This is an Excerpt from According to Folly.
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I am grateful to have been brought up as a Roman Catholic in South Dakota and Ohio. My parents raised us with stories of the bad old days in the Catholic Church, before Vatican II. The Church of their childhood was a world of guilt and shame and threats. My mother told me about the nuns who instructed her pray as many rosaries as quickly as she could on certain holy days, because every rosary was worth double purgatory points. She laughs about it now, but the fear has left its mark in her memory, and her anger at the absurdity of it all lingers in her laughter. After Vatican II, much of that went away, brushed aside like an embarrassing relative who couldn’t be disowned, but who might be kept quiet with adequate treatment.
My parents’ library was a strange amalgam shaped by Catholic culture and American counter-culture: Salvador Dali, a massive old Douay-Rheims Bible (the kind that you don’t touch), the Tao te Ching, the documents of Vatican II, Science News, and the stoner classic A Child’s Garden of Grass. And so I was raised as a Catholic, but encouraged to question everything. Church involved the traditional training in basic Catholic rituals: the proper application of holy water, the proper position of your hands and heart when receiving the Eucharist, and the proper way to mock and be careful around the strange men we called priests. I recall one priest in particular who delivered the Eucharist while apparently trying to sound like a serpent. He would hiss the most insidious, “The body of Chrissssssst,” as he pressed God’s body into your hand. We all laughed and called him the Judas Priest. And in that laughter my mother’s fear and anger mixed with her children’s glee.
My father was deeply devout back then, and I remember him maintaining a journal of his prayer life. I was curious about it, and I remember that he got very agitated if anyone interrupted his prayer time. Still, both of my parents loved me and my siblings so well, and they taught us to love by their example. What more can anyone ask for?
As the Church knows so well, a value system seeps into children through the postures and attitudes and sayings of our parents. So this is some of the proverbial wisdom that my parents passed on to me, and that I still cherish: life is about loving, especially the unlovable. Never let the sun set on your anger — although I admit, I originally thought this one meant that when you’re angry, you must hold onto your rage so tightly that it would even stop the sun. As it turns out, I guess it means that you shouldn’t stay mad for long. Be kind to everyone. Work hard, but remember that love is more important than that. Stop picking on your sister. You’re only picking on her because your brother was just picking on you. And so on.
It was in this web of proverbs, books and rituals that I decided to commit myself to the Catholicism of my father. I think I was about nine years old. The decision was inspired by my brother and the Tao te Ching. Like so many younger brothers, I was picked on by my older brother. When we built treehouses, his had a dungeon in it, carefully crafted with me in mind. His favorite toys were handcuffs and rope. So of course, one of my greatest aspirations was to tie him down someday and torture him in equally exquisite ways. I had heard that putting someone’s hand in warm water while they slept would cause them to wet the bed. I never worked up the courage to try that, but I certainly wallowed in revenge fantasies. This long acquaintance with vengeance did teach me something, though: I noticed that it just made me hate myself. There was no relief to be found there.
The thing that brought light and hope into my vengeful little nine-year-old heart was the Tao te Ching, the ancient Chinese text that is second only to the Bible in how many times it has been translated. I was particularly struck by the text’s emphasis on the practical power of the lowly. For example: a valley gathers water because it is low. This image gave me some kind of hope in a victory that could be achieved through humility rather than retaliation. I desperately wanted to be a 9-year-old Taoist in the middle of Ohio. Then one Sunday our priest preached on the same theme. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but there must have been something about the meek inheriting the Earth. I just remember that I was excited to see the wisdom and hope I encountered in the Tao te Ching reflected in my own church. So I figured that if God was giving hope to the lowly in ancient China, then maybe God could be found in the most unlikely of places. Even, perhaps, in my own church and community.
So throughout high school and college, I came to honor my parents by being a mildly committed, warm and fuzzy sort of Catholic. This meant that I was open to almost anything, as long as it wasn’t traditional Catholic dogma. Predictably, I drifted away from this in college.
Things changed when I read Noam Chomsky’s work on the brutal history of American foreign policy in Central and South America. I was skeptical of some of Chomsky’s stronger rhetoric, but the basic scandal of American foreign policy that Chomsky pointed me toward was irrefutable. His writing made me acutely aware of the power of sin in the world, and it raised a question that has stuck with me ever since: given the evils that are involved in defending the status quo, how am I supposed to live in this world? Is anything like a decent normal life even possible?
By normal life, I mean a normal middle class American life, devoted to work, family and the accumulation of a bit of security and a bit of property. In a different world, I don’t suppose this would be so bad. But if my life might be used to counter at least some of this wickedness, how could I justify spending it doing anything else? Suddenly, the hard parts of the teaching of Jesus made a new kind of sense, and the traditional dogmas about sin and death seemed newly relevant. The fuzzy, liberal Catholicism of my parents wasn’t quite capable of confronting and making sense of the profound evil that we do find in the world.
