Monday, January 30, 2023

The Case against Bob Hoffman

A respected Zen teacher told me that she had encouraged several students of abusive Buddhist teachers to pursue lawsuits. After she heard the account of Hoffman’s abusive relationship with me, she said: “Hoffman was a criminal. Simple.” She is right. California law stipulates, “Therapy Never Includes Sexual Behavior. . . . Sexual contact of any kind between a therapist and a client is unethical and illegal in the State of California. Additionally, with regard to former clients, sexual contact within two years after termination of therapy is also illegal and unethical.”*

When Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that would have extended the statute of limitations for clerical sexual abuse, he said, “There comes a time when an individual or organization should be secure in the reasonable expectation that past acts are indeed in the past and not subject to further lawsuits.”* (SacBee)

Bob Hoffman is dead now more than 20 years, and he raped me 44 years ago, but I’m just uncovering the severe emotional consequences of his abuse. In the last part of my life, I know that the effects of abuse can extend beyond any "reasonable expectation" that they are past. I also acknowledge that most reasonable people would think that such old grievances might not be subject to any lawsuits, and, as much as possible, I do try to function as a reasonable person. However, as the Hoffman Process “teaches,” the effects of negative actions persist over generations, and to paint over the dark side of Hoffman’s legacy with the portrait of a grandfatherly spiritual seer who just wanted everyone to lead lives of freedom and happiness is total nonsense.

Most people who were close associates of Hoffman will admit that he was an extremely difficult man, and that his interactions with clients were at best unconventional, at worst, unethical and abusive. Stan Stefancic labeled him a “malignant narcissist.” But these same people will also argue that Hoffman's basic insight allows them to overlook what they characterize as eccentricities. For years I tried to excuse his behavior—perhaps he was the gay kid who was bullied and over compensated when he was in a position of power.

But Hoffman became the bully as well as a predator, and if I let bullies get away with it, I am complicit. This I cannot and will not allow.

Whether or not his basic insight into human behavior as “negative love” can stand the test of time, whether or not the effects of his revolutionary “psychic therapy” are worth the expense, I cannot say. But I will say that Bob Hoffman was a criminal.

* It should be noted that Brown is a former Jesuit, and the Society of Jesus continues to be subject to numerous accusations of abuse by its members dating back many years.

*Hoffman operated as a clergy person. He was a recognized psychic in a spiritualist church. He called the people he trained as “psychic therapists.” Now the Hoffman Institute calls them “teachers.” But whether therapist, clergy person, or teacher, the title does not excuse him from the moral or ethical standards that apply to professionals interacting with the people who come to them for help and pay them money for that help.
___________

Where was that wise person you could seek out for guidance? Who was trustworthy? I had put my trust in Claudio Naranjo and on his recommendation, I entrusted my mental well-being to a man who abused me. I was in such enormous transference that I didn’t recognize it; it persisted for years and caused enormous damage. How did I allow this to happen, and why am I talking about it now, more than 50 years after it happened?

After I completed working with Hoffman nine months later, he began to show up at places where I hung out, claiming he just stopped by on his way home. He was stalking me. He’d been my therapist and knew an enormous amount of my psyche so he knew how to get to me. He was grooming me. Five months after the end of our work together, he invited me to dinner. After a last drink at The White Horse Tavern, he dropped me off at my apartment and invited himself in. Then he raped me.
___________

Shortly after 5 on a hot Wednesday afternoon, I hand delivered my “Emotional Autobiography with Father'' to Hoffman’s office on the second floor of a building in downtown Oakland. His secretary had already left for the afternoon. Hoffman was recording his feedback for another patient on a cheap cassette player. He’d thrown his feet up onto the desk. I stood awkwardly in the half open doorway. There was no chair and no invitation to engage in a conversation.

He told me to hand him my work. Right on the spot he’d read a paragraph, comment on the emotional tone, and then make a simplistic, predictable connection between the specific circumstances I’d described and a negative pattern or character trait that he asserted I’d adopted from my father in an attempt to bargain for love.

Hoffman read through to an incident about my father resetting the stone wall at the back of our lot. As Dad was lifting stones into a wheelbarrow, he uncovered the nest of a woodchuck who’d built her nest in a cranny between the rocks. As she ferociously defended her cubs, my father killed her and her cubs with his shovel. As I remembered it, he began to beat her viciously. Her screams were chilling.

Hoffman complimented the emotional tone of my writing, but then he began to raise his voice. Obviously my Dad was a homosexual he said, and then, “You’re also gay, aren’t you?” I countered how he could deduce that my dad was gay based on bludgeoning a woodchuck? His voice became louder and louder. He just repeated “You’re gay.” Now he was almost screaming—obviously my father was a sadist. What? Then he yelled, “You’re gay? Don’t play games with me. I know these things.” I said, of course I had gay feelings, but I was unsure if I was gay. “Don’t play games with me,” his voice was angry; his face was red. I had watched Hoffman attack clients, but I could barely believe that I was now his victim.

My Dad was not gay. The idea of having a same sex relationship never crossed his mind in his entire life. Hoffman’s readings were projections and his own pathology. What he asserted was so off base that it isn’t worthy of even the weirdest pop psychology. But because there was one note of truth in analysis–that I was in denial about my own homosexuality–the whole thing became plausible, and I destroyed any possibility of a real relationship with my father for the next 30 years. In exchange I got the debilitating transference to Hoffman.

I remember that the price of that first group Process was no more than $300. The real cost was devastating. Instead of dealing with coming out in care of a professional, compassionate therapist, I had the bad luck to land a closeted gay predator as my guide. When I described this incident to my therapist, his immediate response was: when you stayed, he knew he had you. And he did.

