Talk on a Country Path

“Good morning.”

“Good morning.”

“What brings you out here?”

“Just running a few errands. Care to take a walk with me?”

“Fine, but I have to be back at the hospital in half an hour. Does that work for you?”

“That’s perfect, I was heading that way myself.”

“So let me ask you a question.”


“I was surprised to hear you talking about immortality the other day.”

“Oh really? Why?”

“Well, for one thing, you’re an atheist. Or has that changed?”

“Ha. Not to my knowledge! But I think I see what you mean.”

“Which is what?”

“I think you’re wondering how an atheist can talk about immortality without invoking the notion of a divine or supreme being.”

“Yes. Care to explain?”

“Sure. Let’s find a park bench around here so we can sit down for second.”

“Sounds good.”


“Okay let’s sit down.”

“Fine. What now?”

“Listen quietly. What do you hear?”

“Well, I hear a lot of things. Should I pick one?”


“I hear a bird chirping, which tells me that it’s spring. Finally. A finch, I think.”

“Perfect. Describe exactly what you hear.”

“I hear a chirp, chirp, chirping sound. It’s high-pitched and kind of sweet.”

“You hear intermittent bursts of chirping.”


“How do you know they’re intermittent?”

“Well, because there’s silence in between.”

“Exactly. And would you have noticed the chirping at all if it happened against a background of noise? Especially if or close to the same frequency and intensity?”

“No, not at all.”

“Right. In order for you to perceive any sound at all, it has to exist against a background of silence.”


“Another way to put it is that you hear silence punctuated by a series of sounds that are not the silence. Now we could go just a step further, and say that all sounds are born from silence and die back into silence. But that the silence not only precedes every sound, but makes them possible.”


“No pun intended, but I’m dying to find out where you’re going with this.”

“I’ll wrap it up quickly since we’re almost at the hospital. Let’s just call the sounds individual things, beings, and lives, and let’s call the silence from which they come and into which they die eternal or immortal.”

“Immortal because it never dies.”

“Not quite; immortal because it is neither born nor dies. It plays outside of birth and death. Immortal in the sense of immutable. But far from empty; you could even think of it as eternal presence.”

“But it’s not a person for you.”

“Nope. But it is for you, and that’s fine. You’re in very good company historically.”

“Well. I see the Jesuits had quite an effect on you.”

“Ha! Yes indeed. Now may I scandalize you with one more comment?”

“Sure, why not.”

“There’s a tradition of Zen that refers to the same thing, the undying, as the Unborn.”

“Aha. Okay then.”

“You sure?”

“Yes, yes, that’s fine. This just raises more questions I have for you. You’re not off the hook, you know.”

“I would expect nothing less. How so this time?”

“I still suspect you’re a closet theist.”

“Non-theist. That’s different than being an atheist.”

“Sounds like a perfect place to pick up our next conversation. Next week?”

“Sounds good. Talk soon.”




Coming Home

I went to bed last Saturday night with every intention of making it to church the next morning.

As many of you know, I’ve been looking for a spiritual community for most of my life. Brought up Catholic, but now functionally Buddhist, I always longed to feel comfortable in the place so many friends and loved ones have gone to in times of need or everyday spiritual sustenance.

Recently, I made a couple of major life changes that made the search for a church all the more pressing. I won’t go into them here (except to note them) because a) that’s not what this blog is about and 2) that’s the kind of thing I prefer to etch into a diary instead.

Now the church I was trying out is in downtown Boston and I live in the suburbs, about 20 minutes away by train. That means I had to get up extra early to make it to the 9:30am service. As I’m a morning person, this usually doesn’t present much difficulty other than the usual obsessing over the right bow tie and/or cologne.

But this morning was different. I woke up late, and managed to just miss the train. That’s when things got interesting.

My usual response when things like this happen is exasperation, frustration, and anger with myself. In fact, it should have been doubled as it was a snowy morning, and the train is usually late, so I figured it would be even more late. Yet lo and behold, the train was on time — on a snowy morning, no less.

I should have been pretty upset, but I wasn’t. Instead, I was filled with a cool calm, and just found myself saying to myself, “no biggie, I’ll just double back home and catch the next train. Instead of the 9:30 Mass, I’ll catch the 11:30. It’s bound to be better anyway, as the priest will have a chance to revise his homily.”

