, intellectuals are seldom believers and never fundamentalist Christians. And anyway, Tim has a new rite of initiation to anticipate. Getting into Columbia University will be very much a salvific event for him. Columbia is for the elite, the chosen, the few. Tim will have earned a place among them and his life will, someday, be worth remembering. For now, all of his value can be typed onto an application and stuffed in a manila envelope to be scanned in fifteen minutes by a member of the admissions department. He seeks ultimate meaning within the boundaries of logic, intelligence, and achievement.

Katie Cline is a dancer, or at least she used to be. I met her in study hall. She went to a boarding school for dancers, but a year later returned to public high school. I guess she didn’t make the cut. Still, she tends to her body religiously. She is anorexic: never eats a complete meal, and never gains a pound. She always carries a water bottle. Her legs are invariably smooth. Her skin is exfoliated and hydrated and immaculate. If she lets her discipline lag, she will no longer be recognizable as who she is: a dancer, and a member of the club. Katie doesn’t go to church, but she still tries to win converts. "Anna," she says, "I can show you how to make a diet for yourself that you can live with." And, "Really, you should stretch at least half an hour every morning; it’s the only way..." It is a kindness. Katie is sharing with me the orthodoxy behind her actions, the wisdom that guides her every step. Without her practices she wouldn’t be who she is. Dance has trained her, and disciplined her. Katie seeks ultimate meaning in her body and in dance.

But are these faiths enough for a lifetime? Can everything be understood from them, and through them? Can they transcend one’s individual life? And are they strong enough to build a life on?

I am at a party. A lot of people are drinking and, after a few beers, they have announced that they will not raise their children in a religious tradition. (I’ve noticed that when people are drunk they like to talk about God.) "I would just never do that to my kids," one says. "I’d let them decide for themselves about God. I wouldn’t force it down their throats." They are passing on to their children the only religion they know, the religion of choice. This is a faith that makes them feel, as one of them says, "not really a part of any culture," that is, except a part of the consumer culture. They will raise their children to have choices. To survey the goods and choose the best buy.

For my peers, religion is but one choice in a world of choices. For me it is my beginning. It is the very soil in which I was planted. It is what happens every day. It is the prayers I say, or don’t say. It is the questions I ask, the rituals I do. It is my parents. It is Sundays and holy days of obligation. It is the seasons. It is the source of frustration. It is dinner-table conversation. It is bad singing. It is my siblings. It is my identity. It is my limitation. It is the lens through which I was taught to see. It is my culture. I still choose every day, as my friends do. But I choose knowing that God expects something from me, and wondering what it is. I was raised Roman Catholic and that will never change, though it has changed me.

I have two dear friends, Avi Goldman and John Thomas Ritter. Avi is Jewish. After his mother died of cancer, Avi was very angry at God. Still, he celebrated his bar mitzvah. His father and sister don’t practice. He goes to temple alone. For two years after Avi’s mother died, his father took him and his sister around the world. They slept in a tent and got around on public transportation. Avi was eleven at the outset and turned twelve on the trip. He has ten journals from that time. Avi wasn’t raised to be religious, but Indonesia, India, and Thailand turned him into a passionate boy, and a believer. He struggles with the particulars, but still seeks to live a life of faith because he witnessed so many believers in his journeys and saw, firsthand, the limitlessness of God’s creation.

John Thomas used to live in Massachusetts, where he attended Bethany Brethren Chapel. He doesn’t talk about his faith with me or anyone else at school. Mostly, he just lives it. His mother and sister dress modestly. His family doesn’t own a television set or a secular music collection. He misses jokes about sitcoms and rap music. When I am a guest at his house, at dinner with his family, the boys pull out the chairs for all the ladies, even their little sister.

The three of us-John, Avi, and I-are an unlikely trio. A conservative Protestant, and a reform Jew, and a Catholic feminist-sounds like the beginning of a bad joke. I am considerably more rebellious than the two of them, neither of whom dates. It’s true that outside of school we often hang with different crowds. But we are still the best of friends because we are involved in a never-ending conversation. We share a common vocabulary of faith. We laugh with each other. We speak freely. I have more in common with Avi and John Thomas, with Muslims and Mormons, than with those who feel that every religion can be purchased, or returned for a full refund. Or with those who believe that every religion can be discarded on the basis of logic. Or with those for whom diets, or achievements, take highest priority.