___________

When I returned to the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley that fall, I told my superiors honestly what I had experienced, and they supported my decision to reconsider ordination. I took a leave of absence from my religious order, and began an extremely difficult period of my life. I loved being a Jesuit, and if it weren’t for the obligation of celibacy, perhaps I might have been able to carve out a very happy and successful life as a priest.

Another man in Naranjo’s SAT, Hal Slate, and I rented a small apartment on the Berkeley/Oakland border. It was just a short walk from the White Horse, a college-town gay bar.

Towards the end of September, Hoffman started to show up at the bar every night around 9 o’clock, leaning awkwardly against the elbow bar, pretending to look off into some distant corner of the universe. He claimed that he normally stopped by on his way home. Another lie! He later admitted that he never went to gay bars because being recognized might negatively affect his important work. In reality he was tracking my movements, and making himself known. This was exactly stalking–out of the predator’s playbook.

I recall one conversation in particular which helps me accurately date Hoffman’s obsessive pursuit; it also should have alerted me that he knew exactly what he was doing. Almost in passing, and perhaps as a way of excusing or justifying his behavior, he mentioned that although the usual period for a therapist seeing a patient was 6 months after the professional relationship had ended, he thought that I had so completely and lovingly divorced myself from my parents, perhaps the usual 6 months could be compressed. Misinformation, or perhaps he considered himself above the law. In California, “Therapy Never Includes Sexual Behavior. . . . Sexual contact of any kind between a therapist and a client is unethical and illegal in the State of California. Additionally, with regard to former clients, sexual contact within two years after termination of therapy is also illegal and unethical.”* Less than 4 months after working with him, he nervously gave me his “private” phone number, and asked if he could call me.

Finally, I agreed to go out to dinner with him. He imagined it was a date. I thought it was dinner with a friend. I can’t in any way recreate the events or the conversation that ended with him returning to my apartment, but as with many sexual predators, Hoffman’s ability to read his victim, what he would describe as his “psychic powers,” lent themselves to skillful manipulation. And of course after working with me on an intimate level for almost a year, he had a real window into my psychology that was far more accurate than his psychic reading. After an extremely awkward series of interactions included a lot of “why don’t we try this?” and “do you like that?” I found myself on the living room floor of my shared apartment with a man I found sexually repulsive, naked, on my stomach, being brutally raped. After Hoffman had his orgasm, my anus was bleeding.

Then the situation became surreal—I listened to apologies which were actually blame shifting—Hoffman told me that pain was normal when a man first had anal sex and that in time I’d learn to enjoy it—that anal sex was an important part of spiritual development. It mirrored the mother-father god, both active and passive. I remember this statement after all these years because of the horror and lunacy of justifying rape in the name of some intrasex deity.

I didn’t throw him out as I should have, had I been capable of it. Everytime I think about this, I ask myself why didn’t I say, “This isn’t working. Why don’t you put on your clothes and leave?” But I just kept my mouth shut and endured him trying to apologize for physically hurting me. But when he asked if we could have another date, I did say no. However, in true co-dependent fashion, I left the door open to further contact as friends. I realize now that I had to—I was in transference with him. In fact we maintained a strained acquaintance until he died.

I had hoped to avoid a painful and lewd description of the sexual encounter, but I have decided to write about it openly, describing its repercussions. A thorough investigation, including my own missteps, is the only possible path I see to freeing myself. If my writing really leads to liberation, “the function of freedom," in the words of Toni Morrison, "is to free someone else.”

I can find no silver lining in the story of my abusive relationship with Bob Hoffman, but even if there were one, the relationship was so muddy that I don’t know where to begin to look. It is a lot like trying to write about it. I feel that I cannot write because I would be obligated to disclose too much about what I consider personal failures. I cannot write from the position of a life that didn’t turn out even though opportunities and possibilities were certainly closed off to me by the events I’m going to describe. The only thing I can with any certainty is that my life is not what my parents nor I envisioned for myself, but it has been my own life, and I am responsible for my choices.

Any light at the end of the tunnel would shine. It would mean that the residue of the abuse was over, and I would be able to forget Hoffman and our relationship. But that did not happen. It’s just not enough for me to declare “This happened,” and move past it as I’ve been counseled from many quarters, new age therapists, love and light gurus. All that I can say for certain is that Hoffman’s selfish actions had an effect on me. Of course they cut off some avenues and added unnecessary suffering. As I recently told a friend, every gay person I know would love to be guided by the loving, wise and resourceful example of a older queer man or woman. But by the luck of the draw, I got a narcissistic predator. I’ve told the story of how Hoffman came into my life in some detail in my blog #GayMeToo.

And so I have decided to write about my abuse. The only possible path I see to freeing myself is a thorough investigation of what occurred, including my own missteps. If writing really leads to my liberation, my only real obligation in the words of Toni Morrison, “the function of freedom is to free someone else;” so I will write as candidly as I can. I had hoped to avoid a painful and lewd description of the sexual encounter as I describe some of the repercussions, but find I have to talk about some of it.

