Religious Training

pk drawing‘s Religious Training

1995 September

My godfather, Episcopal Bishop of Brooklyn and author of NYU’s Alma Mater, performed my baptism. The first ambition I remember was common enough: it was all but assigned to me in Sunday School. (The sign in front of the church read “Presbyterian,” but I recall nothing Knoxian about its pastor. My Sunday School teacher on the other hand was straight Calvinist.) The ambition I conceived in his care was to be worthy of Jesus’ love. Christianity was the truth, the truth was to die for, and I wanted to be not just an acceptor, but a promoter: an active Witness.

Sometime after I was confirmed, a Catholic friend declared virtuous intentions that I recognized to be similar. As years passed I felt more and more alone in mine. Don’t people mean what they say? I was sure I did, and to this day can still feel the thrill I felt when, having learned book store browsing as still another way not to do homework, I first saw the title of Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ.

I saw no conflict in my regular playing of doctor in a neighborhood dense with young girls. pk with neighborhood girls I never planned not to be normal. No, I dreamed of some impact on mankind. When the time was right, God would show me what it would be, how to do it, and give me the strength necessary. In the meantime, I was distinguished for my activity in the church and even, as a teen, preached from the pulpit of the Brick Presbyterian Church on New York’s Park Avenue.

When I was ten or eleven my Sunday School teacher made me the focus of the Sunday morning class as he gave me a dollar. I was to put it in a piggy bank. He announced that he was going to contribute to it each year till I was eighteen so I could buy my own Bible. He predicted that by that age my faith would be sorely tested. I’d probably go to college. I’d imagine problems.

I didn’t recognize any cause for his concern. Neither did I doubt him. In the faith assigned to the young, adults are mature and wise; youth, to paraphrase Shakespeare, is green salad (a pretense best maintained by keeping the young sequestered while the adults are at each other’s throats). Now I am sure that he was afraid I’d learn reason and its close ally, disciplined skepticism. (See also pk on Reason. [Search pk blogs for Thinking Tools.]) Those are tricky words, and much of this site is about them. But for the moment just let me observe that we all consider ourselves reasonable. My teacher certainly didn’t believe that what he’d talked on was either unreasonable or untrue. (I do find it interesting to reflect that he didn’t worry about me for my public school years.)

Christianity had our problems originating with the Tree of Knowledge. Dr. Frankenstein and his monster had reproduced through the generations since the Industrial Revolution. Science was trying to peek at God’s blueprints. I found the invitation obscene and rejected it: unconsciously if not deliberately. Most of the way through college I still didn’t recognize grounds for my Sunday School teacher’s concern.

Now it’s true that I stopped going to church once the minister ruined my seventeenth Easter (age eighteen) by mispronouncing Sartre’s name and attributing to him a philosophy of despair. I worshipped in private. I listened to The Saint Matthew Passion on Sundays. I read sermons by John Donne. In my mind, I was still a Christian, still trusted Biblical authority. My absence protested only the intellectual dishonesty of the pastor.

2001 08 09

I am sure my home page is not the only example of something in the human world seldom manifesting as planned. A relevant story should have gone in here way back in the early writing. Only recently did I add it and then in the wrong place: my Academic Bestiary’s background notes [coming here soon] to my doctoral orals [ditto]. But it belongs here. So I’ll tell it again and later rewrite the other files.

Some time after offering me my dollar toward the purchase of a Bible, clearly still concerned about my soul, my Sunday School teacher asked me what I planned to do with my Christianity as an adult. I told him right out. I planned to travel the world, studying other religions. My childish hypothesis was that God, being good, and loving his special creation, man, would have communicated his message universally. Maybe the Jews were the Chosen. Maybe we Christians took the baton when the Jews dropped it. But I was convinced that God would have given everyone a chance. Underneath the mythology of the Koran, the Buddhist sutras, there must be one essential message.

