I was the youngest evangelical you never knew.
No, seriously! Bar those clerical prodigies you may have seen on television, spreading the good word before they’ve finished grammar school, no one had me beat for precocious piety. My uncle has told me, though I don’t remember, that while I was in pre-K at Children’s Sesame in Macon, Georgia, I’d ask other toddlers whether they’d been “saved by the Lord today.” My hometown is one of those Southern cities, deeply faithful, in which you can find a church on just about every corner—usually Baptist, sometimes Methodist, occasionally Presbyterian or Episcopalian, rarely Catholic. There is one Eastern Orthodox temple downtown and one Mormon temple down the street from my childhood home. You sometimes have the impression that you’re surrounded by all Christendom, collapsed into a city of just over 100,000. No matter the denomination, I would sit in the car during cross-city trips and excitedly yell “Church!” at all the ones I saw. With so many places of worship about, my devout relatives must have been alternately proud and annoyed.
After pre-K, I attended Progressive Christian Academy for kindergarten and first grade. My birthday comes in late November, way past the cut-off date for entering public school, but my mother sensed my curiosity and decided that I couldn’t wait another year to begin my education. The school’s name sounds like astonishing irony to me now. Progressive it was anything but, with its frequent paddlings, mandatory Friday service in the gymnasium across the parking lot from the schoolhouse, and science lessons consisting of teaching five-year-olds that the Earth was forged by godly hands in six days. I still have the powder blue workbooks somewhere at home. I like to flip through them occasionally, marvelling at how little my handwriting has changed since then, and at how far I have fallen from the Eden of naive youth.
I mean to say that my indoctrination was complete and thorough by the time I was six. My uncle was a Methodist minister (raised Baptist, now Presbyterian), my great-grandmother preached too. And if you had asked my family what they thought I would be in twenty years’ time, they would doubtless have postulated: a preacher. I knew the Bible much better than most kids my age, relished its tales of scandal, warfare, and godliness.
On any given Sunday, you would’ve found me at my mother’s neighborhood church, tiny Mount Vernon Baptist on Pansy Avenue. And when my parents began living together, I sat in the immense sanctuary of my father’s Beulahland Bible Church more often. It’s the closest thing sleepy old Macon has to a megachurch. The couple sometimes battled over which was more authentic a worship experience—the cozy or the grandiloquent? I loved both. And to this day I retain a secret, purely aesthetic fondness for the sort of thumping gospel music that was the soundtrack to our praise. I can also trace my love of books to church. Sunday morning service was my first encounter with storytelling; few literary modes will ever be as passionate and sincere as the sermon or the Bible, which deal with life, death, and morality in ways that the artifice of secular writing won’t touch. So I don’t resent my parents for this childhood in the church. While I resolve to raise my own children to discover their own convictions, Christ is essential to my people: Southern Black folks. He was there when Emily Ellis toiled in Crawford County in the mid-1800s; He was there through Jim Crow and beyond, giving us hopeful refuge during our protracted struggle for civil rights. Even today, churchgoing is a vital element of our political and social lives. As far as my native region’s history goes, what Black heritage is coherent without the church?
First doubts. I am no older than ten, on a trip to the Atlanta Zoo with Beulahland’s children’s church. This represents a more innocent time when I loved both science and Jesus, there being no contradiction in my mind. My group has stopped to admire the chimpanzees. Noticing their thumbs, their faces, so like ours that I briefly believe that they shouldn’t be held captive behind the glass, I tell the chaperone, “They are our cousins!” She responds: “No, because then you start getting into evolution and all that nonsense, and that ain’t true.” Bafflement.
My impulses toward rationality and my faith continued to fight it out. I had few friends in middle school, which left me to spend way too much time on the Internet. It must have been during one of my late-night Wikipedia crawls that I came across the problem of evil, first described by Epicurus three centuries before the birth of Christ. If a benevolent, omnipotent God exists, the philosopher asks, how can He allow human evils to plague His beloved creations? No apologia, not even the terrifying beauty of our free will, saved my faith from that question.
