Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.36.5: NEW AGE, SAME OLD BS (SOS Part 1)

V036-05_IquitI quit the Roman Catholic Church (you don’t really “quit” as such, there is no resignation form or anything like that, you just stop showing up) in the early 1960s.   My last sufferance was the bumbling homily of a local tongue-tied parish priest that was just too much to bear.   I felt so sorry for this guy.   He should have been a Trappist monk; they take a vow of silence and I am certain he would have served out his days in aphasic bliss.


I was in grad school, living, literally, in a garret room, with nobody to record my failure to make my Easter Duty, [1] no parents around to please that they had done their duty and raised a nice Catholic boy.   The closest I got to a Eucharist was a pepperoni pizza.


The next time I went to church was to get married, more than a year later.   My wife went to mass for a while, attending the campus Newman Center with other liberal and attenuated Catholics, but she soon joined my “fallen away” status of her own complete accord.


At the time there was metaphysical energy aplenty to fill the self-induced void.   There was plenty of company in my apostate status and some were doing the “inner- searching” thing with various forms of pharmacological assistance.   But drugs were not for me.   I never liked not being conscious and in control.   Some friends experimented with the newly popular LSD behind the perpetually stoned high priest Dr. Timothy Leary.   Others tried to go native with the “Yaqui way of knowledge,” [2] induced by peyote and mescaline.   If there was a god to be found he would be in some tripped-out haze and probably look like a drummer for The Rolling Stones.   Joints were routinely passed around at various social gatherings.   But I wasn’t about to exchange one opiate for another.   The word at the time was what are you “into.”   People might be into something one week and into something else the next.


Next week it might be Encounter groups; people sitting around spilling their guts out to strangers who would rush to hug them; or diving into hot tubs at the Esalen Institute up in Big Sur, a warm-up to hooking up with some complete stranger for the search for the big orgasm.   It could be sitting in a room full of dim-wits at an EST [3] training squeezing your legs together to keep from pissing yourself, and calling each other “assholes,” and paying big money for the privilege of re-casting yourself to really fitting the appellation.   It could be dozens of other spin-offs in the rollicking self-awareness movement that rolled in like a tidal wave of psychobullshit.


It was the wages of the unmooring from the traditional faiths that took place in the liberating 1960s, a period which conservatives still regard at the Lexington and Concord of America’s “culture wars.”   Liberating it was, but many people were clearly disoriented by its centrifugal forces and quickly set about seeking cosmologies and lifestyles to ”re-center” themselves.   It was the early “new age,” a period that is now in its second flowering, fertilized by the nonsense of the Deepak Chopras and Tony Robbins’s.  


In between there were God and mammon.   In the 80s Reaganism made it OK to be greedy and get rich (sort of a retro Calvinism that reasoned that if you were rich then that’s what God wants you to be), or join the resurgence of Christianity a la the Bakkers, Swaggerts, Falwells and Robertsons.   This was the great counter movement against the liberal legacy of emboldened minorities, the women’s movement, sexual liberation and media’s fracturing of the (mythical) solidarity of the American family.   Men were seeking out their “fire in the belly” manhood rites to counter feminism. Sexual swingers, it was turning out, tended to more conservative people than liberals.    Many liberals, not sure that there really was going to be an eternity, set about perfecting their bodies to make them last as long as possible.   As usual, true to the essence of American culture, there was a buck to be made everywhere; the core faith, capitalism, seemed well intact.


Somehow my inborn skepticism shielded me from it all.   It took long for anything to “take” with me, and by the time I finished reading and thinking about the validity of a new cosmology or lifestyle it was usually out of fashion or superceded by the next one.   But there was no going back to my Catholic roots; I had worked too hard to be free of their entanglements.   Yet there is never being totally free of them either.   They are my roots, and as you can never resign from the Church, you can never not be Catholic.   There is a certain indelibility to that baptism thing—once Catholic   . . .  


Curiously, my departure from the Church engendered a new interest in religion, not so much a search for a new religion to replace Roman Catholicism, but a liberated, critical-historical interest in the nature of belief, into the unreasoned credulities of faith.    I read works by biblical scholars such as Hugh Schonfeld ( The Passover Plot ), Donavon Joyce ( The Jesus Scrolls ), Elaine Paigels ( The Gnostic Gospels ), works on the “historical” Jesus , by Michael Graves, historical novels such as Gore Vidal’s Creation and James Michener’s The Source, even edgy stuff like Holy Blood, Holy Grail , the precursor of The Da Vinci Code .   Malachi Martin’sThe Final Conclave.   I looked at religious art, listened to the music and missas , read of the lives of saints and popes, long monographs on Mary and Mary Magdalen, even the writings of Josephus.   It was almost all very interesting, but there were no accounts of, from, or about anybody who had been to the other side, who had had a real audience with The Deity, the father the son, or the flaky one, the Holy Ghost.   Not one single, sane, person.   Nobody, not the Pope, the Dalai Lama, the Ayatollah, or Sister Ignatius, my first grade teacher, knew one single shred of evidence, knew anything more than me.   Everything on which the great faiths were based was made up, conjured, imagined.  


I never recovered my faith—if I ever had it in the first place—but I did get some insights that gradually evolved into a sort of modus vivendi composed of bits and pieces from here and there.   A good part of it came from that First Century radical Jewish rabbi, Yeshua Bar Yusef.   Thankfully, my concoction was neither complete nor communicable enough to comprise a faith, or religion, or this would be a solicitation for funds, an urging to bomb and woman’s clinic, or an email to a congressional page asking him if he likes to play leap frog.


Much of my metaphysical odyssey took place before the resurgence of Christian Fundamental Evangelism in America.   I had some to my accommodation with the believers: they can leave me alone, or I could make them wish they never brought up the subject.   They could have their faith and I would even fight for their right to have their faith.


But no, they just couldn’t live and let live believe and let not believe.   No, they had to take their faith into the classrooms, into the legislatures, into the streets, into the media.   America had to be “a Christian nation” and our laws had to become subject to Christian principles (which, if they were true Christian principles, would actually make us a better nation).   Our leaders had to pray in public and proclaim their faith, and wear cross pins next to their lapel flag pins.   They had to plant giant white crosses on our public hilltops.   They wanted to tell women what they could do, and could not do, with their bodies, they wanted our kids to believe the world was created in six days, and Noah could actually fit all fauna on a barge, they wanted to judge the worthiness of science with the mumbo-jumbo of people who speak in tongues and see the face of Mary in the guano deposits on the side of a parking garage. They want to deprive homosexuals of their rights and keep public monies from being spent on condoms for the HIV-ravaged African states.   They want to take us back to the dark ages, before the age of enlightenment.   And when they do that, they aren’t just people of faith anymore— they are the enemy of reason.


When I went into that Bible Study class, I was “locked and loaded.”

©2006, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 11.14.2006)

[1] If I recall correctly this is the requirement—under pain of mortal sin—that you make a confession and receive communion at least once a year.   Or am I confusing that with the requirement that you not bite the ears off your chocolate bunny until the angel has rolled back the stone on Jesus’s tomb?

[2] A boring exegesis by Carlos Casreneda, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge (1985)

[3] Erhard Seminars Training, a scam conceived by a guy named Jack Rosenberg who changed his name to Werner Erhard.