I write my hypothesis with my adult vocabulary and understanding and now recognize in it something akin to Noam Chomsky’s hypothesis of innate grammar. But even as a child I had some sense of things being garbled in translation. I didn’t trust man, neither Jew nor Christian, to have heard quite right. I didn’t doubt that I, with God’s inspiration of course, would be able to winnow out some of the human transcription errors, to enhance the divine part of the message for the benefit of universal human wisdom. It never occurred to me that the human errors could be deliberate or the documents politically choreographed. I’m sure I sensed some of the jingoism, but I’m sure I didn’t attribute it to human or kleptocratic evil. (And I certainly never entertained the possibility, endemic throughout the jingoist creeds, that God loved the Jews but hated every-one and every-thing else.)

I am embarrassed to realize now how long it took me to recognize what followed as an early, if not my first, experience of Paul Knatz failing to communicate something important. My Sunday School teacher advised me not to try such an enterprise until I was absolutely certain that my Christian faith was unshakable. He told me that under such certain circumstances I might study another religion, but I must remember to pull back before actually believing it. Study it, but wear a rubber as it were. My memory is that he was speaking gravely, but I backwards interpret it that he was very nervous about what I’d said, concerned about me, about my difference from the others, as always.

I now realize (belatedly interpret) that for my teacher faith and understanding were incompatible. I now recognize his faith to have been not faith at all but rather the loyal acceptance of propaganda. He wanted the team to be a team more than he wanted the team to be right.

My ideal Sunday School teacher would have said something like, Wow, that’s deep. But you’re beyond my competence. You’re beyond the competence of our minister. Why don’t we hook you up with Joseph Campbell. Or at least put you straight into a comparative anthropology course. Of course you might be beyond them too: for all their learning and all your ignorance. Kid, I see the light of god on you already. Since I can’t reconstruct exactly what year that would have occurred in, I can’t say reliably whether anyone let alone my Sunday School teacher would have heard of Joseph Campbell by that time. Campbell may well have not yet published any of his anthro-theo-syntheses. (Neither am I sanguine that Campbell would have received me with either arms or mind open. I don’t think he was looking for a partner, especially not a “ten” year old. Whatever may have been the case with John and Jesus, the gurus I’ve met since then want to see only one halo: their own.) (Neither do I any longer exempt myself from that generalization.)
I have other files to fix before I run out of steam. But don’t let me fail to come back and notice also that this may have been the first time (first of many) that I was (unconsciously-)deliberately misunderstood. Encore homeostasis. [With down, search pk blogs.]I didn’t worry as more and more time passed while no one mistook me for a saint. God had to know that I was ready and waiting. Jesus, I reminded myself, didn’t launch his ministry till he was thirty. Schweitzer gave the first half of his life to himself. (Of course, for him, indulgence meant things like mastering the Bach organ, becoming a doctor …)

I was a few months short of my baccalaureate when God paid me the first of His direct visits. The communication was radiant, intense, overwhelming. But there was nothing in it that could be interpreted as specific instructions. It does translate as Compassion. I applied it to my screw-ups in general and believed that the rest of my life was my last chance.

We must respect the other fellow’s religion,
but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect
his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.

HL Mencken

Next post: Secular Indoctrination


First a note about the notes: My modules breed other modules, none more so than the earliest modules. Any number of the points which follow below may themselves come to be “promoted” to their own module. If I had the resources (including time) to redesign the whole site, there would be a thousand modules and few notes. All links would be to a map of the site as a whole.
Mean What They Say? — Honesty, Childhood Intentions …
The child that I was believed that he was honest. That child believed that others — his friend, his pastor, his teacher, his President … — were honest. If I reached adulthood and didn’t keep my childhood intentions, I would want to know why.
Who remembers their childhood intentions, their childhood perceptions, with any seriousness? Mark Twain, for one. Damon Knight, bkMarcus … me.
It was my Catholic friend’s misfortune to be the first of my circle that I noticed to have changed? Was it dishonesty? Forgetfulness? Or could it have been that terrible state, justly feared by all twelve year olds: adulthood? Regardless, my Sunday School hammered away at Catholic errors. Here Catholics erred. Ergo: Catholics are not honest. (A visit to a Catholic confraternity showed me that they were doing the same thing in the other direction.)
Logical? It doesn’t matter: it’s how I see my opinion as having been formed.
So then: how do I explain my becoming, age thirty-one, a disciple of the (defrocked) Roman Catholic priest (Monsignor) Ivan Illich? Easy. He’s one of the few honest Christians of the millennium!