Bob Hoffman, my therapist and mentor, invited me to dinner less than 5 months after I completed the first 13 week Fischer-Hoffman Process of Psychic Therapy. After some very awkward conversation and a few glasses of wine, I found myself on the living room floor of my shared apartment naked, on my stomach, being brutally raped. After Hoffman had his orgasm, my anus was bleeding. Then the situation became surreal—I listened to apologies which were actually blame shifting—he told me that pain was normal when a man first had anal sex and that in time I’d learn to enjoy it—that anal sex was an important part of spiritual development because it mirrored the reality of the mother-father god, being both active and passive. I remember this statement after all these years because of the horror and lunacy of justifying rape in the name of some intrasex godhead. I didn’t throw him out as I should have had I been capable of it, but when he asked if we could have another date, I did say no. However, in true co-dependent fashion, I left the door open to further contact as friends, and in fact we maintained a strained acquaintance until the day he died. I realize now that I had to—I was still in transference with him.

I did come out as a gay man in the Hoffman Process, but the process wasn’t coming to terms with a part of myself that I’d kept hidden, festering under parental and societal disapproval. It wasn’t part of a program of careful analysis and self discovery. I wasn’t led by a professional to see layers of self-deception. Rather I stood uncomfortably in the doorway to Hoffman’s office, while he, red in the face, screamed that I was gay, told me that I was playing games and couldn’t love myself. This only reinforced my own learned, negative views of being gay. I sensed the same angry, defensive stance in the way he dealt with his own homosexuality and he certainly displayed its brutality when he forced anal intercourse.

Hoffman was both a narcissist and a predator, but I was in such denial that I allowed myself to be manipulated. Over the course of intermittent conversations which spanned more than 25 years, I discovered that he lied about many things, he exaggerated, he made empty promises, and he entertained grandiose ideas about himself; Dr. Fisher, the being whom he called his spirit-guide, had not been, as he proclaimed publicly, a family friend but rather his therapist; he felt he was destined to have a young lover because the immense contribution he was making; he had singled me out when he first saw me in Naranjo’s SAT; he started frequenting the only gay bar in Berkeley to stalk me, and not because, as he told me then, he usually stopped in to relax on his way home. The truth is that initiating a sexual relationship with me was a criminal violation of his professional responsibility as a therapist, mentor and spiritual guide, but his psychosis did not allow him to understand this.

In true predator fashion he groomed me. He told me that I was destined to become a leader in the gay community—if I played my cards right, and listened to him; that I had extraordinary powers, like his spiritualist mentor, Rose Strongin, singled him out as a person of great psychic abilities. He also insisted that I was attracted to him, and he knew it because he was a powerful psychic as well as the fact that I had an erection during our encounter. Recalling this fills me with disgust. Most of the people around Naranjo viewed Hoffman as a buffoon, an eccentric, a conman, or at best a crazy wisdom seer. I thought he was crude, unintelligent plus being sexually repulsive, yet something compelled me to continue to place my trust in him.

Within a year of our encounter, I’d left the Jesuits, moved to San Francisco with my SAT friend Hal Slate and began experiencing the burgeoning Castro gay scene of the ‘70’s. I became promiscuous, but, at the same time, I was very unhappy and frustrated with sex itself. I could not achieve orgasm. I cannot claim that Hoffman’s brutal abuse was the direct cause of my sexual dysfunction but I am certain that it played some part. But my solution to the problem became more of a problem. As in my college days and life as a Jesuit, alcohol became an antiseptic for the wounds. But now pot, and eventually cocaine and methamphetamines, became a way to lubricate sexual activity.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

The Christmas Papers

 December 25, 2022

Today is Christmas. I am alone, but far from feeling sad, abandoned or left out.


I live in a remote village in India. I am very far from my immediate family. I am the only person within miles who has the blood of Jesus in my cultural veins. All my expat friends have departed seeking warmer winds to fill their sails. There are no holiday tables filled with fancy mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce, no Santa Claus, no angels singing, “Away in a manger, no crib for His head.”


I also haven’t even set out any sentimental reminders of the birth of Jesus. I have not decked a green tree with my collection of Kashmiri papier-mâché ornaments. My landlord Hari Singh’s older brother died five days ago. Indians don’t celebrate festivals that coincide with a recent death in the family, and will not for a period of some years. Out of respect I have kept all my decorations in their cardboard boxes.


So my celebrations of the birth of divinity among us have been inward. They have taken the shape of personal reflections. 


The landscape of faith, belief and even doubt has never been a level, clear and easy access for me. All the churches and their priests, every council and most theologians set out certain criteria to gain admission which, they claim, can lead to fulfilling a particular set of promises whether in this world or in the hereafter. Philosophy is a bit more nuanced, but it still aims for coherent, reasonable and persuasive explanations why humans opt for, even stake their lives, on some list of characteristics, principles and belief statements about the nature of the world, both seen and imagined. I question whether or not any of these worldviews pass a personal test for allegiance. In times of crisis, philosophy has little or no impact. There is rarely a clear decision that leads to action. When there’s a huge existential crisis where we used to rely on philosophy, but now, there are not many people, not even existentialists, ready to pick up a sword and head off to Israel and put up the good fight, (Actually they might have to cross swords with several splinter fundamentalist groups already fighting, but this clutters the landscape).


Since the beginning of the Covid lockdown I have been isolated, but I decided to try to use my time in a semi-productive way: to allow the practice of meditation to explore my isolation and, yes, loneliness. At first many of the cultural features that go to constitute “me” became more clear: yes, I miss cheesecake; the only white face I see faces me in the mirror; I like having meat in my regular diet. Over time, however, these peculiar characteristics started to lose importance. They seemed to fade away. It was quite natural, not forced. The isolation also heightened the kind of attention that I paid to my daily life. I can’t understand Hindi, and it’s the only language I hear on a regular basis. I didn’t say to myself, it sounds like music, but I did ask myself if perhaps it’s the way the a dog hears spoken language. I began to listen to the inflections and tone coupled with some spontaneous gestures that have become more or less decoded. The process is quite fluid, changing from minute to minute. 


