HELLO AND HAPPY 2015! This year is going to be a good one, y’all. I can tell. Let’s get to our first interview of the year!
Funny story, I met Robert on Tinder. Except I kind of already knew who he was when I found him, because I had seen his picture on Facebook. He’s my sorority sister Katie’s brother–and I knew how awesome Katie is (seriously awesome), so I thought, hey, I can swipe right on this guy! He’s a real person! And so our friendship began. (My relationship with Tinder was much shorter–I’m done with that craziness). Robert and I haven’t hung out a ton, but when we do we just talk and talk and time flies by. He’s a fascinating individual and seems to burst with energy–his lust for life and thirst for knowledge are unparalleled–which will soon become apparent, as you read through the interview. As I could have predicted, the interview ran long and we went off on tangents a few times–that’s the nature of our conversations–but I hope you read it all, it’s worth it.
Interview 10: Robert
“It’s not for me to say “I comprehend how this works”, it’s for me to say “I’m Catholic, and these are mysteries that I understand as they’ve been revealed to us.””
Me: [Would you] tell me what your own spiritual journey has been, over your life so far?
Robert: So…I’ve had a kind of up and down relationship with my personal religious spiritual beliefs. My family is Catholic, I was raised Catholic – a lot of people don’t realize that Catholicism is a much larger universe than just the Roman Catholic church downtown, for instance. So although I was raised Roman Catholic in the sense that most people think of when they hear the term, my father’s family, being Lebanese, was originally Maronite Catholic, Maronites being one of the twenty-three branches of the Eastern Catholic Church—not Eastern Orthodox, Eastern Catholic. In a nutshell—I’ll try to keep myself from giving the explanation that I have practiced—there are numerous rites–sort of like sects–that recognizes the primacy of the Pope, and recognizing the primacy of the Pope is essentially the defining factor of what we call Roman Catholic. So the Maronite Catholic Church, the Maronite rite, is one that uses Arabic as its vernacular language and Syriac as its liturgical language. It has a different background, a different set of traditions, a different focus than the Latin-speaking church has. The Latin speaking church has a stronger tradition of rational philosophy, the Eastern church has a stronger tradition of mysticism, of looking for symbols in everything.
Me: Which would make sense, given the traditions of Arabic cultures. There’s more of a proclivity towards mysticism, I find, in the Middle East.
Robert: Yes, I don’t know to what extent this is oversimplifying things, but to me it seems like the Latin church has inherited a lot of the Greek philosophical tradition, and the Eastern churches have retained a lot of the more native Semitic religious influences, which are always quite mystic. Catholicism itself—Christianity itself—is mystic Judaism, so that’s present all throughout any branch of Christianity, but in the Eastern rites especially. In any case, that’s only to say that I was raised Roman Catholic and very early on found myself questioning the strictures of the Church. I was essentially agnostic probably from ten on, for four or five years. You know, I’d grown up reading the Greek myths and you’re not going to tell me that Zeus isn’t real but this guy up in heaven is, I’ll listen to ya but you’re not making any rational arguments. Um… Lillie’s making a great face of agreement right now. (laughs)
Me: That’s almost exactly when I decided I was agnostic. When I was like 10.
Robert: Exactly. I specifically remember, I had this whole mythology—not really mythology, this whole explanation worked up when I was really young, Dad still talks about this, I was like eight or something? Because we would go to Sunday school, and we would get all these lessons, and I’m listening to all these lessons and stories and I’m thinking, “This is mythology.” But I loved it, I was like, this is great, this just fits in with what I already know about mythology, about the Greek myths—and they were like “No no no, those aren’t real.” So I would go home and I would explain–I had this whole “Hercules is Jesus” thing going on. It all made sense in my head. But when I realized that there was so much pushback from people, from kind of the official church itself: (changes voice) “No, you can’t believe that, Zeus is fake and God is real”, and I…headed out. When we came back to the states—did I tell you we lived in Germany?
“Since I’ve made this conscious decision to be religious, I don’t want that to be a cheap decision. I’m not religious in order to comfort myself by believing that I’ll be happy after death.”
Robert: We lived in Germany from when I was eleven to thirteen, and when we came back to the States, I wanted to spend more time with my grandfather. He would go to the Maronite church downtown. So I started going to Maronite mass with my grandparents. And the religious life that I found there was very different from the tradition I’d been used to in the Latin church. The Syriac churches have a very strong emphasis on the role of… the liturgy is poetry. Literally. The liturgy is poems that were written by ancient Syriac-speaking poets. That poetry and the liturgy and everything that occurs in the mass is so aware of the role of symbolism and the role of a non-literal understanding of religion. It’s very refreshing, and it’s something that I really appreciate, and I found myself wanting to be more involved in that. So I did kind of come back to the church, but through a back door, and in a way that… a lot of people would consider me to be a bad Catholic. So that’s essentially where I stand now. I’m a Catholic and I made a conscious decision at some point a few years after attending with my grandfather, that I was going to go get confirmed in the church, and I knew what that meant. I said, “This means that I believe what the church says, even if I haven’t necessarily believed it. This is what the Church says, I’m going to follow it, if I don’t follow it, okay, that’s on me.”