Then, as I traveled home, I realized something else. I realized that the church I was heading to — the one I’d been to visit twice, on Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, recommended to me by a friend on Twitter — also felt, in a very weird and tentative way, like a home. I didn’t want to make too much of this at the time, but I made note of it.

A home. To appreciate the strangeness of that association you have to understand that Churches have mostly been a courthouse for me: places where judgment takes place.

As soon as I walk into a church, I can hear myself being judged in ways only Catholics can judge one another.

I’ll give you a small sample. I hear these things in my mind now, but many of them were actually said to me. Sometimes they were said far more kindly than I say them to myself. Sometimes a lot less.

“Why are you here? This is a church. We belong here. You don’t.”

“You see, we have some problems with people like you. And yes, when we say ‘we’ we mean the whole Catholic Church.”

“For one thing, you’re liberal. Liberals don’t go to church; liberals don’t even believe in God.”

“Another thing is you don’t vote Republican like we do, and sometimes as the priest tells us to. You think being gay is fine. You think priests should marry and that women should be priests. But worst of all, you don’t oppose abortion. That alone disqualifies you from being a Catholic.”

“Why? Because here we believe what we’re told to believe, not what we think or reason for ourselves. All of us believe the exact same thing in the exact same way, which is what gives our faith strength and power.”

“Your problem is you can’t listen to authority. We can, and yes, we think blind obedience to the right people on the right matters is a good thing. We know how to do that. You don’t.”

“We never, ever question our faith. We accept it. You’re so busy asking questions you don’t even have time to pray, which we do all the time. You should try it sometime, but not here. Go home and pray. This place is for Catholics only, and you are most definitely NOT a Catholic.”

“What are you even doing here in the first place? You don’t believe in God or Jesus. Your parents do, but not you. You’re too liberal and so-called ‘educated.’ We hear you also meditate, do yoga, and read Nietzsche. We know you’re not Catholic, and you may not even be Christian.”

“You don’t belong here. This is our church, not yours. Go away.”

I can’t remember a time in my life when I thought of a church as a home of any kind. As a kid I got dragged to church; the only times I went voluntarily after that were during times of intense personal crisis.

I said to myself in the car that while God may never have given me what I wanted (such as a clear sign on what to do about something very important), God did give me what I needed. That is to say, if it is true that what God calls us most to do is to be who we really are, then it’s clear God, the Tao, or the Universe has been nudging me more or less forcefully in that direction my whole life.

If I’d been paying closer attention, I’d have been creeped out by the fact that I was talking about God as a person rather than an experience and not having a major conniption about it.

About an hour later, I was on my the way to the train again. This time I gave myself extra time.

On that trip, I realized two more things. One is that I was going to church to find myself in some way. I know that sounds odd. Yet in some strange way, some part of me was already inside that building. It was simply calling out to me and I was simply answering.

Needless to say, if it had been calling me by name I’d be getting an MRI rather than the urge to write about it.

That led me to the second thing. For the first time, something was calling me to church, rather than pushing me to go from the outside or inside. Put another way, I was going to church because I wanted to, not because I had to or needed to.

There’s no way to know if this is just a passing thing or something more significant along a larger journey. But it felt important enough to share, so there you go.

Juan Williams & the Culture of Hate

I’ve been listening to a lot of the chatter that followed the firing of Juan Williams from National Public Radio. It falls neatly into two categories, but not the ones we’ve come to expect. And the party missing from the conversation — sidelined, perhaps — is all the more interesting for not trying to speak up.

Of course any conversation about culture has to involve the right – they’re the ones who invented the culture wars, after all. So the right is well represented by way of the steam they’re letting off.

The meme is familiar. Liberals — the source of all terrestrial evil — have once again conspired to infringe upon the civil liberties of good, patriotic, well-meaning conservatives. The victims, once again, are those poor souls who love their country so much they’re saying “what must be said,” trying only to expand the bounds of our civic discourse and thus improving our democracy. Their only presumable sin is to speak what is presumably on everyone’s mind.

These battered and wounded defenders of truth and freedom feel bludgeoned by the baton of “political correctness” under whose oppressive yoke they struggle to tell a very important “truth” — if only those evil liberals who control the media (and, presumably, the White House) would let them.

It’s enough to make you want your country back.