Then several other things happened that opened an exploration. A former Jesuit died. Gene Bianchi was a bright, genial professor. He was a friend of a woman I know quite well who is also on the faculty of Religious Studies at Emory. I began reading the praise for his work. He’d forged many interesting connections between the world’s great spiritual traditions. Thoughtful, accepting, inclusive, are some adjectives that I found appropriate. He made us all richer.


At the same time I was also studying some small textual samples from what’s been called “The Gospel of Thomas.” It is a work that was apparently widely circulated in the early church until churchmen deemed it a bit too gnostic, which means more than non-conforming. It purported to provide a secret understanding, threads to an inward understanding of Jesus. I am a post-Trent Catholic, and Jesuit to boot so it was my older uncles and brothers who shaped the creeds and ceremonies that I took to be the true expression of god’s word to the exclusion of all dissenters and gnostics. My listening has been conditioned by what historians of religion call “family resemblance.” They would say that I cannot really taste the debate about the nature and substance of three persons in one god because it is treated like a settled matter. All the nuances of the argument have been so highly edited, sanitized, even bowdlerized, it is impossible to place myself back into the conservation. So many of the “conditions of understanding'' have assumed the texture of wall paper that I don’t even notice them.


I am sure that in another era I would be labeled a heretic and a dissenter. I grew up loving Jesus, and then as a young man, I cut my teeth on the narratives of his life, ministry and death. In my heart I feel that they point to a purpose and possibility for humankind that far outshines our lofty visions, our petty ideas about who we are, and our squabbles, but I cannot accent to the notion of god most Christian churches demand for admission. The idea of any god, much less than the triune god presented by orthodox Christianity, is an intellectual challenge. 


But curiously the question itself began to reshape itself. I stopped asking what I actually believed in as if it were some personal ontological do or die question. Living alone in India without all the cultural support for the Christian church, I started to ask myself what if I'd actually heard Thomas preach about Jesus? Would I have become Christian? Do I even know what that would have meant on the plains of eastern India looking out across the Bay of Bengal?


I doubt it. I can’t know if the message would have carried any appeal. Even if through some hindsight into the transmigration of my soul, I knew that I was a maharaja’s accountant who was also enslaved, could I have heard something in the message of Jesus that liberated me. But it is such an odd question, or an amusing thought experiment so very far from my world. Is it even important? What I find intriguing is that in a foreign country, outside the cultural and most of the intellectual trappings of the western/Christian world, it is a question that I cannot escape.




The case against Christianity

“The difference between a Miracle and a Fact is exactly the difference between a mermaid and a seal.” --Mark Twain


I am nearly 80 years old. I am well aware that this in no way qualifies me as a trustworthy guide, so I offer what I write only as my personal reflections. I’ve always been on the lookout for solid advice about living my life fully. I am well aware of my own limitations. This is the spirit in which I discuss my bout with the religion of my ancestors as well as my personal beliefs.


I hope I’m a good Christain. I try to be. The maxims that come down to us from Jesus, particularly his teachings about how we should treat one another, are the core of any spiritual discipline. They are also difficult which adds value. The counsel that you can recognize the followers of Jesus by their actions and their love, and not by what they say gets high marks. Being of service to others is also important. It's how I earn my place in the world. It’s a source of peace.


However I insist that any teaching passes the litmus test of ordinary common sense, but the notion of “common sense” may be so culturally conditioned at this point that it is no longer a reliable guide. 


Let’s examine the belief that some type of supernatural oversight provides the glue that holds our civilization together, at least the way we in the West think about it. Though this is not explicitly a teaching of Jesus, it is an underpinning of most traditional Christian theology. (This is distinct from the conundrum of why a loving god allows for the existence and apparent triumph of evil). From my observation, except in the most rarefied or academic theological conversation, the “divine plan” scenario amounts to little more than esoteric wallpaper or crowd control. Conservatives want us to believe that social cohesion is an important and reasonable justification for this belief, as long as they determine the scope and content of the belief structure, but when the social order breaks down, like what’s happening right now, the weakness of this utilitarian argument becomes pitiable. It’s not working. The system is collapsing right in front of our eyes, at a speed that is unbelievable. No words can prop it up. Language and logic turn upon themselves devouring each other, creating chaos, forcing proponents of any position to exaggerate their slightest differences and disagreements creating deeper chasms, more separation, more selfish hoarding of resources, more death, more suffering. It’s a deplorable situation. In my view, it highlights that all that we can really know with certainty is that events are chaotic and unpredictable. According to proponents of religious organizations, the cure is more of the same medicine--their own. Failure always falls to us frail humans--we were not assiduous or faithful enough. This is the failsafe of supernatural remedies.


With regard to the written records of the teachings of Jesus, I’ve spent countless hours studying, trying to sort out what he actually might have said, what he preached that might claim truth in the deepest sense, touching the core of our humanity, and thus possibly could be considered revelation. When my faith in the supernatural was fading, I imagined that at least I might find a guide to living an authentic life. At some point when I decided to be more hard headed and reasonable, I started to simply seek out useful insights about the nature of man and the transcendent, our place in the world, what we might call the meaning of life though that’s a pretty meaningless phrase. It’s just a fill-in-the-blank statement.


