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Sunday, February 24, 2019


Although I grew up in an interfaith household [my father was an agnostic and my mother was an atheist], I never learned much about religion as a boy, not even Judaism, since I took a pass on a bar mitzvah and bought Natie Gold’s set of Lionel model trains with the $100 my parents gave me as compensation for not having a big party.  My only encounter with the past in high school was Mr. Wepner’s Modern European History course, but all I remember of it is that we had to take notes [uncommon in high school courses in the forties.]  In college, I quickly moved to the forefronts of logic and analytic philosophy [which in those days meant the analytic/synthetic distinction and related arcana], and as a graduate student, of course, I learned nothing beyond the four corners of my discipline.  It was not until I got my first teaching job as an Instructor in Philosophy and General Education at Harvard, assigned to teach the history of Europe from Caesar to Napoleon, that to defend myself against accusations of gross incompetence I actually sat down and read 20,000 pages of European history.  Among other things, I discovered the Reformation.  To be sure, even growing up in Kew Gardens Hills in Queens, I had heard distant rumors of a distinction between Catholics and Protestants, but since that did not seem to have any relation to Gödel’s Incompleteness proof, I paid very little attention.

To prepare myself to confront a class of Harvard preppies, all of whom, it appeared, had taken six or seven years of European history at Groton and Phillips Andover Academy, I actually read some Luther and bought an English translation of Calvin’s Institutes into which I dipped desultorily.  I discovered for the first time the subtle distinctions among the various Protestant sects, and managed to commit some of it to memory.  Coupled with what I had learned about the almost two millennium old Roman Catholic Church, I was sufficiently clued up on Christianity to avoid embarrassment in my twice weekly classes.

Which brings me to the current Roman Catholic sex crisis.  The casus belli of the original Reformation was the sale of indulgences – partial reductions in the punishment required in Purgatory for temporal sins before admission to the eternal bliss of heaven.  The broader centuries long resistance to the authority of Rome and the Papacy exploded in a rejection of the political structure of the Church, leading to a splintering of large segments of the Roman Catholic world into a wide assortment of sects: Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, Anglicans, Baptists, even Shakers and Quakers.

The current crisis is much, much deeper and more dangerous to the survival of the Roman Catholic Church than the sale of indulgences ever was.  The immorality of the clergy, their sheer evil [if I may, uncharacteristically, use a term drawn from Theology, not Ethics], the total complicity of the hierarchy at every level from Diocese to Vatican, in my judgment threatens the survival of the Church in its present form.

I do not think we should be misled by the mayfly brevity of our current secular attention.  The first Reformation was a century or more in its development.  The present crisis is developing at breakneck speed for an institution as ancient and tradition-bound as the Catholic Church. 

How will this crisis play out?  I have no idea, but it would genuinely surprise me if it were simply to subside and die.


Matt S said...

I'm surprised to read that taking notes was uncommon in high school in the 40's. Could you say a little more about what high school was like then? Did textbooks replace notes as the study material for tests? Or were you expected to learn most things in class?

Howard Berman said...

You raise more questions than can be answered except by events. Would the faithful simply migrate to other churches? Would there be a change of doctrine or some kind of revolt among the flock? Could there be two Popes as in the so called Babylonian captivity? And finally, the church is very wealthy, owning priceless art among other earthly things. Would the church disband or file for bankruptcy? Would there be a reaction of those stubborn souls in favor of the clergy and the old order? Or would there be, this I see as most likely, a quiet mafia like liquidation of the evil Priests?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Mr. Wepner gave lectures, which was uncommon, and expected us to take notes in our notebooks [one for each class, or maybe a looseleaf notebook sectioned off.] I think he saw himself as treating us as though we were in college. Remember: at that time only about 5% of young people ever earned college degrees. But some of our teachers had doctorates [not Wepner], and save for the Depression would have pursued college teaching jobs. [This was '47, '48, '49, so they would have been college students in the 20's and 30's.] There were no Middle Schools. Elementary School meant grades 1-8 followed by high school, grades 9-12. In New York City, we entered school either in January or in September, depending on when our birthdays were, and graduated either in January or June.

Tom Hickey said...

Institutional religion is killing itself off with no need for assistance from detractors.

This is a cyclical process, since when a new messenger or reformer appear, there is a period in which "the spirit" is lively and indeed, "tangible" for those who experience it. But over time organization takes over, a clergy springs up, and the organization is eventually institutionalized. The spirit is overshadowed by the letter and gradually diminishes as force in people lives, although it is maintained by the "mystics" that still experience the "spirit." This is the difference between religion as a social phenomenon and "spirituality" as personal experience and "revelation."

