“… the true religious genius of our race now seems to say, Beware of Churches! Beware of priests! above all things the flights and sublime ecstasies of the soul cannot submit to the exact statements of any church, or of any creed.”
— Walt Whitman, Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts (New York University Press, 1984), I:408
Who cares what I think about the topic of religion, one might ask.
It has probably — I would say, certainly — been written and declaimed about far more than any other conceivable topic over the ages, far surpassing topics such as politics.
By the greatest writers the world has ever seen.
But I was thinking about religion the other day because of a conversation I had with a friend of mine. It made me think also of similar conversations I’ve had in the past.
My friend is a professional with an advanced degree. He works in one of the so called helping professions.
He is, as a result of professional training and experience and also by virtue of his nature, a thoughtful, insightful, and caring individual.
I had never had occasion to discuss religion with him before and had no knowledge or idea of what his religion was, other than suspecting that he was probably Christian. In the course of our conversation, I learned that he is Episcopalian.
I was raised as a Congregationalist and later became a Unitarian. (More about this below.)
My friend, while a church member, has a lot of reservations about Christian doctrine and about organized religion. We agreed to disagree.
To summarize, imperfectly, the points my friend made (I don’t have him with me to verify the accuracy of my summary):
— Many Christian beliefs, such as those derived from Bible stories, are patently “false,” meaning that to many an educated person in the modern world, they seem ludicrous. That would apply, for example, to a belief in the immaculate conception or that Jesus was resurrected, as well as Jesus’s miracles.
— Not only is much of religious belief based on fiction, but the historical veracity of much of what, say, is presented in narrative accounts in the Gospels cannot be verified. For example, there is very scant historical evidence for Jesus’s life and ministry. What we have been told may well have been invented and then propagated as revealed truth.
— Organized religion has done and does more harm than good. It has led to barbarity and intolerance. And, to modern day abuses. Conservative religion has become allied with right wing political factions in a way that is an anathema to liberals and progressives.
May I be permitted a word or two about my own religious upbringing as it pertained to our discussion?
I was raised as a Congregationalist. They are “middle of the road,” I would say, on the Protestant spectrum, with the Episcopalians being more conservative, the Baptists much further to the right, and the Unitarians way to the left.
I am extremely grateful that my parents didn’t neglect my religious upbringing. From it, I got a good grounding in moral values. To give an example, I learned the importance of compassion and charity.
I developed — my parents had more to do with it than the church, but church teaching was also important — a moral sense and a CONSCIENCE.
I absorbed the basic tenets of Christian doctrine, observed the religious holidays. My family was more important than the church with respect to the latter, but church services and observances of Christmas and Easter seemed sacred and wonderful, as well as inspiring awe and reverence, a sense that they were very special as well as joyous times. (So did some religious and holiday music that I was exposed to at the time, such as hymns and Christmas carols.)
In Sunday school, which my parents saw to it that I attend without fail, I got an excellent grounding in the Bible. I know my Gospels — by no means as well as a TV or radio evangelist does — but I know the stories and sayings, when the angel of the Lord brought tidings of joy to the shepherds keeping watch over their flock; when Jesus spent forty days in the desert, was tempted by the devil, and told him, “Get thee hence, Satan”; when Jesus cast out the swine from the insane man and how they perished in the sea; the miracle of the loaves and fishes; or what Jesus said, like “blessed are the poor in spirit” and “he that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone.”
Many modern day kids raised in “enlightened,” “progressive” households don’t have the faintest knowledge of any of this. (A shame, I would say a disgrace.)
To learn these words and to read about the miracles when one is growing up are invaluable. They become part of you — your inner self — something you don’t question and which it seems as if you’ve always known. The words and the edifying stories are with you at trying times.
Growing up I also became well acquainted with Catholicism. The majority of my friends, in my early years, were Catholic. We argued about religion all the time. I thought they were narrow minded, borderline ignorant, incapable of thinking for themselves, too credulous, and so on – these youthful opinions were, needless, to say, prejudiced, often unfair and unfounded, on my part. But I grew over the years to appreciate and greatly admire the Catholic church. (See more below.)
To return to my friend’s criticisms for a minute.
He spoke appreciatively of religiously inspired music; he is obviously not a know-nothing unbeliever/religious antagonist. But, basically, he thinks that Christian doctrine was and is founded on absurdities that are impossible of belief by an educated, rational person. And that, by subscribing to and perpetuating absurdities, organized religions are actually doing harm by cheapening and obfuscating civic discourse. (My friend did not actually say this. I am extrapolating from what he said and seemed to be implying.)