I’ve tried as much as possible to separate myself from parochial in-fighting. This was not always the case, but I have no time and little energy left for that battle. Actually, I’ve come to believe that anyone who engages in it or even thinks it’s important is a fool. It’s not just a waste of time--it’s a pernicious delusion to think that this is a path to salvation. It’s divisive. Taking sides sows hatred, distrust and suspicion among the many diverse inhabitants of this earth. It almost makes me believe in the devil. 


So why am I violating my principles and doing it? I cannot and will not try to dissuade anyone who chooses to follow a conventional, orthodox or even modern evangelical path, but by the same token, to keep silent would be to condone and implicitly imply consent to the pernicious way the right wing evangelical church uses their version of the Jesus teaching to hijack the democratic institutions of America. They are not alone. There is also ample evidence that authoritarian movements worldwide are using some version of a particular cultural religious belief system for control and manipulation. 


There will always be problems criticizing any religion based on a book that purports to be revealed truth, and this is especially difficult when tradition, family, and friendship are involved. However my contention is that we always mix tradition, family and the ties of friendship with many unexamined principles that govern our lives. We do this because that’s the way humans are constructed. In terms of the argument, this is neither good nor bad, nor is it totally ignored in the meta argument. However it is relatively unexamined when we consider the influence of ingrained beliefs when we put on the guise of modern, liberated humans, and try to cast off traditional beliefs, practices and taboos.  


Most post reformation Christian religions depend on sacred texts. These scriptures deserve respect as the vessels of tradition and sacred history, but, in my view, this in no way places them beyond analysis and criticism. The biblical narratives are of uncertain human authorship, demonstrably patched together from a collection of traditions, sayings, folktales, ethical and religious admonitions, miracle stories, sectarian debate and even political diatribe to which people attribute divine inspiration. Scholars, linguists, even archeologists have done deep work on these aspects of the texts and their findings are more clear than even a generation ago.  


To get ecumenical, the problem with the divine authorship claim is shared by Muslim and Jews, and to a certain extent most Buddhist sects. The playing field has the imposed boundaries you might expect: you are allowed, even encouraged to be critical as long as your efforts are either directed at people who disagree with an agreed upon meaning, the interpretation of your team, or if your aim is to demonstrate divine authorship. 


Playing the ecumenical card will not absolve me of singling out the illegitimate use of protestant Christianity for criticism, but I focus on that issue here because it is what I have studied and know fairly intimately. 


We humans over our short history have not been very successful really helping others in need. Let's be honest. Christianity in any of its sectarian guises stinks. How many positive qualities can you name that are not simply reinforcements of a cultural norm? What kind of training does it offer that’s not simply “do good and avoid evil” because the consequences go far beyond your present life. They last forever! The worst kind of training is when it imposes human control and monitoring of good and evil, playing on our human guilt, fear, envy, greed or a host of other complicated, unclear, conflicted and convoluted motivations all the while claiming divine authorization.


Do the texts themselves, or even the counsel of the church contain any clear useful advice about contemplation beyond a general admonition to pray? No, not even if you read beyond the conflicting messages about following the Law. This is not to say that there is any hostility towards contemplation or introspection. However, most of the spiritual discipline that leads a Christian on an inner search is the work product of practitioners who were members of one of the churches, either lay, religious or clergy. I cannot deny that they were inspired by their belief, and the fact that there are prayers but no clear specific indications about methods of prayer in the Teaching of Jesus as there are for example in Buddhism. This is perhaps a blessing. It opens the gate rather than fences off the field.


Some people might even think that it is incorrect to follow this vein. If most of your friends have some spiritual proclivity, it might even be dangerous. I might be condemned as totally out of line, but echoing Allen Watts, that position only reinforces the most dangerous human blindness: the taboo against knowing who we are. Why should any religious system be excluded, immune from the same kind of scrutiny as we might apply to a political party, a system of government, a philosophical or moral proposition, a recommendation about child rearing, the merits of a particular diet, or let’s stretch it, proving that the acceleration of an object is dependent upon two variables, the net force acting upon the object and the mass of the object. I trust that the days of stake burning are over, but I am well aware that speaking frankly is still dangerous if I voice my opinion among certain groups, sects, or political factions.



31 December 2022

I’d barely time to catch my breath when the pope emeritus died. 


“Don’t speak ill of the dead,” was something my mother said many times. It might be an old Irish warning before they broke out the whiskey at the wake.


OK, but I am not going to join the chorus of praise for the pope emeritus either. And it has begun in full force. The cause for his canonization has certainly already been written and is a foregone conclusion. He was probably not the pernicious conservative rat that the neo-libs want to portray, but he was no angel. He loved his cats, so not all bad, but he was a little too gay for most conservatives. There might be a fight between cat lovers and opponents of those crazy red pumps. 


I listened to an interview with the neo-conservative George Weigel who talked about the bromance between John Paul 2 and Ratzinger. According to Weigel, this is the heart of their shared doctrinal assumptions: “The Council had been the work of the holy spirit but its implementation had not been less than satisfactory because it had not been properly understood (in the way that they understood it). It was not seen in the context of the church’s settled tradition.” So the two set out to give the Council an authoritative interpretation (which I presume means reinterpretation from the top down, from the pope’s mouth). Their contention was that the Council was not a paradigm shift; there was never a demand to start the catholic church over again. 


