Mea maxima culpa

1 06 2010

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Over a year ago now, I wrote an essay for the New Oxford Review condemning the supposedly superficial religiosity of the “Berkeley liberal”. While I would stand by some of those criticisms still, I realize now that the underlying presupposition of the essay, that there are “good” religious people and “bad” superficially “spiritual” people is profoundly wrong. In the realm of personal choice in which we live, there is enough sentimentality, ignorant bigotry, and kitsch to go around, and to condemn someone for being too superficial in what he or she believes is like saying that the levees around New Orleans would be better fortified using bubble gum.

The catalyst for this retraction is David Mills’ essay on the First Things site, Spirituality without Spirits. Like most discourse today, it was just an intellectual handjob for his readers: “look at all of those bad people who don’t believe what you do…” Being a convert, it does not seem that he sees the difference between “Benedict XVI, Hassidic Jews, devout Muslims, religious families with more than four children”. After appropriately circling the wagons, he attacks the usual suspects: liberals, the academia, and Lady Gaga (okay, that last one wasn‘t so usual). Once that straw piñata has been thoroughly smashed to pieces, and the conservative readers have taken away the self-esteem candy, all can go away knowing that they serve the true (Hassidic, Catholic, High Church Anglican… i.e. decent bourgeois) God who compliments so well free enterprise, the Protestant work ethic, and a reactionary social agenda.

I was disappointed in this essay, because I have read things from Mr. Mills where he seemed to “get it” on some level. But I suppose he has to make a living, and like most people who write for any sort of widely dispersed media, you can’t make a living by being subtle. The mandatory addendum to last week’s post in which I said that if religion is your excuse to be a better asshole you should leave it alone is that it seems that the only way to make your money writing about religion is to become an asshole. Mr. Mills has taken this trade secret to heart.

To get straight to the point: I think that, in a way, Mills and Co. commit the same errors that they accuse Lady Gaga and Co. of committing. The real ground of all religion in the modern world is cosmological agnosticism. The “spiritual not religious” crowd pretends to know nothing of God so that they can do whatever they want. The “orthodox religious” crowd pretends to know God so well that they can employ him for any agenda that is in their interest, all under the pretension that it is not their will, but God‘s. In either case, God is a puppet; he is a Caspar the Friendly Ghost-character who fulfils their true desires and makes them feel good about themselves.

Again, my study of “folk” Catholicism is very illuminating in terms of the issues involved here. Mills’ God is primarily a moral being: one who maintains societal order for the benefit of decency. In the more common, simple Catholic mind, God’s intervention in daily life was far less moralistic. People had needs and wants, and God could either grant or deny the satisfaction of these. If you ask God or a saint for something, you should pay them back or suffer the consequences. And of course, if you need something morally ambiguous, there were saints and prayers for those things as well.

In other words, a Catholic peasant a hundred years ago would never say that he was “spiritual but not religious”, but that did not make him a foot solider in a culture war either. He employed officially approved methods of interaction with the Divine as well as things that were off the beaten path. Within the context of societal propriety, he picked and chose what he believed just as much as any modern person. The institution does not completely govern the soul of any individual. People have always taken what they need from it, and left aside those things that they don’t need. The idea of a mass militant populace of “well-catechized” Catholics is a peculiarly American one, probably passed down to us from the Irish. For further reading, one should consult such books as The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth Century Miller by Carlo Ginzburg to really find out the crazy things “average” Catholics believed.

“Spiritual not religious” people are just doing what people have always done. The only difference is that we do not have an Inquisition, a confessional state, or societal pressure to make them sign on the dotted line to all of the doctrines that we deem essential. We may see them as superficial, and we may want to question their motives, but perhaps the real issue is that we see our own orthodoxy as being built on a foundation of sand. We want certainty in our belief at any cost, even if it means condemning others as being pathologically immoral. No matter how much we condemn our neighbor, this will by no means smooth the rough intellectual sea that is modernity.

One thing is for sure: if I have written stuff like this in the past, I have seen the light and at the very least I have to retract much of it. That is because, on paper, I am an orthodox Catholic, but what that means in real life is something that I can’t really tell you yet.


