Thursday, April 3, 2008

Humanist Catholic

Krista Tippet, host of public radio's Speaking of Faith, makes me cringe.
I'm not sure why, but I think envy could well be part of it.
Would I be so critical if she didn't have a job I should have, interviewing the most interesting people in the world?
Or if the self-satisfied manner in which she interrupts her guests didn't remind me of me when I'm puffed up with what a cool life I'm leading?
Or if she didn't have such gorgeous hair?

For whatever reason, I rarely listen to her show, but my sister was late on Sunday, and as I waited for her, I happened to catch Tippet interviewing Greg Epstein, a Humanist rabbi and chaplain at Harvard, on "the New Humanism."

Wow. A humanist rabbi! Someone who doesn't believe in God but has studied the faith of his culture as deeply as a religious rabbi. Someone who looks at holy scriptures as literature, and at some modern literature as holy. And who looks to religious people for all the good things we share, unlike the movement toward blaming religion for all the bad things humans do.
I'd never heard of such a thing, but it gave me a new term for myself:
I am a humanist Catholic.

I've tried other terms: cultural Catholic, freelance Catholic, borderline, etc., but this fits better. It's more about what I love than what I lack.
(I don't know if there are others who use this term--a quick Google didn't turn it up. But I know I am not unique.)

The thing is, I love Catholicism (more even than I hate its sins).
I love wrestling with its stories and its history, and the whole sexy, musical mess of it, which I recognize as the mess of me, the mess of my people (not to say all of us Terrans).

I feel a personal, almost genetic tug toward Catholicism, arising from my family on my father's side, who came from Sicily, an island that sits smack in the middle of the comings and goings between the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe. I'm not Episcopalian or Unitarian or any of those tidier religions people are always prescribing for me; I'm Catholic.

But I don't believe in the Christian God.

God knows I tried.
I studied theology in my thirties, and completed my BA in Religious Studies and Latin; and then I went and got baptized in the Catholic faith--the whole deal, immersed in a hot tub, anointed with oil--ten Easters ago.
Prayed, volunteered, attended daily Mass for a year after my mother died, worked for a while as a sacristan (schlepper of holy knick knacks), raged against the pope, everything.

Then, last summer, I went to a conference of religious sisters, whom I love and was, at that time, considering working with more closely. I wanted to get to know them better, because I had some big reservations about the Church. Right away the first morning, something was off. After a couple sessions, I went up to the monastery garden to get clear. I sat on a rock in the cool shade under pine trees, and it came to me, like a revelation:
I don't believe in God.

I went home, feeling bereft and unsure of what to tell people, including the sisters. I didn't want to disparage much less throw out the religion which had meant so much to me, political insanities notwithstanding. But I'd been feeling out of place, and I didn't want to keep translating "God" into "Love" or other words, when I knew that most people around me at church meant God really as God, a sentient being outside ourselves, not as a metaphor.

So I went away, for the time being.
But, like Epstein, I still believe all the good things I used to attach to "God":
I believe, as I always have, that they rest with and in us, and that we are spiritual beings. It is within us to marvel at mystery, to cultivate love and hope, to practice compassion, and to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves...and funny to boot!
Which is pretty much the Humanist belief, I gather.

So, I say thank you, Ms. Tippet. Grudgingly.


Matt_J said...

It is arrogant to think God can be named, pinned down in a book: all we have is the metaphor. We have to listen, and then God whispers. Kierkegaard was right, the rational side does not accept.

fresca said...

Hi, Matt,
Yes, I agree with you: all we have is metaphor.
All language, even math, is metaphor, symbols trying to contain the mystery so we can work with it, wouldn't you say?
When we get too attached to the symbols, we forget the greater mystery behind them.
I wholly "believe in" irrational mystery and spirit. I just found that it doesn't match up with what the Christian religions call God.
Thanks for Kierkegaard--he always cheers me up (really).

momo said...

This is a fascinating post, thank you. I have a similar reaction to Krista Tippet's manner of speaking, although I really admire what she has been able to do with her program.

I was not raised a christian by my ex-Catholic parents, but some of it has seeped in, probably through singing in a chorus and all that music and painting I love.

fresca said...

Thanks, Momo: I didn't know anyone else was in any way less than thrilled with KT, I really did wonder if it was purely envy on my part, envy which arises because I too admire what she's done with "Speaking of Faith."

I wasn't raised Christian either, or any religion, but art & music transcend many social boundaries...or seep under, as you say. Good stuff!

Ian said...

Good evening,

I love this post. I would call myself a christian humanist. Being raised Christian and going back and forth between denominations I also have tried various names and have settled on Christian Humanist. Granted I haven't gone so far as to not believe in God persay, being as I have had what one might say a Bertrand Russel Conversion experience. Without getting into a lot of detail I prayed for a sign that for me the divine existed and what whacked upside the head with an example so personal that nobody else could understand it but could have worked in 1 in infinite chances. I also have gone to college and have BA in Religious Studies. I thank you again for your post and am glad to finally meet another humanist out there.

Fresca said...

Hi, Ian:

Glad to meet you too.
How nice that someone like you came across this two-year-old post. Thanks for commenting.

I just reread what I wrote and was pleased that it still expresses how I feel.

I don't think in terms of God, one way or another.
It's enough for me to work with the humans around me to try to learn and practice the skills of being human in an immensely mysterious and hidden universe.
The Christian story is a big help, it's just not the end limit.

On we go...

Anonymous said...

