This is the third installment of a series of interviews I am conducting with academic philosophers about their religious practices (see here and here for previous installments). In this series of interviews, I ask philosophers about their religious practices and the influence on their philosophical work. I have interviewed (and am in the course of interviewing) agnostics, theists and atheists, hopefuls and skeptics. The contributors are in various stages of their career, tenured and untenured. Interviews were conducted through e-mail and responses are not edited, except for some occasional shortenings (indicated by ellipses)
The third interview is with H.E. Baber, who is a full professor at the University of San Diego.
Could you briefly say something about your current academic position, and say something about your current religious affiliation/self-identification. Please feel free to say something about your religious upbringing or history, or anything else that might be relevant to your current religious affiliation.
The religious affiliation of my university approaches the merely nominal and the overwhelming majority of faculty, like academics everywhere, are atheists. I myself am Episcopalian, though I am not currently a churchgoer.
I was brought up to believe that while religion might be understandable in the elderly facing death and in working class people who had been ‘conditioned’, it was not something that any normal, educated person would take seriously and moreover that an interest in religion was perverse, morbid and ‘sick’.
I was interested in religion—and in everything I thought of as ‘spooky’: ghost stores, magic, myth, superstition and anything to do with the supernatural. I read everything I could on mysticism (and used recreational drugs) looking for intense experience—in particular, the sort of experience I later described to myself as ‘metaphysical thrills’. I loved church buildings and church music, and was fascinated by ceremonies and by theology.
But I didn’t feel I was entitled to do theology, sing church music or visit church buildings unless I joined a church. And it wasn’t clear to me, that joining was possible or, if it was, how to do it. I had initially assumed that the only way to get into a religion was by being born into it or marrying into it.
Insiders don’t appreciate how remote churches are to outsiders or how difficult it is to get in. Churches don’t signal that they’re semi-public places, like supermarkets or movie theaters, where anyone can go no questions asked. As an outsider, I was too shy to visit any church—afraid that it would be going into a private space where I didn’t belong, afraid I’d be noticed as an intruder, or asked embarrassing questions. There was no easy way of applying to join a church. When I joined the Episcopal Church as an undergraduate I didn’t know any churchgoers: religion simply wasn’t done among people I knew. It took me months after deciding to join to get up the nerve to call the local church and ask to see a priest. I wondered why churches couldn’t make things easier—why, e.g. they didn’t put ads in the college newspaper or leave flyers with forms one could fill out to request information or apply for membership.
Even now I don’t know many religious believers. My colleagues are more or less accepting of my religious connection. The SCP has made a terrific difference within the profession in supporting Christian academics and work in philosophy of religion and philosophical theology! People I’ve met socially outside—on the ground and on the internet—are baffled when they discover I am religiously affiliated. One Facebook acquaintance, a New York radio journalist now unfriended, asked me whether I ‘believed in evolution’ when it came out that I was Episcopalian.
Somewhere, I understand, there are places where religion is part of the world taken for granted and atheists are regarded with suspicion. I have never lived there.
Can you tell me why you started to go to church? What aspects of worship in a church appealed to you in particular? You mention “metaphysical thrills”, I’d like to hear something more about that too.
As a child and in my teens I played in orchestras and sang in choirs. Probably what affected me most seriously was singing the Schubert Mass in G at music camp when I was 14. We learnt about the music, the meaning of the Latin words and some of the theology in musicianship class, and I was completely taken by it: I wanted it. I also liked working on theological puzzles, especially the doctrine of the Trinity. And I loved reading church history, particularly the history of the Patristic Period—the heresies, schisms and councils and the wild disputes over theological minutiae.
What aspects of worship in church appealed to me? Mainly the escape from the ordinariness of everyday life into a fantasy world where everything was flashier, fancier and more intense, sensual and exotic. I also liked the fact that church was formal and impersonal—a place where one could be alone in a crowd, surrounded by people without being noticed or making personal contact. Or at least so it used to be.
As far as ‘metaphysical thrills’ I mean experience that is (1) intense and (2) involves an escape from ordinariness. It comes from various sources—liturgy, the experience of nature and art, thinking about some metaphysical issues, e.g. skepticism about the external world. Once I got it in class explaining how all of a formal system in math was packed into the axioms—dense as a black hole, all there to be extracted.
What ultimately led you to no longer attend church?
I stopped going to church because I saw the Church screwing up, driving people away, and dying, and finally realized that there was nothing I could do about it.
I thought that I might have a voice in the Church when I’d graduated from college, or when I was married, or had a job, or had kids or was tenured. But it was never so, no matter what social or professional credentials I acquired. I finally realized that no layperson could ever have any influence on issues that mattered in the Church. We were just, as one priest put it, ‘pastoral care objects’. So I tried to get ordained.