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21 responses

7 06 2010
Kevin J Jones

‘“Spiritual not religious” people are just doing what people have always done. The only difference is that we do not have an Inquisition, a confessional state, or societal pressure to make them sign on the dotted line to all of the doctrines that we deem essential.’

Sorry I’m late to this conversation. Have you considered the ways in which there are political and social pressures that encourages indifferentism and vague spirituality while discouraging orthodoxy? The U.S. ruling class has trended Universalist for some time and like all groups it has its own inquisitions and essential doctrines.

“We may see them as superficial, and we may want to question their motives, but perhaps the real issue is that we see our own orthodoxy as being built on a foundation of sand.”

The U.S. “culture wars” have always found great motives in the real and perceived threats to passing one’s religion down to one’s children. In my experience American diffidence focuses upon the fragile link between the generations, more than on the fragility of one’s personal faith.

3 06 2010
mcmlxix

I’ll attempt to address the spiritual versus religious dichotomy from my POV.

When it comes to the term religion/religious I tend to take a literalist position, even though I often don’t otherwise. It means to bind, just as yoga means to yoke. Everyone binds/yokes themselves to some thing or other. This can be an organized institution, folk system, personal spirituality, progressive/conservative movement/ideology, the state, the environment, or collecting cookie jars. No divinities need (necessarily) apply Secularists don’t like to hear that if they define religion as an organization headed by a dubious divinity. Yet all of these things have devas behind them. We’re all religious, and the devas would have it no other way. Whom will you serve is the age old question that humanity has in common.

How we interpret what that service looks like is the dilemma. The culture wars are part of this. The side of so called progress is little different from the side of so called conserving. Both are motivated by their religion. Both serve their devas. Both are bound. Both are also reactionary (again in the literal sense) in that they’re reacting to each other, and both are often condescending. This is not to say all or most are entirely progressive or conservative, but our devas like to blind us to that. Where is God, the supreme Deva in all of this? He tends to get lost.

2 06 2010
ben

I thoght the salient passage from Mills’ essay was this:

“The moment you acknowledge a real spirit to whom your spirituality is oriented and by whom it is guided, however distant and unengaged that spirit may be, you have a religion. You are bound by something. You have marching orders. You have to ask what the spirit wants and what he requires and what he says. ”

This is why I asked the question of Arturo I did. I am heartend to read that he just thinks we are all miserable failures. That’s a point of veiw I can appreciate.

But I do think that the body of believers has responded faithfully to the Lord, even though it is done with a great deal of imperfection.

For if it is universally true that for each believer God is nothing more than wish fulfillment, then Nietzsche was right, and we are the last men. But my expereince tells me that we are not the last men. I don’t beieve I have I ever met a Christian who was that repugnant.

2 06 2010
Tom

OK, so we’ve justified “clown masses” and philosophia perennis (which has many good points, actually) and folk Catholicism. And, God knows, I have no love for First Things.

But, seriously, “spiritual, but not religious”? Really? Are you just another Alexander Severus?

2 06 2010
Henry Karlson

While the debate is not exactly the same, I do think there is much of the secularization thesis which is often believed by “conservatives.” Secularization and conservatives create a false, ideal picture of the past, and then say “see, it’s no longer that good, therefore, things are falling apart.”

Arturo is right about the way Catholicism was treated by the ordinary Catholic through the centuries. It wasn’t high brow (though it could contain such insights, if the person was so inclined). And it was highly adaptive. I have told many people who are upset about “clown masses” they should look at all the different celebrations in the high middle ages.

Nonetheless, back to the secularization thesis, I think this text helps show its error, but in the same way, also contradicts many false visions of medieval Catholicism as well: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0SOR/is_3_60/ai_57533381/ (Secularization, RIP by Rodney Stark)

2 06 2010
2 06 2010
Sam Urfer

The “Great Unravel” seems to describe both the vacuity of the “Spiritual, But Not Religous” phenomenon, and the inanity that characterizes the “Ecumenical Jihad” civic religion one finds advocated in certain circles.

