the diary thing. 03.19.02 .god
iconTHE EDITOR OF THE PAPER where I work came over to my desk a couple of hours ago to talk about law enforcement in the north, where he used to work at a paper in Yellowknife. That led, in a 
not-so-roundabout way, to a discussion of the death penalty, while I photoshopped (Is that really a verb? Should it be capitalized: Photoshopped?) a picture of Andrea Yates leaving court in her orange prison jumpsuit after being found guilty on two capital charges of murdering her children. No one in the office thought there was much of a chance of her being found not guilty – not in Texas, in any case – but no one thinks she'll get the death penalty. 

We were conversationally grazing over the issue, and P.J. was wondering whether death wasn't actually a humane alternative for the woman: surely she doesn't have much to live for anymore. I tried to keep that particular idea in the air but I couldn't. I hemmed and hawed for a second, then said:

"Well, you know I simply can't support the death penalty. I mean, I'm a Catholic…"

And P.J. just nodded, sympathetically. That's all I had to say. In this case, I was under no obligation to defend my position. I'm a Catholic, and Catholics are as likely to support the death penalty as Jews oppose the existence of the state of Israel. (The fact that, if you really looked, you could find Catholics in favour of the death penalty, as well as profoundly anti-Zionist Jews, says more about the issue of free will than anything else. The fact remains that belief requires articles of faith, and for Catholics, the death penalty is one of them; probably among the greatest.) 

A minute later, a picture of Tracy Housel pops up in my Reuters window. He'd been executed by the state of Georgia just an hour or so before. While I'm sure many people are happy that we don't live in a Catholic world, just for the moment, I wished we did.

I'M A CATHOLIC. Which is to say an adherent to the Roman rite of the Catholic Church, an obscure Judean sect that managed, in a few hundred years, to become the state religion of the most powerful 
empire in the world. A remarkable feat, comparable to the Branch Davidians gathering enough popular support to become the state religion of the United States of America in about 2450. I'm being 
flippant, I know, but I like to remind myself of this fact every now and then, a sort of theological and historical thumbnail mark on the doorjamb: My, look how we've grown!

My wife likes to say that I'm a cultural Catholic, much as Woody Allen or Phillip Roth, say, are secular Jews. That is to say, everything that informs my view of the world, every bit of metaphor or mythology or reference, was put there in the process of being raised Catholic, at Catholic schools, at church, in the course of my reading and by the simple fact that almost everyone I knew until roughly the age of sixteen was Catholic. I'm not observant, or even particularly devout, but when the chips are down, I can be seen wearing the metaphorical yarmulke, kneeling and crossing myself inside and out.

I consider it a major feat, a milestone in my path through adulthood, that I've been able to relate to priests as fellow humans, and not the intimidating agents of doctrine who taught me at school and listened to my confessions with good-humoured disinterest. I'm no longer puzzled or pruriently amazed at the vow of chastity, or afraid of relating to a priest as just another man. I've become very casual in my relationship with the church; from the outside, I probably look like just another "lapsed" Catholic, albeit one that's allowed the church a bit closer to my life than the stiffly enforced arm's length perimeter that so many of my "formerly" Catholic friends and relatives maintain.

MY WIFE IS DEVOUT, a faithful and observant Catholic, a "church lady" in training, as she likes to joke. This is new; just over a year ago, she was yet another lapsed Catholic, her reaction to the church 
conditioned by a bit of fear, a touch of guilt, and quite a few remnants of fashionable youthful rebellion against "oppressive" insitutions like the church. 

I'll let her tell her own story, but I'll allow that her return to the church was quick, a journey that took barely a week or two. A few days into the new year, she was asking me about the new church being built a few blocks south of us, a more than slightly idiosyncratic, traditional basilica, rising where a modest little gothic brick church had burned down a couple of years before. I'd been trying to interest the daily I worked for in a story on the church, and had hung around taking pictures of the final stages of construction, interviewing the priests and architects and contractors. 

The piece never ran – pitching a piece on religion is almost pointless these days; questions of faith are best left to op-ed writers, even at conservative papers – but one day K. made her way down to Holy Family and had a chat with Fr. Dan Utrecht. Within a week, she was going to mass every day. Before the year was out, she was volunteering in the office twice a week and had joined the women's auxilliary. We were married by Father Dan last November.

"A lot of Christians wear crosses around their necks. Do you think when Jesus comes back he ever wants to see a fuckin' cross? It's kind of like going up to Jackie Onassis wearing a rifle pendant: 'Just thinking of John, Jackie. Just thinking of John.'"

- Bill Hicks, "Odd Beliefs"

Bill Hicks reminded me of a lot of the "non-believers I've known in my life, especially those who'd "lapsed" from the faith they were raised in. I don't know what faith Hicks was brought up in, but they must have done something terrible to offend his sense of logic, or proprietry, or taste. The result was a - to me- hilarious and profane take on religion that doesn't quite hide a deep longing for some kind of faith than can be inclusive of someone like Hicks. I can sympathize.
I've been meaning to get this off of my chest for awhile. I assume that there aren't a lot of people who'll agree with me, and I'd be more than happy to talk with you about it.
john scalzi
james lileks
alan zweig
mike reed
lucy huntzinger
warlog: ww3
little green footballs
ken layne
uss clueless
andrew sullivan
sgt. stryker
arts & letters
relapsed catholic

Mr. John Scalzi wrote some very nice things about this diary the other day.I am grateful, and terribly flattered. I can only hope that anyone coming here via his plaudits isn't too disappointed.
I'M NOT A VERY GOOD CATHOLIC. Except for Christmas and Easter and the odd vespers, you won't find me at church next to my wife. In the beginning, I used to joke that we were like one of those old Italian couples in the neighbourhood where I grew up; while she was in church on Sundays, he'd be at his local social club, drinking coffee and watching soccer. My club and coffee and soccer is the couch, a coffee and a stack of books and magazines. I'm sure K. would prefer that I share her devotion, but I can't, not right now. 