Me: Would that mean that you consider yourself more of a cultural Catholic as opposed to a religious Catholic?
Robert: Yes and no. I’m absolutely—and I’m very frank about this—I absolutely believe that one of the most important parts of religion is the cultural role it plays.
Me: Especially as a Maronite Catholic.
Robert: Exactly. So it really really matters, I think, that people carry on what they inherit. That’s not just a question of religion, it’s a question of any cultural practice, any personal practice. It really matters that the world maintain its diversity. And part of what that means is that everyone who is an inheritor of some particular unique thing preserves that for themselves and for everyone else. And so to the extent that I’m really interested in Islam or Judaism–that just makes it more important that I stay true to my own faith. That’s where it begins to cross from being just a cultural thing to a religious thing, because a lot of the time—either when people talk about religion as a purely cultural thing or when people talk like I was just talking, there’s a danger that it becomes very superficial. “Well, we’re going to go around reproducing these rituals just for the sake of reproducing the rituals.” That’s empty. It’s only worth preserving if you’re willing to be serious about it. That’s the real trick. In a way I really was converted back to Christianity—and it was, in many ways, largely for cultural reasons—but nevertheless, I can’t just say “well, I go to church and I go through the motions, and therefore I’m Catholic”. I have to be willing to buy in. Now, this does not mean that I in actual practice buy in 100%. But then again, the people who approach the church from a different direction also tend not to buy in 100%. Everyone fails in some way or another. And that’s one thing that I particularly like about the Catholic Church, is that there is an understanding that because we’re all horrifically terribly flawed, that everyone’s going to fail sometime or another. If you are able to accept that—to live with it —it’s actually a very freeing idea. Like, “okay, well I screwed up. Try not to screw up, but everyone screws up.” I hope all that makes sense.
Me: It does! But it leads me to this question: do you believe in God?
Robert: (pauses) Yes. I hesitate only because there are so many different ways to understand that question.
Me: Right, I understand that. So, you say you have to buy in to the rituals, a lot of that entails believing in—I would think—the Holy Trinity—is there a Holy Trinity in the Maronite Church?
Robert: Yes, so dogma-wise, the Maronite Catholic Church is identical to what you understand the Roman Catholic Church to be. The Trinity is actually a really good example, because the Trinity is one of the things, along with the Immaculate Conception for instance—it’s one of those doctrines of the church that no one gets. The point of it is that it’s completely incomprehensible. And this is one of the things that I like about the Maronite Church more than the Latin rites—this is what I mean when I talk about mysticism, symbolism—the Maronite Church doesn’t talk about sacraments, the Maronite Church talks about mysteries. So there’s the mystery of marriage, for instance. And that idea of mystery is—although definitely present in the Latin church—is much more emphasized in the Maronite tradition. Which means when you look at something like the Trinity, you accept the Trinity because it’s what we understand the truth to be, the fact that we don’t understand the way it actually works doesn’t matter.
Me: It’s mystical because we are not capable of understanding it, as humans?
Robert: You’re exactly right, it’s a mystic truth that we can’t comprehend. Now in many ways, this is something that we’re used to anyways, like we still can’t comprehend gravity. But the difference there is that we have faith that we will be able to grasp that at some point. And I think a big failing of the Latin church traditionally is that there’s always been this assumption that if we look hard enough, we will be able to find logical proof for, for instance, the existence of God. The Latin church is built on Thomas Aquinas, whereas I think the contemporary to Thomas Aquinas in the East would be Al-Ghazali. Almost exact contemporary, couldn’t go more differently. And this goes back to what you were talking about East-West. The Eastern tradition—this is the direction that Islam basically took—was “we can’t understand, but we have these revelations that have been given to us and that we have inherited, and because we think that’s important, then we’re just going to revel in the mystery and take the word as word. And that’s essentially how I treat questions like the Trinity, like the existence of God itself—it’s not for me to say “I comprehend how this works”, it’s for me to say “I’m Catholic, and these are mysteries that I understand as they’ve been revealed to us.”
Me: So how would you describe God, then?
Robert: I’m going to kind of cop out, and say that, kind of in line with what I was just saying, you can’t describe God.
Me: I mean that’s fair, that’s along the lines of what I believe too, I’m just asking, for your own personal beliefs, is that what you would say?
Robert: Officially, yes.
Me: What about unofficially?