I think this article from the Onion really hits the point home:

“BOSTON—Father Clancy Donahue of St. Michael Catholic Church told reporters Wednesday that while he believed in blindly adhering to the dogma and ceremonies of his faith, he tried not to get too bogged down by actual spirituality. “I’m not so much into having a relationship with God as I am into mechanically conducting various rituals,” Donahue said. “To me, it just feels empty to contemplate a higher power without blindly obeying canon law and protecting the church as an institution.” Donahue emphasized that although he did not personally agree with those who pondered the eternal, he had nothing against them.”

http://www.theonion.com/articles/priest-religious-but-not-really-spiritual,17373/

2 06 2010
Huw Raphael

Help yourself – I coined “Great Unravel” reading this post – you own at least 50%

“If that idea undermines our apologetic abilities to engage the modern world, tough nooggies.” I’ve heard that from other sources. Curiously I find myself agreeing with you whereas I usually find the offering of “Tough Noogies” to be very unwanted.

I’m not sure of the connection between Snake Handling (which I think of as specifically connected to Appalachia, and a form of Pentecostal Holiness, and “the Charismatic Movement” which I think of as a rather sterilized, 1950/60s (ff) Mainstream version of the older ideas. I may be wrong, but I don’t think there are any Snake Handling Charismatic Episcopalians, Catholics (etc).

1 06 2010
Arturo Vasquez

“Do you believe that there are ANY Christians who submit themselves to the Lordship of Jesus Christ? Is such an action even possible?”

I believe the better question to ask is if anyone submits himself well, and the answer to that is no. It’s even worse when institutions get involved.

And if you are still confounded as to what I really believe, at this point I can only suggest reading comprehension classes. My belief is subtle, but that does not mean that it is not firm.

“Actually, we do see that in the ‘charismatic’ movement among American Catholics. But I don’t detect much enthusiasm for that in Arturo, or you for that matter.”

See post below on snake handling.

“But to hear Arturo and certain others talk, any attempt to draw such a line is dismissed as the self-serving cultural imperialism of uptight assholes. That sort of reverse snobbery has never impressed me.”

You’re missing the point. The real purpose of these investigations is not to canonize the “folk Catholic” as some noble sauvage a la Rousseau, but to deconstruct the idea that there is somehow an “official” religion that has been purified of its “superstitious” elements. Mr. Richardson above has referred to this as the “Great Unraveling”. (Is that copyrighted? It’s catchy). That in reality is the train wreck that we are witnessing in terms of the relationship between truth, religion, and culture on a global scale. Such international institutions as the Roman Catholic Church were never that monolithic to begin with. If that idea undermines our apologetic abilities to engage the modern world, tough nooggies. Better to have an unpalatable truth than a convenient lie.

On the other hand, “folk Catholicism” I think better preserves what Mircea Eliade would call the “primitive ontology” at the heart of the human psyche. Ananda Coomaraswamy wrote that as long as folklore exists, initiatic means of knowledge still have a fighting chance in the modern world. There was a philosopher in the High Renaissance who actually wrote that the people were often better than the philosophers at preserving the metaphysical patterns at the heart of the cosmos (I am paraphrasing to the point of corruption, but that was the gist of it). You can peruse for yourself the archive of dozens of articles on this blog for further details regarding all of this. By trimming the fat of “superstition”, we have also cut away a lot of the meat.

But contrary to popular belief, I am not a neo-pagan witch and I don’t have a Santa Muerte altar in my house. My wife would throw me out if I did. But if what I write fails to serve any form of cultural imperialism… what can I say? That puts a smile on my face.

1 06 2010
Huw Raphael

Sam! LOL. Very true – speaking as someone who seems to type w/ his backside a lot.