Eternally thoughtful (as only they can be) about the distinction between governments and private entities, the right doesn’t hesitate to describe NPR’s actions as censorship. Indignant and outraged over the firing, they are threatening to “stop watching” NPR and even calling for defunding it.

So much for the right. Now you’d expect the blowback to come from the left, no? No.

The other party to the conversation comes from those eminently calm, thoughtful, educated, mature, and responsible citizens who occupy the political “middle”.

You know these folks. They promise the light of reason where others provide only the heat of argument. They don’t shout. In fact, you’d get the impression reading or listening to them they’re not passionate about much at all (ok, maybe literature or the arts); certainly not about politics.

Here, in the “middle,” one finds not partisans (gasp!) but the understandable attempt to turn down the volume and analyze “the issues” in as dispassionate a way possible.

Here the sin is not to be liberal or politically correct so much as to have a horse in this race, to care enough to take sides in the culture wars. So yes, for them liberals also suck because they’re partisans, which makes them, for the middlers, equivalent to conservatives.

Middlers know and preach the truth of “there’s always another side to the story,” by which they mean each side is as good as any other. Thus standing in the middle expresses the highest form of intellectual, moral, and civic virtue. I like to call this the model of the citizen or journalist as jurist: dispassionate and unconcerned with “taking sides.”

In the “middle” one finds concern in the place of outrage, and thoughtful critique in place of diatribe. So while the right denounced the fact of Juan Williams’ firing, the middle turns its attention to analyzing the way in which he was fired, and what this means for the profession of journalism.

Both sides are united by more than a belief that liberals are bad, however. They share an assumption that there are things it is OK for a journalist to say on NPR but not on Fox (or perhaps even MSNBC). Most importantly, however, they both operate under the tacit assumption that Juan Williams was fired not because of what he said but because he violated the rules of an organization, in this case NPR.

The right, of course, finds no legitimacy in those rules whatsoever, while folks in the “middle” are trying to analyze or legitimate them. However, both the right and “the middle” seem to believe there is little to nothing wrong with what Juan Williams said. Jay Rosen, speaking on NPR puts it very directly at about 16:45 into the talk show:

“I don’t think that the specific words he uttered were really all that bad and deserved a firing in and of themselves.”

When this is taken as a given, without debate, it follows quite naturally that the attention be placed on NPR, its rules, and how it enforces them (or Fox’s, MSNBC’s, whoever’s). What I’m going to argue is that — whatever NPR’s stated reasons for the firing — it was perfectly appropriate to fire Juan Williams; not on journalistic but on moral grounds.

In order to do that, I have to point to the words I take to be grounds for firing, not just from NPR, but from any organization that claims to speak authoritatively on matters of political or public consequence:

“Political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don’t address reality. I mean, look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on a plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they’re identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”

First of all, I have to tell you, on a personal note, how reassured I am whenever anyone prefaces a remark with the disclaimer that s/he is not a bigot. “I’m not racist, but…” “Nothing against gays, but…” Whew. Looks like the idea occurred to at least one of us, though.

Kind of like when someone tells you a dream and then immediately says, “but it’s not about my mother.” But I digress.

Juan Williams prefaces his “truth” by establishing his bona fides as a non-bigot and as a civil rights warrior. Then this role model for us all tells us how frightened he is when boarding a plane and seeing individuals in “Muslim garb.”

As if each and every hijacker or terrorist, now and forever, wears Muslim garb.

As if he’s never heard of people being judged by their appearance, clothing, or the color of their skin.

As if we have more to fear from terrorists abroad than right here at home (I’m looking at you, Operation Rescue, Timothy McVeigh, and the Tea Party).

Think, Juan. That’s what they pay you for, isn’t it? To think before you speak?

What Juan Williams did, from the standpoint of someone on the left like me, is to legitimate hatred. He didn’t say, “I struggle with my fear of Muslims (that only benefits terrorists foreign and domestic),” he said, “hey, it’s OK to fear these people, I fear them myself.”

What he could have said is, “hey, the terrorists have won – they’ve gotten me to hate and suspect fellow Americans. Isn’t that great news for Al-Qaeda and those who benefit politically from ads like these?”

What Juan Williams did was give the green light to those who think it’s OK to ask Muslims to move their center out of TriBeCa. After all, we have a long history of Karl Lindners (always speaking from the thoughtful “middle”) asking certain families to move because of the “sensitivities” of the current residents.

