Since I occasionally blog about religion (especially Catholicism and Christianity), it’s probably incumbent upon me to say a few words about my own beliefs and practices. My hope is that this little snapshot of where I am now (January 2016) and where I came from spiritually will illuminate what I have to say about religion, and not detract too much from it.
Maybe I should start with a few words on what I take religion to be, For me, religion what binds us (re-ligio) in a very important way. I think there are three important sense of the word *bind*.
The first one that comes to mind is the one I associate the most with organized religion. That’s the binding of ourselves to something outside of ourselves, something larger than us, that transcends us and our lives. I’m thinking here of things like an institution, a tradition, a faith community, a set of beliefs, or a set of practices.
The second sense of the word flows quite naturally from the first. If and when we make the conscious commitment to bind ourselves to something larger than us, that something can then make claims on us.
That is to say, people and texts (which have to be interpreted by people) can then start telling us what we can or cannot do, how we ought to think, or even how we ought to feel. Having bound ourselves to them, now they bind us.
The third is the sense of binding as in wrapping ourselves up or pulling ourselves and our lives together. This is religion as the kind of activity that gives our lives a sense of history, meaning, wholeness, and integrity. Remember, by the way, that integer means “whole” in Latin.
So for me religion is not just something you do on a Sunday, or what you believe about the Virgin Birth. It’s about how you hold your life together in a way that not only makes sense to you but hopefully gives you some reason to get out of bed in the morning.
I think religion is about what’s important to you. And since everyone has something or someone important to them, it follows that everyone has a religion. Now that’s not to say everyone worships something.
And that brings me to the first thing I learned about myself spiritually, which is that I am constitutionally incapable of worshipping.
I was raised in a Roman Catholic household, and taken to Mass every Sunday. That meant I was kneeling, standing, sitting, singing along, and, at the right time, telling each and every person in the room what I claim to think and believe.
I couldn’t stand it then, and I still can’t stand it now, at the ripe old age of 48.
To show you what I mean, let me contrast worship with prayer. Now I’m not always keen on, but I can do it in a pinch. What’s the difference?
I think of prayer as a conversation. Between you and God, you and the universe, what have you. Friends of mine who meditate or do yoga think if them as forms of prayer, and I think they’re right.
So what’s a conversation? It’s a back-and-forth, a more or less genuine exchange with someone else that has at least two very important properties.
One of them is that nobody can predict what’s going to be said or where the conversation is going to go. If you can, the conversation loses its fun, we get bored, and we seek a better or real one. One that is at least capable of surprising us and giving us something new.
Or, in the case of prayer, capable of helping us become someone new.
I’ll share a little bit more I learned about prayer from growing up Catholic and going to a Jesuit university. Prayer is a conversation you start or gets started for you. When you start it (or really just think you’ve started it) it’s because you’re looking for something or someone larger than you.
When it gets started for you, it’s by what Rudolf Otto called the mysteriumtremendum. This is what most of us would call God, nature, the universe, ultimate reality, or what have you. And it varyingly calls us through emotions such as awe, reverence, peace, sadness, joy, despair, boredom, or even abject terror.
Prayer is also reciprocal. You speak, someone or something else responds, then you speak, etc. It’s not a conversation between equals, of course, but that doesn’t stop it from being a two-way street.
Again, if we’re talking and no one’s listening, we get some combination of angry, bored, or tired, and we walk away. In fact, I’ll wager that when people who pray begin to feel like God isn’t there or doesn’t care, that the vast majority of those people stop praying.
And I’m not a spiritual director, but I suspect everyone who has a developed prayer life has been to these places (eg the Dark Night of the Soul), and comes to learn that they’re just part of the larger conversation.
If you push me, I’ll probably admit that worship is also a kind of conversation, and every bit as hierarchical as prayer. But if it is a kind of conversation, I don’t think it’s a very good one. Here’s why.
For me, worship is, first and foremost, a one-way street. The object of worship is under no obligation to acknowledge me, much less return the favor. In fact, the object of worship doesn’t even have to acknowledge that worship is taking place.
In a dating context, by the way, I find this kind of behavior completely unacceptable.
Now make worship a requirement. Demand it, and insist that the object of worship will not be in the least convinced you really mean it unless and until you do X, Y, and Z in this or that way. What does that begin to sound like?
