A Window into the Way We Think About Religion

If you want to read something that will give you all kinds of insight into the way our culture thinks about religion and its implications (or lack thereof), you can hardly do better than a short article from Elizabeth Weil in the New York Times called “The Unexpected Bat Mitzvah.” Weil comes from a Jewish background, while her husband has Christian roots, though neither faith apparently plays much of a role in their day-to-day lives. As she puts it in the piece:

 The Weil-Duane narrative, as we had plotted it, involved outsourcing religion: celebrating Jewish holidays with my family, Christian ones with Dan’s. Inside our nuclear family, we placed our faith in love, books, nature, generosity: the standard liberal, coastal stuff.

 Not exactly a revolutionary approach in present day America. Enter Weil’s twelve-year-old daughter, who decides that she wants to have a bat mitzvah, the Jewish coming of age ceremony (the term means “daughter of the commandment”). Weil and her husband are understandably surprised by their daughter’s request, and the bulk of the article then deals with how the family navigates their way forward.

Reading through the article (which I’d highly encourage you to do) a couple of times, I was struck by all the ways it offered a glimpse into how we tend to think. Here are a few:

1. Religion is often seen as a problem rather than a solution, as a negative rather than a positive. At a minimum, the article presents religious faith as a hassle to accommodate: celebrating holidays is great, but most everything else comes with a questionable return on investment. Further, faith at its worst can be a “gateway vice, a sign of impending breakdown.” This widely held attitude means that it’s all the more critical for us as Christians to (a) remind ourselves why our faith is vitally important both today and ultimately, and (b) live out our  faith in a manner that demonstrates its power and worth to those looking in from the outside.

2. To the extent that we embrace religion, we tend to want to do it on our own terms. For example, Weil describes looking into several bat mitzvah possibilities. The family ends up rejecting more traditional options (and obligations) in favor of a tutor with whom she and her daughter “felt an instant rapport.” Left to our own devices, don’t we often prefer the question of “what do we want?” to “what is required of me?” The first implies that we’re in charge, the second suggests that we’re not.

3. It’s hard to live out our culture’s values consistently. We claim to value individual choice and freedom, almost above all else. But we have a hard time holding fast to that value when someone does something with that freedom that we don’t like. Weil describes her immediate family’s choice not to go with her parents to temple after dinner on the eve of Rosh Hashana as “thrilling…. It’s good to grow up and be the boss.” But she’s not so enthused when her daughter wants to explore a religious identity that’s different from her practical secularism.

4. We don’t think much about implications of our beliefs. Weil mentions that her parents asked her how she and her husband would raise ethical children without religion. She replies, “The question struck me as antiquated then. It still does now.” She goes on to state that religious adherence can lead to immoral actions. She’s right, of course. But one wonders how someone like Weil is supposed to define right and wrong in the first place. Without some kind of overarching, transcendent truth, why are any of us bound to do anything? Is it telling that Weil dismisses her parents question…without actually providing an answer?

Another example: I quoted Weil earlier as saying, “Inside our nuclear family, we placed our faith in love, books, nature, generosity.” That sounds benevolent enough. But I wonder if she’s thought a lot about what it actually entails at the end of the day. For instance, what does placing one’s faith in nature look like? Who or what defines what love is? Which books are important and why? Perhaps Weil has thoughtful answers to those questions. But if not, what separates Weil’s de facto statement of faith from an empty platitude?

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