Those sensitivities have to be respected, you see. And by respected we don’t mean listened to and understood but acted on.

Why? Because conservatives feel them, not liberals.

And of course, if you feel something, you have an obligation to say it. That’s a civic virtue known to every third-grader. Just ask yourself: where would we be as a civilization if we started keeping certain thoughts and feelings to ourselves?

Snark aside, and believe it or not, I’m actually quite down with honesty. In fact, I daresay I especially appreciate the unique courage it takes for people to confess a thought, feeling, or impulse they’re not too proud of, especially to someone they may barely know.

But that’s not what happened. What happened was Juan Williams consummating his years-long love affair with a network that spews hatred of liberals, gays, Muslims, Latinos, women, intellectuals, and the poor 24 hours a day. He consummated it with the words, “Oh, Bill, I hate too,” to which Bill replied, “of course it’s OK.”

“Come here,” said Sith Lord O’Reilly. I can hear Juan Williams crying into Bill’s arms even now. “You were right about those evil liberals, Bill.”

“Of course I was. There, there. Hey look, what about two million dollars?”

From my perspective, we don’t choose many of the thoughts and feelings we have. But we do get to choose our actions. Giving voice to hatred without in any way trying to suggest acting on it is wrong is, well, for partisan leftists like me anyway, just wrong.

Religion and the Movies

One question I get a lot is how I atheists like myself can light incense, cast circles, wake up to “Ganesha Sharanam” on their iPhone, attend a seder, hold an Easter vigil, or go around saying “blessed be” all the time.

It’s easy, really. And by “easy” I don’t mean “trivial.” Here’s what I mean.

I love movies. Maybe you do too.

If you’re like me, you love going to theaters. Ever since Star Wars came out, in fact, they’ve been my cathedrals (independent bookstores serving as churches). When kids came along, making trips out less frequent, one of the first things we did was get the biggest TV we could afford and a nice cable package.

When I do go to a theater — home or outside — I go to enjoy myself. But not just in the sense of entertainment; I go to literally en-joy — to fill myself up with something that moves and changes me; something that leaves me a more or less different person when I leave than when I came in.

Here’s what I don’t do. I don’t go just to hold up a picket sign outside, saying “don’t be deceived,” “only fools watch movies,” or “the images on the screen are not real.”

Here’s what else I don’t do, at least not since I was about five or so. I don’t pretend that what’s happening on the movie screen is either a videotape of real events or a window onto something actually happening in the here and now. I might if I’d never seen a movie before, but even then I suspect something might clue me in as to the images’ nature as images.

In order to enjoy the movie properly, I have to let myself into the world it presents me. Folded arms or beliefs in the literal physical existence of the images just get in the way.

For me, religion’s a little bit like a movie. It invites you to inhabit a world where you’re the object of an infinite divine love, someone bonded to a single omnipotent deity and others through a sacred covenant, or someone who hears the call to surrender completely to the will of the divine.

What I do with religions, then, is take any major claim they make and start asking myself a series of questions:

What kind of a world would it be if such things were possible?

What’s at stake for me as a believer of such claims? How would my life have to change to accommodate them?

Sometimes I the answer is rather pleasant. Sometimes it’s rather terrifying. Sometimes I have to just shake my head and admit I don’t have a good enough imagination to appreciate what a particular movie is trying to offer me. That’s when I place my trust in age, experience, or further reading to do the trick.

This is the existential side of religion, which Rilke put best in one of his most famous poems. This is the side that has the capacity to change, order, or restore a life, given the chance.

Fundamentalists might protest that I shouldn’t be making my own sensibility the judge of religious claims to truth. They might be right, but then again, I’m not sure we have any choice in the matter. That is to say, I suspect that not even the most devout believer submits to something they’re not already prepared to accept at some level.

Secularists might argue that I don’t fully appreciate how dangerous religious claims can be. I might have to agree here. Then again, all beliefs – including all the varieties of atheism – incur some sort of existential and political risk. For me, it’s just a matter of being as clear as possible with regard to which risks we’re prepared to take and for what reasons.

Most importantly, however, in a free country nobody bans the movies, forces you to attend them, or tell you which ones to go to. I like this approach. I think it allows me to be a better lover of the cinema.

The Metapsychology of the Meditator

People meditate these days for all sorts of reasons. I started it years ago to help keep my blood pressure low, but since then have discovered all sorts of “extra benefits.”

