The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date: April 23, 2004
The American neighborhood
Shared lives among faiths create familiarity -- and subversive love
By RICHARD RODRIGUEZ
I confided to an interviewer my regret at never having been appraised or even dismissed by critics as a Catholic writer, despite the fact that so much of my writing concerns religion. That aspect of my writing is ignored by the secular world as a kind of tic -- but also ignored by the church, because I am the son of an intellectual tradition within the church that no longer exists, I guess.
The interviewer was surprised by my dilemma, but surprised from a different angle: Are you still a Catholic?
To which I answered, oh, well. I go to 7:30 Mass with the man who has been, for more than 20 years, my companion -- companion! I belong to a church that hasnt enough charity to give us a word. I am nevertheless desperate for the sacraments my sinful church dispenses. And, as a sinner, I am eligible for every sacrament -- except, of course, marriage.
A few years ago, I was invited to spend a week at Yeshiva University. At first sight, the campus seemed to me a fortress against the neighborhood -- a working-class Dominican neighborhood on Manhattans upper West Side -- and against the world, an impulse that as a Catholic of a certain age I did not find inexplicable or even unattractive.
Not enough is written or said about the impact of the American neighborhood -- officially secular; informally tolerant of many faiths. Todays American neighborhood is without historical precedent: Methodists living next door to Muslims who live next door to pagans who live next door to Catholics who live next door to Orthodox Greeks who share the shade of a huge Magnolia with Buddhists who live next door to Orthodox Jews. Et cetera. Yeshiva University in a Dominican New York neighborhood.
Religions traditionally thrive on suspicion and separation. So, there is a crisis in religion resulting from our American neighborliness: Neighborhood kids are playing in the houses of their friends where they happen to see Confucian shrines they do not understand, except as the shrines partake of the recognizably devotional, which everyone understands. So the kids become cultural Confucians, in some sense.
Neighbors invite neighbors to weddings or graduations and bar mitzvahs and whatnot. At first, the watchers from behind lace curtains only notice when their neighbors are swarming. But neighbors eventually come to recognize swarming as religious festivals -- Happy Ramadan! -- and on those festival days begin themselves to feel a bit of a spiritual uplift, as one unconsciously does who hears the Angelus tolled, or used to.
The birds and the bees
From proximity, from shared lives, comes ever-increasing familiarity. And then, of course, the birds and the bees. The children of the neighborhood are eventually going to fall in love. The great crisis of American Judaism today, for example, is occasioned by love. Jews are falling in love with non-Jews and vice-versa.
If you were a Buddhist and I were in love with you, I would hop onto your lotus. Love trespasses. Dogma is seen as mattering less when affection enters the soul. Subversive love overrules dogma and orthodoxy, and this all begins when we see for ourselves that our neighbors arent so bad.
But already back in the 1950s, my eyes were open to the common decency around me. My parents noticed, for example, the goodness of our closest neighbors, a family of Mormons. And their praise was not wasted on me. How, I wondered, was it that people so decent, so generous to us, were not Catholics? From such a question without an easy answer in the Baltimore Catechism does the world reveal itself truly to a childs imagination as seductively round.
The firebrands of any age do not wish anyone to notice that the neighbors are not so bad. The firebrands of any age do not wish the Catholic altar society and the Presbyterian altar guild to hook up with the sewing circle at the Chan Buddhist Temple or with the Baptist Choir Breakfast Committee.
Even as a child I did not believe non-Catholics were damned, but I perceived, only through observation and common sense, such could not be the case and all such dogmatic statements must be errors in perception or understanding on someones part. (I was told as a child that animals feel no pain.) It wasnt until relatively recently I came to believe that my churchs estimation of me was also flawed, astigmatic.