Michael – “But I don’t detect much enthusiasm for that in Arturo, or you for that matter. That, I suspect, is because you don’t like such people’s cultural matrix. You certainly don’t seem to like their friends.” I can’t speak for Arturo, but ditch the “suspect about” me… and we can have a conversation. Your point is well taken, however the Orthodox have a bunch of church leaders, teachers and elders (across jurisdictions, traditionalist, modernist, ethnic and convert) telling us to stay out of Charismatic practices. So let’s leave that as off topic for me, personally – although it might be fun for Arturo to answer 🙂

I’m hesitant to draw those lines “between ecstatic, “popular” spirituality and sheer superstition, between what’s morally ambiguous at best and what’s a genuinely sacrificial expression of the priesthood of believers” from outside the parish however. The local priest, the local bishop knows better (assuming he’s paying attention) than would I or anyone else what local practices are salvific and which ones are the reverse.

The Eastern ideas of Grace (where, tomorrow a Western word, *everything* is a sacramental or, better yet, a Sacrament) blend very easily with the folk Catholicism that is described in these pages. Everything is God’s grace trying to get into us and change us into God.

Antidoron goes home and becomes a daily communion rite, holy water is a drink best served at room temperature (and renewed by adding more), oil lamps provide anointing oil for the sick, (oil and water together cure sore throat, btw) the bed is blessed every night and children go to their fathers to ask for a blessing the way I’d go to a priest. In that context a Russian villager or even a few modern Monastics I know still seem a far cry closer to my Santero friends than to a good, upright, modern American person.

But, again, it’s at the parish level (or, rarely, the Bishop) where this kind of practice can get called into question.

And, to get back to what I assume is Arturo’s point…

The pious convert who ejects these practices from his faith as “too superstitious” does as much damage to the faith as the person who, leaving the faith entirely, keeps some holy water around because Mom always did. Although, in typing it out… I don’t think it’s true. Because the person with the Holy Water around can always come back to the mental aspects of the faith. The person who rejects the superstitious side has made himself judge.

1 06 2010
Sam Urfer

Everyone is a bit of an asshole on the Internet.

1 06 2010
paul

“Arturo, Do you believe that there are ANY Christians who submit themselves to the Lordship of Jesus Christ? Is such an action even possible?”

I’ve never gotten the impression that Arturo believes that the Lordship of Jesus Christ is the point of Christianity. I’m not being snarky, it just doesn’t seem to be the point. It’s hard for me to discern, in fact, what the point of Christianity *is* to Arturo. It’s all about opposition, it seems.

1 06 2010
Michael Liccione

HW:

This entire topic of defending David avoids what I see as Arturo’s point (and I stand for correction on this) that in condemning our own “Spiritual but not religious” folks, we’re condemning our ancestors and our own practice.

I don’t know who these conservative Catholics are who “condemn our ancestors and our own practice.” Speaking for myself and some of my friends, the sort of folk Catholicism Arturo favors has its good points. I for one would love to see more emphasis among American Catholics on the cult of the saints and on various “ecstatic” phenomena, which in fact is what we see in the “global south” where Catholicism is growing smartly. Actually, we do see that in the “charismatic” movement among American Catholics. But I don’t detect much enthusiasm for that in Arturo, or you for that matter. That, I suspect, is because you don’t like such people’s cultural matrix. You certainly don’t seem to like their friends.

And then there are the bad points of folk Catholicism, including the charismatics, who are but one manifestation of it. There just are lines to be drawn between ecstatic, “popular” spirituality and sheer superstition, between what’s morally ambiguous at best and what’s a genuinely sacrificial expression of the priesthood of believers. But to hear Arturo and certain others talk, any attempt to draw such a line is dismissed as the self-serving cultural imperialism of uptight assholes. That sort of reverse snobbery has never impressed me.

As for “theosis,” though, I’m inclined to agree with you. It’s right there in the CCC; it’s part of the common tradition of East and West. Yet Catholics tend to think of grace as some sort of spiritual fuel, for which one pulls up, pays up, and tanks up before pulling out of the spiritual filling stations known as churches. This is why the parking lot of a Catholic church after Mass tends to be the most dangerous place on earth next to AfPak. As an Orthodox believer, you know better. You know that grace in the primary sense of the term is God himself, communicating himself to us so as to transform us into livers of his own life. That’s what a lot of moralizing, semi-Pelagian orthodox Catholics don’t get. But that’s also what a lot of non-moralizing, semi-pagan folk Catholics don’t get. The whole Western Church has a lot to re-learn from the East on this point.