This is how worship has always been sold to me. It’s made me wonder a lot of things, most of all what kind of God is insecure enough to insist on it. It’s also made me think worship calls for love, submission, and obedience, whereas prayer calls for friendship and love.
As a result, if and when I do practice Catholicism, it’s almost always in the privacy of my own car or home. Maybe Church on a holiday, but even then I’m usually reciting the Mass in Spanish or Latin instead of English.
But that’s not all. Growing up Catholic, I was not only asked to conform at the level of behavior (as Solomon Asch might say), but at the level of perception as well. That is to say, I was not only told what to do and when to do it, I was told what to believe as well.
The problem was, and still is, that there are some very important things the overwhelming majority of lay Catholics and clergy seem to think is essential to the faith to believe. Now I think these are important matters, too. I just take a contrary position on them, and always have.
And while I think they’re important matters of politics and public policy, I don’t think they’re at all central to the faith, but peripheral. I also think they speak more to the historical and cultural wrapper all faiths have to come in.
And here I distinguish the eternal, unchanging, infinite, and transcendent message of religion from the temporal, changing, finite, and immanent world we live in.
Are there moral absolutes in a finite and contingent world? Good question. The Church seems to think there are, and I’ve never been convinced.
That’s in very broad and general terms. What’s specifically tripped me up whenever I’ve tried to be Catholic is being asked to at least try to believe all of the following: that contraception is wrong, that being gay or transgender is wrong, that abortion should be re-criminalized, and that priests should be male and celibate (instead of just chaste, for example).
I never have, and I don’t think I ever will. In fact, I don’t see how in good conscience I can.
What’s Wrong With You?
I started giving voice to these concerns starting in the 3rd grade or so. Over the years, I’ve gotten a number of more or less interesting, frustrating, and useful responses.
Interestingly, none of them have ever quenched my desire to be Catholic. What they’ve done, rather, is help illuminate it.
The oldest and most common set of responses sees my concerns as having a lot more to say about me than about the Church or organized religion.
This set lays the blame on me for not going to Church. Who am I to demand that the Church change its teaching to suit my needs? Don’t I know that the strength of the Church is its reliance on tradition? And what right do I have to say anything about the Church given how rarely I attend Mass?
Some of these folks see “my problem” as some combination of arrogance, stubbornness, or spiritual naiveté. Others see it as difficulties with commitment or authority.
All of them say that unless and until I change my tune, I’ll never be a Catholic in good standing. Most, if not all, recommend I pray to God for the grace to be able to worship.
A second set sees my struggle differently. This group tells me Church isn’t so much about what you believe, but how you behave. They also tell me Church is far less about what you think (or how well you do) than how deeply and profoundly you feel; specifically, towards God and your fellow human being.
Some in this group have even gone so far as to congratulate me on my reasoned opposition to faith as this is, for them, clear evidence of an over-reliance on reason. Of course I can’t find God using the light of reason, they say, because God is ultimate mystery.
They invite me to see going to Mass — and religion in general — as taking a leap of faith and putting my trust in God. Stop making reason the charioteer of my life and let God drive, as it were.
Yet another group tells me God loves me, concerns and all, and that I should feel perfectly free bringing them to Church with me. Why? Well, they say, first we’re all sinners. But they don’t interpret sin in moral terms so much as existential ones; that is to say, they see sin more as an estrangement from the divine than transgression.
Second, they say, in a healthy family everybody’s invited to dinner and nobody has to agree on everything in order to sit down, relax, converse, and enjoy the meal.
What Have I Learned?
Looking back, a few things seem clear.
One was that since childhood, I’d always been able to find God in all things, just not as a person. The more I looked for a person to thank and praise for making the universe, the less I found one.
But the more I opened myself up for moments of genuine awe and wonder before the beautiful, the terrifying, or the numinous, the more I found what I think most people would call God.
Put much more simply, for me, God was never a who or a what for me, but always a where and a when.
I also learned that the best way to do justice to this kind of God-experience was not through prayer, but through meditation. I see both of them as forms of conversation with the divine, but with an interesting twist.
In prayer, the me and God are front and center, as Martin Buber so nicely describes in terms of “I” and “Thou.” But in meditation, the “I” dissolves, and with it, I found, almost all of my problems with religion.
