Today I had the great pleasure of getting to meet Leah Libresco of Unequally Yoked and support her at her baptism. And by "support", I mean that I was waiting for the priest to say "If anyone knows why this ceremony should not proceed, speak now or forever hold your peace", and then I could shout "God is an antiquated idea with insufficient evidence to even rise to the level of consideration let alone become a working hypothesis and Leah is far too good for you people and you can't have her!" But it turns out priests only ask that question at weddings, which under the circumstances is probably wise.
But it was actually a lovely service. In the course of growing up Jewish and then losing my religion I'd managed to never attend a church service before, so I was excited to see what all the fuss has been about for the past two thousand years. It was very...well, yesterday I got to talking to another doctor I met at the job interview. He spent his entire life in Nepal and India before moving to America a month ago. I asked him if it was scary, if there was a big culture shock. To my surprise, he said no. There's so much of America in books and TV and movies that everything just felt perfectly natural, albeit slightly disconcerting as if you had stepped into a TV screen. That was how I felt going to Mass.
I've always had an interest in myth and ritual, and people have always told me that the Catholic mass is the ritual par excellence, honed over two thousand years to instill a deep feeling of awe. I was looking forward to it and didn't get it. The church itself was spotlessly beautiful, but when you're sitting next to a lot of screaming kids and everyone was sort of fumbling through their hymnals and muttering the songs - then if there was supposed to be a spell, it was pretty thoroughly broken. Also, thanks to my synagogue experience I find it hard to take a service seriously if it's conducted in a language I understand.
If there were any moments of genuine emotion at all in the ceremony, it was the unplanned departures from script. The priest bending over to give the Eucharist to an old woman who was having trouble getting out of her seat. The sermon starting with the guy saying that he didn't care what Thomas Aquinas thought, when he went to Heaven he was going to find his dog waiting there for him. The little kid who screamed "Yay!" after each baptism.
And of course there was Leah. The fact that it obviously meant so much to Leah made it meaningful to the rest of us too. Even though her friends (and family!) there seemed pretty split for and against her decision, it was hard to miss how radiantly happy she was there and obvious that whatever the merits of the faith in general she was making the right decision for her at this moment. In the exact reverse of what was supposed to happen, I felt like Leah sanctified the ceremony, the same way watching a terrible movie with a friend who loves it can make it enjoyable.
So I guess I am a humanist through and through. Still, it was surprisingly fun. After church we all went downstairs for...I keep wanting to call it an oneg, but I suppose I should say a church breakfast. I met some really fascinating people there: a woman who was fighting a legal case to protect herself after she whistleblew on a big investment bank, a Lutheran there for the baptism who wanted to argue theories of salvation with all comers, even a young-Earth creationist working for NASA who argued with me about mutational load for a while
(I told Leah that it was nice to have all my terrible stereotypes reinforced by having someone try to convert me to young-Earth creationism the first time I set foot in a church; she confirmed Catholics don't even believe in young Earth creationism and she had no idea what the guy was doing there. Maybe God just trolls atheists by making sure they encounter argumentative creationists every time they enter a church.)
And also Leah's friends, who are just wonderful people and who delight me by often spontaneously bursting into song. Along with several musical numbers I also got to hear them debate their favorite heresies (I didn't join in because I would have been way over my head - as I was in a depressing number of discussions today - but for the record mine is Origenism). It is interesting contrasting them to my friends in Berkeley. I love my friends very much, but I couldn't help but admire Leah's church group. They were no less intellectual, but they were also both much more diverse - not necessarily racially or anything, but just in the fact that it wasn't all identical-looking nerdy men - and also seemed much more well-adjusted and able to live in society without being boring milquetoast sellouts.
Of course there was a strong selection effect of people-who-knew-Leah, but a surprising number of them had met her through church or were just at the service for some completely different reason and had gravitated to our group. I continue to be impressed by the ability of religion to gather social groups full of awesome people in a way that religion-substitutes totally fail at.
I also learned a bit about Catholic culture (mixing up your St. Catherines seems to be a major social faux pas), humor (apparently it's really funny how many different Franciscan sects there are) and ritual - for which I think I should quote from Leah's explanation of the Eucharist:
The final sacrament received is the Eucharist. For some sects of Christianity, the central point of their worship is the homily, when the priest/reverend/etc interprets Scripture. For Catholics and Orthodox (and some Lutherans and Anglicans) the whole point of the Mass is not bible study, but direct contact with the Risen Christ, fully present in the Eucharist. This is probably not the best metaphor, but think of it as the good version of the moment in Lord of the Rings when Frodo cries out "I am naked in the dark, Sam, there is no veil between me and the wheel of fire! I begin to see it even with my waking eyes."
Um, except here you have all that intensity, except the Person you're face to face with is infinitely good, and instead of a burning ring, it's the Beatific Vision, and, y'know, there's a reason I'm not in charge of catechesis
I told you she was too good for the Church!