Best,
Mike

1 06 2010
ben

“In either case, God is a puppet; he is a Caspar the Friendly Ghost-character who fulfils their true desires and makes them feel good about themselves”

Arturo, Do you believe that there are ANY Christians who submit themselves to the Lordship of Jesus Christ? Is such an action even possible?

1 06 2010
Huw Raphael

Michael – I pray your experience will be different from mine. I rather liked the piece you wrote (I just read it): it greyishly navigates an area we rather like to insist is black and white. I don’t intend to blank-and-white David – or you – as a person.

My sense of our charitable host’s original post is not that one *is* black-and-white, but rather than one must play one on the internet to get readers. But that is only a minor point in the writing.

This entire topic of defending David avoids what I see as Arturo’s point (and I stand for correction on this) that in condemning our own “Spiritual but not religious” folks, we’re condemning our ancestors and our own practice. The tools in the Theosis Workshop of our ancestors – used entirely by the Church, east and west, in the past – have been sorted into two piles. Pile A is called good by the Religious people. Pile B is called good by the “Spiritual” people. But both peoples have sorted the piles out, dividing the spoils, and spoiling the workshop that it took a long time to assemble. Then we (both parties) proceed to judge each other.

Those of us looking for a level of certainty (that isn’t there, really) are as guilty of creating a “my religion for me” as any of the “Spiritual but not religious” folks out there.

1 06 2010
Michael Liccione

HR:

What I noticed whilst being “popular” in that world, is that no one seems to care what you actually do… just agree with the black and white labels and everyone is happy. Be black and white in public. When you start to wonder if something mightn’t be a bit greyish, then you get, lost. Personal-hero is only one or two blog posts or comments away from Persona non grata.

Well, my recent “On the Square” piece certainly did posit some greyishness, much to the annoyance of some of my fellow conservatives, who felt I was being wussy for refusing to ascribe bad faith to a nun. But David Mills loved the piece, and told me so. Jody Bottum edited and posted it within two hours of its submission. Sorry to disappoint you.

I know how easy it is to blacken as black-and-whiters people with whom one has disagreements. One wants to seem so much more mature, more wizened than those whom one sees as having the wrong friends. But that way leads to unintentional, because unnoticed, hypocrisy.

Best,
Mike

1 06 2010
Huw Raphael

Arturo,

If I’m reading it correctly, I rather like your point about our modern crew of Spiritual-not-religious being just like what we’ve always had around but, now-different for being not at-all obligated to be in any Church by our culture, they are now more visible and less attached to “officialdom”. I hadn’t thought about that. There is, among my friends, a vast difference between the Santero who goes to church on Sundays and has statues of the saints at home, takes communion and goes to confession, and the Santero who does not go to church and has various African images and whatnot on his altar. But we’re creating a world where that second example is more-prevalent today.

It really comes down to the definitions we use: what is “spiritual” what is “religious”? What does it mean to be one but not the other? I tried to get a discussion going on this on twitter, but failed. In our American, black-and-white world, we’re trying to sort everything out into little categories that we can accept or reject. We’re pulling the threads out of a tightly-woven tapestry that goes back millennia. Even in the asking of the question, though, what is one and not the other, I may just be contributing to the Great Unravel.

I admit I rather like a black and white world. It was fun letting David Mills edit an article (which was published in Touchstone mag back in the day). David is a nice guy. But that Touchstone/First-things world makes money from being all about the black-and-white.

Luckily for them *they* get to say what’s black and what’s white.

What I noticed whilst being “popular” in that world, is that no one seems to care what you actually do… just agree with the black and white labels and everyone is happy. Be black and white in public. When you start to wonder if something mightn’t be a bit greyish, then you get, lost. Personal-hero is only one or two blog posts or comments away from Persona non grata.