It’s also clear to me by looking at my bookshelf that I’ve always had a love affair with the mystics of all faiths. The organized religion of my childhood demonized it as dangerous, while the atheism of my early adult years dismissed it as silly and childish.
In addition to the health benefits, meditation still give me the answers I’m looking for; oddly enough, by dissolving the questioner. Who or what am I? What’s my purpose on this earth? Do I get a second chance? How do I deal with horrible people?
I haven’t dispensed with theism completely. As my little ones live in a world enchanted by fairies, I also enjoy chatting with divinities from time to time. Lady Luck, the Greek pantheon, and a Hindu, Norse, or Greek deity or two all make appearances in the car when I’m driving, or in the morning when I’m doing free writing.
I love chatting with these folks in exactly the same way, and with as much gusto, as I do losing myself in a good book, movie, work of art, or song. That is to say: truly, madly, deeply, and only long enough for me to come out of the experience a more or less different person than when I came in.
Catholic with a Little “c”
I’ve also never fully left the Catholicism of my childhood behind. The closest I ever come these days to feeling Catholic (or even Christian) is when I pick up the powerfully transformative works of people like Meister Eckhart, Karl Rahner, or Dr. Martin Luther King.
I love Eckhart’s thoughts on Gelassenheit are must-reads for people of all faiths (they also give the psychoanalytic concept of neutrality its clinical teeth – more on that in another post). There’s no one like Rahner to push Heidegger back into the seminary and make him finish what he started as a kid. No, it’s not the Heidegger we know anymore. But for lovers of philosophy and theology, wow, what a Christology.
And Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail is, for me, the single most important translation of the Gospel of Matthew into the English language. Every time I read it, I’m reminded of the fact that had I been raised in a black church (or had liberation theologians in my earliest life), I’d no doubt be a minister or priest right now.
Anyway, the chips fell where they did, and that’s fine. More than one Zen commentator has remarked that the secret to life is to regard everything that happens as opening up the very best of all possible worlds, and I think they’re right on the money with that one.
Almost a decade ago, I assisted at the delivery of my first child. The very first thing I did as soon as I cut the umbilical cord was greet my little girl with an om mani padme om. I did the exact same thing for for my second little girl, born two years later.
My intention in both cases was to be the very first person to welcome them into this sacredly profane world, by giving voice to the hope that they come to experience the kind of enlightenment and cessation of suffering that as of yet eludes their father.
I thought of this ritual as a blessing and form of home-brewed baptism that serves at least two important functions. It expresses my “roll your own” approach to religion, and gives my kids something to say when people ask “what religion are you?”
Until such time, of course, as they pick something more suitable.
No Rest for Rascals
Not long thereafter, however, came the questions from friends and family: “when’s the baptism?” That was when I realized I wasn’t done with organized religion.
I informed parents and friends that no Catholic baptism was forthcoming, as I wasn’t even a Christian. This got a few gasps and panics.
“But don’t you love about your children?” “What will people say?” “You have a responsibility as a parent to look out for their spiritual well-being!” And my favorite: “Don’t take out your childish hostility against God and religion out on them!”
It turns out that something I only suspected as a child was indeed, deeply true: that for many, like my loved ones, religion served primarily to mitigate fear of the unknown. And that their biggest fear was invoking the wrath of a vengeful celestial deity who will strike them down if they do things wrong.
Put another way, what was sold to me under the guide of everlasting love was unmasked as everlasting fear. Fear of social sanction. Fear of disapproval. Fear of political reprisal. Fear of God.
Anyway, it seems that what I did by not baptizing my daughters into the Catholic faith was awaken for almost all my loved ones the abject terror they live with every day: that one will offend an incredibly thin-skinned, judgmental, vindictive, and spiteful celestial superpower through a more or less deliberate act that’s taken as willfulness or disobedience.
A priest was left with the task of putting it to me in a not-so-nice way: I was condemning my children to hell by not having them baptized Catholic. I thanked this kind gentleman for his concern, and closed my meeting with him by assuring him I had every intention of protecting my children from the likes of him and everyone else who lived in utter fear.
My ex-wife is a theist, and takes the girls to her church when she has them every other Sunday. When my kids ask me on my parenting weekends why I don’t take them to church, I say, look around you, look at you, me, your sister, this house, this backyard, this sun, and this sky. This is my church. And it can be yours too, in addition to the one your mother is bringing you up in.