Chief among them seems to be the ability to keep my head in those times and places when I’m accustomed to losing it. Running a close second are an increased overall feeling of equanimity, plus a sense of greater perspective in life.

One of the questions I get most often from people who knew me before and after I started meditating is, “doesn’t meditation make you apathetic, especially to things like social injustice?”

In my case, I think time, the maturation of the frontal cortex, plus the calcium channel blocker I take have all had some effect on this. 🙂 However, I also wonder if such questions don’t also come from the same place that wonders if eastern religions — Buddhism in particular — don’t deliberately cultivate some state of indifference or affective numbness.

Thinking about this recently, I realized my life has put me in touch with several ways of understanding what it is that people like me are after when we meditate, work, and live, which is to say, play.


The first of these comes from my professional training many years ago, when I came cross Robert Fliess’ indispensable article for psychoanalytic clinicians “The Metapsychology of the Analyst.” In it, he argues against a view of analytic abstinence and neutrality as cold indifference to the patient. Instead, he suggests the analyst is deeply engaged with the patient, on an emotional level, but in a special way.

According to Freud, we’re made up of id, ego, and superego (think Yogi Bear, Boo-Boo, and Ranger respectively). What the good analyst does, according to Fliess, is imagine herself at the vertex of a pyramid which has the patient’s id, ego, and superego at the base.

This doesn’t mean the analyst doesn’t care, or pretends not to. It just means he tries to play fair, giving as much attention and air time to the different parts of a suffering person (conscious as well as otherwise) as possible. Non-classical types can easily substitute Fairbairn’s objects, Kohut’s bipolar self, or any old conflict for Freud’s structures.

Of course, the height (or depth) of the pyramid can vary according to the tastes and temperament of the analyst. The important thing to note is that the analyst refrains from gratifying the patient’s wishes not to be mean, cold, or just like her own analyst, but in the service of greater and better emotional contact with the patient. I like to call this empathy.

So to summarize my take on Fliess, abstinence serves neutrality, which allows the analyst to be in optimal contact with as much of his patient as possible. This, of course, is not cold detachment or indifference (ironic or otherwise). It is, instead, effective analytic relating.


The other part comes from some writings I came across in the course of my own spiritual wanderings, which began in Roman Catholicism and currently have me somewhere in that branch of Hindiusm called Advaita or nondualism. One of the folks I keep coming back to, over and over again, is Meister Eckhart.

Eckhart is a mystic, which for me means he has and cultivates a deeply felt connection to a universe experienced as mystery (as opposed to mere problem). For the mystic, this connection can be personal or transpersonal; for Eckhart I think it was both.

The best ideas, from my standpoint, are so much more than simple thoughts or notions, and they transcend time, place, and culture so much that anyone can benefit from them (even non-Catholics, non-Christians, and non-theists like me). Eckhart had at least one of these, which in the original German is called Gelassenheit. In English, it’s most often rendered as “releasement.”

Like Fliess, Eckhart was concerned with trying to get others in the proper or best alignment with the things they’re most concerned about. For Fliess, this was the analytic patient. For Eckhart, it’s God.

For me, Gelassenheit is Eckhart’s way of suggesting we “let go” of created things in order to make room for God. Sounds easy until you think of what’s “created” under this definition — everything except God!

My reading of Eckhart has him saying we all too often hang on to thoughts, feelings, people, memories and events, or words (like “God”) in such a rigid and static way that we think we know what they mean, they become stale and lifeless to us, or they hold way too much power over us. In short, our relationship to these things (not these things in and of themselves!) needs changing, and this is accomplished through meditation and prayer.

The most provocative of these is the prayer to God to be rid of God:

So I say that one should be so poor [in spirit, that is, in will] that he should not be or have any place in which God could work. When one clings to place, he clings to distinction. Therefore I pray God that he may make me free of “God,” for my real being is above God if we take “God” to be the beginning of created things.

What I think Eckhart is inviting us to do be just skeptical enough about experience to see it as our experience. This, in turn, allows us to better take in the perspective of others, presumably including the divine one as well. In eastern terms, Eckhart seems to be saying just relax your iron grip on the things you love most and they’ll be returned to you a thousandfold.


