Key West, Florida, March 2015


When this winter started, there were two things I thought we going to happen before it was over.  First, I was going to get out of the snow before it was over, to go scuba diving and to get some sun and to recharge from the grey and the shoveling and all of that.  Second, I was going to take concrete steps to leave the Catholic Church.

Well, it is clear now that only one of those is going to happen.  And I am sitting in Key West, Florida, watching the sunrise. . . .

Bruce Springsteen's sixth album, Nebraska, is a dark work.  It is just Springsteen, his guitar, and a harmonica.  The themes are violence and hopelessness, with crime as the link between those two.  It's a haunting album.

But the genius of the album, for me, is the last song, Reason to Believe.  After the despair and alienation of the previous nine songs, Reason to Believe changes the conversation.  It is not in any way upbeat--it involves a dead dog, a woman abandoned by her man and a man left at the altar, the death of an old man.  But it goes to the central question--why do we believe in things?  Forget something like believing in God or a religion, why do we believe in other people, a government, anything really?  Why do we push through all of the crap and horror that comes from believing in things and then being disappointed.

Bruce doesn't answer the question in the song.  He doesn't answer it, I think, because looking for "reasons," looking for well-constructed, logical sequences of arguments, does not lead to any sort of "belief."  Our "reasons to believe" are different than that sort of thinking.  They exist in the very core of who we are.  They are the thing that make us who we are--they are the hooks and supporting pieces where those logical, rational arguments and ideas hang.  To stop believing, or to change what one believes, would be to rebuild the entire structure of ourselves.

We don't "think through" or "develop" reasons to believe; as Bruce says, we "find" them, deep inside ourselves.

I love a number of Springsteen songs, but I think Reason to Believe is my favorite.

I really don't know anything about God.  I suppose I could say that I "know" certain "facts," things you can pick up from books.  That might seem like something, but it is really nothing.  In fact, I feel like I know less about God now than I did when I started writing this blog.

This is not to say I believe in God less.  In fact, the opposite--I believe in God much more now than I did when I started writing this blog (to the extent "belief" can be quantified into "more" and "less").  It's that the things I thought I knew, the things that seemed clear and certain and understandable; those things have all become unclear and confused.

It's disorienting to a person who likes to think of himself as a clear thinking, maybe even a bit intellectual, guy.  But I have to think that this confusion is going somewhere, that there is something like a light at the end of the tunnel.  Or maybe I am like the people in the song, asking "Lord won't you tell us, tell us what does it mean?"  and waiting for an answer that may never come.

Either way, though, it is now clear that this confusion has nothing much to do with belief.  I've found my reasons to believe, come what may.


Last night, I bought a sub at Publix and went to the beach to have my dinner.  There was a spot that you could see the sunset, and so I waded out to about chest deep and tried to recreate the experience I had in Santa Monica about seven years ago.  Truthfully, nothing happened.

After going back to the beach and eating my sub, I tried again.  By this point, the sun had completely set, and the full moon was out.  The moonlight on the dark waves was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.  I stood there, transfixed, watching the moonlight.  Lost in that thought, I began to notice how powerful the ocean actually was, banging me around even though the water was only up to my mid chest.  And it reminded me of something from my time with the Dominicans.

I remember a moment, sitting in church somewhere, and looking up at an image of a boat.  I was immediately struck by this image of being in a boat, rowing calmly toward some island in the distance.  As I got closer to the island, it became rougher and rougher, and it became clear that if I continued on this course with the boat, I was going to crash on the rocks.  The only option was to get out of the boat and make my own way, relying on the current to take me in to shore.  Or, I could change course now and go after some other island, one with less current and fewer rocks.

I left the Dominicans about a month after that evening.

I felt that same power last night that I felt 12 years ago in the church in Denver.  The power that is going to take you some place you want to go, ultimately, but to get there you are going to have to get out of the boat and totally commit to the process.  But this time, there was something different.  It dawned on me that I was standing right in the path of the moonlight, as if it was tracing a path from where I was up to where it was.  Somehow, that made the whole thing much less scary, much less like a reckless step into the unknown.

You might say, "but Mike, it is always going to appear as if the moonlight is shining directly on you--it shines on every place where you happen to stand.  It is all about your perception."  That's true; in fact, that's kind of the point.  But that's doesn't change what I saw.

Maybe I am just a lunar Christian after all.  I needed to see the moon to see the way.

So, what about Mr. Huff and Mr. Wojtowick?  Am I abandoning them after six months?  Perhaps, and I would certainly not object if anyone feels that I have.  What happened to them is terrible, and it remains terrible and unjustified.  I want to be in solidarity with them.  But I can't do it by leaving the Catholic Church.  Not now, at least.

You see, I really thought I was ready to leave.  There was nothing intellectually stopping me from going.  The Episcopal Church, far from being the pagan free-for-all that it is portrayed by many (especially Catholics) to be, is a body that consists of well-meaning, thoughtful Christians who are trying very, very hard to figure out what the Christian faith means in the 21st Century.  It is a serious church filled with serious believers.  I know I would be welcomed there.  There is no problem with the Episcopalians.

And yet, the closer I got intellectually to making the move, the more clear it was to me that I wasn't going to be able to pull the trigger.  I'm not there, and maybe I never will be.

James Alison's writings also played a part.  He has a chapter in his "Jesus the Forgiving Victim" series about the church, and how we get trapped into rivalrous cycles with the church itself, trying to prove our righteousness over and against the church.  There was definitely a part of that in my reaction to Mr. Huff and Mr. Wojtowick--I wanted to revel in being right and the bishop and priest in Montana being wrong, to use it as a badge of my own elevated moral sense.

Alison makes clear that this cycle is destructive, no matter how "right" you are in your position.  To show this, he uses a weird (and thoroughly British) analogy.  For him, the church is a restaurant, God is the chef, and the wait staff are the hierarchs and other "official" church folks.  The wait staff is often rather lousy--getting into pointless feuds, providing bad service, being contemptuous of the customers, believing that they are the reason the restaurant exists, etc.  You could, if you wanted to, strike back by yelling at your server, threaten to short them on the tip, or whatever.  But, what's the point?  You've just lowered yourself to their level, and enmeshed yourself in their weird psychodramas.

Instead, Alison encourages one to take an aristocratic perspective.  A true aristocrat doesn't get into fights with the wait staff--that's beneath his or her dignity.  Instead, the aristocrat looks on the whole thing with a bit of bemused indifference. It's hard to get good help, and so a dignified person accepts this reality and makes the best of the experience.  After all, the food is still really, really good.

Moreover, if one is used to fighting with the wait staff at one restaurant, then if you go to another restaurant down the street, you are going to do the same thing at the new restaurant.  After all, all of the wait staff ultimately come from the same pool of people.  You first have to learn how to not fight with the staff--to adopt an aristocratic perspective--then you can figure out which restaurant you like the best, or whether that is even a meaningful question.

After all, the chef is the same at all of them.


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