My take on this and my current beliefs are as follows.
I became a Unitarian when I was a preadolescent. I do not currently belong to a church. When asked, I respond that I do not belong to a church.
I am not what, in the common understanding of the term, what would be called a “believer.”
But I realize that I am fundamentally a Christian. What do I base this upon? My upbringing. My basic outlook on life. My core beliefs. My basic makeup and “spiritual genealogy,” so to speak.
I admire (which is an understatement) and completely respect religious people, from Saint Augustine to Albert Schweitzer, from Saint Francis to Dorothy Day, from Meister Eckhart to George Fox, from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Pope Francis.
Pope John XXIII.
I admire Walter J. Ciszek, S.J., the priest who endured twenty years imprisonment in the Soviet Union and hard labor in the Gulag on trumped up charges of being a “Vatican spy.”
I admire Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, who was recently installed as the archbishop of Newark, NJ.
I respect clergymen, priests, and nuns for their seriousness of purpose and devotion to their calling.
The way in which religion affects me most profoundly is through art, in the broad sense of the word.
I defy anyone to listen to the masses of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, or Schubert; to Monteverdi’s “Magnificat”; to Vivaldi’s “Gloria” or Stabat Mater or Antonín Dvořák’s Stabat Mater; to an oratorio such as the Saint Matthew Passion or Berlioz’s l’enfance du Christ; or to two modern compositions, Alan Hovhaness’s “Ave Maria” and Vladimír Godár’s “Regina Coeli,” and remain unmoved.
To Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross, one the most devout pieces ever composed.
Try listening to a hymn such as “Fairest Lord Jesus” — with its beauty, clarity, strength, and simple piety — and remaining unmoved.
Or “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” with its ringing, joyous affirmation of Christian belief.
I know the Latin mass by heart. When words such as Laudamus te, benedicimus te, adoramus te, glorifcamus te … Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi; dona nobis pacem … Crucifìxus etiam pro nobis sub Pontio Pilato; passus et sepultus est, et resurrexit tertia die … Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini are sung, I am profoundly stirred. At such a moment, I feel the “truth” of Biblical events. I don’t go into a religious frenzy or temporarily lose my mind, but I do at such moments experience religion at a gut level, viscerally. I am not looking askance and thinking to myself. “This is, at bottom, silly; it can’t really be believed.” On the contrary, through the medium of sublime art, I have become a believer — for the moment, at least — insofar as it’s possible (for myself, that is).
I also experienced this when I saw Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film The Gospel According to Matthew (1964). The film is so powerful and convincing, the Gospel stories become so credible, that one is totally engrossed and in the moment; one suspends disbelief.
A penultimate thought or two. I don’t want to leave the impression that my respect and admiration for religion are solely the impressions of an aesthete. That’s a big part of it, but there’s more, I realize.
It seems to me that religion is a core part of what it is to be human, though many of my friends and relatives would probably dismiss this as representing a sort of atavism. It must feed basic human needs. The need for belief in something beyond mundane existence, as we observe it. But, I don’t think this is just a matter of “emotional neediness” by weak minded people who need a crutch. Sort of the way Noam Chomsky has shown that there is a universal grammar that is innate to the human brain, I think something similar can be said about religion as it transcends all types of cultural and social boundaries and affects all of us.
I think that religion is important because it humbles us. We need to believe and to be able to conceive of something greater than our puny selves, something that inspires awe and reverence. Perhaps that’s enough to say. I am not a preacher and don’t want to be seen as coming across as one. But, I do think that religions play an important psychological function, or more broadly, an edifying one, when we attempt to conceive of the glory of God and His creation.
A lot of my contemporaries seem to think that they are self sufficient in their ability to reason and thereby to deduce their own truths (the absolute rightness of which they are convinced of) and that they don’t need a “crutch.” I find them smug. They would say they need no god or gods. They are too proud, in my opinion, too sure of themselves. They would do well to read what the great religious thinkers have to say.
A relative of mine recently posted a comment on this blog. It had to do with a post of mine, not about religion, in which post I wrote that people should be more “Christian” when it comes to judgment and forgiveness.
“I am inclined to side with the [sentencing] judge,” my relative wrote. “This is an example, among many others, of why I am essentially non-religious. I consider established religion to be one of the most divisive, most antagonistic influences in human affairs and history.”