I was told that to be ordained I had to get involved in church activities in order to be ‘called up from the congregation’. So I blew a hole in my career and neglected my family, doing time-consuming church work. It never seemed to occur to clergy that I had a life—a job, a husband, children, and things to do—with which these activities interfered. Clergy assumed they were doing laypeople a favor by giving us busywork to make us feel useful.
After years of trying, the bishop told me that I wasn’t to be ordained, that it ‘wouldn’t be fruitful’ to tell me why, and that I shouldn’t waste the time of the Commission on Ministry by applying again. The chair of the Commission on Ministry told me that she had known from the first time she had met me, 7 years earlier, that I would never be ordained. This hadn’t stopped her from telling me, after the second of two earlier rejections when I’d asked whether it was worthwhile for me to reapply, that I should of course apply again—and telling me go into therapy, at significant out-of-pocket cost, to improve my chances on the next round.
As I finally learnt, the Church would never say ‘no’ if they could help it. Instead they stalled applicants, tried to deflect them into lay ‘ministries’ and, failing that, set up baffles and barriers. I asked the ComChair, when we first met, whether I could study theology during my forthcoming sabbatical at my own expense, no strings, so that I’d have some credits to go towards academic preparation if accepted for ordination. She told me that if I wanted do theology on sabbatical, I should postpone my sabbatical until I was accepted. So I got my sabbatical postponed—with great effort. I only realized later that the ComChair never expected me to postpone my sabbatical or go to an expensive shrink: these were just barriers that she assumed I would be unwilling or unable to negotiate.
I am disheartened by the decline of the Church and frustrated because, as a layperson, I can’t do anything about it. In spite of the officially democratic structure of the Episcopal Church, and rhetoric about lay ‘ministry’, laypeople have no voice in matters of importance. The agenda is set from the top, laypeople are heard only when they echo the party line, and priests as well as laypeople are marginalized, beaten down or squeezed out if they don’t go with the program. This has driven some to join break-away groups. That isn’t an option for me because I have no sympathy with the conservative moral positions these groups take and, most especially, because the view that gender is in any way theologically significant is a deal-breaker for me.
I cannot bear to watch the Church die at close range—to see congregations decline, choirs disappear, church buildings close. That is why I left the Church.
Although you are no longer a current churchgoer, would you say that your experiences as a former practicing Christian influence your philosophical work (in philosophy of religion and other fields)? And if so, could you specify how, or are these two separate domains of engaging with religion.
Because I had no childhood religion I was never in the position of others who have had to choose between rejecting their pre-philosophical religious beliefs in favor of their current philosophically informed views, keeping them in separate compartments, or somehow reconciling them. All the religion I had when I joined the Church I got from college classes, and from my reading.
When I joined the Church I was put off by its way of ‘engaging with religion’. Faculty at school, none of them religious believers, treated theological doctrines as philosophical claims, which even if false, were worth serious consideration. At church, the curate who taught my adult Confirmation Class reinterpreted them as edifying sentimentalities or dismissed them. In philosophy class, we considered the possibility of post-mortem survival, in church, the curate glossed the article on the resurrection of the dead in the Creed as ‘not pie in the sky when we die, but life in depth and fullness here and now’.
While seeking ordination, priests occasionally ‘came out’ to me, making it clear that they assumed religious belief as ordinarily understood was naïve—assuming that, as a philosophy professor, I would approve. A number of priests I knew regarded their churches as community service facilities operating a range of programs, of which Sunday services were just one among many activities, and by no means the core business. They saw themselves as community organizers, members of a ‘helping profession’ and dry-land cruise directors organizing activities to keep church members occupied.
I was the wrong audience. The Church spoke to people who didn’t have a taste for metaphysics or enjoy liturgy, and who felt they ought to be religious but worried that they didn’t qualify because they couldn’t conjure up what they imagined were the requisite beliefs. Bishops assured them that belief in a God ‘out there’ was no more plausible than belief in a God ‘up there’ (J.A.T.Robinson) and that theism was dead (Spong). Priests marketed churches as social centers, suppliers of secular goods and services—schools and pre-schools, youth groups, community service projects, therapeutic programs—and occasionally as settings for music and the arts.
What went wrong? This is my guess. Once academic theology was done in the Church. When universities developed outside the Church, academic theology moved to university departments of philosophy, where we do theology as the Fathers and Scholastics did it. Meanwhile churches went off in a different direction. Clergy developed a different reading list and concerned themselves with different issues, drawn in large part from Continental philosophy and the social sciences. At the street level, this translated into the assumption that theology as we understand it is obsolete.
There is no way to fix this. The best we can do if we want to remain churchgoers is to ignore all attempts by churches to deliver intellectual content: avoid church-sponsored classes, discussion groups, Bible studies and workshops; ignore sermons. What’s left? Liturgy. And for those (unlike me) who want it, volunteer work and ‘community’.
When I became ‘involved in the church’ to pursue ordination, I saw more than I wanted to see—the formulaic political correctness, the interpretation of theology as pop-psychology, the waste of time and money and the patronizing attitudes of clergy.
The SCP is my church.