There is a "core spirituality" as the heart of all religions and wisdom traditions, even some "philosophy." This has been called "the perennial philosophy," "the perennial tradition," and "perennial wisdom." It is always available since it resides in the hearts of all as a "hidden treasure." All the religions have a mystical tradition, e.g., Jewish Qabalah, Christian mysticism, Islamic Sufism, Hindu Vedanta, etc. Buddha declared that he made no distinction between the exoteric and esoteric in his teaching. Guru Nanak combined Vedanta and Sufism in Sikhism. There were also teachers that did not align with any tradition, such as Kabir, Shirdi Sai Baba, and Meher Baba.

Perennial wisdom is naturalistic in the sense that it is based on personal testimony of the sages and saints, mystics and masters and prophets of their own experience. Moreover, they left instructions on how to experience this for oneself that comprise the practical aspect of perennial wisdom. This can be called "core spirituality."

There is a spiritual awakening under way in the world at present that is reawakening perennial wisdom and core spirituality. People are flocking from institutional religions that no longer serve their need for spiritual experience to the various manifestations of core spirituality, some of which are presented as secular. In fact, this "technology" is being adopted by management wholesale since it improves not only individuals with respect to self-improvement but also results in a more functional environment in that in unfolding individual potential it also increases appreciation of universality, the basic revelation being that "being is one, true, good and beautiful." I first heard this expression in high school lit class. It rang a bell and changed my life. I eventually obtained a PhD in philosophy and specialized in comparative spirituality while exploring the mystical traditions of the world experientially.


Tom Hickey said...


So I see the coming and going of institutional religions as cyclical process in the historical dialectical, which Hegel got essentially right in outline but was mistaken in rejecting "mysticism" as romanticism, and pursued a course that emphasized the rational aspect of Geist. The process is the Absolute becoming aware of itself in the relative through the relative, but not only intellectually. Hegel was correct in putting focus on the rational aspect, but the mystical aspect is more important. To paraphrase Kant, concepts with out experience are empty, and experience without concepts is blind. The problem with institutional religions is not only that the focus on the rational but have also lost the plot, especially in the West where mysticism is regarded as heretical. This is reinforced by "science," through the conflating of methodological naturalism with scientific materialism, the former being procedural and the latter substantive in the sense of being metaphysical. The methodological naturalism is a modeling choice that does not entail metaphysical materialism. But it is widely believed otherwise.

Several contemporary spiritual luminaries have said that the world is now undergoing a spiritual reawakening that will manifest through a transition from the present "Iron Age" to a "Golden Age" — but a phase transition would be necessary and that would involve considerable travail. This seems to be reflected in the historical dialectic now.

See, for example, Meher Baba, "The New Humanity," in Discourses. This is a link to the 6th edition, edited by Don Stevens, my most recent mentor until he passed away. He had a degree in chemistry from Johns Hopkins and retired as a VP of Standard Oil of California (now Chevron). He was a close companion of Meher Baba.

So in my view as a someone raised Catholic is that the current state of affairs is just part of a cyclical process and that "something good is happening" behind the scenes. Perennial wisdom doesn't assume that institutional religions will disappear in a reawakening but that the spirit may be renewed: Some traditions will be renewed and those that miss the boat will fade from prominence.

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

Now I am an Irish ex-catholic atheist, but in my youth I was an altar boy. I switched to church organist at age 10. I got one of my first lessons in hypocrisy when I was fired for playing a tastefully arranged (if I say so myself) "rock song" during communion a few years later but, when the need for a guitar player for folk masses arose, my earlier transgression was apparently forgiven. I tell this story to suggest that even a s kid, I saw in the above and many other instances, the discrepancy between the piety in front of the altar and the venality in the sacristy. I was lucky. The priests I knew were self-righteous and small-minded, not abusers. However, I learned a few days ago after reviewing some newly published records that an abuses priest was posted to my parish after I was in college and another abuser taught at the high school I attended 2 years after I graduated.

The moral rot that permeates the structure of the church is so complete that any carpenter called in to advise on repairs would say 'tear it down.' Ireland is often described as a priest ridden country, but the abusive practices of church institutions there, are not unique. The abuses of mothers and babies at an Irish home for unwed mothers was reported several years ago. The nuns who ran the place clearly viewed the young mothers with disgust and their babies as expendable. Some excellent reporting uncovered a reign of terror (including murder and torture) at an orphanage in Burlington, Vt. last year. The Bishop's statement carefully, as I remember, avoided taking responsibility while agreeing to pay a hefty penalty.

