Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Practicing Human: An Exchange

This came in to TPM Cafe from Jack Miles, in response to my post about his New York Times review of James Carroll's new book, Practicing Catholic.

I love loyalty to friends, and I love the loyalty I see here and the vicarious pain on behalf of a friend you see as wounded. But the wound cannot be the one you feel because the difference between the Roman Catholic Church and the Episcopal Church is not the difference between eretz yisrael and the golah. Jim Carroll and I share the assumption that beneath many historical differences there abides a single great church. I haven't left that greater church, and he wouldn't claim otherwise, any more than he would claim that his Episcopal wife is less authentic a Christian than he is.

Once we recognize that nobody is finally leaving anything, the decision to practice Christianity, including the pursuit of Christian unity, from one of its many administrative centers rather than from another is a practical choice that each may legitimately make on practical or, for that matter, even on emotional and sentimental grounds. For me, the practical grounds were decisive and rested upon the judgment that the laity had not taken power in the Roman Church and were unlikely to do so. The emotional grounds came down to: Where do you feel at home?

In any case, the larger point is that the Roman Catholic church, for an informed and liberal Catholic, is not "the" church in the way that eretz yisrael is "ha" aretz. Would Bernie regard choosing Reform over Orthodox Judaism as analogous to choosing the golah over eretz yisrael? I doubt it. But isn't that analogy, finally and rather obviously, the closer fit to Episcopalianism vs. Roman Catholicism?

The only way one could defend the analogy he wants to draw is by regarding the Roman Catholic Church as a kind of greater Vatican State into which all Christians must eventually be ingathered as Jews ingathered into eretz yisrael. But Christian unity won't come about that way, and shouldn't. Here, I am reminded of the remark of a Serb nationalist around the time that Yugoslavia was coming into existence between the world wars. He said, "I do not wish Serbia to be dissolved into a South Slav Sea. I wish Serbia to be the sea into which all South Slavs are dissolved." But Rome is not the promised land to which all will one day repair or the sea into which all will be dissolved. It has been only half a church since the schism of 1054; and many would argue, perhaps Jim among them, that its spiritual unity was destroyed rather than preserved by the political unity created by Constantine and Theodosius. That lost spiritual unity will only be achieved by the assembly and preservation of some kind of world Christian mosaic. And in the long interim before that happens, what Roman Catholics can best do is begin thinking of the distinction between their church and the other world churches as analogous to the distinctions among their own religious orders, each with its own habit, its own history, its own spirituality, and all here to stay. Paulist/Jesuit rather than anything remotely approaching oleh/yored.

Oh, and about the New York Times: They gave me not a word of advice beforehand, and their one revision afterward was to include the full titles of the Carroll books to which I had alluded.

To which I reply:

We haven't seen one another for many years and should not be meeting like this. If I have been intemperate, I apologize; I know your integrity, and certainly did not mean to imply that the New York Times edited or restrained you, only that there is a code to reviewing here and writers and readers all know what to make, alas, of even velvet criticisms like yours. But more important, I feel you have not done justice to this opportunity to engage with Jim's book. I should not be answering for him, so let me address what you suggest is my portion of the problem, my presumably false analogy between Catholicism and Zionism.

You say, as you do in your review: "For me, the practical grounds were decisive and rested upon the judgment that the laity had not taken power in the Roman Church and were unlikely to do so. The emotional grounds came down to: Where do you feel at home?"

Then you say: "The only way one could defend the analogy [Bernie] wants to draw [to Zionism] is by regarding the Roman Catholic Church as a kind of greater Vatican State into which all Christians must eventually be ingathered as Jews ingathered into eretz yisrael. But Christian unity won't come about that way, and shouldn't."

Jack, my point, surely, was not about how to reform any religion; nor did I expect to invite visions of a Catholicism reconstituted as Vatican state. Rather, my point was that where you feel "at home" is not, or not always, merely "sentimental," a kind of touching childhood prejudice, as opposed to some "practical" (presumably, more adult) judgment about the likelihood of succeeding in remaking the world as you would want to.

The analogy to my Zionism suggests that it is possible to feel at home in a vivid experience of how things might be, a microcosm of possibility--a hope, if you'll forgive the expression--that resolves (for a while, but unforgettably) the moral, aesthetic and affectionate contradictions that you live in and know you will always live in. Think of Pete Seeger's socialism and folk tradition. Shall we dismiss him (as The New Republic has) as an implicit Stalinist, or tsk-tsk about how 1960s folk music eventually yielded cheezy pop or heroine addicts?

No, hope that is played out in this way, and with this integrity, becomes the foundation of identity, the name of your desire--not in the silly sociologist's sense of socialized appetites, or as a child's first impressions, but as a maturing choice that continues on the level of the lived life. It is like your falling in love, which remains an indelible experience, no matter your wife's later experiences of your faults or burps.

And here, again, the analogy to Zionism. I know that Israel has become in many ways a grotesque version of the cultural Zionist or Haskalic theories I once studied. But every time I hear a poem of Yehuda Amichai's or Leah Goldberg's, or visit Chanan's farm, I know that I can never disengage from the hope of Zionism. It is real in the sense of practical--practiced--not merely sentimental. My wife Sidra and I touch it again and again--this synthesis between Jew and "modern."

It doesn't have to win to be real, you see. Once you have fallen in love with it, fighting for it becomes second nature. And this, I think, is Jim's experience of Vatican Two, of its democratic possibility, of creating a innovative mass as a young priest, of feeling Cardinal Cushing's synthesis of American tolerance and the world-wide institution, of smelling Pope John XXIII's cheek in the presence of his father.

To engage with Jim, one has to think about the peculiar theological moves possible in the Catholic church of his hope, as opposed to, say, an Episcopal or black Baptist church. What does Jim desire that no other possibility provides? To do justice to the question, a reviewer would work sympathetically to tease this out. He or she would not say, well, we are all Christians, all part of this big church, and he could just as well have found this corner of it, as I have.

That is like someone saying to me, well, if you want to be a Jew and modern, why not just be a Reform Jew--something the American Council for Judaism has been telling Zionists for generations. It is like saying, hell, Pete Seeger might simply have joined the Stevenson campaign.

As if Reform Jews are not disappointing in their own way. As if Episcopalians and liberal Democrats are not. The real point is--dare I say Jesus's point, brooding in Gethsemane during the night before his death--is that we will never remake this world as we would want it. Our hopes will always be disappointing, as we will be, but our choices can have an integrity that is irreducibly precious--anyway, that is not simply "emotional." You stand (God willing, not die) for your hope. And our different hopes (sometimes books) are, if nothing else, interesting; they deserve to be explored as far as possible on their own terms.


Bruce said...

Mr. Avishai, I think I love you: I have myself been giving up on Israel and whatever genuine Jewish spirituality might still be left there. After reading what you wrote about Mr. Carrol's position, comparing it to the Zionism of your youth makes me feel a lot better about the Israeli people. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

The comments of the people proves an enormous naivete.

Narrowminded blogs, superficial CNN, NPR, DemocracyNow snippets shape the public opinion.

Where is a well educated American public?

Travel, read and experience reality in reality.

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