Religion and Life: A Personal and Public Essay

church pewThe 16th century English chancellor and later Catholic saint Thomas Moore was, in the words of dramatist Robert Bolt, “a man for all seasons.” Religion itself is an ever-present “topic for all seasons,” but in a presidential election year it seems more so than ever. Remember the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy in 2008? Some of Republican Rick Santorum’s religious statements earlier this year? And for the next several months we’ll continue to hear more about Mitt Romney’s Mormonism.

But religion is not only a fit subject for public discourse, but also a very personal matter. Just recently, two writers have demonstrated this. One is Bill Keller of The New York Times, and the other is physicist and former Oberlin College president Robert Fuller in a series of essays that are appearing on the LA Progressive. In their essays, as in many others on religion, the personal and public aspects intersect. And so they shall in this present essay.

Let’s start with the personal. I was raised Catholic. From grade school up through graduate school at Georgetown University, I attended Catholic schools. Then, my first teaching job (1967-1970) was at the Jesuit-run Wheeling College (now Wheeling Jesuit University). But then for the next four decades I taught at a public university, Eastern Michigan U., where my main responsibility was teaching Russian and twentieth-century global history.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church was changing, mainly due to the leadership of Pope John XXIII, who was elected pope in 1958 and died in 1963, a year after calling together the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965). Like many liberal Catholics, I was delighted with the changes he introduced into Catholic life, such as a more ecumenical spirit and masses in one’s native language instead of Latin.

One of the highlights of my six months in Europe with the U.S. Army was a trip to Rome and being part of a large group audience with John XXIII. With the Catholic John Kennedy as president (1961-1963) and imbibing the liberal Catholic spirit of Georgetown as a graduate student from 1962 to 1967, it was a good time to be a Catholic. When it came time to choose a Ph.D. dissertation subject, I decided to write on the ecumenical religious and philosophic Russian thinker, Vladimir Soloviev (1853-1900), who was also a vigorous opponent of nationalism and the strongest Russian critic of anti-Semitism (see here for my 1970 article on him and Russia’s Jews).

During my three years at Wheeling College, I knew many good Catholic priests and laypersons, and in general the college took part in the ecumenical spirit of the times. Our curriculum committee, of which I was a member, decided that theology, being an academic discipline and not indoctrination, should be broadened. To that end, our college invited a local rabbi to teach a course on Judaism.

Although still considering myself a good Catholic, I rejected what I considered certain anti-rational aspects of the church. Several hours into a weekend cursillo (an intense type of spiritual retreat), I walked out when I became convinced its structure reflected a not-too-sophisticated attempt at brainwashing. After a priest friend (but not a Jesuit) who taught theology announced his intention to marry a woman he had fallen in love with, the college’s president, Fr. Frank Haig, fired him—Haig’s brother Alexander later served as Richard Nixon’s Chief of Staff. In protest, I proclaimed I would also leave the college.

Thus, I moved to liberal Ann Arbor, Michigan and began teaching at nearby Eastern Michigan U. For a while, my wife, Nancy, and I continued to be church-going Catholics, and all three of our children were baptized into the church, but our liberal thinking seemed increasingly at odds with a church whose progressive spirit declined after John XXIII’s death.

Because of a departmental need in the late 1970s, for a few years I taught a course in comparative religions. Like some other earlier liberal Catholics, especially monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968), I came to admire many of the insights of Eastern religions, especially Zen Buddhism. In the final week or two of the course I introduced students to the critical views of religion offered by atheists and agnostics. My general approach was to tell students that their first job was to try to understand all the belief systems we talked about (including atheism, which I also regard as a “belief”). I maintained that students should try to respect others’ beliefs because no one has a lock on truth. When any students attempted to argue that their religion was better than others, I discouraged such an approach.

By the early 1980s, by which time I no longer taught the course, I considered myself an agnostic: maybe there is a God, and maybe not. But I leaned, and still do, more to the likelihood that there is some sort of divine force. It seems more rational to me and a lesser leap of faith than believing that all the wondrous and powerful forces of the universe, including the mind-blowing complexity of the cosmos, with its million of galaxies and billions of stars, just spontaneously occurred.