What I wish i knew is how deeply anchored in the past is the moral rot of sex abuse. One clue lies in the stories told by the peoples of the Acoma Pueblo. The Acoma live on top of a mesa and the only access were hand and footholds chiseled into the rock (a 360 foot climb). They were conquered in 1599, 50 yrs. after the arrival of the conquistadors only after a cannon was trained on the top of the mesa leveling the "city on the hill." They tell of forced labor to build a cathedral on top of the mesa, and that in the massive walls are buried bodies of Acoma men who died during the 11 years of construction. They also tell of a priest who was thrown from the top of the mesa for abusing children.

talha said...

Wow, Tom. That was very nicely done. Bravo.

Tom Hickey said...

@ talha

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I couldn’t possibly have read the first 20 pages without drifting off. 20,000 pages seems utterly out of reach.

Michael Llenos said...

On Machiavelli, Confucius, and the 8th century Tyrion.

I believe Pope Francis knows what he has to do. Most people know the solution to the current problem, but it is a very draconian way to do things.

[Charlemagne had a disobedient son who was very wise for his years. He sent messengers to ask his advice about a group of high ranking, conspiratorial French high lords in his kingdom. The short son told the messengers that he had no advice to give except that he was digging up weeds that were worthless and replacing them with productive vegetable plants. The messengers didn't understand. Charlemagne, however, knew what Pepin meant. He followed his advice, got rid of the conspirators, and put decent men in their place. Pepin was rewarded by Charlemagne, later, for his good council.]

That's exactly what the Pope needs to do. But he may be worried that if he does it badly he may either botch it, or worse, end up punished one day for making a replacement mistake or even many replacement mistakes.

So slowly but steadily I believe that is exactly what Pope Francis is currently trying to do.

Michael Llenos said...

[So slowly but steadily I believe that is exactly what Pope Francis is currently trying to do.]

I meant he is taking it slowly, so he makes no mistakes in the end--which is very prudent of him.

LFC said...


I *think* I'd much rather read 20,000 pp of European history than 20,000 pp of analytic philosophy, esp Anglophone an.phil. from the immediate postwar era. [Note: not a philosopher. Took an intro analytic philosophy course as a freshman. Disliked it (and that's putting it mildly).]

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Are there 20,000 pages of Analytic Philosophy?

LFC said...

That's a good question. Prob yes, depending on how one defines the boundaries, of course.

s. wallerstein said...

I'm sure if you count all the papers written by analytic philosophers they come to much more than 20,000 pages.

I'm currently rereading Eric Hobsbawm tetralogy of history from the French Revolution to the collapse of the Soviet Union. That covers the whole world although its focus is Europe. It's more than 1500 pages with small print and I certainly prefer that to reading analytical philosophy, although not to reading selected continental philosophers.

I had a great European history teacher in high school in the early 60's. He explained Marxism to us as he did Hegel, laissez faire, social darwinism and fascism, etc. I realized at the time that he was favorable to Marx, but couldn't say that without losing his job. Much of his explanation of Marxism has stayed with me all my life. Actually, he, Mr. Goetz, was a better teacher than many whom I had in the university.

LFC said...

I think highly of Hobsbawm. Even when he's uneven or not as his best, as in the discussion of WW 1 at the beginning of Age of Extremes (a couple of factual errors get in), or even when one disagrees with him, the range and depth of knowledge, lucidity, prolificness are all very impressive.

A comparably ambitious and accomplished British historian of (roughly) Hobsbawm's generation, though probably not quite as well known or widely read today as Hobsbawm or for instance E.P. Thompson, was Geoffrey Barraclough. He was a medievalist by training and published on medieval Europe (and esp. on what eventually became Germany) but also had much wider interests. His fairly short An Introduction to Contemporary History, written in the mid-1960s, is still worth reading.

s. wallerstein said...

I read Hobsbawm as much for Hobsbawm as for the historical facts.

I like him a lot. I listened to an interview in YouTube where the interviewer, a woman, goes on and on with the expected "how could you.." questions: how could you remain in the Communist Party after the pact with Hitler, after Hungary, after X, Y and Z?

Hobsbawm in his slow, dry pensive British manner (although he's only half British) replies: I didn't want anyone to see me as an opportunist. (not his exact words).

That shut her up. The reply satisfied me and I thought more highly of him.

Anyway, what does he get so wrong about World War 1?

LFC said...

The error itself, which I don't even have time to go into now, is minor. I just don't think that part of that book is the best part, that's all. His expertise, as he himself says, is the 19th cent, so his bk on the 20th cent one shd expect to be more uneven. It's still a good book, and the whole series taken together is pretty great.

s. wallerstein said...


For me Age of Extremes is the most interesting because it's probably the only account of the rise and fall of Soviet communism and the short century which in many ways revolved around communism and reactions to it written by a communist of Hobsbawm's intelligence, general grasp of history and honesty.