My relative’s view seems to be shared by many. It is hard to argue with him in view of contemporary church scandals and abuses; ones from historical periods not that remote; and examples from history such as the Crusades and the Inquisition.
But I still respect religion, without reservation. I try to follow the essential precepts and teachings of Christianity, although I do not belong any longer to a church or subscribe to a particular faith.
— Roger W. Smith
I picked out a piece of sacred music more or less at random from the Agnus Dei (lamb of God) section of Haydn’s Nelson Mass: qui tollis peccata mundi (You who take away the sins of the world). There are, of course, many other splendid examples.
Listen to it. Can one deny the intense spirituality? This from a master of classical form.
This searing article depresses me and makes me angry.
Many of the women got pregnant young. Many were abused by boyfriends or raised in horrible conditions as children.
Most are in prison for drug offenses. They should not be incarcerated. There is no reason for it. Perhaps drug treatment would help them. But drug abuse is a victimless crime.
The other crimes described in the article – committed by these “horrible creatures” — seem almost petty.
The woman prisoner mentioned at the beginning of article was “shackled to a wall” during the interview.
She and many of the other women have been cruelly separated from their children. It’s a system that perpetuates abuse and cruelty and that causes a continuous cycle of misery, from generation to generation.
Abuse – if not barbarity — by the “corrections” system is monstrous and unremitting.
And, we profess to lecture other nations about respecting the essential worth and dignity of each individual and adhering to the doctrine of human rights.
— Roger W. Smith
November 26, 2016
“I know some of you are glaring at this article and thinking: It’s their own fault. If they don’t want to go to prison, they shouldn’t commit crimes!
“That scorn derives partly from a misunderstanding of drug abuse, which is a central reason for mass female incarceration in America (and a major reason for mass incarceration of men as well, although to a lesser degree). As Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, the surgeon general, noted in releasing a major report this month: “It’s time to change how we view addiction. Not as a moral failing but as a chronic illness.” In short, we should think of drugs not primarily through the criminal justice lens but as a public health crisis.”
A controversy erupted two days ago when the cast of the Broadway hit “Hamilton” made a politically charged appeal from the stage on November 18 to Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who was in the audience, urging him and Mr. Trump to “uphold our American values” and “work on behalf of all of us.”
On Saturday, November, 19, one supporter of Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter that the “Hamilton” statement was “a staged hit job.” Another wrote that actors should never “humiliate a member of the audience.”
Mr. Pence’s “Hamilton” seats were bought, not provided by the production as complimentary seats, according to two people with knowledge of the transaction.
President-elect Trump caused further controversy when he tweeted: “The Theater must always be a safe and special place. The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!”
Vice President-elect Mike Pence attended the performance of “Hamilton” on Friday, November 18. Afterward, a lead actor, Brandon Victor Dixon, who plays Aaron Burr in the show, read a statement: “You know, we have a guest in the audience this evening — Vice President-elect Pence, I see you walking out but I hope you hear just a few more moments,” Mr. Dixon said. As some in the audience booed, Mr. Dixon hushed them, then added, “Sir, we hope that you will hear us out.”
As Mr. Pence stood by the exit doors, Mr. Dixon said:
We, sir, are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us — our planet, our children, our parents — or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us. All of us.
From the The New York Times:
The plea to Mr. Pence was written by [Lin-Manuel] Miranda; the show’s director, Thomas Kail; and the lead producer, Jeffrey Seller, with contributions from cast members, according to Mr. Seller. In an interview after the show, Mr. Seller said he learned “very late that Mr. Pence was coming to the show, and the creative team and cast members quickly reckoned with how to respond.
Actor Brandon Victor Dixon’s statement is on YouTube at
The following are some comments generated by and in response to the controversy, mostly from the Washington Post and New York Times websites.
THE WASHINGTON POST
If you are hired to wait the president’s table at a restaurant, what you don’t get to do is use that as an opportunity to lobby your political views. So too with actors at a performance. It was not only presumptuous for a relatively obscure (outside of Broadway anyway) stage actor to give the VP elect gratuitous advice on how to govern in accordance with the Constitution, but completely out of line.
I would fire him and any waiter, server, flight attendant, steward, physician, nurse, or any other entertainer or service person hired to serve the president or vice president who fails to keep in mind their job description. People pay $175 to see a Broadway play, not for tinhorn advice outside the script delivered by an airheaded actor.
