Sunday, December 31, 2006

Babylon as Exile

God is everywhere, even among the concrete ribbons of Babylon. But I am not here; that is, when I am here, I am not being. I am not supposed to be here anymore, maybe never again. Babylon is my hometown; it is not my home.

Home now is Boston. Once it was Baltimore. Once it was Ithaca. Once and again it was Long Island. One day, maybe, none of these places or any other in this world will be home.

Any place can become a home and later cease to be a home. Homes change, even if the places do not. Homes change, even if the people you know in those places do not. All it takes for home to change is a change in the person led to wander. A person can have a home in many places or in none at all. Both may be true at the same time for some persons. You call such persons nomads, pilgrims, or sojourners. If you believe some people are meant to be sent away from every and any home to every and any home, you can call them apostles in a secular sense. Or maybe you just call them homeless.

Babylon is a home for many others, but it is no longer the place where I belong. Living here in Babylon, I am immobilized. I have no car and I do not drive, and public transportation is shamefully inadequate. You cannot live in community when you cannot easily reach out to find your community. The immobilization is thus also figurative and spiritual. Few friends do I have left here in this neighborhood. There are three places left for me here in which the presence of the holy dissolves the barrier between sacred and profane: the church, the library, and (believe it or not) the public schools, which I visit from time to time. But one does not live in these places; the home must also be such a place, and if it is not, you wither, because the rest of these places cannot sustain your being. In my parents’ home, secularism prevails, and I suffocate whenever I visit. Other homes my brother and I have visited in this neighborhood are little different. I am pessimistic about the prospect of making an independent home for myself anywhere on Long Island that uncovers the presence of the holy that I have realized in experiences elsewhere. In his own way, my brother, newly graduated from Ithaca College and returned to Babylon, is apprehensive about the project of living authentically, dodging Scylla and Charybdis while sailing on the brackish waters of the stinking suburban seas.

Three times I have moved out of Babylon, and each time I left, I left less of me behind me. Twice I have returned, and I each time I stayed, I felt like I was losing more of me. Even to visit for several days, as I do now, is to feel increasingly constricted every day. It is time to go for good. So long, Babylon, and hello, Boston.

This post demands a companion piece, lest I come across as ungrateful toward the place that was a home for twenty years and more, and the people who made that home. Though I have grown out of Babylon, I grew up in Babylon. Of those formative years in the home that was Babylon before it became a place of exile, I hope to write more later. Until then, happy new year, friends.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Irony, Faith, and Doubt

Many people aspire to irony because they are suspicious of God, the world, and perhaps themselves. They are ironic because existence itself is ironic. Although I recognize its value, I tend to be suspicious of irony itself. A while ago I told a friend that I maintain a confrontational relationship with life’s ironies. He asked me clarify what that meant. I did so in the context of faith. Here is what I stated:


Life usually doesn’t turn out the way we expect it to (or would like it to). This is cosmic irony. This world seems to lack order and value, and we cannot prove it does have order and value. This being the case, we can avoid dealing with the apparent meaninglessness of the world; we can impose order and value by cruel fiat; or we can face the situation head-on, not with our own might, but a willing encounter with the absurd that says Yes and Amen. So I think the question of life’s ironies demands, ironically, an answer of faith. When I suggest confrontation, it is not an opposition to cosmic irony, but a willingness, a desire to meet its challenge, not with nihilism, but with apophatic “affirmation.” Despite what “it” (life, existence) is apparently, even this is not actually what it seems. Irony only approaches actuality; faith in sincerity gets you there. So I think a sincere person of faith deals with irony better than a mere ironist. To put it another way, I trust divine irony, but not ironic human responses that only stay mired in the ironic. This needs to be drawn out a little further.

I must confess to being not very original or deep a thinker; I am glad to rely on the definitive expressions of numerous illustrious sojourners preceding us. So, to explain the meaning of Yes and Amen that I embrace, I start in another place, with another man’s words:

“I don’t know Who—or What—put the question, I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone—or Something—and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life in, self-surrender, had a goal.”

That was written by Dag Hammarskjold and anthologized posthumously in Markings (1964). Now, imagine someone else acknowledging such a moment of reckoning and replying with a shrug, “Whatever.” That would be the antithesis of what I mean by Yes and Amen. Not even No is antithetical to this Yes and Amen, because renunciation is the prelude and complement to any affirmation. I don’t worry much about people who say No all the time, because at the root there is some kind of “yes” waiting to be discovered. Here is the difference between me and an ironist. More often I start with the Yes and say “no” after that to better express the Yes. One who is more of an ironist will start more often with the No and whittle away at the world “No-etically” until he or she can say the “yes” authentically. My inclination is to begin with faith and employ irony, if I must, in service of the faith-filled Yes and Amen. Others, perhaps many theologians and philosophers, operate within the hermeneutic of suspicion and begin with irony and hope against hope to finish with faith, having peeled away the layers of the world, self, and divinity like the layers of a reeking onion to find the still-fresh core.