Such a leaning brings me close to the thinking of such Enlightenment figures as Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin, not bad intellectual company to keep. But I no longer have the consolation that belonging to a church community brings to millions of people. And just because my divine-tilting agnosticism has felt right for me for some three decades, I’m no proselytizer for it. Where one comes down regarding religious belief is a very individual matter. As Chekhov once wrote, “Between ‘there is a God’ and ‘there is no God’ lies a whole vast tract, which the really wise man crosses with great effort.” What’s right for one person is often not right for another.

All of this brings me to the more public facets of this essay. How does and should religion affect our social and public life? What follows are some of the conclusions my admittedly fallible mind has arrived at:

One of the various things that most religions offer is a strong emphasis on ethics, and an emphasis on ethics is important, both individually and socially. Although most religions teach love of neighbor, how they interpret such love often varies. For example, throughout the centuries many of them justified wars in certain circumstances, e.g. the Crusades, while others like the Quakers have been more pacifistic.

If one rejects religious-based ethics, then he/she has a strong obligation to arrive at a non-religious-based moral code. One of the downsides to such an approach, however, is that many people do not consciously develop one, and we cannot depend on our predominant consumer culture to provide it to us. I fear that there is much truth in the following observations, and they apply not only to television but also to much of the wider media. U. S. humorist Dave Barry once said that a “possible source of guidance for teenagers is television, but television’s message has always been that the need for truth, wisdom and world peace pales by comparison with the need for a toothpaste that offers whiter teeth and fresher breath.” And Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Adviser to U. S. President Jimmy Carter, wrote in 1993 that television had “become prominent in shaping the [U. S.] national culture and its basic beliefs,” and that it helped produce “a mass culture, driven by profiteers who exploit the hunger for vulgarity, pornography, and even barbarism.”

Although I understand what some people mean when they say, “We should not mix religion and politics,” I think it naïve. Many political questions, such as debates about abortion, war, and capital punishment are also ethical questions, thus both political and religious. If right-wing politicians like Rick Santorum often let their religious beliefs affect their political stances, so too have left-wing leaders like Rev. Martin Luther King and all the civil rights and antiwar activists among people of the clergy. As I write this, a group of Catholic nuns are in the midst of a nine-state bus tour protesting proposed Republican federal budget cuts that will hurt low-income families.

When I was a Catholic one of the virtues I heard most praised was humility, and I have often regretted how little of it is evidenced by religious and political leaders. One of the reasons we use “faith” as a synonym for religion (as in “she is of the Hindu faith”) is that religion is based primarily on beliefs or faith and not reason. Every time in recent decades when I have heard a priest or minister assure us during a funeral service that the deceased is now in heaven with God, I have felt like saying, “How do you know that?” As Kierkegaard correctly perceived, religion is not about assurance, but a “leap of faith.” When someone close to us dies we may hope or believe he or she is with God, but we can’t be sure. In 2005 Rep. David Price (Dem., NC) wrote, “Humility is out of fashion these days. Political leaders, advocates, and pundits often display an in-your-face assertiveness, seeming to equate uncertainty or even reflectiveness with weakness and a lack of moral fiber. Much of our nation and its leadership are in no mood to doubt their own righteousness.”

With humility should come tolerance. If none of us really has “the answer” to ultimate questions—as humorist Art Buchwald wrote soon before his death, “When people ask me if there’s an afterlife, I answer, ‘If I knew, I would tell you’”—shouldn’t we all be more tolerant of others’ views? The same goes for many political issues. Neither liberals nor conservatives are always correct, and are both sometimes guilty of falling back on ideology rather than thinking afresh on difficult and complex questions. What to do in Afghanistan or how to fix our scandalous health care system were and are such questions, and they do not lend themselves to simplistic bumper stickers like “Repeal Obamacare.” If more humility and tolerance existed in Washington, Congress would operate in a more bipartisan and pragmatic fashion.

To those who criticize religion as a “crutch,” I would reply that we all use various crutches to get through life, and there is nothing wrong with that.

As Robert Fuller (see above) has written, science and religion are not incompatible: “Developments in both science and religion have laid the foundation for a new synthesis. Ending centuries of fruitless squabbling and initiating a beautiful friendship is at last possible.” Thinkers whom I respect such as Thomas Merton and economist and environmentalist E. F. Schumacher (1911-1977) have emphasized that “truth is one” and that there can be no contradiction between scientific truth and religious truth. Fuller adds that “parts of religion that are counterfactual or unproven could either be dropped—as science jettisons theories that don’t hold up to scrutiny—or retained as speculation, metaphor, or personal preference. After all, anyone is free to believe anything, and most of us, including scientists, discreetly exercise that right in one area or another.”