Avi and John Thomas understand what believing is like. They understand its limitations, its frustrations, and its beauty. The three of us have words with which to discuss our lives. We compare and contrast customs, and discuss philosophies. We have each chosen a spoke of the same wheel to follow. It seems that we will each arrive at the center eventually if we continue on our paths.

It is an IB flex day and we don’t have class. We are supposed to use this time to catch up on our studies. Avi turns to me in the library and asks me if I’ll go for a hike with him. I am glad for an excuse not to do my homework. We drive to the mountains and start hiking the Mount Cutter Trail in Cheyenne Canyon. We make small talk, but I keep thinking about a friend’s abortion. Avi asks me what I think about it. Avi is pro-choice. It’s hard to have this conversation; most people just avoid talking about abortion. It’s too painful. As soon as friends become sexually active, ’most everyone knows someone who has had an abortion. I need to speak, but don’t know what I think or what I should say. So that day I tell Avi I think we, as a community, can do better than abortion. I tell him that abortion degrades women, and kills children, and haunts my friends. It haunts me. I tell him it asks too much of young girls. I tell him society forces girls and women to feel that they should take part in this honor killing; that remaining childless protects their integrity, their choices in life. I tell him all this, feeling that my church hasn’t done enough to stop it, or to prevent it, or to change it. I tell him all this knowing that I am a part of the problem, and that I have not been there to help. It feels good to speak about it even though I know how strongly Avi disagrees.

The air is thin and crisp. We hike faster until our breathing becomes labored. The conversation winds its way to the top of the hill and off the trail. It climbs over rocks, and runs down the gravel to the road. Finally, Avi understands where I am coming from. I say something like "every life is sacred." He says, "Yeah. You’re right. But I don’t think I could live it...I mean the real world doesn’t work that way...If it was my girlfriend, I’d still want her to have the abortion." Avi believes abortion is right in a wrong sort of way. But even if it is wrong, he can’t live it, this belief, all alone. The society tells him it’s supposed to be that way: one person, one choice. It’s supposed to be true that the continuation of a pregnancy is every single woman’s choice, but it’s not. Husbands, bosses, boyfriends, bills decide. And alone we choose out of desperation and, well, loneliness.

Being Catholic doesn’t give me the answers, but it does give me the questions. It gives me courage to ask hard questions because I’m not alone. "What if your best friend got pregnant tomorrow?" Avi asks. "I don’t know," I answer. "I guess she’d have the baby." Easier said than done, but not impossible. In the lonely, fend-for-yourself world, maybe it’s impossible. But in a family, a community, a friendship, a tradition where "these things happen," where miracles happen, where you are worth more than your résumé, anything seems possible. Where wine is turned into blood. Where forgiveness happens. Where the rich housewife and the homeless man drink from a single cup. And a dead man was resurrected to ascend into heaven. Where people, however flawed and foolish, believe, everything seems a little more possible. If this community can believe that the dead will rise again can they also believe that the child of an unmarried teen mother can be loved, can be valued, can be good?

One Holy Thursday the church lady asked me if I’d come up from my pew and have my feet washed. They needed someone from my demographic. Why not? I thought it would be fun. I sat on the stoop between a deaf Hispanic man who looked homeless and an elderly Polish immigrant who struggled with his shoes and socks. I looked out at the congregation. I saw some kids from my high school. I saw all their stories. The one who had to come. The one who came alone. The one who came because he loves the pomp, the kitsch, the culture of it all. The one whose mother is so depressed that she didn’t get out of bed that day or the day before that or the day before that. The one whose mother is dead. They were all singing this sweet, haunting melody, "Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est." The Polish man sat like a child on the step with his pants legs rolled up. When his turn came, one priest held his hands gently under the man’s little white and blue legs, the other poured clear water over his bony old feet and yellowing toenails. Then the bishop leaned down and kissed the man’s feet as he had kissed mine. The man wept, moaned, and cried out.

Moral axioms make mathematical axioms seem simple. No axiom is proved, so it requires imagination. I walk out into the night. Clean feet. Light heart. Maybe it was the singing or the quiet, or the men on the stoop, or the babies sleeping, but my eyes feel open. Open to see miracles. I look up and see the black sky, and the big white moon. I close my eyes and see the pews and the sea of people. I’m not alone, and under this sky seems a big enough place to begin.

Published in the 2001-08-14 issue: 
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