I went from early elementary school through high school with a boy named David. He was sometimes my friend – we started a club together in late elementary school – and he was sometimes my enemy – the club lasted one day. David enjoyed making fun of me, for he was a master of repartee and I enjoyed proving my physical superiority over him, for I was twice his size.
David was a smart, funny, often irritating kid. By the time we got to high school, he was also an ambitious one. In our senior year, he went around soliciting students to vote him “most likely to succeed.”
I believe he did succeed. The last time I saw him, I was working my way through college at the Ford Motor Company, earning a hitherto unimaginable paycheck of nearly $250 a week. One day, I met David at the tennis courts and asked him what he was doing. He was pursuing a career in dentistry, while working weekends as a server at the downtown Hyatt. I was shocked to learn that he made as much in tips over a weekend as I made at Ford working six days a week. Later, I heard that he had opened a chain of offices in Florida.
I always knew that David was Catholic, though he never mentioned going to mass, and I don’t think he did very often. In our earlier years, I didn’t go to church at all, but by high school that had changed. I had been converted and was trying, in a stumbling manner, to live consistently with what I had come to believe.
One day in high school, David showed me a “nickle bag” of weed he had just purchased. I said something like, “Man, you’ve got to quit doing this stuff.” David, who knew about my faith, countered: “Look, when I get old – like 70 – I’ll get religion. Until then, I am going to have some fun.”
To him it made perfect sense. Religion was all about getting into heaven when you die, but religion also imposed constraints on you while you lived. So, why not wait until you were about to die to get religion? For David, that meant waiting until one was ancient, say 70, and already had one foot in the grave. That was the time to get religion.
I didn’t have a comeback. To tell the truth, his reasoning seemed sound. The only problem I could see with it was the risk it entailed. A person might die before he was ancient, before he was 70, and then it would be too late.
I wish I had known then what I know now. I had accepted the premise that religion was all about getting into heaven—how could I not? Even the religious people I knew talked as if that were true. At the time, my familiarity with the Bible was slight and I knew nothing of the great theological traditions within Christianity.
Had I been better informed, I would have strongly disagreed with the idea that religion was only or even mostly about the afterlife. The Bible, which contains approximately three-quarters of a million words, uses very few of them in discussing the afterlife—a fact that would, no doubt, have surprised David.
It’s true that the Bible speaks of “the life of the age to come” and “the life that is life indeed,” but it does not use these terms to refer exclusively to existence in heaven. From the Bible’s perspective, the inception of the “life of the age to come” begins now and transforms a person here. The reception of this life brings purpose, peace, and joy.
My friend David wanted to wait to “get religion” because he feared missing out on the fun. Over the years, I have met many people like David, and it doesn’t seem to me that any of them ever caught up with the fun they were pursuing. They ignored religion because it seemed to have nothing to do with life on earth, but it turns out to have been the place where the things they were seeking – purpose, peace, and joy – are found.
(First published by Gannett.)