Our son would have been about 15, I suppose, when he took confirmation classes.
Confirmation is one of those strange rites found only in churches that baptize infants. By baptism, those babies become members of the church. Later, when those infants are old enough to understand what was done to them when they were too young to understand what was being done to them, they’re expected to spend anywhere from a weekend to a year studying why it was done, and owning what their parents did on their behalf.
Confirmation probably has roots in the Jewish mitzvah traditions, marking the transition from child to adult, although no one ever says so.
Theologically, confirmation is a meaningless rite. Baptized young people still belong to the church, even if they never get officially confirmed. The love of God doesn’t have a valve that gets shut off just because a teenager opts out of a religious ritual.
Practically, confirmation serves as a kind of graduation from Sunday school. Having graduated, the vast majority of young people never come back.
It’s almost like getting vaccinated against a contagious disease.
Anyway, back to our son. The week before his confirmation ceremony, he came to us. “I don’t think I can go through with this,” he said.
We wondered why.
“It’s this book,” he said, waving a hand vaguely at his Bible. “I’m supposed to say that I believe all this stuff. And I know that’s not how the Earth was formed.”
We had a long talk. We didn’t attack geology, or evolution, or anthropology. We tried to say that the Bible wasn’t intended to be a scientific document. Much of it was based on myth and legend—ancient attempts at describing how we humans might have become the kind of people we are.
Both sources of knowledge were valid, we said, but different.
Our son must have bought our explanation. He went through with the ceremony. He answered all the formula questions: “Now I ask you, before God and this congregation…”
(Although the presiding minister did tell us, later, that he glanced down, during his address to the congregation, to see our son tying his shoelaces together.)
In hindsight, though, I wish we had told our son that he didn’t have to believe either science or the Bible.
That he didn’t have to believe everything science told him. That he was free to apply his own intelligence, to any and all scientific claims. He could hold in abeyance those “facts” that required further examination. He could accept the bits that built a more comprehensive picture of the universe he lived in, and reject the bits that didn’t.
And in the same way, that he didn’t have to believe everything the Bible told him. That he was free to apply his own intelligence, to any and all religious doctrines. He could hold in abeyance those teachings that conflicted with his experience. He could accept the stories, the traditions, the practices that helped him to live a fuller and more compassionate life, and reject those that didn’t.
I wish I had told him that.
But I didn’t, and I couldn’t. Because I hadn’t gotten there myself yet.