More doubts: another episode comes to mind. I think I am twelve, sitting in the pews with my family at high noon—nothing unusual there—but that I’ve reached that age at which I’m coming into myself most swiftly and surely. There are a few noticeably effete men at Beulahland, many of whom sing a skillfully high alto in the choir; I remember one in particular, who wore his hair styled into a curly mohawk, his eyebrows sculpted, his clothes hewing close to his body. I look up to these men for reasons I don’t quite understand at the moment. Pastor Watson calls the congregation’s attention to the whole tribe of them this Sunday. He says something like, “Now, we all sinners. All of us. But you can’t walk in here, flaunting your sin, wearing makeup and having your hair all done up. Keep it outside.” Applause and amens. I decide immediately that this sanctuary is too perilous, really the opposite of sanctuary to boys like me, and that I must get out.
With all the zeal of a new convert, I became a militant nonbeliever around that time, saving all of my antitheist scorn for the Christianity I felt had betrayed me in so many ways. I picked theological fights with my parents each and every Sunday they forced me to go to church until they dropped the issue. Paradoxically, though, other faiths nearly persuaded me, as if any spirituality but the church were compatible with my sensibilities. I anticipated my future monkishness when I briefly called myself a Buddhist after my seventh grade class’ world religions unit, because Gautama demonstrated no pretense of divinity but was merely an enlightened man who had searched for a fulfilling way of life. I gave up pork after reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I went to my best friend’s bar mitzvah, feeling curiously at home in a yarmulke despite having no comprehension of the Hebrew that sprung from the cantor’s mouth. Later, my religious convictions settled into a comfortable apathy—agnosticism wouldn’t be the proper term. I just didn’t care, tried to avoid discussions that veered into spiritual dimensions instead of seriously considering what I believed.
Lately, though, I find myself acting like a person with some degree of faith, as if I miss my religion. I think I do, a little bit. It was important to me, and I’ve been running from it for years. It’s tiring. The time might be here for resting by the road, pondering that journey. Such inner conflict manifests itself in odd ways; anyone who grew up embedded in a religion they have left behind knows what I mean, that we don’t totally get rid of it despite all our efforts.
On occasion, when I’m desperately anxious or grateful for a day’s hard-won successes, I commit something like prayer. Whenever someone suggests I get a tattoo, I joke that I can’t make myself do it because of a Christian upbringing, but I’m only half-joking: my father told me once that the Bible says “You must not put tattoo markings upon yourselves,” and perhaps that directive is still somewhere in my mind, making me uncomfortable with the idea. My uncle, the minister, who gave me part of my name, who is often more my twin than my uncle, brings up Jesus in every single conversation we have. He holds on to some hope that I’ll return to the church. “You need to have a relationship with God,” he told me blankly one day. I come closest to believing him when I view a sunset’s striking palette or when my bare feet plant themselves upon the ground when I walk, just so, heels then arch then ball then toes, with a perfectly light touch that really does seem to have been made by God’s hands.
I took up faithlessness mostly because I fancy myself a rationalist who trusts only what we can empirically measure. The institutions of religion, moreover, epitomized an archaic mode of thought that I wanted nothing to do with as a self-appointed progressive. Yet, in this cynical, suspicious era, I stand convinced that belief takes far more courage than skepticism requires. As I’ve gotten older and gone to college, I’ve noticed that fewer and fewer of my friends identify as religious, as if to parallel the rapid decline in the number of Americans who consider themselves believers. There shouldn’t be this conflict, two discrete systems of knowledge competing for our attention, but I think that we’ve shifted much of that displaced faith toward science and technology as we barrel on with the mission of engineering our world. Religion originated from a need to explain phenomena when we didn’t have such ready access to those tools of discovery. I worry about this trend, though, even as I count myself among the broadening cohort of faithless millennials. I’ve come to realize that reason and religion’s mystique are not as opposed as I thought. Rather, they perform vastly different functions for humanity, neither working at the expense of the other.
Life is enriched by the things faith gives us, whether or not our belief is objectively true. String theory cannot tell us how to live a good life. No optimism or systematized ethics will come of our ubiquitous machines. For all we know—and it seems to still be very little, compared against the universe’s infinite backdrop—the face of God lies beyond the event horizon of the black hole that sucks all particles inevitably into its center and which no human will ever comprehend. Existence is bizarre, random, and on some level unknowable, despite our carefully calibrated equations. But there I am, straining toward what is, ultimately, ineffable.
KELTON ELLIS B’18 doesn’t know.