This is very lofty and theological. I have a different view. When the fathers who held the levers of power surveyed the work of Vatican 2, and realized that it spelled the end of the monarchy that their position and livelihood depended on, they began the process of limiting the damage. Paul 6 was the harbinger. Still in the thrall of John 23, he was neither a visionary nor a strong man, either would have been disqualifiers for the enclave that elected him. John Paul 1 may or may not have unleashed a hornet's nest by starting an audit of the finances of the Holy See, and he didn’t live long enough to even really begin the work. However the scare was enough to propel the unlikely, and extremely conservative Wojtyła to almost 3 decades of fomenting and leading a backlash, hounding Arrupe and all the liberal Jesuits who were involved in social action and, god forbid, liberation theology, the list goes on, but he had an amazing team of supporters, Santo Subito. He anointed the man who just died to continue the work of “reinterpreting” Vatican 2. 


He passed the torch of stemming the tide to Ratzinger who couldn’t match the charisma of John Paul and was as inspiring as an accountant. Though he did try, even in the face of the erupting sex abuse scandals to rule with an iron hand, he was clearly not up to the job. I was elated when Ratzinger resigned. He lived on, and had a nice retirement. But my gut feeling is that he became a kind of Silenced Saint. Support for an all powerful papal monarchy has become more entrenched, and perhaps even increased. Look at how tired and worn out Francis looks after 10 years.


How much support could we gather for a “Get back to Jesus” movement in the Roman church. Well at least Ratzinger is no longer available to write a compelling list of reasons against it while pretending that it’s already in place.


The word for the day is “bowdlerize,” as in he was great but let’s cut out the slightly offensive parts, or why in hell didn’t he consult the damage control consultants. Some of my favorite bits from the life of Benedict et al were the rehabilitation of neo-Nazi Bishop Richard Williamson of the Society of Pius X  by lifting his excommunication, and, moving right along, taking his nifty red slippers out of the closet while blaming a cabal of gay clergy for the horrific unfolding of the sex abuse scandal.


It is the proper thing to eulogize a former leader of an institution, and to my mind just adds evidence that we are not dealing with anything that could be remotely called spiritual, but rather the survival of a political organization interested in the usual political squabbles, money and most importantly power. I’d been inspired to enter the Jesuits just after Vatican 2. I am not inspired to find a lot of virtue in the life and work of a man whose life work was to contain, even shut down that inspiration.



Jesus--Teacher? Prophet? Saint? God? 

After reading a lot of the hubbub about the Francis vs. Benedict camps among the hierarchy, and of course the straight and true path the Benedict took, the argument swings in favor of Ratzinger because Aristotle saved the world! What I am really asking myself is that it does matter who we say Jesus is. And until almost 400 centuries after the death of Jesus, there was no consensus among believers, or at least we can say that there were several competing schools of thought. Why I say that Aristotle saved the world was the definition by the Council of Nicaea that Jesus was of the same substance as his father. The language Greek and the philosophy was Aristotlian.


Homoousios (the father and the son are of the same substance) vs. Homoiousios (the father and the son are of similar substance)


I’ll go for “It makes not one iota of difference.” It’s all about power and control which are pretty close to being of the same substance.


In the days of Google translator we think that there is a simple equivalency between words of different languages. Beyond ordering pizza or asking directions to the bus stop, this is far from true. Translation becomes especially difficult when dealing with language about God, god, gods, Greek gods, the Hebrew god of Abraham, Allah etc. All these words that refer to the undefined, unknowable and transcendent stem from a particular time and place.


The Council of Nicaea was held in 381, in a town in modern day Turkey after the emperor Constantine moved the capital of the Roman empire from Rome to Constantinople. It was the first council in the history of the Christian church that attempted to address the entire body of believers. It was convened by Constantine to resolve the controversy of Arianism, a doctrine that held that Christ was not divine but a created being. He invited all the bishops, archbishops, metropolitans, presbyters, in both the eastern, Greek, and western, Latin, branches of Christian world. Legend says that of the 1,800 invitees between 250 and 318 attended. 


So, yes, this is about the multiplicity of gods (and I suspect, bringing the Christology of the early communities into the monotheistic fold). In its language it is about the “essence” of god and Jesus. It was also the beginning of the move (or maybe an expression of a movement already afoot) to formulate church doctrine in terms of Greek philosophy. The council fathers (no mothers represented) were trying to formulate a statement declaring that the Lord Jesus was god by asserting that he was of the same essence as god. 


The language of the Council was both Greek and Latin. The official text coming out of the Council was Greek. I don’t know Greek, and even with a dictionary I can't be precise. In Latin however, God of gods does not refer to any multiplicity of gods. I think it is probably best described as a logical tautology: “God is of the essence of God.” Deum verum de Deo vero; natum, non factum; ejusdemque substantiae qua Pater est. As a matter of fact, looking at the latin, the elaboration of the tautology, “light from light” (light is always of the essence of light) seems to be missing, perhaps an addition or a variant text. 


What interests me about Nicaea is the treatment of “being” or “substance.” Without this connecting factor, we’d have at least three gods, two, a Father and a Spirit without form, and Jesus who exists as a kind of pagan demiurge, a member of the multi-leveled god realm who control our fates, who is a created being. This was what Arius taught, and a very large number of the early churches believed. 


What we have is the answer of the council to the followers of Arius. Jesus was truly god of the truly god, he was born (as a human while still remaining god) but not made (in the same way that god made Adam or, for example, the way that the gods created Isis as a manifestation of the divine for the initiates of her cult). He, the Father and the son (filioque) are substantially the same.The filioque would drive another split, but that just gets way too complicated. I vote for Unitarianism just because it’s simpler and more beautiful, but that’s a pond I don’t want to dip my toes into here.