— Stephen Gianelli
Right on target. Thank you. Amidst all the bloviating, someone is capable of talking sense about this ridiculous contretemps, started by producers and cast who thought they would not only put on the performance of a play, but would give a sermon at the end.
— Roger W. Smith
Who needs to go to the theatre to be preached at? What turned people off from traditional religion was the judgmental attitude and arrogance. Now, we have the church of the left. But unlike regular church, these people are trying to turn every public area into a sanitized zone for their ideology. Save us from the neo-Puritans.
The audience, all of whom paid also, were most pleased by the gracious and moving response of the cast to an opportunity to address Mr. Pence, whether he wanted to be addressed or not. So was a great swath of Americans, the majority of whom do not support this evil administration-to-be. No one cares that you would fire that wonderful cast — they have the warm support of millions in this country. Like it or not, you are living in history, and like it or not the free people in America will protest this election, and like our founding fathers are not concerned about your disgruntled sensibilities. At all.
Is this the new normal? If someone you don’t like comes to your show you single them out and embarrass them to make your political statement? I don’t see how this helps. Why not welcome all kinds of people to see your show?
— Jan LP, Northern California
Diversity, huh? Yes, the cast of Hamilton is multi ethnic, but that’s where the diversity comes to a screaming halt, since apparently everyone thinks exactly alike and reflects uniformly only one extreme side of the political spectrum. Not one member of the cast, crew or productive team diverges in any way from the leftist progressive agenda, and all are presumably Democrats who supported Hillary Clinton for president. Lockstep, group think, all the way down the line.
So, diversity of ethnicity…. you bet. Diversity of thought and ideology…. non-existent. Some diversity. The booing was classless and the lecture immature and embarrassing. Can you imagine what would happen if Trump himself attended a performance? It would make Diaghilev’s Paris premiere of the Rite of Spring in 1913, which featured a full scale riot, look like high tea by comparison.
As weird as this sounds, I think the cast and creators of “Hamilton” should keep their noses out of politics. Stick with churning out the toe tappers and providing a memorable, entertaining evening at the theater and leave it at that.
— Thomas Field, Dallas
While I agree with the message, the actions of the “Hamilton” cast were inappropriate. it was heckling in reverse. Mr. Pence came to see your play and deserved the same respect as any other paying customer who was hoping for an evening of entertainment (and perhaps some enlightenment).
— Honey Feeney, Harrisburg, PA
Pence attended the performance, didn’t he? That alone signals an open mind. Only those hoping for Trump and Pence to fail would attempt to convey Pence’s attendance into a liability.
— Anonymous, Cedarburg, WI
It is ironic and paradoxical that an actor will single out an audience member to accuse someone for supposedly lacking tolerance for diversity and not provide the stage for equal time and diversity! A perfect example of hypocrisy and not being tolerant of diverse opinions! Shame on you Mr. Dixon and the producers of this Broadway musical!
— Anonymous, Southern California
I think the cast of “Hamilton” should seriously petition the producers to lower the thousand dollar plus ticket prices so more of us “diverse” numbers could see the show. And, I don’t mean nosebleed balcony seats.
Here we go again. Those highly educated, lovers of diversity and tolerance liberals shaking their finger at the soon-to-be VP because 60 plus million Americans voted for him. Those liberals who love everyone….so long as you think like them! Otherwise, they’ll kick the you-know-what out of you, or try to humiliate you in public. That’s their definition of tolerance, I guess.
— J. G. Smith, Fort Collins, CO
Brandon Victor Dixon [the actor who read the statement after the performance] has lived a life of privilege, having attended St. Alban’s, Columbia and Oxford, on his way to being a rich actor. His supercilious lecture to Mike Pence was horribly condescending – he could have used the moment to wish the Vice President good luck and success, as a start to bringing the country back together.
It’s to Pence’s credit that he responded with grace and dignity, politely listening to the pompous thespian squawk (still speaking in voice) about first world problems. It brings to mind Pauline Kael’s famous quote, “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them,” and reinforces the belief that liberals are out of touch with the rest of the world. Which is why Hillary lost the election.
— Anonymous, Texas
“Mr. Dixon, who read the statement after playing the nation’s third vice president, quickly replied with a post of his own:
“@realDonaldTrump conversation is not harassment sir. And I appreciate @mike_pence for stopping to listen.”