Puzzlement or pause
I find myself in a one-sided battle against various bishops of my church, and at what I perceive is their abrogation of moral example. I do not expect the church to bless my union with another man, but I do expect the church -- at a time of sexual scandal within, at a time of extraordinary example of love and fidelity on the part of gay couples -- to admit at least ambivalence or puzzlement or pause at all the church does not understand about the mystery of love. The church is no longer my teacher, maybe because my life doesnt teach the church.
And yet, and yet, the most influential document describing the intersection of my religious and mundane life was composed, 40 years ago, by an assembly of princes of the church at the Second Vatican Council. Gaudium et Spes described how Catholics must and should live in a spirit of exchange with the world beyond church doors; learning from the world, as well as teaching the world.
So, I am at Mass. Seven-thirty a.m. Sunday. Distracted from the homily as I sift through what the world has taught me about God this week. What have I learned? I saw lesbians getting married at City Hall! People waiting in lines that extended all the way around the block, in the rain, for a sacrament. I saw a man -- a Muslim -- in Golden Gate Park at prayer at midday. I read a book on Andy Warhol; Warhols brilliant notion of the Incarnation evident within his notions about celebrity. I watched, I listened, as a friend dying of AIDS exchanged several lewd and very funny jokes in his hospital room with a young Buddhist nun, the chaplain at a Catholic hospital.
I wrote, in my most recent book, Brown, of the end of black or white America -- the collapse of race. With the success of the Negro Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, and with the reform of immigration laws, a decade later, allowing for the globalization of the American city, there has come a freedom to love brownly, without regard to race.
If I were to write an addendum to Brown, it would be about the browning of religion, about how Americas religious life is being transformed by our new American marriages. The African-Korean daughter is unwilling to choose between parents; no longer willing to identify racially with only one parent, as children of racially mixed marriage were once encouraged to do. And, she is unwilling to choose one faith tradition over another. She becomes -- a formulation I have used so often since I first heard her say it: Baptist Buddhist. We can all claim a version of Baptist Buddhist. Abortion Catholic. Gay Mormon. Movie queen Kabbalist.
Strength of syncretism
As my third-grade nun could have told you, there is danger from religious intermarriage. Relativism is the heresy to rival modernism -- or rather, relativism is an aspect of modernism. One belief is as good as another, nothing is clear, nothing is wrong or right, just different, or just the same. Distinction is useless. Joss, mangoes, ancestor worship. The human soul is made to seek God.
But in this time of marriage, the religions that will grow stronger are those capable of syncretism, as the Spanish colonial church grew stronger by embracing a brown Virgin Mary, who dressed as an Aztec princess.
Dont tell me you dont know what I am talking about. You have a cousin who married a Mormon and it turned out all right, didnt it? You have a lesbian aunt, dont you? Yes, you do.
There have been times in the history of the world when religious traditions have flowed into one another, fed one another from secret streams. Medieval Jew, Muslim and Christian in Spain. Yugoslavia before the fall. San Francisco.
But the brown future of Catholicism my be nothing at all like what those of us who call ourselves liberal Catholics imagine or wish for. I celebrate as brown the marriage of two gay men. But why then does it anger me to see, in the morning paper, the cardinal of New York seated at a White House ceremony alongside various right-wing Protestant activists, like the Rev. Jerry Falwell? Has Roman Catholicism come to this? Is the church unable to distinguish our understanding of various public issues of the day from right-wing Protestantism? Thousands of years of subtlety -- the exegesis of love, after all -- descends to this?
But by the time I have had my second cup of green tea, I think more brownly that perhaps right-wing Catholicism is finding itself strengthened by its association with right-wing Protestantism -- a new neighborliness among old theological antagonists. Nothing like the brown future I imagined. But, then. Brown, nevertheless.
Author and essayist Richard Rodriguez, a Pacific News Services editor, is best known for his trilogy, Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez; Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Father (1992); and Brown: The Last Discovery of America (2002), and his PBS NewsHour essays on American life (1981). He lives in San Francisco.
National Catholic Reporter, April 23, 2004
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