It should come as no surprise that geometry has long since been used as a metaphor for right living. In his Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius comes right out and says that perturbatio — the Latin term for the suffering that comes from internal turmoil, often mistranslated as “passion” — is like traveling around the circumference of a circle. Peace of mind, then, comes from inhabiting the motionless hub or center.

For philosophers, understanding is what happens at the hub, while reason and passion is what happens on the periphery.

For Boethius, that’s also where God lives. Presumably, this is the perspective outside the fields of space and time, where divine foreknowledge doesn’t interfere with the workings of free will any more than the center of a circle interferes with the movement of the radius or circumference.

In fact, my reading of Boethius suggests God and creation mutually enable one another to exist.

So what does all this have to do with meditation? Well, the effective meditator (or prayer, or worker, or liver of live, which is to say, player) doesn’t do what she does to escape life, but to embrace and fulfill it, on its own terms, by going straight to the center.

The Movies

Since I can remember, movies and bookstores have been my cathedrals. Here’s an example from a recent movie to illustrate what I mean.

When we meditate, pray, work, play, or do anything in the attempt to escape the sufferings (or joys) of our life, we either don’t get very far (best outcome), hurt ourselves in the process (worse), or delude ourselves completely (worst).

So what do we do?

Check out the ending of one of my favorites, Lost in Space. Pay special attention to what William Hurt suggests the pilot do in order to survive (as well as escape) a rapidly disintegrating planet.

The answer: go down (“go under“), into the source of the trouble, where and when your planet is breaking up all around you.

Fly into the center. Hell, if you like. This is what the meditator does, and what’s often counterintuitive in times of personal crisis or tragedy. You reach out, touch, and embrace your thoughts, memories, joys, pains, or indifferences, not run away from them (tempting as it might be sometimes).

At the center, there’s just enough gravity to protect you from the explosion (of a rapidly collapsing self or identity) as well as catapult you on your journey.

In psychoanalytic terms, this means allowing yourself close enough to your customer(‘s narrative) to catalyze a new, richer phase of the work.

In spiritual terms, this means clearing your yard so that God or transcendence can happen, however your tradition understands either term.

In philosophical terms, it means untangling yourself from judgment just enough to get into the realm of understanding.

In psychological terms, it’s how you blur or otherwise suspend the subject / object split enough to let go of self-consciousness, get on the dance floor, and flow.

As always, expect revisions, enjoy, and feel free to pass along comments and suggestions.

Catholic in America

Quite the controversy was stirred up recently when it was revealed that Bishop Thomas Tobin of Rhode Island had asked Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) to refrain from taking communion. The reason?

Here’s the bishop himself offering a synopsis:

“He attacked the church. He attacked the position of the church on health care, on abortion, on funding,” Tobin said. “And that required that I respond. I don’t go out looking for these guys. I don’t go out picking these fights.”

You could have fooled me, Your Excellency.

“Attacked.” Pretty strong words. I think if you ask most people, “attack” brings up notions of adversary or enemy. So according to the bishop, Patrick Kennedy is the enemy of the Catholic Church, at least in Rhode Island.

Why? Ah yes, he “attacked” the position of the Church on health care and abortion. Did he really?

I don’t know. But here’s what I wonder.

I wonder if the people who seem like the Church’s greatest enemies aren’t doing them the greatest of services. I also wonder if love and devotion is always and everywhere expressed through cognitive agreement.

I also wonder who or what I’m hurting if I call into question the “morality” of holding health care reform hostage to the abortion issue. Am I really supposed to keep my mouth shut on these or other matters of morality simply because I’m no longer a Catholic?

I think some would have us believe that Catholics, Christians, or the religious in general enjoy an exclusive right to speak with authority on moral matters. They might even suggest that whenever something is done in the name of religion it should enjoy an automatic immunity from criticism or critique (especially of the internal variety).

I couldn’t disagree more.

You see, I question the genesis of the Stupak Amendment. I wonder if it was ever really designed to serve the anti-abortion cause. I wonder, instead, if its timing doesn’t reveal it to be a legislative hand grenade lobbed in the general direction of a President and his party.

And speaking of morality, I also question the morals of threatening to withdraw aid to the poor if lesbians and gays are granted equal protection under civil (not natural, not canon, but civil) law in the District of Columbia.

In recent years, I’ve come to question whether the only legitimate way to oppose abortion is to support its re-criminalization. For a bit longer, I’ve questioned whether making abortion a litmus test for membership in the Catholic communion reduces the faith to the status of a political movement, or ties its fortunes excessively to those of a particular political party.

