Sunday, October 16, 2016

What Can Happen After You Stop Being Afraid And Think

This week's On Being program is an interesting interview with Mary Karr, whose writing I have to confess I'm entirely unfamiliar with, other than having read the titles of a couple of them.  I may get around to reading her now that I've found out she's got more in her head than many of the other writers you'll see on the best sellers list.  We have had very different lives but there is a lot of overlap in later life experience.   The interview is worth listening to and reading but there are a couple of points I wanted to comment on.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. You made this kind of public confession of your Catholicism in Poetry Magazine in 2005, and you write about how poetry always seemed intellectually respectable where religion wasn’t, right?

DR. KARR: Oh, yeah. I mean, yeah, being a Catholic is like being, you know...

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Right.

DR. KARR: ...oh my god. It was shameful.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. So confessing your Catholicism in Poetry Magazine was...

DR. KARR: Oh yeah. It was anathema. I mean, that’s where T. S. Eliot first published “Prufrock.” That’s where all the dark and French-influenced symbolistes for the past century blazed a trail into existential misery. [laughs] I mean, for me to come in and be Catholic — oh my god, it’s bad enough being a Texan, and then a redneck, and then not educated, and then this just proved out all my detractors, you know?

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] OK. Here’s what you wrote. “To confess my unlikely Catholicism in poetry feels” — I think we can put this on public radio — “feels like an act of perversion kinkier than any dominatrix could manage on HBO’s Real Sex Extra.” [laughs]

DR. KARR: [laughs] I forgot I wrote that. Gosh. How dare I?

MS. TIPPETT: But there is such — what’s the word I want to use — I mean, poetry and prayer and liturgy are so much of a piece, right? I mean, they’re so kindred to each other and...

DR. KARR: I mean, I remember when I first went to the Catholic church, which I did — I took my son; he was the one who wanted to go to church. And I sat with a stack of papers and graded them in the back. I had a latte. I’m not even making this up. I brought a latte. I sat in the back and...


DR. KARR: ...he was in Sunday school, and I was just cynically there marking time. And something about the faith of the people — it wasn’t the spectacle, or the — Walter Pater and all those esthetes always talked about the grandeur, and the ritual, and all the gold stuff, and all of that — none of that I cared about. I mean, I care about it more now maybe just ‘cause I’ve gotten used to it, but at the time, I was kind of repelled by it.

But just people saying their prayers, people saying, “Please pray for my daughter who’s having surgery,” people bringing hope and terror into a public forum and saying, “I’m afraid, and I need these things to happen in order to go on.” And isn’t that what poetry is? I mean, poetry is that place where the most disturbed among us try to find the most exalted language to convey those hopes and those despairs or that desperation.

Yeah, there is that, of course, and it is just about the most important thing in religion but notice that part about intellectual respectability.   We all want intellectual respectability, it's one of those things we have to have to even be listened to by respectable people.   But there is something really telling in this passage.  It's kind of peculiar, that Catholicism or Christianity would be seen as intellectually suspect among alleged intellectuals.   An allegedly intellectual milieu could maintain that attitude only if it were profoundly ignorant of the history of Western thought and the history of the very institutions that credential people into intellectual respectability.  And it's been my experience that atheism is, in almost all cases, profoundly ignorant in exactly that way.

It's a matter of historical fact that Catholics invented the university and scholarship in Western Europe, most of the major educational institutions before the rise of public schools universities in the United States, were founded by religious institutions, indeed even many a bastion of current atheism are located in colleges with names of saints, religious entities or denominations.   It has been one of the most absurd aspects of pseudo-intellectual atheism that that history is unrealized or unknown by even such as get to be considered intellectually respectable in the anti-religious, allegedly intellectual milieu that holds that idea.  Historically, about the only rivals they might have in the invention of universities are Muslims.   Universities originated as religious institutions.

But even more so is the pretense of such would-be intellectuals that they are above the common lot of people and that they have coping mechanisms, safely atheist and anti-religious, that provide superior ways of dealing with the suffering of life.   But they don't.  All you have to do is read what atheists who have to face those very same life crises say.  And even facing the day to day problems of life, atheism proves it does not have superior ways of living with and coping with them.   There is a reason that atheists have higher rates of suicide, alcoholism and drug use.*  Atheism doesn't work for that, it is merely a mechanism of denial, people need more than that to get through life.  The realities of human life are not solved by the materialism of atheism, materialism is about the worst means of understanding or dealing with life as it really is lived.

But this passage in the transcript was even more interesting to me because it, also, matches my very different experience from Mary Karr's.

DR. KARR: It was all very groovy kind of new-agey. Resurrection was starting over in some kind of hippy-dippy way. And in Ignatian spirituality there’s a thing you do where you compose a scene with your body with all the senses that composes — the way St. Ignatius writes about it, it’s like, if you’re at the nativity, if you’re at the crucifixion, what can you smell? What do you touch? What does the cloth feel like on your skin? What do you hear? What do you feel? You try to put yourself bodily — using your senses into passages from the scripture.

It’s a very powerful practice to take a passage from a scripture and try to ask the Holy Spirit to put you somewhere, to place your mind and your senses in another place. I mean, it’s a very radical, dangerous kind of prayer to make, and I did this over 30 weeks and they give you a lot of different methods of prayer and somewhere in there all of the stuff that had been metaphorical became very actual for me. The idea of my sense of Jesus — I didn’t like Jesus when I became Catholic. I came in on the Holy Spirit.

And then I got that sense of Jesus that — I just noticed that the people who are always running the soup kitchens, and taking care of the babies from El Salvador, and bringing in orphans, doing all the good stuff, and who don’t seem really angry and crazy and kind of pissed off and really pious — they seem kind of realistic — always talked about Jesus all the time. So I thought, “I’ve got to get on this Jesus boat. I’ve got to get with this Jesus program.”