If I felt at all defensive about it, I could claim that I wasn't the one whose life changed, that the woman I met and asked to marry wasn't at that time a devout Catholic. I'd be suggesting that it was me who was cutting the slack, who was indulging my tolerance. It would be a pretty graceless attitude, and pretty far from the truth. 

No, in this case, it's my wife who's being tolerant. Faith can be a pretty lonely thing in the modern world, and I'm not being the best companion. I hope K. understands, but my relationship with the church, with God, is a bit fraught, my faith basically locked in a struggle with my skepticism, my disinclination to membership in anything, the much-reduced but still palpable sense of betrayal that drove me from the church when I left Catholic school. I would love to join her, but I just can't do it.

It was hard to explain this to K., and only a bit easier to explain it to Father Dan. My relationship with the church is friendly but conditional, qualified by the usual historical qualms – Pius XII, the doctrine of papal infallibility, a handful of colourful but iniquitous Medieval and Renaissance popes, the well-meaning but aggressivly trivial excesses of Vatican II – and by the cumulative disappointments of my decade and a half of Catholic education. More on that later.

MY RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD is a bit less easy to explain. If I could explain it at all, it would be in terms that verge on rabbinical. I've felt for years that I'm engaged in a dialogue with God – a dialogue that's a trifle one-sided, to say the least, and which demands from me a bit more patience than I'm often able to summon. But a dialogue, nevertheless, a discussion, an often heated argument that always comes back to one, essential question: What are your intentions? Where is this all leading? And above all: why, why, why?

It's a question that I never tire of asking Him, and with which He often surprises me by throwing back in my face. 

It's not prayer. It's more like an argument that's been going on for years, mostly genial but coloured by a sense of urgency. I long for an answer – have been longing ever since I grew tired of the scripted prayers I learned as a boy, and sick of my own impatient pleading as a young man. It's a dialogue that I could only begin when I stopped thinking I had a personal stake in the answer. 

IT WOULD BE OBVIOUS, I suppose, that I'm some sort of delusional megalomaniac, debating the Almighty on somewhat equal terms. It's fine if you want to think that – it would make for some amusing e-mail, at the very least – but the truth is a lot more stark. Of course I've never talked to God, but transforming my prayers into contentious dialogue is a way of working around one of the harsher obstacles to real faith in my life.

I have no problem – in the absence of proof, the greatest obstacle for scientific rationalists – in believing in a God. Moreover, I don't relegate him to the role of philosophical abstraction, as do many virtual agnostics. You might say that I tend to Carl Sagan's view of God as something that begins in the vast space where science ends, viewed through a very personal, very Catholic, lens. 

It's a metaphor I like, if only because it furnishes an image of the incredible remove at which I imagine God regards us. If we feel alone, and struggle painfully with that loneliness, it's because God's grace doesn't extend to our ease or comfort. God's love is an austere love, not disinterested, exactly, but committed to seeing us overcome our trials and flaws on our own. 

It's a view of God that, should you be so disposed, might make room for evolution; God wants us to improve ourselves, inasmuch as the world he created can only survive – at least while we're in it – by 
striving for perfection. But that would skirt dangerously close to the concept of "intelligent creation", and to be honest, I don't want to go there. 

The great flaw with "intelligent design", or any other workaround concocted by biblical literalists, is that it seeks to punctuate the whole question of creation with a period; full stop; end of debate. And that seems not only utterly contrary to the whole point of the scientific process but, viewed through the prism of my particular take on God, something close to heresy – presuming to know God's intentions, so far as to prescribe his role, his methods, and his motives. 

God is vast and, as far as mankind is concerned, unknowable. We will, in all likelihood, never know the mind of God, but like most other ideals worth pursuing, the struggle is the point. 

I'M NOT FOOLING MYSELF that my particular, qualified, less-than-comforting take on faith is anything like a coherent, whole worldview. It's as full of holes as anyone else's edificle of faith, designed to house one occupant at best. I'd welcome anyone to debate anything I've said here – I'm sure there's enough material for that, at least. It's not, however, all I have to say about the church – that will have to wait till my next entry.


Songs of the Crooked Dance buy it

A collection of vintage Bulgarian folk music, recorded from 78s. I have a lot of time for this sort of thing.

Robert Ward, Virgin Trails buy it

You can't actually buy my friend Bob's book for about a month or so, but by all means order in advance - support good Canadian writing; it needs all the help it can get.

Robert Ward - "Los Bob" to his friends - has written an amazing account of travelling the pilgrimage routes of Europe. Though an atheist - albeit a benign and undogmatic one - he doesn't stand apart from the dogged fervor of the faithful pilgrim, documenting it like some darkly amusing social phenomenon. It's a remarkable feat.

I've been reading an MS copy lent to me by our mutual friend, Dennis. I can't help it - I always approach work written by friends with trepidation, mentally preparing my carefully insincere praise if the work's not good. Bob - an evil, soul-blasted man, to be sure - has written something remarkable. It's doubly amazing to me since I travelled through north and central Spain with him, drunk most of the time, making dick and diarrhea jokes.
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