Contribute: Class Distinctions by Education … Perpetual Student … Fake Education …
My Sunday School teacher never made a second payment on that promise, but even the first proved to have been unnecessary: for my confirmation the pastor gave me my own King James version, complete with soft leather, concordance, subject index, red lettering for Jesus’ words, and a ribbon place marker sewn into the binding. It’s still the Bible I refer to regularly.
I don’t know whether my teacher singled me out suspecting that I was the only one bound for college or because he thought I was the only one whose mind might actually be open once there. All these decades later I read between the lines and hypothetically discover that teacher to have been revealing that he hadn’t gone to college. His two sons were present in the circle. It’s additionally curious if you realize that of the two hundred graduating seniors of my public high school, the teacher’s elder son being another of them, all two hundred went to college. I don’t say that two hundred stayed there long. I don’t say that all went to good colleges: only that the marine sergeant who came recruiting couldn’t believe the zero response he got. Flustered, he asked for a show of hands from those planning to attend college. Overwhelmed, he reversed his request. The zero hands raised were much easier to count. Finally a teacher helped sic the sergeant onto a dunce unlikely to graduate high school whether accepted by a college or not.
Of course there was a huge difference in society’s habits between the mid to late 1940s when my teacher expressed his fears for me and 1956 when we finally got released from the prison of high school. Who went to college and who didn’t meant nothing to me at the time either way. It never occurred to me that perhaps not all of our neighboring parents had gone to college. My mother hadn’t finished Hunter, but she’d started it. My father had graduated Columbia and gone on to law school. I just thought such behavior was normal. Nothing special. Very ordinary.
I myself was “in school,” either matriculated or employed as a teacher, till I was past thirty. (Of course I’ve been a teacher all along, but it’s been a long time since I was “employed” as one.)
At Columbia, we typically held all other schools but Harvard and Yale in contempt. Many Harvards and Yales would have included Columbia in their contempt.

By my late twenties the soon-to-be founder of FLEX had refined his attitudes on the subject. What I revered was knowledge and learning; what I held in contempt was fake education: “schooling,” in Illich’s phrase. Edcentric Magazine commissioned me to write an article on education and my efforts at reform. I included a history of schools in the West, most of which they cut in their published version. I recreate it here among the essays. (See History of Schools.)

Dishonesty: Inappropriate Celebration
There was the church, all filled with lilies. We’d just had our annual treat of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. What in hell was he talking about Sartre for? Accurately or inaccurately?
Forty years later I still haven’t read all that much Sartre. I certainly now recognize Existentialism to be an enemy of conventional Christianity. But non-the-less the pastor was misrepresenting it. (Even without expertise on the subject I wouldn’t hesitate to suggest that Existentialism is an alternative to despair.) (I’ll further add that “despair” here is culture specific: surely there must be cultures wiser than to bother despairing at the simple facts of mortality and limited abilities.)

The church, with its wild legend of immortality
Howards End

I rejected that church so long as it had that pastor. I did attend service occasionally at other churches (see Homeostasis), but my habit was broken.
Increasingly, I’ve come to regret the silence of my protest. I should have waited till the sermon was over, but then stood and addressed the minister before the congregation. In retrospect, I’ve come to indict that congregation as well, regardless of my own silence. It’s one thing for a kid to keep his mouth shut; something else for the elders to have sat still for such misrepresentation.
My reticence on that Easter I see as a form of sloth.