These two strategies are types at best. We ricochet between these two types to different degrees. With Jesus, though, I will be more inclined to let my Yes mean Yes and my No mean No from the start, not the finish. So, my discipline is sincerity. But I’ve digressed from Yes and Amen as content to Yes and Amen as method. About content, briefly: Yes, I look at the world and I accept it for what it is, to the best of my ability to perceive it. And it looks like a world gone wrong, or worse, a world with neither wrong nor right, nor any forces, benevolent or malign, that care about us or the world anyway. Yet I trust that there is a purpose, a meaning, and an order; there is “something” that we call divine, and it corresponds to our questions and confusion about life and our human condition; and in some way all things will be well, indeed all manner of things will be well. To say “Whatever” in this respect is demented irony—that is, irony that has descended into nihilism.

What convictions are implied in the answer of faith? One might say that the good, love and mercy, sincerity and vulnerability are stronger than the bad, hatred, falseness and violence. Although “stronger” is appropriate, it is even better to say that the good, love and mercy, sincerity and vulnerability, are, in some way, “beyond” the bad, hatred, falseness and violence. One can hold with Kierkegaard that these values are absolute in the religious sense, and they are fulfilled ethically in one’s mode of existence. These values cannot be willfully universalized or relativized; they simply are inasmuch as one chooses to make a commitment to them. That seems to me like what an answer of faith is.


To this let me add a few words about doubt. There is no simple opposition between faith and doubt, although the letter of James suggests they are simple antitheses. I think Paul Tillich is right on when he distinguishes between kinds of doubt. There is the methodological doubt that questions the truth of particular doctrinal propositions; there is the skeptical doubt, the posture that rejects every concrete truth outright; and there is the existential doubt that always accompanies every act of faith as acknowledgment of the risk of uncertainty and failure. One’s faith can be misplaced, and what one thought was “ultimate concern” may prove illusory. Existential doubt is awareness of the uncertainty of one’s commitment, and within faith, doubt takes the uncertainty courageously into itself.

Tillich says methodological doubt about doctrinal pronouncements is a necessary component of a living theology, and he praises genuine existential doubt as a “confirmation” of faith because it reveals “the seriousness of the concern, its unconditional character.” However, Tillich sounds a note of caution about skeptical doubt, saying that the dedicated skeptic will end in either despair or cynicism (or both), at which point the only alternative left is total unconcern for being. This is intolerable, says Tillich, because we are human insofar as we remain ultimately concerned. In the end the despairing skeptic who is serious about truth will retain a grain of faith by virtue of clinging to the ultimate concern despite having no confidence in any concrete affirmations of truth. Skeptical doubt, which I would suggest is synonymous with human irony, is a transitional state of being, and no person can remain indefinitely in that state. Either the germ of faith within the sober skeptic will grow, having been fertilized by the undying passion for truth, or it will die, and the skeptic will pass off into decadent cynicism.

Many destructive debates between so-called “believers” and so-called “doubters” could be avoided if we qualify what we mean by each. There’s the doubt that is inseparable from faith as act; there’s the doubt that melts down and refines faith as proposition; and there’s the doubt that either awakens faith or shackles it forever. In the first sense, believers are in spite of being doubters. In the second sense, believers are while being doubters. In the third sense, believers are because they have been doubters.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Letter to Father Tom

Father Tom Saloy served at Our Lady of Grace, the Catholic parish in my hometown, for 11 years. During those 11 years he became one of the most beloved priests ever to serve in our church. Accepting a new assignment from the diocese, he left our parish in June with great fanfare.

Late in November he pled guilty to possessing child pornography.

Here is some background on the case:,0,1120050.story?track=mostemailedlink

And here are some columns in the parish bulletin by Father Vincent Rush, the current pastor at Our Lady of Grace:

I have known Father Tom since 1999. Like many people of the parish, I thought well of him, and our interactions were always cordial. Lots of parishioners thought the world of him. Many of us were hoping he would become the senior pastor of Our Lady of Grace one day. Never did I imagine he was struggling with sexual compulsions like these. Never did I imagine that the national clerical sex abuse scandal could touch home or persist even today, with all the new safeguards in place in Catholic parishes everywhere. Never did I think any children, near or far, could be harmed by the priests I knew, least of all Father Tom.

Now Father Tom's life is in ruins. His shadow self has been bared for all to see. Surely his family is devastated. The people of the parish are devastated. And by perpetuating the infernal commerce of child pornography, who knows how many youths have been seriously hurt.

