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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Believe Or Not Believe–Why Sit On The Fence?

Bathgate Fairleigh, or Bath as he was known to his friends, came to religion somewhat late in life.  He had been brought up as an Episcopalian, but it never took. He always said that the religion somehow missed the mark.  It was neither Roman Catholic nor fundamentalist Protestant.  It had neither the pomp, ceremony, icons, mystery, and silk robes of the Catholic Church nor the ecstatic passion of Evangelicals and Pentecostals. Admittedly, the Episcopal Church was more faith-based than the Unitarian – a sorry excuse for a religion, Bath thought. Unitarians were on the fence, neither atheists nor true believers, they anchored in still waters. At least Episcopalians made a good effort, were not shy about including Jesus and the Holy Ghost in their liturgy, and if not spurred to proselytize, they were convincing in their modest piety.

Episcopalian waters were so tepid and stagnant that Bath – in whom the seed of belief had been planted despite his religion’s innocuous training – felt he had to explore other options. He was not exactly sure what he was looking for.  He was far too young to worry about salvation or redemption, and Jesus was still a remote historical personage depicted in Renaissance paintings and referred to in just about every work of literature.  He dismissed his evangelical friends’ pleas to take Jesus as his personal savior.  What was that after all? Saved from what? Redemption from sin? Everybody sinned, and no one ever seemed to worry about adultery, fornication, or skirting the spirit of the law.  In fact, the most notorious philanderers seemed to have the best funerals, the most elaborate obsequies and the most generous eulogies. What then was the big deal? Life was short, brutish, and nasty; and the trick was to take evasive action where possible to avoid the worst pitfalls and bramble bushes.

Bath, like many of his generation dallied with Eastern religions.  Hinduism appealed to him because of its pageantry and elaborate devotional ceremonies.  It combined the most complex and sophisticated philosophy of all religions – The One, the Universal, the All-Being – with the popular and theatrical.  He visited Benares one October during the Festival of Durga, the Hindu mother of the universe and the power behind the work of creation, preservation, and destruction of the world.

Over 100,000 Bengali pilgrims came to Benares to worship.  Every twelve years Allahabad hosts the kumbh mela, a ritual ceremony during which the faithful bathe in the confluence of three rivers – the Yamuna, the Ganges, and the mythical river Saraswati.  Over 50 million pilgrims worship on the banks of the Ganges.

Still, he remained unmoved. Hinduism was too far from his Christian roots. Although it would provide some relief from the fierce injunctions of an Old Testament God and the guilt-inducing hectoring of the Risen Christ, it was too foreign, too remote.  Sitting on a float on which Ganpati, the Elephant God, rode through the streets of Bombay throwing sweets to the crowds was not for him.  Nor was reenacting the victories of Rama over Hanuman, the Monkey God at the Red Fort in Delhi.

He dallied with Eastern Orthodoxy, even more theatrical and expansive than Rome.  Icons, sarcophagi, and the iconostasis – an ornate guilt door behind which Eastern priests concocted God in rituals far darker and mysterious than the Catholic Church could ever have imagined was intriguing. Yet, he could never bring himself to belief. Although Orthodoxy had elements recognizable even to an Episcopalian, it was far closer to the East than the West.

Given Bath’s spiritual curiosity – he was indeed a Seeker – his sudden, immediate, and apparently irreversible conversion to Christian fundamentalism was a surprise.  His Yale classmates had expected much more from him, especially Harold Bloom, his literature professor who had been willing to sponsor him for a graduate degree in Hebrew theology.  Given his class’ thoroughbred roots, religious fundamentalism was definitely déclassé.  A Hebrew scholar, certainly.  A candidate for an LL.D at Yale Divinity School understandable; but to publically embrace Jesus as a personal savior at the 9:00 service at the Risen Christ Baptist Church in Indianola, Mississippi not acceptable at all.

Of course, as any born-again Christian knows, once Jesus comes into one’s life, nothing else matters.  The last thing Bath Fairleigh was concerned about was the consideration of his Yale classmates.