My own thinking is that one can arrive at truth through different methods and not just the rational, scientific one. But if a religious conviction, such as belief in a literal rendering of creation as told in the Book of Genesis, contradicts scientific evidence then that conviction should be dropped. Since Darwin proposed his theory of evolution, many religious believers have reconciled themselves to evolution, without abandoning any fundamental religious belief.

In keeping with this approach, I distrust any religious teaching, e.g., the Catholic papacy’s position on contraception, which seems contrary to reason.

Wise and good people can be found in various cultures at various times and among both religious believers and non-believers. Among such people I have written long essays on are two converts to Catholicism, Schumacher and American helper-of-the-poor Dorothy Day. Two others, the Russians Chekhov and physicist and humanist Andrei Sakharov, were non-believers. A fifth, the poet and Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg, once said: “I am a Christian, a Quaker, a Moslem, a Buddhist, a Shintoist, a Confucian, and maybe a Catholic pantheist or a Joan of Arc who hears voices. I am all of these and more. Definitely I have more religions than I have time or zeal to practice in true faith.”

Although I no longer consider myself an adherent of any specific religion, I still feel the need for a guiding principle in my life, and it has become the concept of wisdom. I seek to become wiser and have my actions be as wise as I can make them. The Oxford English Dictionary (2d ed., 1989) defines wisdom as “the capacity for judging rightly in matters relating to life and conduct; soundness of judgment in the choice of means and ends.” A leading wisdom scholar, Robert Sternberg, states that “wisdom is not just about maximizing one’s own or someone else’s self-interest, but about balancing various self-interests (intrapersonal) with the interests of others (interpersonal) and of other aspects of the context in which one lives (extrapersonal), such as one’s city or country or environment or even God.” Another wisdom scholar, in an essay on “The Centrality of Wisdom,” wrote that “values are at the heart of the matter,” and he recommended wisdom-associated values such as empathy, justice, and compassion.

Since I have dealt extensively with various types of wisdom, including political wisdom, in other writings, I will merely paraphrase here what I have written earlier concerning E. F. Schumacher’s thoughts on wisdom:

It can be found amidst the ideas of the great religious and philosophical systems of the pre-modern age.
It deals with fundamental questions like “What is the purpose of life?” and how to discover and achieve Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.

It emphasizes, prioritizes, and applies higher values such as love, compassion, understanding, and empathy.
Being guided by it is the key to dealing with our most serious problems, whether economic, environmental, political, or personnel.

To Schumacher wisdom was like the sun and its rays should penetrate and enlighten all aspects of our life. “Unless that person has sorted out and coordinated his manifold urges, impulses, and desires, his strivings are likely to be confused, contradictory, self-defeating, and possibly highly destructive. The ‘centre,’ obviously, is the place where he has to create for himself an orderly system of ideas about himself and the world, which can regulate the direction of his various strivings.”

By the final decades of his life, Schumacher had concluded that “it may conceivably be possible to live without churches; but it is not possible to live without religion, that is, without systematic work to keep in contact with, and develop toward, Higher Levels than those of ‘ordinary life’ with all its pleasure or pain, sensation, gratification, refinement or crudity—whatever it may be.”

These words lead to me a few final thoughts about religion and its relationship to our lives. Religion has many definitions. If one means by it, as Schumacher suggests, “systematic work to keep in contact with, and develop toward, Higher Levels than those of ‘ordinary life,’” then I believe in religion. Every day of our lives there is more goodness, beauty, and truth out there in the world than we appreciate in our humdrum existence of “living and partly living” (T. S. Eliot’s phrase). I also think, as Schumacher did, that the great religions of the world contain much wisdom, including the emphasis of many of them on compassion, humility, and the Golden Rule of treating others as one wishes to be treated. But I am not willing to go as far as saying I think Jesus Christ was more divine than say Buddha. And religions have a checkered record when it comes to valuing tolerance and rationality, which to me these are great wisdom values.

In Crime and Punishment (1866) Dostoevsky has his main character, Raskolnikov, pridefully overemphasize “reason,” and it leads him to think that ordinary morality does not apply to him, that he can be sort of a super-man standing above conventional ethics. Although very critical of the Catholic Church, Dostoevsky’s thinking on reason was similar to that proclaimed two years earlier by Pope Pius IX in his Syllabus of Errors. In this encyclical the pope proclaimed as an error the belief that “human reason, without any reference whatsoever to God, is the sole arbiter of truth and falsehood, and of good and evil.”