As far as I know, Father Tom cannot initiate any contact with the outside world, but he can receive correspondence through the Diocese of Rockville Centre. For a month I have thought and prayed about what I would say to him. Here is the letter he is receiving from me. I don't know if it is pastoral or tactful, but I hope it is true, and if so true, I pray Father Tom is strong enough to accept it.


Dear Father Tom,

From the moment I learned of your arrest I have sought to write you, but I knew I had to wait for the Spirit to bid me to speak. Today is the feast of the Holy Innocents, and now I know the time is right to share my share of God’s Word with you.

Perhaps you know these words of the prophet Jeremiah: “In Ramah is heard the sound of moaning, of bitter weeping! Rachel mourns her children, she refuses to be consoled because her children are no more.” Tell me, Father Tom, do you pray as Rachel prayed, with moaning and weeping for the children who “are no more,” the ones spiritually deformed, whose souls have been murdered through such awful sexual exploitation as you had patronized? I have cried for them and for you. I cannot speak to them, but I can speak to you, and I say to you, pray for these holy innocents! Seek their forgiveness! The people of faith cry out for them and for you.

You are now literally estranged from the world, but even before your confinement you were radically estranged from yourself and the world by your sin, as are we all. You were always very good at pointing out the wonderful goodness of God’s creation, but in my opinion you were very poor at pointing out the fundamental “wrongness” attending the human condition. I am still trying to figure out why you lacked the capacity or the willingness to articulate the tragedy of this separation of men and women from their true being or the personal dimension this separation takes when we turn away freely from God.

Because you are culpable for your offenses, you are cut off from the world in a way that surpasses in its ignominy the isolation the lepers endured in the age of Francis or the persecution the first victims of AIDS suffered a generation ago. Unlike those “outcasts” you bear a deserved personal guilt. But I am a Christian, and I abhor such damned separation, whether or not the one cast out is guilty. If I could meet you now, I would greet you with a holy kiss of peace, as Francis greeted the leper, or with a healing embrace, as our parish embraced AIDS patients years ago when it allowed Christa House to be built on the church grounds. I would greet you in the name of Jesus and all the nameless, unknown children caught within a web of all-too-human addiction, exploitation, and destruction. Your addiction may well be incurable, but you can still be healed in the soul, renewed in the Spirit, and reunited with the body of Christ, ever fractured, forever one. I pray the same is possible for the children whose harm you caused.

Out of the depths comes our cry for mercy, and from the depths comes God’s forgiveness. May God’s grace, which knows the depths, raise you up from your sin, and may the Spirit lead you to the new life for which you wait with longing and anticipation. You will be made well in Christ’s living peace. For these hopes, I pray—and you can depend on my prayers, Father Tom. Now and always, the Lord be with you.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Tomorrow Never Knows

Please don’t ask me what I’m going to do with my theological education and spiritual and pastoral formation. Like Mary of Bethany, I am going to do the needful thing.

I am not interested in a job or a career. I do not worry about whether I should enter lay ecclesial ministry or proceed to a doctoral program. Mind you, I am forming clearer ideas about these things for the immediate future, but these are only temporary and provisional ideas, lacking definite certainty. I am much more interested in thinking and praying about the Absolute Future. This Absolute Future is hidden in God and revealed by God alone, so you can’t bring it about by your own means. This future meets us; we do not go out to reach it like one of so many other goals. So I act, but I really don’t make plans. I stopped making plans several years ago. Instead, I get ready.

If you are willing to subordinate your concerns about things that are transitory and finite to those things that have to do with the eternal and infinite, then we can talk. If you are willing to subordinate your concerns about a merely worldly future to those concerns that have to do with a more-than-worldly future, then we can have a conversation. If you are not, then we will not have much to say to each other.

Take note—subordinate does not mean denigrate or ignore! Working to effect a world of mercy and justice and genuine peace is a commitment none can avoid. None are to be excused from the work of building loving relationships, fruitful friendships, and firm fellowships. But all of this work for a better world is grounded in the open, infinite, mysterious unknown tomorrow of God.

Therefore, I am not interested in your being fearful about my financial security if that is your first and last interest. Likewise, I am not interested in your being fearful about my health security. I am not even interested in your being fearful about my so-called “food security.” I feel sorry for you if you are troubled by these many things only in and for themselves.

I don’t know what I am going to do in the future. I don’t know the future. I am content to let the future as Absolute Future come to me. Whether I sit or stand or jump or jive or speak or hold my peace, however I witness to the arrived and coming rule of God, I wait actively with the Spirit and work with proleptic intentionality, so that in this unsettled world all may sit and listen for the mystery.

Thank God for Jesus, who told anxious Martha to leave Mary alone.

Saturday, December 23, 2006