The poem "There is no God," by Arthur Hugh Clough captures this perfectly. It's from 1850, a reminder that those in the past weren't as rigid as we fancy them to be.
‘There is no God,’ the wicked saith,
‘And truly it’s a blessing,
For what He might have done with us
It’s better only guessing.’
‘There is no God,’ a youngster thinks,
‘Or really, if there may be,
He surely did not mean a man
Always to be a baby.’
‘There is no God, or if there is,’
The tradesman thinks, ‘’twere funny
If he should take it ill in me
To make a little money.’
‘Whether there be,’ the rich man says,
‘It matters very little,
For I and mine, thank somebody,
Are not in want of victual.’
Some others, also, to themselves,
Who scarce so much as doubt it,
Think there is none, when they are well,
And do not think about it.
But country folks who live beneath
The shadow of the steeple;
The parson and the parson’s wife,
And mostly married people;
Youths green and happy in first love,
So thankful for illusion;
And men caught out in what the world
Calls guilt, in first confusion;
And almost everyone when age,
Disease, or sorrows strike him,
Inclines to think there is a God,
Or something very like Him.
Oh, and if you're wondering what the line about nothing being funny in the fourth sentence refers to, remember the date: Nov. 3, 2010. The Republicans crushed the Democrats the day before in the mid-term elections.
Want to hear something funny? Of course, you do. Me, too. Though I'm not sure anything could be funny today, let's give it a try.
So I'm listening to my telephone messages, and I hear the burly, salt-of-Chicago voice of one of our security guards. "Hello, Neil?" he says. "This is the 10th-floor desk. You have Lou Bovitch here to see you."
That alone drew a laugh from me. Despite never having met, or heard of, Mr. Bovitch, I knew exactly who was standing before the guard, asking in vain to see me.
I guess some background is in order.
It was a Friday. That's important. Every Friday, almost without fail, for nearly the past decade, I am visited by a pair of teenage boys in black coats and big hats -- missionaries, though they'd hate that word -- from the ultra-Orthodox wing of Judaism.
They want me to put on tefillin, those little prayer boxes that Orthodox Jews wear when they pray, and to talk to me about the Torah portion being read that week.
Sometimes I'm not in my office and miss their visit, like this time. Sometimes I'm busy, or not in the proper frame of mind, and tell the guard to send them away.
But they're kids, they get gold stars toward, I don't know, a baseball mitt or a new Talmud or something, for visiting wayward Jews and goading them to perform their duty. "A coffee break of the spirit," a rabbi called it. Or maybe they don't get gold stars, maybe the effort is an utterly selfless attempt to repair the world -- it's their ideology, not mine.
So sometimes I let them come down and give their spiel about this week's reading.
The education may go both ways -- I see them gazing around the office, wide-eyed, as if they've never been outside before.
"Do you read the paper?" I once asked.
"Oh, no," one said. "We're not allowed."
Of course not. Religion isn't generally about expanding your scope in life, is it?
Sometimes I even put on the prayer boxes and say the prayers, which strikes me as very odd: an agnostic indulging in this exotic bit of religious theater, one that most Jews dispensed with long ago, when jettisoning most requirements of their faith.
I've asked myself why I do it. For me, the natural, automatic reaction to such a time-wasting demand on a Friday would be to send them away. Scram, boys, and don't come back! That would be easy enough.
Yet I don't. I see them more often than not. That they're in their mid-teens is a factor. They're kids. Kids fall under the umbrella of indulgence that Girl Scouts fall under. The League of Women Voters could never get away with selling those too sweet, generic and not-really-all-that-good cookies.
There is also a shock value in going through the motions of ritual. Our offices have glass walls, and sometimes I'll be there, arm straight out, wrapped in a leather strap, big square black box on my forehead and on the back of my hand, uttering the ancient prayers, and some colleague will come trucking down the hall and catch sight of this strange tableau -- me locked in some weird prayer ritual with two black-clad kids. Their eyes will widen, they'll lose a step and then hurry on, wondering what to make of that -- the resident Arch-Cynic, the Anti-Zealot, if not the Anti-Christ of Chicago, lost in religious ecstasies.
Nobody ever asks me about it.
Did I mention the sect is called the Lubavitch, an ultra-Orthodox group that busies itself urging Jews do the rituals that they would do unprompted if they actually believed any of this stuff? The school the boys belong to is the Lubavitch Mesivta of Chicago, at Morse and California.
The Sun-Times' guard is new, so after the boys asked him to say the Lubavitch were here, he called me and said: "Hello Neil? You have Lou Bovitch here to see you."
Well, I thought it was funny. Maybe you had to be there.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Nov. 3, 2010