The Case for a spiritual Christianity

As I was searching for an answer to my question about remaining Christian, or perhaps just identifying with the church of our mothers and fathers, but not accepting all the doctrinal overstepping and the insistence on adherence, I thought that perhaps if I took a step back from my hypercritical mind set, relaxed and simply observed the landscape, a convincing argument might present itself. I love the music and art of the church as a real source of spiritual nourishment. Perhaps I could fully embrace a kind of spiritual agnosticism.


In 2019, as I watched the live coverage of the catastrophic fire that almost destroyed this magnificent cathedral on April 15th,  I confess, I was in tears. I am a francophile; I love Paris; when I was a student in northern France, I visited the cathedral many times. Watching the fire engulf the whole transept, I was devastated. It touched me on a very deep level that went beyond grief and shock.


Then I remembered another catastrophic disaster. Watching the twin towers burn and collapse, the loss of life and the extreme wanton destruction was horrific. I was also devastated but in a different way. It was a terrorist attack. My feelings were mixed with horror and fear. 


Both the Twin Towers and Notre Dame were iconic markers on the skyline of major cities. Construction on the Twin Towers began on August 6th, 1966 and they fell after a terrorist attack on September 11th, 2001. Pope Alexander III laid the cornerstone for Notre Dame Cathedral in 1163. It took hundreds of years to build--the last major restoration was by Viollet-le-Duc in the mid 19th century. 


I followed the work on replacing and renovating both the Twin Towers and Notre Dame closely. The design process of rebuilding in New York was predictably contentious. Experts and property developers were called in. There were debates about the design, reconfiguring the site, accommodating commercial uses, providing transportation links, and how to remember the victims. Though still the World Trade Center, it would be something different. The process was very American and, at least in form, attempted to look democratic. In France the debate was about whether to allow any changes during the renovation. Initially some suggested a new design for the spire that was a modern innovation when it was rebuilt in the mid-19th century. In short order The French Senate passed a bill requiring that the reconstruction be faithful to its “last known visual state.” They would rebuild the spire exactly as it was, to the millimeter, using the materials and construction techniques specified by Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, the only accommodation being improvements for modern technology, electricity and building safety, plus a new design for the square in front of the cathedral, underground parking, and the open space and adjacent buildings on the Ile de France.


Both The Twin Towers and Notre Dame caught fire and fell, one completely and large portions of the other, within several hours. That is really the only similarity. In New York a huge number of people perished. In Paris no one died. One was caused by a terrorist attack and the other by accident or negligence. One was a commercial property and the other a sacred space. I was shaken deeply by both tragedies. I watched them both unfold live on TV. Though I hesitate to trace my emotional reactions to a disaster as a path to religious belief, examining my responses has been revealing. 


To extend my theological metaphor, rebuilding the World Center was like the Council of Trent in response to the massive cultural, political and intellectual shift of the Reformation, and renovating Notre Dame is like a careful meditation, a prayer on the source of our faith.


I’ve watched the renovation of Notre Dame searching the internet for every report, argument, and discovery as the work progressed on Le chantier du siècle. When plans were revealed for redesigning the interior space to accommodate current liturgical practice, Alexandre Gady, art historian, said “Curiously it wasn’t the clergy talking about the sacred this morning, it was historians like me who defend historical monuments. Notre Dame is sacred, not just in the Catholic sense but also sacred in the way it unites us, that it speaks to us and that it tells our history.” 


Other critics said that the over zealous clergy of Paris were set on turning their tourist attraction into a spiritual disneyland.


If all the people who love Notre Dame, whether or not they are committed Catholics or not, whether they belong to other religions or none, whether they’ve have contributed money, time or talent to preserve this valuable artifact of our spiritual heritage, or simply sent their love, if the result is a slick Disney remake of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame I’ll know that we are really in the twilight of Western civilization. 


What do I know?

On Christmas eve I started watching this bit of fluff “Inside the Vatican, episode 1” on YouTube. Suddenly there was a very handsome man with a magnificent voice singing to the world. Mark Spyropoulos is a British baritone with Greek roots who found himself in the oldest church choir in the world, the personal choir of the pope, Cappella Musicale Pontificia


Mark started talking about singing the Nicaean Creed solo during the televised mass that goes out to millions upon millions. One day he realized how many people had heard him make this profession of faith. He’d sung it at every papal mass for 3 years.


He quoted the Latin: Credo in Unum Deum. “I believe in One God.” He went on, “I didn’t sing, ‘We believe in One God.’” It was he, Mark, who made a very personal profession of faith. He asked himself: Did he really believe in the One God? And what did that even mean? “I don’t even know. Sometimes I feel like a fraud. I’ve just declared the beginning of the Nicaean Creed in front of the Pope and the world, surely I should be sure of what I’m saying. Sometimes I know what I'm singing and sometimes I don’t.”


“If  you ask me if I believe in God, my reply is that I don’t understand the question. What do you mean by God? (I could hear his interviewer prompt him: God as defined by the Catholic Church) These are massive questions.”


“I’m a baritone. What do I know?”


And apparently it became a kind of personal crisis of faith. Aside from the musical insider joke, he really didn’t know. Then he told a story of a rather beautiful personal revelation; I think it was while singing a Bach piece, the 1747 version as opposed to the earlier 1745, the one that Francis preferred. Apparently Francis is a kind of hands-on boss when it comes to certain details.


“Well, what do I know? I'll tell you what I know. I can tell you that when I am immersed in this music, I feel in touch with something.”


Singing he got that he really believed in a power greater than himself. He was actually far more eloquent than my jesuitical argument.


Medici Archive Project, Music Program. Vox Medicea (directed by Mark Spyropoulos).


Monday, January 16, 2023

Gazing into the heavens for what was right under my nose.

