Attraction to InfinityLorenzo AlbaceteCrossroad Publishing, $19.95, 192 pp.Steps along the WayA Spiritual AutobiographyDiogenes AllenChurch Publishing Incorporated, $13.95, 134 pp.Father Mychal JudgeAn Authentic American HeroMichael FordPaulist Press, $19.95, 176 pp.
God at the Ritz | Steps along the Way | Father Mychal Judge
In most books," Cardinal Newman warned, "Christian conduct is made grand, elevated, and splendid; so that anyone who only knows of true religion from books, and not from actual endeavors to be religious, is sure to be offended at religion when he actually comes upon it." This skepticism makes Newman’s prose all the more enjoyable and makes his Apologia all the more compelling. But ever since Newman-O.K., and since Chesterton-most of the enterprise of apologetics, in which theologians and philosophers attempt to make religious belief intelligible to nonbelievers, has seemed an arcane, sentimental, and low-yield intellectual pursuit. A little like reenacting Civil War battles.
For one thing, there aren’t many nonbelievers around anymore. Just considering our own corner of the globe, George Gallup’s statisticians say that 82 percent of Americans declare themselves Christians, 10 percent profess some other faith, and only 8 percent think of themselves as atheists or agnostics. Charity may oblige us to concern ourselves with what people in that last category think, but curiosity really shouldn’t.
Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, an evidently charitable man who served as consultant for a recent PBS television program about Pope John Paul II, reports encounters with some unusually articulate agnostics among television critics who had gathered for preseason program viewing at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Pasadena. Idling with him at the bar, in the lobby, and around the swimming pool, these people asked Monsignor Albacete "questions, not just about the pope and his particular teachings, but about life after death, good and evil, science and faith, religion and politics, and other such ’ultimate issues.’" It is remarkable-astonishing, really-that there are television critics who think or even care very much about these things. Where do they write about them?
No matter. Monsignor Albacete writes about them here. He charts the emergence of the "hermeneutics of suspicion," that durable, secularizing spell woven by Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche, and insists that it has befuddled moderns (or at least television critics) with the compelling notion that "the human mind creates the only reality we can know." He wishes to convince them, and any similarly suspicious readers, that this is not so. He exhorts us all to "free ourselves of the last century’s prejudices, and look at the religious experience with open eyes."
Albacete is far more impressed by the power of those expiring prejudices than most of his readers are likely to be, and this obsession somewhat narcotizes his reflections. Nevertheless, in a uniquely evocative essay titled "The Perils of Tenderness," he manages to recruit Flannery O’Connor, Nathaniel and Rose Hawthorne, Walker Percy, and Saint Augustine to broach the problem of human misery. In attempting to penetrate the mystery of suffering, he concludes, "we are already addressing our thoughts to something other than ourselves. We are looking up-for a face? And suddenly we realize that we are having a conversation with the mystery." While this insight could indeed be an epiphany for those few abstracted agnostic television critics to whom Albacete’s essays are primarily addressed, 92 percent of Gallup’s interlocutors (people who are already, to use a clumsy term, religiously experienced), would insist that considerably more than that needs to be said.
A quaint apologist like Albacete challenges a previously vanquished, or at least exhausted opponent. Most modern believers-which is to say most living people-don’t need to be convinced of the reality of religious experience. Diogenes Allen, a very different sort of apologist, bemusedly observes that most intellectuals within and without the church are unaware that "the intellectual embargo on Christianity that has been in place throughout the modern period has been lifted," and that "our uphill struggle to make ourselves credible in a hostile intellectual climate is over."
Allen suggests that distraction, not doubt, is the besetting vice of our time and culture. The distraction is rooted in acedia, the ancient soul-scourge about which the church fathers knew and wrote so much. The word has been translated variously as dreariness, melancholy, boredom, apathy, indifference and sloth, but Allen prefers "discouragement," and argues that because of it, even mainline Christian churches persistently refuse the Lord’s imperative to "put out into the deep." Too many Christians accept the fashionable understanding that their faith is a slightly hyperbolic manifestation of an amorphous universal religion that has something to do with being kind. Allen’s reproof of this fatuous notion evokes Pope John Paul’s Gospel of Life encyclical with its memorable admonitions regarding the culture of death. "The creed of a relativistic pluralism," he writes, "has the apparent virtue of tolerance, but is really intolerant, as it has no place for the deepest parts of any actual, practicing religion, and above all, it lacks the depth to deal with life in all its dimensions."
As one antidote, Allen proposes the poetry and witness of George Herbert, the Anglican priest in whose seventeenth-century world the overwhelming discoveries of modern science gave rise to a secular culture "which has threatened more than once to utterly displace Christianity and render it a cultural backwater." Herbert "responded by going more deeply into the most distinctive feature of Christianity, the sacrifice of Christ." His willingness to negotiate the new culture by putting out into the deep would be dismissed by many twenty-first-century commentators as "sectarian," and it’s doubtful that their seventeenth-century counterparts were any more complimentary. But what Herbert proposes is no mere flight from awkward questions and a vexatious world. Instead, Allen insists, Herbert "squeezes and tortures the Christian vision and allows it to squeeze and torture him until it yields to him its profound truth and spirit, and then he yields himself to that truth. Such wrestling is not particularly noticeable in American popular religion nor in the academic circles in which I move."
Allen writes most admiringly of Herbert’s "The Quip," in which the poet paraphrases the psalmist and gives voice to a squeezed and tortured man who has yielded himself to the truth. Universally jeered as unlovely, impoverished, insignificant, and inarticulate, the poet addresses God in a stubbornly self-consoling way, "But thou shalt answer, Lord, for me." By the end of the poem, excruciatingly aware of the diminished life he leads and of the joys and honors that might have been but never will be his, he prays,
Yet when the houre of thy designe
To answer these fine things shall come;
Speak not at large; say, I am thine:
And then they have their answer home.
Which brings us back to Cardinal Newman’s observation on the inelegance of "actual endeavors to be religious," and the inadequacy of books alone to make them entirely palatable. On September 11, 2001, in the collapsing inferno of the World Trade Center, the New York City Fire Department chaplain, Father Mychal Judge, died as brave, generous, and holy a death as any man ever has. Yet his life emerges from the pages of Michael Ford’s absurdly titled biography (What is "authentically American" about a man who lays down his life for others?) as anything but a tidy one. In fact, the book’s principal shortcoming is its breathless hagiographic tone. It does not seem a stretch to call this complicated recovering alcoholic, gay, Franciscan priest a saint, nor even to call him a martyr. Still, while the life of an authentic American hero can be successfully rushed into print, writing about a saint, only a little less than becoming one, takes a bit more time. [end]