Dear Fresca,
First (perhaps last) time I’ve ever posted. A genetic Church-loving Catholic, daily-mass-serving communicant, and graduate of Notre Dame, I couldn’t agree with you more. I hung on desperately through the very end of the 60’s denying my doubts by submersing myself in the pursuit of moral works through groups like the Catholic Workers and pinned my hopes on liberation theology and St (god damn it) John XXIII’s platform of ecumenical reform . Perhaps because I witnessed and experienced much of now highly publicized sexual, physical and psychological abuse (though I know it can thrive within any powerful hierarchical group, many of which like government and educational institutions are essential to the general welfare), I just couldn’t hang in there. I felt morally shallow fighting the Church, and I felt called to express a compulsive need to do/be (what’s the difference?) good in other venues. Accidentally, I was found alongside the road and taken in by the Unitarian Universalists. Despite the label, we aren’t god’s gift to the “universe” any more than ours (once a C always a C) was ever a “catholic” Christian religion. Proselytizing may be the only mortal sin. My humanist friends from ND and elsewhere have taken many paths like joining the Quakers or the Unchurched masses. However, a few like yourself have held firm, which I very greatly admire.
I recently found out that I am dying, the prognosis is especially ugly. There is and will be a militant agnostic in this fox hole; and I am grateful to have found a community that supports me in my final steps in this beautifully absurd quest for meaning. I, and many others, believe that the greatest miracle and act of faith is to strive to be good for no obvious reason. UUs come in-and-from all denominations with varying degrees or total lack of deistic faith, so I welcome any of their prayers as well as those of my Catholic friends and relatives as affirmations of their love. You can rest assured (as I hope to) that the service I am planning will include a lot of raunchy uplifting humor and more than a few heartfelt Latin hymns.
Stick with it, Fresca. You have our love, support, and appreciation. By your works they will know you.
Pax et amor,
(PS A: Anyone else ever sing the Tantum Ergo to the tune of My Darling Clementine? Check your local obituaries and consider yourself invited. B: I’ll try to post an alert if I find out we got it wrong, but only Pascal would wager the farm on it.)

helen said...

i have just been asked to complete a questionnaire for a school child , explaining my humanist belief. so i searched for catholic humanist to see if that was " allowed" and your blog came up. it seems to express some of how i feel. I was brought up a catholic and feel , as a result i think, a very strong draw to and loyalty towards the catholic church. Mary, saints , hymns, rosary,inscence etc But i do not now believe in god . In fact, i object to my son's school ( which is not a religous school) instilling in him from the age of 5 that god exists. I don't mind people believing in god- we all have the right to believe , but please don't pass that on as a truth.I can see how powerful such notions can be in a young mind.Anyway, back to the questionnaire, thanks- i now feel i can call myself a catholic humanist.thanks for the blog.

Fresca said...

Hi, Helen,
Thanks for writing---sorry I've been slow responding but I haven't been blogging lately.
Glad I could spread the term "humanist Catholic"--it sure was a big help to me in claiming and naming the complexity of my beliefs.

I agree: schools can teach Goodness without teaching God as fact.

And we can love religious art and ritual as "true" expressions of the human spirit without insisting they represent some sort of external facts.
My best, Fresca

Fresca said...

To ANONYMOUS: Your comment came through on my e-mail but now I'm on the blog it's not here... perhaps you chose to delete it?

At any rate, thank you for writing and my sympathy for your diagnosis, which we will all receive one day, in some form or another...
("Hello, I must be going" could serve as a good hymn. Maybe I'll add it to my list of songs I'd like at my funeral...)

Thank you for the invitation--I shall attend in spirit.

Anonymous said...

Another interesting post (hope it's okay that I'm far in the past, now! and anonymously, so I don't know if I will see responses unless I can recall specifically where I commented.). Between this one and the one a few later about people telling you you believe in god...

Firstly, agree about Krista Tippett. Personally, I find her voice and tone extremely off-putting. There's something about it that strikes me as put-on, and purposefully serious in a new-agey, soft, "soothing" way. I feel like her voice is hiding from frank discussions and reality. But she interviews interesting people with some skill, so I wish someone would put her voice through one of those voice anonymizers and then share THAT podcast.

I am have been agnostic to atheistic about the idea of god as a sentient being outside ourselves (god as wholly external seems foreign to me). My experience of other Catholics is that this kind of ambiguity is shared.

For me, I was raised with an understanding (though I don't recall it being explicit) that god was totally unknowable, unimaginable. Human form or human language (and metaphor) served as a kind of dumbing down to communicate a beyond-comprehension concept.

But whether that concept is real or not is totally immaterial to my Catholicism. As one mentor of mine said, (dis)belief comes down to a choice. As far as doubt goes, my understanding is that it's part of faith in the same way that it's part of science or any search for knowledge and truth and a better world. Lack of doubt (or really, certainty of any kind) is a cause for serious concern--either someone is only skimming the surface of their existence (immaturity? fear?) or they are disconnected from reality. Either way they're close-minded and static rather than growing and open.

I also refuse to call myself a Christian because I'm not. Jesus is rather incidental, as far as I'm concerned; I might be part of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but in the event of me not being Catholic, I haven't encountered any form of Christianity that resonates with me. Judaism, on the other hand...

Not sure any of this comes across clearly or in the manner in which its intended. I find it an interesting discussion of semantics and as someone who watched you being baptized (though without knowing it was you--we were at that mass that year), I wanted to share that as far as I know, what you describe falls well within what I've been told is the experience and beliefs of Devout and Faithful Catholic and far closer to Good Catholic than a perfunctory Sunday-only understanding of life and God the Bearded Man. It also lines up closely with what I understand to be the beliefs and views of individuals who are atheists (which is part of why I think it's really a matter of semantics).

But the only places within the church where I haven't felt out of place have been in the justice oriented spaces.