My starting point is simple. Having listened to theological debate, and from time to time participated with zest, the conversations in churches and seminaries, other conversations in mosques and synagogues, temples and Buddhist practice centers, I imagined that the heart of religion must be belief in something, some god or hierarchy of gods or at least some guiding philosophy. All these people seem to be talking and arguing about something. As a matter of fact, listening to the participants, where you stood regarding that “something” is what really matters: does god exist, and existing, how does this entity or reality function in relation to my life and my relationships.

Late on a very dark night I stood on the deck of an overnight boat in New Zealand’s Milford Sound looking into one of the clearest, deepest views of the Milky Way possible from earth; although the view seemed upside down, it points into the galactic center of the constellation. I tried to hold this “god-question,” and just wait. I practice in a school of Zen Buddhism so I waited a fairly long time. As I was headed back to bed with no answers but strangely refreshed, it hit me that the only reason I even entertained the question at all was that my mother’s mother’s sister-in-law, Aunt Edna, gave up her opposition to my mother marrying my father who was neither Irish nor Catholic which produced me. Then through a series of adolescent experiences, followed by a very thorough liberal education, I found myself working through the first post Vatican 2 version of the Jesuit ratio studiorum, and voila both my questions and answers.

I’d assumed that the question itself, or even a constellation of questions after years of attempted answers has been honed down to a few targeted inquiries about a set of principles that undergird the universe and life itself. The assumption is that among possible solutions there is perhaps a group that can be labeled monotheist, another animist, others atheist, generally Buddhist or questioning, and purely scientific (my list is not exhaustive). We imagine that by exercising the revered technique of careful reasonable debate, time and again, after many generations we come to something at least closer to things as they really are.

But what if all that questioning itself carried a kind of genetic code?

We all know that any objective observer has to take his or her personal proclivities into the matrix of the arguments formulation. The point is to really be objective and remove all the personal bits.

But my personal questions seemed to be leading in another direction.

Here’s a hypothesis: the questions themselves are not useful because their answers are totally predictable. It is not as if we had a set of mathematical problems that the best brains in the universe had been puzzling over forever and never arriving at a solution. Nor am I talking about a set of assumptions and prejudices that shape and distort my peculiar take on the world. That would mean that the questions themselves were fresh and appropriate to the situation that presented itself. What if they were not designed to do that?

I was trying to find out how many Christians, of the many varieties, exist in the world. I came across a pretty straightforward analysis of the percentage of the people who currently belong to one of the world’s religions now, and how many will be expected to follow that set of beliefs and practices by 2065. The Changing Global Religious Landscape was produced by the Pew Research Center so the science behind the analysis is reasonably reliable. Belonging to a religion covers a multitude of sins, but it at least sorts out the proportional weight my fellow humans will be giving to the current ways that the god-question is being addressed in broad strokes. It also gives some predictors, given current demographic information about the social, racial and cultural make-up of the populations in question. And there were some startling predictions: that Muslims and Christians would be numerically equal within 40 plus years; there will be no major religious conversions, lateral shifting due to marriage and other circumstance only; that Buddhists, one of the smaller demographics, would continue to diminish. I have cast my fate with a non-aggressive sect without much clout.

Also my beloved “none's” would neither increase nor decrease. Their proportional strength can be predicted simply by statistically figuring out the birth rate among "none” mothers in just the same way that the scientists determined the relative number of children born to spiritualist mothers. It was shocking to see that the “none's” were treated the same as any other category. To my mind, their choice to not follow a religion was perhaps the clearest of the intellectual/philosophical positions with regard to the god-question. But the Pew researchers said with confidence their numbers would not increase.

My precious questions about the nature of reality, the existence of god, and the virgin birth had their origin in the moment that Edna gave up her opposition to my mother marrying my father. And this much is also predictable: in 2065 the same questions will be asked with the same responses. Their genetic code does not tolerate innovation or dissent. I am not exactly sure how to apply Darwin to the genetic code of the god-question. Our environment is changing, pressures are shifting and will favor different adaptations, but will this require thousands or millions of years?

Thursday, January 5, 2023

Getting arrested by the fashion police!

I have often heard jokes about the fashion police. I’ve even tried to make some, though my jokes usually didn’t work well. But when I see some poor man who has no fashion sense at all who finds himself the unlucky object of a paparazzi's lens, I would know enough to call the fashion police. Please. This is probably not shot in Florida so not DeSantis's goons arresting a drag queen.

Is someone being arrested, the guy in sloppy blue shirt should be for his own well being and ours.


In Italy beginning in the early Renaissance until about the middle of the 17th century,  there really were fashion police. The Sumptuary Laws attempted to control what people wore. For example, priests did not always dress in black as they do today, but in the 15th century it became regulated, I think first in Florence.


But laws were enacted in Florence, Siena, Milan, Venice and I presume Rome, which restricted things like jewelry, furs, leather, gold, sleeves. It seems to be an attempt to reinforce a social hierarchy, nobility keeping the upwardly mobile merchant class in its place, the women of the upper classes attracting husbands of means, etc.


I’ve researched some of the history of the fashion police.


This is apparently an Neapolitan woman being arrested for wearing too much refinery in public.


This is also a picture of a very well dressed man making some kind of advances on a woman.



But then Google took me in another direction with regard to the Italian fashion police. I got sidetracked into a survey of the current state of Italian police fashion, and it is quite a statement in itself!




I think that it is probably not good to run afoul of the law in any country. But if you want to be arrested by well dressed police, Italy's the place. They do take fashion seriously.