I’ve also wondered out loud whether it’s pastorally, theologically, or morally appropriate for bishops or priests to use what Catholics consider to be a sacrament – the body and blood of their risen Lord – as a political weapon to punish dissident Catholics.

I also question whether such practices are in keeping with what many regard as the bishops’ highest function: to be a pastor.

Is it any more appropriate to withhold Communion from a seeking parishioner than it is to withhold food from a misbehaving guest to one’s home? How about from one’s misbehaving child?

When parents threaten to withhold food, does this suggest to the outside observer that they’ve got matters firmly in hand, or that things are getting a little out of control?

What would you do if you heard a parent threatening a child this way in a public place? Would you get angry or upset? And would you walk away simply because “that’s an internal family matter?”

Or would your humanity and concern for the (spiritual) child – or awareness of the significance of (spiritual) food lead you to say, “hey, bishop, wait a minute, hold on, time out!”

Lastly, back when I was a “capital C” Catholic I heard some pretty interesting things about the sacrament of Communion. Among those were its description as a transformative encounter in more ways than one.

There’s the transsubstantiation, to be sure, the mysterious conversion of bread and wine to the body and blood of someone who conquered death (and did this in order to pay the tab for everybody). But there was also something about transformation of souls.

I ask myself this: isn’t it possible that administering the sacrament of Communion might, in and of itself, change hearts? On things like abortion? Or the pastorality of using the Host in particular ways?

Now this is just a hunch, and I could be wrong, but let me share my suspicions anyway.

What if those who refuse to acknowledge possibilities like the foregoing don’t believe enough in the power of the sacrament? Logically, then, they’d have to resort to their own powers – ministrations, exhortations, and other behaviors – to make the things they want to happen take place.

I wonder, then, what would happen if they stepped out of the way a little bit and just let the sacrament do its work.

Back when I was considering becoming a priest, I had a spiritual director who said that Catholics who didn’t fully believe in the power of the sacraments weren’t bad or evil people, simply not fully converted Catholics. I’ve never been able to shake those words or their effect on me.

Anyway, those are my pastoral, moral, and theological concerns with the bishop’s actions. Here are my political ones.

Whenever any cleric applies political pressure to an elected official of their faith, it undermines a particular kind of trust. The voter in a pluralistic society which believes in the separation of church and state needs to believe in the independence of their elected officials from their church.

Not divorce. Not marriage. Independence.

Of course, in a theocracy, none of this matters. But we’re not a theocracy, at least not yet.

Let’s say you’re not Catholic. What incentive could you possibly have to vote for someone who’s at risk of having to answer to their priest or bishop instead of to you, her constituent?

Let’s say you are Catholic, and would dearly love to see more of your people elected to higher office. You thought the days of anti-Catholic prejudice were over, when people accused people like Jack Kennedy of being an agent of the Pope. But now those criticisms are back, and you’re forced to defend your faith and citizenship once again.

The harm to the political fortunes of Catholic politicians in a pluralistic society would be minimized if the pressure were applied behind closed doors. But it’s not. It’s a spectacle now.

The bishop’s actions would be pastoral if the shepherd’s staff were a javelin, but it’s not.

And the bishop’s actions would be great politics if we were a nation of Catholics, and conservative Republicans ones at that.

But we’re not.

As with anything I write, I reserve full permission to revise and extend my remarks on these matters in the face of new and compelling evidence.

Readers, where have I gotten it wrong? Let me know, and I’ll proudly post whatever it is you convince me of in my next post on this topic.

Puritanism and the American Project

The Puritans have received a lot of praise for being among the first and most successful American colonists, as well as for imparting a unique individualism and work ethic onto the American political landscape.

It’s been my view for a long time, however, that while individual Puritans may or may not deserve praise, Puritanism itself does not. In fact, I think quite the opposite is the case: that the noose gradually tightening for years around the neck of our political and civic discourse has been nothing other than a resurgence of Puritanism in American culture.

I should probably define my terms. I use “Puritanism” to refer to intrinsically antiseptic, at times anaphylactic reaction to life, experience, and its possibilities. Like any good Calvinist, the Puritan divides up reality between an all-good God and an all-terrible human and physical nature, and looks at life as a series of unending chores to be responsibly, humorlessly, and stoically performed.