Hell, it was a long time ago, the principals are dead, I may as well name names. The Pastor was the Reverend Harry Mathias. I never confronted Rev. Mathias. I just avoided him. When our paths crossed anyway I just glowered, he turned aside, seeming no more anxious to chat than I. The last time I saw him was a decade or two later and we were both trapped. My mother had a problem. She wanted to confide in her pastor. Why a person of normal to superior intelligence should want to consult with an illiterate I can’t imagine. Convention had him as literate and compassionate and wise so the hell with actual experience. She knew I held him in contempt, so she warned me he was coming. I promised to behave.
He arrived. Saw me. Blanched, but quickly recovered, filling the room with blustery bonhomie. He blustered for an hour. He blustered about himself (though some poor old shut-in woman he’d just visited also got mentioned), smacking my mother on the knee every other minute or reaching out and shaking her elbow. His subject was all about how he knew he wasn’t a very good preacher. (He shot me his only glance since entering as he said it.) But, boy oh boy, he kept telling his fidgeting audience, was he ever a really good pastor. “Well, Norma, well, Paul, I have the rest of my rounds to run. That’s what I am: a pastor.” And he left.
My mother sat. Helpless. Grieving. He’d never asked her why she’d called for him. Never inquired about the problem she’d specified existed. Never let her get a word in edgewise.

In retrospect I have to take back my accusation of mispronunciation. His saying “Sart” jarred my French-practiced ears; now prof. pk says Americanized names are fine. Misrepresenting substance is another matter, including misrepresentation of character: a routine practice with perceived enemies. “Slanty-eyes, kike, dumb Pollock, pig, n-, the only good Indian is a dead Indian, …”: we all recognize the practice. (See my Description vs. Thing.) (Map versus Territory) [Bowdlerizing K., 2016 08 06, euphemizing the most popularly offensive words, so ironic for the freedom guy]

But then all’s supposed to be fair in love and war, and I now see all churches as sects and nearly any sect as at war with all that is not itself. Do we like our own behavior when we see it in the form of a Muslim jihad? When we’re the perceived enemy? How could they do that? How could they be so wrong?
I may have read far less of Sartre than my friends, but there’s one point of his I’ve quoted for decades: “A Jew is anyone that anyone else calls a Jew.” Do we imagine that Hitler’s SS gave theology tests before throwing people into cattle cars? Do we imagine that the Nazi’s bothered to learn the Jews’ own method of identifying a Jew? (Judaism is matri-lineal.) Each culture should translate Sartre’s perception to its own case: “A black is anyone that anyone else calls black.” There is no rational basis to the popular concept of race.
(It’s decades since I thought to title my autobiography “The Voluntary N-.” [Bowdlerizing K., 2016 08 06, euphemizing the most popularly offensive words, so ironic for the freedom guy] The Lakota people apply their epithet Wasi’chu to the white man. The literal meaning is “takes the fat.” (The implication is that we take it and keep on taking it.) I’ve long wanted no part of that kind of whiteness.

2001 08 11 My son just sent me a piece on the inimitable RA Wilson which I will quote at (the above-linked) Race.
Turnabout is supposed to be fair play and the “minorities” play the same trick in reverse. I remember a Jewish group protesting a performance of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice in New York in the ’60s. Didn’t they realize that that play is the best break the Jews had ever gotten in Europe up through the Seventeenth Century? Shylock is a villain, but he’s a sympathetic villain, a villain with an excuse. His tormentors are far worse: Shakespeare’s Venetian Christians are villains who have no excuse. Portia’s legalisms are bullshit by any law other than that “it’s right to cheat a Jew.”

Perhaps they did realize that. Perhaps their motives were complex: the truth of the Merchant of Venice isn’t important compared to making our point about anti-Semitism; the truth of the Merchant of Venice is important and we’re giving it free publicity. (Call me any name in the rags: just spell my name right.)