And somewhere in there, I just found that I was able to practice it. Do I doubt? All the time. Sure, there are days that I wake up — I mean, to me, being a Catholic is like any spiritual practice. It’s a practice. It’s not something you believe. It’s not doctrine. Doctrine has nothing to do with it. It’s a set of actions.


DR. KARR: Everybody talks about the doctrine. Do you believe in this? Do you believe in that? What do you do on a day? Do you get on your knees? Do you try to practice charity? Do you try to apologize for your mistakes? Are you trying to live a life that is less shameful than the one the day before? [laughs]

That reminds me of nothing so much as an argument I read and participated in a few years back,  I think it was on one of the CFI blogs in which the topic was whether or not atheists should start to get involved in charity. To start with, there were regulars there who were offended that someone had brought up something so vulgar and irrelevant to their atheism - by which I am certain they really meant something so inconvenient which might lead to them having to put out some money or effort on behalf of other people.  But it also struck me that these almost uniformly college-educated, many of them PhDed, folk were debating among themselves if they should start to involve themselves in charitable activities which, in religion, predate Jesus.  They were actually debating if they should consider thinking about starting to do what the Poor Clares and myriad other religious organizations had been doing for centuries, doing the very same thing that one of their heroes, Christopher Hitchens kicked around a little old nun for trying to do for decades.   And they were such miserable assholes as they debated it.  Why would anyone want to be part of that?  The cheap and crappy pleasure of believing you were one of that self-appointed elite?   That is about as impressive as those followers of Jerry Falwell who declared themselves reborn and saved.   Or any other allegedly religious people who did that kind of thing.

I wasn't brought back to Chritianity by dogma or doctrine, I was brought back to it by seeing Christians feed people, clothe people, care for sick people, especially miserable, destitute poor people.  I was brought back by realizing that it had actually been the source of the liberalism I believed in as both the right way to live and as a practical means of ensuring a decent society and, possibly, a means of saving us from the horrific predicament we had gotten ourselves into with nuclear missiles pointed at us, global warming and other environmental crimes an the increasing savagery of materialistic governments during the past century and a half.   For me it is practically demonstrated that atheism had nothing in it to compel people to act unselfishly enough to save us, the pose of being frozen in agnostic indecision wasn't much better - though agnostics are less likely to be fanatical about denying the possibility that we are more than automatons which don't matter so we might as well blow it all.   I don't see any evidence, at all, that those are compatible with either a decent society or survival.

In one of his lectures which I've posted in the past few weeks, Walter Brueggemann talks about how after he'd written an article critical of the Jesus Seminar one of the janitors at the Seminary where he taught came up and asked him what this argument about the eschatological content of the Gospels was about.  Brueggemann, in telling the anecdote mentioned how John Dominic Crossen found a Jesus who was a lot like him and a lot less like the janitor.   The janitor said that if things weren't going to be made right, in the end, that people like him were sunk, that they would never see justice, that they would have lived their lives of struggle and misery for nothing.

It's a lot easier to be an atheist or agnostic or deist if you are or can aspire to be materially comfortable and you are willing to pad yourself with comforts when the hard knocks of life come to you.   If you don't, really, care about other people, other beings, it's a lot easier.  I think a lot of the reason that so many atheists are such miserable people is because they are emotionally superior to their ideology and they don't find it really works in their lives but they are either too conceited to give it up or too afraid of the bullying disdain of respectable atheists to give it up.  I found myself in the 1990s unafraid of them, anymore.  That was the start of things for me.   In studying atheism and its assertions and the consequences of materialism, I found that it doesn't work and that it is the source of so much of what is destroying us.  I've found that even those who really believed in the Gospel with their work, with their actions, even if we disagreed on some points, are a lot farther ahead than the atheists who deny it.

I am sure Mary Karr wouldn't have put it in the same way I did, as I said, our backgrounds are very different.  But we came out in remarkably similar places.  It was seeing the example of "church ladies" putting their lives where their mouths were that forced me to see what was right there all along.

* If you google the topics, you will find that the search engine has been obviously google bombed to produce a long list of atheists dismissing the statistical results that show that to be the case.   I've found, especially in the last two to three years that there has been an obvious campaign to distort these and just about every issue around atheism in that way.   I've written about such efforts as those of Susan Gerbic and Tim Farley to turn internet bots and things like Wikipedia into propaganda tool of atheism.   That they have to do that is just more evidence of the anti-intellectualism at the heart of ideological atheism.   The extent to which something has to resort to that is the extent to which it doesn't deserve to be intellectually respectable.


  1. "

    It's a matter of historical fact that Catholics invented the university and scholarship in Western Europe"

    It's aso a matter of historical fact Catholics invented the Spanish Inquisition. So it kind of balances out.


  2. "There is a reason that atheists have higher rates of suicide, alcoholism and drug use"

    You betcha there is -- it's that religious assholes like you are pretty damned scary and depressing.

  3. Thanks. Got me some reading to do.

    Walter is right about Crossan, of course; we all make a Jesus in our image. The challenge I learned in seminary is to keep Jesus from being in your image, from making you comfortable. Keep Jesus other, and you know Jesus better.

    Israel, after all, means "Struggles with God."

  4. "It’s a practice. It’s not something you believe. It’s not doctrine. Doctrine has nothing to do with it. It’s a set of actions." What a great statement about faith. How do we live together? That is all about actions. How do we feed the hungry? Anything without action is useless to the hungry. Prayer becomes about preparing for action, not a passive act. Thank you for the post.