This weekend Nathan and i made our first trip together to the house where his aunt, uncle and grandmother (all of whom i’d met once before) live in a small town in Nebraska. His sister and her boyfriend were also visiting and had arrived on Friday, and Nathan and i joined them on Saturday. When we arrived it was afternoon, and we had the option of joining his grandmother at the house or the other four at a pond for fishing. We went to the pond for a while first, then headed back to the house while the others visited a historic mill.
Shortly after we had walked through the door, put our things down, taken a short tour of the lower levels of the house and taken a seat in the living room to discuss weather and fishing conditions, Nathan’s grandmother decided to share with us a newspaper article about a veteran of the Vietnam war who lived in their small town and was apparently related to them somehow. She read the story of how he’d been shot at close range by an enemy soldier, the bullet ripping up through his leg and into his torso. His fellow soldiers left him for the medics to find, but more than a day passed before that happened and still he managed to survive. He was so glad that he’d been raised in a Christian home, he was quoted as saying, because his faith in God meant that he was not alone, lying there in that field.
Oh fuck, i thought. First his aunt’s complete disregard for me while we visited them at the pond an hour hence, reminiscent exactly of the treatment her sister (Nathan’s mother) had given me for a month or so after she found out about my atheism. Now an oral reading of this Christian tale. I was in for it. They’d been told.
His grandmother turned to me, sitting a couple cushions away from her on the couch, hands on my crossed knees. “I’d like to ask you something,” she said, and my blood started to run cold. “What church do you go to, honey?”
I glanced over her shoulder at Nathan, who mouthed the word “sorry” as he grimaced. I knew that with a single assertion, “I don’t believe in God and probably never will,” i could have opened a great truthful chasm between us, but i couldn’t do that to Nathan. I knew he’d take my side in the ensuing battle, and his relationship with his family would never be the same. It wasn’t my decision to make. “I don’t go to church.” I said with a smile, anticipating the onslaught of further questions.
“Did you ever go to church, maybe when you were younger, with your family or something?”
“Yes, when i was young i went to church.”
“What church was it?”
“I believe it was a baptist church.”
“And did you stop going when your family stopped?”
“They didn’t go with me, actually.”
“You went all alone? Well, that was very brave of you to go to church without your family.”
“I went with a friend. I wanted to sing in the choir.” I smiled again, trying to keep the mood as casual as possible. Nathan sat quietly, giving me a steady apologetic look.
“Is singing something that you’ve always wanted to do?” She inquired, and i thought maybe there was a chance of diverting her if only i could keep the conversation going in this new direction.
“Yes, i was in a chamber choir in high school, and, uh, i auditioned for the choir in college but i had never learned to sight-read music, so they rejected me.” My heart was pounding and i imagine my face was flushed a bright red, and i was scrambling for anything relevant to say.
She asked Nathan about his ability to read music, and we discussed guitar tablature briefly, but we were just procrastinating.
Finally she said what she actually had to say. She told me a story about how she used to teach a rhyme to her students and to the sunday school children about being baptized and forgiven of one’s sins, and that finally one day she’d realized that what she had taught these children was completely wrong, because no human action can save a person. The holy spirit must enter a person and give her faith, and only in this way can one be saved. She was so ashamed for teaching this little rhyme that she withdrew her family from the Lutheran church, and now they no longer attend church, but are still faithful people.
She discussed why salvation is of such great import, and at some point she made a reference to the man in the article and i had to bite my tongue not to say aloud “yeah, well, there are no atheists in foxholes.”
She told me that i should start a conversation with Nathan’s mother, and answer her questions in the same sweet and direct way that i just had, and that she could help me to pray for the holy spirit to enter me. She told Nathan that she hoped he would read the bible she had given to him every day, and that he and i would read it together and that he would pray for my salvation. Because she wants the two of us to join her in the hereafter some day, and because faith is the most important thing, forever.
I wanted to explain to her that i would never even consider starting such a dialogue, because to me it’s as good as fact that there is no hereafter, there is no supernatural soul housed within my material being and there is certainly no great creator who holds me dangling on a string above eternal hellfire. But i knew that to say any such thing would be like speaking Greek to a person like this. I had struggled to make sense of what she preached, and i knew that she would probably have an even harder time trying to understand that, from my perspective, holy entities and my own “immortal soul” simply do not exist, just as Zeus, unicorns, Santa Claus and personal auras do not exist.
So i just sat there, smiling a half-smile. Not nodding, because of course i do not agree in any way. She said that she hoped i wasn’t mad at her for saying these things and touched my hand, and i smiled and said i wasn’t mad. I didn’t burden her with the fact that she’d made me feel completely uncomfortable in her home within the hour that i’d arrived. Clearly she already carries the burden of worrying about the souls of people she barely knows, and takes it as her responsibility to see to it that we are saved. She has willfully taken the heavy and dismal delusion upon her shoulders, and in a way i wish i could save her just as she wishes to save me. But my verbal weaponry against the foe of delusion is reason, and faith has a way of evading such ammunition, especially that wielded by such an unskilled marksman as myself.
The visit went on and religion was not mentioned to me directly again. Nathan’s aunt continued to deny my existence except for perhaps four words at most. We ate in different rooms or at different times. The two dogs at least did not discriminate – one hates everyone, the other simply wants attention. His grandmother was always polite and kind, but as we four visitors left the next day my alienation was undeniably spelled out. The two grandchildren got warm hugs and kisses goodbye. Nathan’s sister’s jewish boyfriend also got hugs, and everyone began to exit through the front door. I offered a weak “thanks” and a little wave of the hand as Nathan’s aunt became engrossed in holding the dog’s collar and his grandmother clutched her sweater around her with a smile. I exited the old house knowing that they were glad to be rid of me, though they know nothing whatsoever about who i am or what i have to offer. I am human, you know, i thought. I can feel your rejection and – look! – i can even cry.