To quote Nietzsche, Puritanism is life-denying, rather than life-affirming.

Now it’s not bad to be a Puritan when you’ve got actual chores to do, work to get done that’s not intrinsically pleasurable or otherwise gratifying, or a whole lot of sensuous temptations at your doorstep. As with anything else, we can overdose on life and its possibilities, and it’s good to take a breather from it every once in a while, if for no other reason than to organize ourselves and/or get our bearings.

It’s when that breather becomes crystallized into a moral stance that the trouble starts. Austerity, a necessity under conditions of economic hardship, gets easily generalized for some into a global virtue. Regardless of the state of the (or our) economy, we find ourselves as conservative with respect to our bodies and each other as we are with our dollars.

Conservatism is the key phrase for the Puritan, as in “be careful.” Too much food will make you fat. Too much sex will make you unfit to stand before God.

Too much compassion for others will make you weak, effeminate, drain your resources, or needlessly protect others from the liberating (and God-ordained) consequences of their own behavior.

Too much imagination will compromise your grip on reality. Too much wishing will do the same, but faster. Too much passion will dull your mind, and bring you that much closer to the animals we’re all so superior too (we have to eat them, after all).

And if you derive any pleasure at all from the exercise of the intellect…well, then…you know what to do. For Puritans, Anti-intellectualism can be as much a sacred calling, after all, as purging the art and other extravagance from your home.

In short, too much life will make you dizzy, so the message is: be careful when dipping into the sauce, literal or otherwise.

At the heart of the Puritan response to life is the cold, lonely individualism of Calvinism. In Calvin’s world, we are all fundamentally alone and cut off from one another, so we cannot depend on anyone but God for help when things get tough (it goes without saying that, others, being human and sinful, cannot possibly be coextensive with God).

It is thus that resting your head on the shoulder of another — whatever the reason or purpose — is forbidden. And there goes the social contract, replaced instead by the contract on all of us taken out by a petty, vindictive, and all-powerful celestial being who’s already picked those he’s going to save, and is just not telling us.

You know, like any good loving father would.

What Puritans are telling us is that they’re cold, they’re frightened, and that whatever love they have left feels like the precious bodily fluids of the general in Dr. Strangelove: something that could be stolen by others on a moment’s notice.

Love is a zero-sum game for Puritans: the more you withhold, the more you have. When you share it, it disappears; when you hoard it, it appreciates in value.

As with cash, a dollar spent is a dollar lost. Returns on investments of love or compassion are almost unheard of for the Puritan; in fact, the very notion of a stock market is like gambling. And we know how we feel about that.

In politics, the individualism at the core of Puritanism takes on a perverse twist. It’s not just when times are tough, economically or socially, that we have to fend for ourselves. It’s always.

That’s why helping one another out with things like universal access to health care would corrupt them: you’re giving someone a fish instead of teaching them how to fish for themselves.

And there lurks another hidden fear of the Puritan: depending on others. God help you, the Puritan shouts from the rooftops, if you’re ever forced to rely on anyone for anything. Not only is this unnatural, they claim, but unholy: one should only rely on oneself and God.

For the Puritan, depending on others is like giving another sinner the keys to your house. Do you really trust that stranger? Of course not! Then see to it you never need them for anything. Ever.

Puritanism is, by that score, also deeply apolitical. If politics — at least at the professional level — is about cultivating relationships of mutual reward and dependence, then the Puritan can have nothing of it.

Unless, of course, she’s in charge of the whole colony.

In addition, helping the poor, unfortunate, and afflicted on anything but an individual-to-individual basis only interferes with God’s plan to condemn the unholy. And we know, from Calvin, that God’s held that lottery already.

This is the crowning achievement of someone like Ayn Rand: the ability to combine the uniquely Puritanical mixture of selfishness, individualism, condescension, mean-spiritedness, and authoritarianism into a single “philosophy” and market the entire package as a virtue.

So what’s the answer? I don’t know. Part of me thinks you can unfreeze a Puritan by giving them the kind of love and compassion they’re so unwilling to bestow on others, but experience teaches me this can be very, very draining. Poor souls are so starved they either lick it right up or toss those cookies right back at you.

I think, rather, the Puritan spirit needs to be deconstructed, analyzed, and understood. Only then can we recognize its workings in each and every one of us; we are, after all, our own best bomb squads.