On my sixteenth birthday I was in the midst of a wonderful three weeks in a fine arts summer school for high school students at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. I was in the theater department, toward the beginning of my stage-struck phase, loving every minute of it without being consumed by it.
Many happy memories of those three weeks are still subject to recall. One is buying a nickel Coke for a future Miss America from a hallway machine during a schedule break.
This is another memory from that time. At the evening meal in the Student Union a few of us at our table began talking about religion. Those were the years when Youth for Christ was influencing many high school kids, me among them, and the big mainline churches were filled with families every Sunday. The Youth for Christ types were evangelistic; the mainliners, not so much. Religion was a hot topic among bright, articulate teenagers of all persuasions and none; even if we knew nothing, we assumed that we knew a lot.
One way or another, we had opinions and we loved to swap them. As others finished their meal and came by our table, they paused to listen, then began to join in. Since the meal was well over, somebody suggested we take the conversation outside, to the steps of the Student Union.
I didn't stay long after the move, however. The conversation had become unrecognizable. What had begun as an opportunity to affirm faith had become instead a free-for-all discussion in which the implicit ground rule of recreational religion took over--that is, never speak as though religion matters or has historical significance and eternal consequences.
Remembering this calls to mind something Flannery O'Connor, a very serious Roman Catholic, once said to Mary McCarthy, a not-so-serious one, about the Mass. "Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it." I'll add my corollary to that. "If religion is an opinion, to hell with it."