Robert: Unofficially, I have a couple…because of course, especially as someone who knowingly has chosen to adhere to one particular belief—to what I’ve inherited—you know, there’s the line that I follow. But then there’s my own personal thing. The way I personally view the whole question of religion—God specifically—the example I use is that of a construction site, that’s got a couple holes in the fences, and you can peek through and you can see a plot, and you’re certainly seeing it, there’s no doubt that you’re seeing it, but it might be totally different what you see from what somebody on the other side of the plot who is looking through the fence from a different direction sees. Part of the reason that that’s important is because it suggests that there is a concrete something to know. And that’s where it starts getting a little bit difficult for me. Because I’ve just said two things, first that there is definitely one-hundred percent something to know, which distances me completely from a large part of the—it’s funny, you said earlier that you feel your views are quite controversial, being in the South. Especially in the crowds that I move in—you know, my hipster crowds—I feel that it’s quite controversial being at all religious. So saying something like “I believe in something” as opposed to “I believe in a set of rules” all of a sudden creates quite a big divide, and there’s the mistake—especially like when I say something like “Oh, I’m a cultural Catholic” or when somebody else says that I’m a cultural Catholic—it’s easy to assume that what I mean is that I don’t actually believe in God and that I’m just following these rituals and these moral laws. I think there’s something, I can’t begin to understand what it is. However, the other side of that is that I think that there are truths of God that as Catholics, we don’t grasp, we can’t see. And that winds up distancing me a good deal, at least personally, from the Catholic Church. And again, that’s not my place to say, as a Catholic. That’s my place to say as a person, as an individual, as a happy sinner. I hope that was an answer to your question.
Me: It was! That’s the thing about these interviews, is that when I ask a question, the answer isn’t always a direct answer, but that is the nature of religion, you can’t always directly answer something, which is part of belief. This kind of goes straight into the idea of souls. You’ve read my interviews, I always ask people about souls. Do you believe in souls?
Robert: There are some things that I don’t consider, and this is one of them. Again, jumping back to what I’m supposed to believe, yes, I’m clearly supposed to.
Me: Right, but I’m not asking what you’re supposed to believe.
Robert: Well, I mean, it’s important what I’m supposed to believe. Part of the reason I feel that it’s important that I stay Catholic is because I can’t come up with all the answers on my own. You have to have someone suggesting something so then you can say “definitely yea” or “definitely nay”. I think that everything that I understand from the Catholic Church regarding immortality sounds great to me. Personally I grapple a lot with this. I act in my personal life as if there is no afterlife worth thinking of, and that to me is the only place where the question of a soul comes into effect–is there something that survives afterwards. You can have lots of conversations about “I have a soul here and it’s calling out to some soul across the room”—okay, well, I don’t know about that. But I also don’t see what importance it has. The only importance a soul has is in the question of afterlife. And I actively don’t concern myself with that. Since I’ve made this conscious decision to be religious, I don’t want that to be a cheap decision. I’m not religious in order to comfort myself by believing that I’ll be happy after death. So happily anticipating some perfect future where I get to chit-chat with Einstein or something—it’s not worth considering.
Me: That gets us back to what we were discussing earlier, prior to the interview, which was the sanctity of life. If you are not concerning yourself with the afterlife, would that not make life even more important?
Robert: Absolutely. Everything of life. I am obsessed with the world. In this way I’m actually quite Jewish, from what little I understand of Judaism. I’m concerned with how I live in the world. And I could say lots of things to help shore that up: “well God is love so God is the relationship between people”, you know, sorts of stuff like that. But I think it’s fine if we look at the world as a creation of God’s, and if we look at ourselves as divine beings, as with a divine spark. And this, to me, is where I really get excited about religious understanding, is the way that it affects what we do in the world—how we create, how we act to each other, but also how we act to everything around us. I say that I’m very very conservative, and when I say that I mean it in a different way than it’s used in American political discourse, I mean I’m so concerned with the world that we’ve been given, and it’s stunning to me that in the 21st century we’re not more concerned with—of course, Francis has just being going off about this, about climate change and the environment, and Bartholomew, the Eastern Orthodox patriarch in Constantinople—Istanbul, whatever—
Me: Back then it was Constantinople.
Robert: Right—I guess he’s still in Constantinople by title? I’m not sure. But the Eastern Orthodox patriarch has been, evidently, on a go about the environment for some time. I’m very concerned, from a religious point of view, with how we treat the natural world around us that we’ve been given, but then it’s not even just that, it’s also what we create. So we as beings imbued with a divine nature, are able to cause great beauty. And so what does that mean? How do we go about creating art, creating places in which to live, shaping physical space—how do we go around creating communities that are ideal, that are beautiful, that are perfect? That is a religious imperative. That’s also very scary, because if we are striving for a perfection, then we’re striving for non-existence. And so that becomes quite a hard question. Catholicism is striving for non-existence, really, all religions kind of are. So then you have to start asking to what extent you want to step away from an idealistic understanding of religion.