It wasn’t a conversation. It was a monologue, a lecture, a bit of an accusation which didn’t give Pence a platform to respond to what was unexpectedly shoved in his face.
I think Mr. Dixon’s speech, and tweet, were very gracious and I don’t take much issue with it. But, it does seem like this seems to be how the left communicates: a monologue which requires one to listen to a laundry list of perceived wrongs and gripes in which the accused isn’t allowed to disagree or dissent.
The curtain call taunt of a “Hamilton” cast member to Vice President-elect Mike Pence was a public and premature chastisement, grossly impolite and impolitic. It was a perfect example of liberal cultural overreach, importune and embarrassing to a decent man whose only offense was to have given the show his nonpolitical attendance.
Art and politics are often mixed, but post-performance editorializing to a particular member of the audience is simply bad manners.
— Peter Hutchinson, Phippsburg, Me., letter to editor, New York Times, November 22, 2016
Something prompted me to remember an anecdote today.
It may or may not be of interest. It may seem trivial and not worth telling. But, I think it illustrates something – I’m not quite sure what – and how, sometimes, children can be as wise as their parents.
I was very devoted to a couple of dogs we had when I was a preadolescent. When we were living in Canton, Massachusetts, our family had a dog, Robbie, an Irish setter that we had purchased from a dog breeder.
Robbie was tall and gangly, besides being young and rambunctious. My parents felt that the place for him was in a tiny room or hall in our house that was not used except for ingress and egress – plus, we may have stored something there. We called it the “back hall.” It was adjacent to the kitchen and led to the back door, on the other side of which was a back porch. Robbie was confined to the room with the door kept closed.
I kept saying to my parents, “Can’t Robbie be let out and live with us in the house?’’
No, they would answer, sternly but regretfully, as if to say that they had no alternative. That could not be permitted. Robbie would scratch on or knock over furniture, ruin rugs, get underfoot and in everyone’s way, and so on and so on.
But Robbie seemed so unhappy back there. He would scratch at the door and whine, wanting to be let out.
I kept begging my parents to “free” Robbie. “If you let him out,” I said, “he will calm down and behave.” I kept insisting.
Finally, on a Sunday afternoon, they gave in, sort of. They agreed to let Robbie out of the room for a trial. If he “misbehaved,” he would be sent straight back to his dungeon.
The door to the back hall was opened. Robbie scooted out, nearly knocking over whomever it was (I forget) had opened the door. He ran manically around and around, frantically and joyously, in circles in the dining room, then scampered into the living room and did the same thing, knocking over a chair or two. He ran himself ragged, deliriously circling one room and then the next, running back and forth between them.
This went on for about fifteen minutes. Then Robbie lay down with his paws extended and became calm, happily dozing in a corner, basking in family warmth.
My parents never sent Robbie back to his dungeon again. He became part of the family.
I remember the Clintons from back when they tap danced around the Gennifer Flowers story.
Then came Whitewater and then Hillary Clinton’s billing records were nowhere to be found, and then there was Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton looked right at me through the TV screen and said “I did not have . . .” The lies never stopped. Then came the Clinton Foundation, foreign donations and the emails.
I have 100 percent Clinton Fatigue. If Bernie Sanders had been on the ballot, I would have voted for him, even though I agree with him on virtually nothing. But he seems to be honest and stands up for his beliefs and not for enriching himself.
— Howard Gaskill, Georgetown, Del. (a reader’s comment published in The Washington Post, November 2016)
P.S. I would have voted for Bernie Sanders too! Gladly.
Other factors conspired in the party’s debacle. One in particular haunts me. From the presidential race on down, Democrats adopted a strategy of inclusiveness that excluded a hefty share of Americans and consigned many to a “basket of deplorables” who aren’t all deplorable. …
Liberals miss this by being illiberal. They shame not just the racists and sexists who deserve it but all who disagree. …
Political correctness has morphed into a moral purity that may feel exhilarating but isn’t remotely tactical. It’s a handmaiden to smugness and sanctimony, undermining its own goals.
“The Democrats Screwed Up” by Frank Bruni, The New York Times November 11, 2016
“Will the Left Survive the Millennials?” by Lionel Shriver, op ed, The New York Times, September 23, 2016
Ms. Shriver, a noted American author, brilliantly and incisively makes points along the same lines – to the effect that a new “totalitarian orthodoxy” is setting in — already has: the orthodoxy of the politically correct left.