The note just below on sloth tells one story from the Vietnam years. Another I’d continued here, but this is getting too heavy for a note. So I promote the balance to the module Misrepresentation. (Lot’s of modules started this way.)

The Middle English word for Sloth was acedia and it was redolent of connotations of spiritual sloth. I believe I was guilty of that sin on that Easter in church and on many occasions since.

Jacob Bronowski interpreted Hamlet’s abulia — his failure of volition (his failure to act on his revenge in this case) — as a characteristic of youth. For all his brilliant babble to himself, the prince made little sense to the court. Ah, but we know that he was still in school! He may have been near thirty, but in the culture’s sense, he was still young, still without responsibility.
I was on the campus of the Columbia Law School in 1969 when a briefcase carrying law professor asked a young cop why Broadway was lined with empty Tactical Forces buses. “Are the tactical police here?” demanded the silver-templed professor. The cop still had the flushed face of a baby. “Naw,” he sneered, “it’s da marines, come to kill youse kids.” The cop had a baton and a gun. He was an adult. The professor had a briefcase and was standing on a campus. He was a kid.

Killing people is a bad habit.

My own babble, brilliant or otherwise, was also to myself. Some spilled over to my girl friend or to my mother. They made little of it.
My efforts with FLEX my sometime enslavement to my writing, and my wrestling this site into order are compensations, apologies for that acedia.

The introduction to this set of files makes reference to college and the ideals of a liberal arts education. Of course the concepts are more complex than were appropriate for me to explore there. My Social Solutions directory is the place for that. But one aspect of the idea of “college” which is a simple ambiguity, I believe I will begin to develop elsewhere.

Joseph Campbell:

2005 08 07

I just learned! Joe Campbell couldn’t get published as he got older! (I’m reminded that his first book, his life’s work, decades in the preparation, years in the writing after other years without a publishing connection, was contracted for a total of a couple of hundred bucks.
Some of those previously unpublished works are now being released by the Campbell Foundation, hawked on PBS fund raisers.
All that reminds me: what a shame it is that PBS never taped Alan Watts. As good as Campbell’s subject is, his treatment quality, he’s a poor speaker. Watts could lay it on, but he was far more commanding.
Bottom line: if Campbell had been even better, then maybe he’d never have been published at all! And if he’d been better yet, he might have been kangerooed: scourged, crucified: one temple’s famous solution to publication problems.

2006 07 05 There are books that have influenced me greatly even when I may not have read more than a paragraph or two. Just a title can be inspiring. Lovejoy’s Essays in the History of Ideas has been yellowing on my shelves for decades. Occasionally I dip, but never till the past few days perservere. Now I see that my childhood idea of something universal beneath the apparent differences of culture and language is very old.
From Tertullian: Thy thinking is vain if thou supposest this to be given only in our language and in the Greek, so that thou doest deny the universality of nature.
… Among all peoples, man is one though his names are various. Every people has its own speech; but the matter of all speech is common to all.

That kind of whiteness:
2013 04 25 In monotheism, God is supposed to be right. He is supposed to have been right at the beginning, no amount of experience can make him change his mind. We can change our mind; he can’t change his. We can learn (or grow, or degenerate); he’s stuck.
For decades I’ve used the “word” “n-.” I try not to be embarrassed: and I try to satirize US; not denigrate “them”! I just searched for an image, found a website, irateirishman.

irateirishman target T

Ugh. I’m embarrassed to be human, to be Christian, to be American, to be white, male … and I’m embarrassed to be or ever to have been liberal. It reminds me of the story: guy for liberty is challenged to a debate, he speaks first, blathers against censorship. His opponent gets the stands, shows child porn, the liberal storms the projector, screaming: rips the screen, smashes the equipment …

pk’s Training
HierCon stories

About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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