So I began to search for an answer to the question, “How, then, shall I live?” within my Catholic tradition. I find the irony delicious. The great evangelists who drove me into the arms of Mother Church were an older brother with a treehouse dungeon, an ancient Chinese philosopher and a secular, leftist intellectual.
During this period, I had a profound, strange and deeply moving spiritual experience that I can only understand as an encounter with the living God. Through that experience, I was ultimately drawn to the life of simplicity, solidarity with the poor, and direct experience of God’s love that I saw in the life of St. Francis. At least in theory. I visited some Franciscans and tried to discern a calling to that life, but ultimately decided that they weren’t doing what Francis had done. There wasn’t nearly enough sleeping in ditches and throwing ourselves into thorn bushes for me. And so, like Francis, I resolved to try to follow the hardest parts of the teaching of Jesus directly, without fear or excuse. Jesus told us not to store up treasure on earth, and so I gave away the bit of money I had. I left college at Ohio State, and went out to preach the Gospel in deeds and words, barefoot and penniless like Francis. In that effort, I pushed my mind to its breaking point, and I failed to achieve the only objective that could have given meaning to the rest: to be loving.
I came home after this failed attempt at sainthood, and can still remember sleeping for what seemed to be several months straight. I finished up college, and began to process what had happened. Why had my efforts failed? I came to suspect that my belief in God had caused my failure. My basic mistake was my foolish trust in the promises of Jesus and the Church. I concluded that my belief in God had made me petty, provincial, frightened and self-righteous. So on Ash Wednesday in 2003, I decided to give up believing in God for Lent, while still trying to find a way to live out the hard parts of the Gospel, a life of solidarity with those who suffer. I wanted to pursue the noble ends of the Gospel without the illusions and trappings of religion. That Lent stretched on for years. While I generally managed to avoid believing in God, I failed to make much progress at all in living out the hard parts of the Gospel in a loving way.
This period of my life began to end when I was visited by a woman who had been a good friend throughout this time. She was in the process of leaving her own church. In time, we slowly led each other back to church. Her secret weapon was her ability to cry when I said that only an idiot could believe in God. She made it impossible for me to maintain that view, because I loved her and love her, and because she is the farthest thing from an idiot I can imagine. And after all of that crying was done, of course, she was still kind enough to let me marry her.
We currently attend a Vineyard Church in Columbus, Ohio. This community tries to live like Jesus by praying together and practically blessing those who suffer. I feel incredibly grateful for this motley little band, and I am convinced that we are in full communion with the body of Christ. That is to say, I think this little ecclesial community is part of the catholic church. This is something that good Catholics aren’t supposed to say, and as heretical as this is for a Catholic, it is even more heretical for certain types of liberals and skeptics to talk about things like ‘communion with the body of Christ’ in public, as if it matters. Still, the Catholic Church teaches us to abide by our conscience, and I can’t in good conscience deny the fullness of God’s love that I have experienced in my little ragtag Vineyard church. So it is only as a good contemporary Catholic, convinced by my conscience, that I dissent from the Catholic Church on the question of what, exactly, the church is.
My desire to reconcile different factions and beliefs is bound to infuriate zealots from every camp. I gladly claim to be a skeptic, a liberal, a conservative and a fool. But what am I, really? A terrible Catholic, or a charismatic evangelical conservative, or a religious liberal or a political liberal or a lily-livered agnostic or a real, live skeptic who doesn’t have time to frolic with fairies in the agnostic twilight? I’m all of these. But even more frustratingly and satisfyingly, I think that I’m more fully each of these the more deeply I honor all of them. I’m convinced that whatever goodness rises from each must ultimately converge.
To be sure, this kind of integration of views can’t be achieved by a lax kind of peacekeeping. It is only by direct and honest engagement with hard questions that a credible, sensible synthesis can emerge, honoring each. In that sort of engagement, there must be some kind of organizing principle, or else there will be chaos. So the various parts of me are held together by a simple creed, consisting of the three most densely-packed words I know: Jesus is Lord. These words are the Gospel, the good news proclaimed by Christians ever since they were a band of maniacs who called themselves followers of the Way, who were quite good at getting themselves killed. You can look it up in Acts.
But what does it even mean to say that Jesus is Lord? I think that we are still figuring that out. However, I’m convinced that these words signify something very different than you might think if you have mainly encountered them in the form of a tract pressed into your hands by an eager evangelist, maybe in the place of a tip. This book is part of my own effort to understand what those words might mean, including what they might mean to the conservative, liberal, skeptical and foolish parts of me. By asking hard questions and answering them as credibly as I can, I’ve found that each of these parts can be honored, elevated and held together in the foolishness of Jesus, the king who was killed, but lives.