In my experience, the Hasidic Rabbis that I’ve met have more in common with other “Ethnic” clergy… what one might consider a little “sloppy” or “non-traditional” in the application of rules. Ironically that sloppiness is exactly traditional. I got used to hearing American clergy accusing their Arab, Russian or Greek elder brethren of being “wrong” or “non-traditional” or “modernist”. Explain to me how, ROCOR could have named a Lutheran and a Roman Catholic as saints… Spiritual, yes, but not religious. Little did I know that those “other” guys were, in fact, pretty much some of the most spiritual, devout, prayerful clergy I’d ever meet. They failed at being religious though, in the popular, Western black-and-white understanding of it.

And I’m suddenly reminded of a saying in Orthodoxy that Jesus is the death of religion…

1 06 2010
Leah

Actually, the Hasids are not “decent bourgeois” folks. In Israel especially, the Hasids have a reputation for being unrepentant moochers because 60% of the men don’t work, their school don’t teach secular subjects or even modern Hebrew, their large families live off welfare, and their young men are draft dodgers. Although it’s not as bad in the US, the poorest city in America is Kiryas Joel, an enclave for the Satmar Hasids. Maybe I’m just being picky, but there’s really not much similarity between “Benedict XVI, Hassidic Jews, devout Muslims, [and] religious families with more than four children” other than a distaste for gay marriage, pre-marital sex, and other such things. If you got them all in a room together, a fistfight would probably break out.

1 06 2010
Stephen

Arturo, While I agree with some of the points you are making about Neo-Catholics particularly the viewing of God and the saints as our friends, being GOP “cultural warriors” while swallowing the disease that comes with it, support for free enterprise, insane wars, etc. However, I don’t think that the moralism (which has its good and bad elements) necessarily comes from Cultural Puritanism, but from much of Catholicism itself (Unless by cultural Puritanism you mean seeing the USA as God’s chosen land that can do no wrong). The High Middle Ages could easily be described as moralistic and I know of Protestants who would view it as just that.

1 06 2010
Arturo Vasquez

I am sure that Mr. Mills loves his mother very much, and that he pays his taxes on time. That doesn’t necessarily exempt him from being an asshole on the Internet. I think his and Neuahus and Co.’s cultural Puritanism has more to do with being from a Protestant country than being converts. I think once he starts to call into question the intentions of people he doesn’t know, it is only fair that people call into question his own intentions, and that goes the same with the “religious right”, which in many ways carries with it some bizarre contradictions that someone should call it out on.

One thing that irked me about the essay upon further reflection was how he said that on their death bed, these superficially “spiritual” people will wish to call upon the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: cue the spotlight, the strings, and the tears… Triumph of orthodoxy at last! Who is he kidding? Even “decent people” on their deathbeds should be shitting bricks. And who cares what the person who asks God, the Virgin, St. Jude, etc., for a miracle really believes; if he signs on the dotted line of every article on the right wing agenda of the culture war? Should not the “good Christian” on his death bed tremble who carried the “God hates fags” sign and used his faith as a justification for unjust wars, torture, and cheating the widow to fill his own pockets under the pretense that “greed is good”?

Yes, because on our death bed, we all will wish that we were right-wing Republican culture warriors. For it is the rich and the strong who inherit the earth…

1 06 2010
Michael Liccione

Arturo,

David Mills is a friend of mine. I know the man and I’ve worked with him. Anybody who classifies him as an asshole is more likely classifying only himself. At any rate, what else do you expect people to think if you weren’t ready to publicly retract what you wrote in NOR until David Mills said basically the same thing?

I suspect, though, that his essay’s appearance in First Things had a lot to do with your change of heart. For you, that periodical seems to function as a kind of anti-magisterium, but the reasons appear to be more cultural than intellectual. You don’t like “conservative” Catholics, especially if they’re ex-Protestants like Mills or, say, Fr. Neuhaus. But that much I don’t take personally, on either David’s behalf or on my own account. After all, you don’t seem to like most of your fellow Catholics, at least the ones who don’t share something of your cultural background. Perhaps we should look on you as a Mexican-American Evelyn Waugh, who’d be even worse if he weren’t Catholic….

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