His redemption came by surprise. He was visiting Southern churches as part of his post-doctoral thesis on Pentecostalism.  He had long given up any hope of personal salvation or religious epiphany; but was unwilling to give up the quest entirely.  Academia provided the right milieu – serious study of a profoundly spiritual subject.

The pastor had no sooner raised his Bible and began to intone the words of Matthew 4:15-30, when Bath felt a curious unease – not unpleasant or even irritating, and more like a migraine episode.  His vision became distorted, corners obscured, and then whole objects disappeared from view. Lights began to flash and jagged seams of purplish white color crossed his vision. He remembered squinting, less to reduce the symptoms than to see what image he saw was beyond the aurora borealis. He couldn’t make it out at first, but soon he realized that it was Jesus Christ beckoning to him.  For an instant he had to laugh at the irony of it all.  Christ was dressed exactly as he appeared in the Baltimore Catholic Catechism or on Hallmark cards..  He was slim, bearded, dressed in a long white robe and sandals, and had a beatific smile on his face.  He couldn’t have looked more stock and tritel.

As the hectic distortions of his vision receded, so did the image of Christ; but Bath – perhaps because of his desperate search for meaning, but also because of the venue and the imprecations of the pastor – chose to believe that the Savior had indeed visited him, beckoned him, and invited him into his Holy Kingdom of Heaven.

“I have been saved”, he shouted.  He got up out of his pew and walked up the aisle to the waiting pastor who hugged him and thanked the Lord for this, another of His miracles.

From then on, religion was no longer an academic exercise.  He read the Bible as the Word of God, not a mythological or historical tract.  He looked for inspiration not literary references in the Book of Job, Ecclesiastes, or the four Gospels of the New Testament. He was changed, converted, and born again.

Most born-again Christians can remember the moment of their salvation as easily as they can the assassination of JFK or the explosion of the Twin Towers. Although Bath lived in Boston, he made yearly pilgrimages to Indianola, contributed generously to the capital fund of the Risen Christ Baptist Church, and prayed for the salvation of all Mississippi sinners.

He, like most born-again Christians, felt an obligation to tell of the joy of salvation, the promise of Jesus Christ, and the eternal rewards of a penitent’s heaven.  He astonished many of his Yale classmates who assumed that none of their class would ever stray into the occult. They were surprised and not sure how to take his references to Acts or Corinthians, or curious questions about faith and devotion; but once they understood that Bath Fairleigh was out to convert them, they shut the door.  The Yale Club most definitely did not want that kind of alumnus.  The more Bath evangelized, the more he was marginalized if not ostracized.  No one actually sees Jesus, his classmates said, even if he did exist; and what was so special about Bath Fairleigh that God would visit him?

As you might expect Bath Fairleigh dropped his evangelism and realized that Jesus had not actually visited him. Migraines produce the most bizarre phenomena, he reasoned; and the hysterical environment of the church – many congregants raced to be embraced by the pastor before him, and the choir and organ master raised the intensity of their music to accompany the redeemed on their way to the pulpit – surely influenced his ‘vision’. More than anything, Bath was simply too logical, too intellectually determined, and too historically tied to his rational Anglo-Saxon roots to ever go off the rails. You have to be primed to be born again, he reasoned. Raised in the South  in a prayerful family, within a community of unquestioning believers, where Biblical instruction came every Sunday, not on occasion; and where down-on-your-knees piety was a matter of course.  He was ready to be saved, but not primed.

It took him a while to get back into the good graces of his Yale classmates.  They kept him at arm’s length for a long while; but he was able to convince them that he, as an academic, was no more than a method actor.  Just as Brando, Pacino, and James Dean followed Stanislavsky and tapped their inner beings for theatrical inspiration, so did he use The Method to better understand Biblical injunction. After repeating the story enough times, he came to believe it. He had never become an apostate, denying his own  religion of secular reason, rationality, and objective moderation. He had always remained a flinty New Englander.

“So, tell me, Bath”, said one of his Davenport friends, “what was all that really all about?  Were you born again:?”

“Nah”, said Bath. “All smoke and mirrors.  Never bought into it for a minute”.

The two friends finished their drinks at Mory’s and went back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep before the next day’s Reunion activities.

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