Me: The way I’m interpreting what you are saying is: because we’ve been given this great gift, this divine spark, we strive for perfection because it essentially glorifies what we’ve been given. But in striving for perfection, we also have to accept that we will fail. We’re idealistic, but we also have to understand that perfection is impossible for people who are not God, really. Is that is sort of what you are saying?
Robert: Yes, you’re correct. However… I always have trouble because I feel there are about seven different ways to approach a topic, and I can’t stay on the same road, I keep hopping about. You’re completely correct. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t try. Trying can also be dangerous. So we look at all the various utopias that we’ve tried to create—there’s a reason we’re obsessed with dystopia. Were we to achieve perfection, it would be at the expense of our humanity. So the big balance for us is that we are at the same time divine and human, and we have this constant balance that we need to achieve. So for instance, Catholicism is particularly notorious for this. You look back at the Desert Fathers and you see this whole generation of people who understood—I think correctly, in many ways—understood Christianity to teach them to be completely ascetic. To just remove themselves from all things of the world. I think they’re right in that, I think that is a correct way to understand the teachings of Christ. So that’s them striving after the perfect, and trying to create a perfect thing. But that is so antithetical to our humanity that it’s not worth pursuing. So if our humanity is also something that is granted to us by God, then we need to learn to cultivate an imperfection, a humanity, in addition to cultivating our divinity. And of course, from a Catholic point of view this is very interesting because it perfectly mirrors the mixture of humanity and divinity embodied by Christ—and this is quite Syriac – because that’s what most exciting about religion, is being to be able to see the way these symbols and the way these religious truths and mystical understandings bounce off against each other. So our job in balancing our humanity and our divinity mirrors the role that we understand Christ to have played when he was made incarnate among us. Only in some ways, because of that, that calling is one that in many ways looks like it goes against many of the strictures we have been taught. Certainly it would go against what the Desert Fathers might understand.
Me: When it comes down to it, what do you believe, in your striving for perfection? Talking about pure Catholicism or pure whatever—that’s not you.
Robert: This is all me being theoretical—which is me. I like being theoretical, I’m a scholar at heart. Well, again, that’s part of the appeal of any major religion. I disagree with the idea that spirituality necessarily has an advantage over organized religion. Obviously, organized religion has its downsides. So does spirituality—it’s just that they’re less obvious.
Me: But are they not interconnected?
Robert: No, absolutely. All I’m saying is that there’s a role to organized religion itself, and part of that role is having a long tradition of other people having thought about precisely the questions you’re thinking about, dealing with the same inheritance that you have. They might not be right, but it’s still a boon to have. So me, personally—and this is what I was saying in the first place—I think that the call for us is to balance our divine nature with our human nature, and the essence of the human nature is that it is one that goes against what we understand to have been revealed. And there are lots of areas where that’s not the case, there are lots of ways where I’m wrong in saying that, where actually any given revelation really celebrates our humanity – but they are essentially two opposing forces. And in celebrating one, we will necessarily begin to subsume the other. That is the essence of the moral and religious question, how do we attain the correct balance between our humanity and our divinity—because humanity is full of all sorts of nasty things, but divinity is full of all sorts of self-effacing things. I think asceticism is a correct understanding—even something like veganism. Morally, I understand why we should all be vegans. You could understand that as a religious call. But I’m not vegan, because I like meat. So I follow my human urges, I follow the pleasure. So how do we balance that, moving forward? Because if all of us just want meat, then sooner or later we find that we arrive at some impasse. If all of us just want to keep having children—and who doesn’t want to just keep having children? If we just keep doing what we want as individuals. That’s what everyone in our generation keeps saying, “Oh just be you, just do what you want!” Well, we keep doing what we want and we start destroying everything around us, we act at the expense of others. But if we are totally selfless, if we work totally for some greater good, if we recognize some objective moral truth—and I should say, by the way, that I believe in objective moral truths, not everyone does, and I feel that far too few people today in the world do, and I feel that’s one of the reasons that we’re having a bit of a culture clash within the US right now. But if we all try to live by what we understand those objective moral truths to be, then we’ll find that we become… like the Shakers, who just didn’t have sex, and stopped existing. So humanity is destructive, and proper divinity in many ways is self-effacing. That’s very jumbled, and still trying to work itself out, but I guess the reason I say all that is that it’s the heart of the question that I’m always grappling with. I think that the best thing to do as we grapple with it is to just celebrate the world around us, to revel in the nature we’ve been given, to have fun with the people around us, to take part in the good things, the wine and the song and so on and so forth—and to do that, with a recognition of its having been given to us. And you don’t have to understand that as “God came down and created the world out of a bit of clay in 53 hours exactly”. You don’t have to believe it in that way in order to understand the world as a gift—a gift that comes with responsibilities for us.