I guess you could say my religion, to the degree I have any, is iconoclastic in nature, kind of like Alan Watts’ notion of a “religion of no religion.” Am I a theist? Until very recently, I used to say yes, a polytheist who prepares on a daily basis to play dialogue with any gods willing to return the favor.
But now I say no, I’m a non-theist. “Atheist” seems to cede too much ground to those who believe monotheism is normative.
It’s not that I don’t have gods, I do. I just don’t relate to them in the manner which, say, Hindus typically do on a daily basis. Or Wiccans.
Carl Jung was probably the first person to give voice to the view I currently hold, which is that for me, the gods are archetypes.
Archetypes occupy a metaphysical space right between gods and literary figures. They’re not trivial or insignificant, like cartoon characters, nor are they anything that lives completely independent of human desires and concerns.
The Hindus also, I think, have their finger on a crucial spiritual-religious truth when they distinguish saguna brahman (“the god / ultimate reality to which qualities can be attached”) from nirguna brahman (“the god or ultimate reality beyond qualities”).
Saguna brahman attracts and encourages worship, the way of devotion. Nirguna brahman instead evokes meditation and wonder, the way of contemplation. The God beyond God, for all you theists.
Of course you can have both in your life; some (not me) would argue you have to. So yes, I’ll tend to say hi to Ganesh first thing in the morning, meditate, and even make the sign of the cross occasionally. Why?
For much the same reason I’d send my kid to Disney World or to see Star Wars and say, “get in there, get into it, have a blast, enjoy this amazing universe; I’ll be waiting here for you when you’re done.”
And even when I’m not there, I’ll still be there.
I think what I’ve taken away most from my Catholic upbringing is an appreciation for the sacramental quality of everyday life. Or as the Jesuits say, God in all things.
Interestingly, it was only by removing the creedal baggage from my experience of the sacred that I was able to open up to it more fully.
There’s no question my religious views, ways of expressing them, and actions with respect to my kids have opened up quite the rift between me and my family, me and my culture. I have faith this rift is ultimately a positive one, and doesn’t need to be covered up or glossed over in order for everyone to be treated with respect.
Occasionally someone still asks me, if I don’t believe in a Sky King, on what my faith rests. If I answer at all, I tend to say that it doesn’t need to rest on anything at all to be real, true, or full.
Update (March, 2018)
I’ve been updating this essay for the better part of the last several years, and decided it’s time just to write an addendum. Too much has changed, and the old ways of looking at things seem less like something I want to edit than just append.
Plus, it’s nice to have this to look back on.
Since I wrote this piece, I joined a church, and stopped attending after about four months. Long story short, I realized the organized religious life is just not for me. While I met a lot of nice people, I also met a lot of very judgmental people, who unfortunately have made their way into the governance of the church. So no (or better yet, no thanks) to being judged for being pro-choice or thinking women should be ordained.
Probably the most significant spiritual development to report since my last update is when I came upon some very special words. I don’t know if you’ve ever had the experience of living some basic truth for most (if not all) your life, and then suddenly been given a really neat way to put it in words.
Throughout my life, I struggled to imagine God as a person, only to rub up against different people’s notions of God, often far more controlling and vengeful than mine. Some people describe a benevolent father or king, others a despot, others an innocent, vulnerable child.* Doesn’t work for me as a religion. Maybe if I were in the military, but I’m not.
Also, not a few people have always described God the same way people in abusive relationships describe their partner. Needless to say, I want no part of that.
But trying to imagine God as this impersonal entity didn’t work for me, either. Clearly God (or Being, the Universe) means something to me, but as a principle? Substance? Doesn’t work. Too ethereal, too empty for me of the kinds of feelings I associate with “being in God’s presence,” if I’m using that term correctly.
I don’t know where the words came from, but here they are. Inasmuch as it makes any sense for me to talk of a God at all, God has always been more of a when and where, rather than a who or a what.
I know it sounds simple, but those words have a lot of real, personal meaning for me. God as event, the way some people talk about art, music, or architecture as event. That fits. That works.
I’m sure as there will be edits as I am there will be more to say soon. Thanks for reading.
*The only Christian theology I can read now is stuff on the “weakness of God.”