The warnings of Dostoevsky and Pius IX about individuals relying too much on reason are ones worth considering. The reasoning of individuals can be twisted. Look at someone like the Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski, who earned a Ph.D. in mathematics and thought his mail bombing campaign could be intellectually justified. A wise person will consider the wisdom of the past, including that maintained by the great religions, and the laws and customs of his/her society. Ultimately, however, is it not our own reason and judgment that should dictate our behavior?

Church leaders and teachings can be wrong. In the past, some have justified slavery or war when they shouldn’t. Laws and government policies can be wrong. Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Andrei Sakharov all spent some time in jail or exile for daring to violate unjust laws or government policies. Our culture or subculture can be wrong. In making decisions many of us are strongly influenced by them. When young, I belonged to a Catholic subculture. Throughout most of my adulthood, I was part of an academic subculture. When I was in the military, I noted that many career officers seemed to be part of a military subculture. All of these subcultures skew our objectivity and way of looking at the world, and if we wish to act rationally, we must be aware of their influence on us. Our ideology can also be wrong. Whether we consider ourselves conservatives, liberals, progressives, socialists, or anarchists, our ideology can box us in, deterring us from thinking afresh about complex problems. Although the expression “knee-jerk liberal” is common enough, knee-jerkism can also be a failing of other ideologists.

Standing outside of any particular religious community and attempting to remain free of any cultural or ideological boxes can be a lonely path to follow. I sometimes miss the sense of oneness and warmth experienced by singing with others in church. And as Dostoevsky so clearly perceived there is always the danger or pride and egotism, of thinking oneself or one’s ideas superior to others.

As a historian, however, I take comfort in past individuals whom I admire, those like Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Carl Sandburg, E. F. Schumacher, Anton Chekhov, W. H. Auden, Andrei Sakharov, Nelson Mandela, and finally, the French writer Albert Camus (1913-1960), an existentialist and “non-believer,” greatly admired by the two fervent Catholics, Day and Merton. About Camus, Merton wrote, “By reason of his personal integrity, his genius, his eloquence, and his own record in protest and resistance, Camus still speaks to our world with resounding authority,” and “life is, or should be, nothing but a struggle to seek truth,” and “the whole truth of Albert Camus is centered upon the idea of telling the truth.”

Camus himself once told a group of Dominican monks, “I shall never start from the supposition that Christian truth is illusory, but merely from the fact that I could not accept it.” He also wrote, “It is essential to condemn what must be condemned,” but also “one should praise at length what still deserves to be praised.” In his short story “The Guest,” he ends it this way: “Daru looked at the sky, the plateau and beyond the invisible lands stretching all the way to the sea. In this vast landscape he had loved so much, he was alone.” Like his character Daru, we may often feel alone. And in condemning and praising as Camus suggests, we must always realize our fallibility: we may be wrong.

One final lesson from the non-believer Camus and the very Catholic Dorothy Day is to (in Day’s words) “always be seeking concordances, rather than differences—that is the basis of the ecumenical movement, which is part of the peace movement.” After her conversion, she was often criticized for still associating with Marxists and anarchists, but she believed strongly that dialogue contributed to “clarification of thought.” In his address to Dominican monks, Camus said “between the forces of terror and the forces of dialogue a great unequal battle has begun. . . . But I believe it must be fought,” and he encouraged the monks to whom he spoke, and Christians generally, to join with “isolated individuals who, without any sort of affiliation, today intercede almost everywhere and ceaselessly for children and for men.”

walter moss

Walter Moss

In these days of partisan name-calling and political gridlock, when intolerance and lack of humility are too often on display, Camus and Day offer us an important lesson. Like them, we need to “condemn what [note: not ‘who’] must be condemned,” but also seek dialogue with anyone (believers or unbelievers) willing to correct injustices and work for the common good. Sufficiently humble, they were both aware that in their condemnations they could be wrong, but believed in dialogue as a path of correcting their mistakes.

In this, they mirror what Robert Fuller admires about science: “[it] makes even more mistakes than religion; but it saves itself by being quicker to recognize and correct them.”

 Walter G. Moss

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *