An Integral Catholic Leader: Father Anthony de Mello, SJ by Giorgio Piacenza Cabrera (Aug.-Nov. 2013)
Father Anthony de Mello SJ is considered one of the foremost mystical theologians of the late Twentieth Century. His simple and direct approach to life continues to untie all kinds of blockages preventing man’s acceptance of his spiritual nature, even decades after his unexpected death. De Mello’s radiated authenticity, love for all and his characteristic laughter tended to disarm any negative preconceived notions against his ideas. As far as my research goes, I’d say that most of those that knew him personally can attest to his sincere and friendly attitude to all as people from every religious persuasion felt comfortable and at soulfully at home near him.
Through his books, Anthony de Mello still speaks about happiness and freedom by illuminating us on how to perceive conflicts and paradoxes differently, that is, by showing us that there’s an enlivening core of wisdom which is far more fundamental than our attachments to partial conceptual stances. Kindly and sagely de Mello often used stories which offered unexpected solutions to paradoxical situations we might be able to relate with. Each of these solutions recapitulated an essential intuition that apparently sprung spring from his direct awareness of non-relative Truth. As far as I know, this intuition was integrated into his whole being exulting joy, care and an unassuming attentive sympathy towards those that approached him.
In his foundational years, Father de Mello originally learned with great discipline the spiritual practices of Ignatius of Loyola (founder of the Jesuit Order) and gradually became a master teacher in spiritual retreats which incorporating yoga, vipassana meditation and other oriental and multicultural spiritual practices. He was a man of much charisma and, after reaching beyond the confines of the Jesuit centers in Bombay, gradually became well known throughout the world. Through books, lectures and retreats and by taking at heart the humanitarian outreach recommendations of the Vatican II Council, Father de Mello showed the way for a possible renovation of Catholic ministry and for offering a deeper kind of understanding to individuals of all faiths or of no particular faith at all. Anthony de Mello, SJ used to call himself a “rolling stone” always available to move onto the challenges where Spirit took him. He expressed as a genuine brother to all and came to understand that the genuine Catholic Church encompasses all people: Christians and non-Christians.
Anthony deMello’s vision and path are attempts to bring to life what Ken Wilber calls the churches “Conveyor Belt” (read Wilber’s Integral Spirituality). However, long after his physical departure Father Anthony prompted a censoring reaction from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This, in turn, prompted a reaction in liberal sections of the U.S. Roman Catholic Church and in the Mid Asian synod. In his own way, Father de Mello stands as an example to follow for any integral Church that may emerge in the future and will more likely than not serve as a referent symbol in additional attempts to assist the Roman Catholic Church become a more contemporarily useful, integral “Conveyor Belt.”
I believe that Father Anthony de Mello, SJ also stands next to other important pioneers behind the emerging fertile integration connecting East and West wisdom traditions. I think that his works also stand in line (in their own subtle and profound ways) with an emerging Integral Catholicism contributed by Catholic creatives such as Trappist monk Thomas Merton, Fr. Thomas Keating O.C.S.O., and Fr. Thomas Berry C.P. It’s the way of the future: Out with prejudiced rigidity; in with embrace through an integrally expressed love!
In my view de Mello’s sufi-like, paradoxical short stories are superb. They are deceptively simple and yet perhaps as inspiring as Kahlil Gibran’s and as touching as the stories about Mullah Najrudin. Perhaps a pre-established 2nd Tier sensibility would be required to seek them out without being prompted by the advertising given to other more popular and somewhat similar, spiritually-inspiring authors. I recommend you to visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_de_Mello where you’ll find a fine list of these works. However, the question I’ll attempt to inquire about in this essay is, what may have inspired Anthony de Mello’s mold-braking, practical-spiritual life?
Anthony de Mello was born on September 4, 1931 in an Indian family that was seriously steeped in the Catholic tradition. His family consisted of mother, father, an older and a younger sister and a younger brother. He was born at the outskirts of Bombay and his parents (Frank and Louisa) were natives of a Portuguese territory called Goa. Anthony’s father was a railroad worker and since Anthony was the eldest son, there were great expectations for him to work in the same business or –better- to become a professional studying at a university so as to be able to take care of his parents in later years. According to a biography written by Anthony’s younger brother Bill, he showed great intelligence and social skills in school (Stanislaus High School) and an early desire (a true vocation) to become a Jesuit priest. Interestingly, the opposite could be said of Bill who showed no particular interest in religiosity, spirituality or academic achievement and, rather, excelled in physical prowess.
During a time of great economic uncertainty because World War II was raging (along with a growing collective desire for national independence led by Mahatma Gandhi), Anthony told his mother that he would pray to God for her to conceive (in her 40’s) a brother that would replace him so that he would be able to join the priesthood. When this improbable event happened he said “So now I can become a Jesuit priest.” According to Bill, Anthony also had a sweet romantic side and had promised a young local girl that “someday he would marry her and that he would take all the stars in the sky to make her a wedding dress.”
During his last year in high school, Anthony attended a career counseling course and re-announced his resolution at home. As his mother rightfully feared that he would not be able to visit home for long periods, she asked him to join a secular order and he would have sadly agreed if she had remained firm about it but she understood that he would have been very unhappy. Thus, in July of 1947, Anthony de Mello joined the Society of Jesus in the seminary of Vinalaya, at the outskirts of Bombay. Anthony quickly blossomed in his new life, studying abroad and becoming rector of the seminary between 1968 and 1972. Then, in 1973 he founded the (still operating) Sadhana Institute to assist many more people of various persuasions by conducting spiritual retreats.
According to his friend, Fr. Carlos Vallés, he had “an exact memory, a warm spontaneity and a capacity to live in the present (nothing existed before or after). He directed his attention to each person in a differently appropriate manner and, thus, everyone was able to understand him. Vallés mentions that “he learned by ‘helping others to learn’ fully giving himself to his own contributions and always perfecting his qualities as a communicator.” According to Vallés, Anthony said that he “grew with each of the courses given because with them he ‘developed himself,’ (the courses) helped him to clarify his ideas, to deepen his feelings, to strengthen his mind.” Vallés also declares that, furthermore, Anthony had immense fun, a great sense of humor and that he was characterized by being unpredictable. Vallés remarks that Anthony was “an individual capable of changes without caring about criticisms. He possessed unlimited generosity and this probably led to his early demise.”
According to his biographies, not long after his inclusion in the seminary, Anthony de Mello showed what seemed like a strong dogmatic conviction a certain day when one of his sisters visited him at the seminary and he strongly vented his views at her all inflamed saying “our mother church is just and you are guilty. You must not doubt that and don’t forget that the pope is infallible.” The reason for firing away with this strong statement is not revealed.
In any case, Anthony soon broaden his state of mind and understanding when in 1952 he was sent for three years to study philosophy in Barcelona, Spain and was also sent to study psychology and counseling at Loyola University in Chicago. He was soon inspired by the psychology of Carl Rogers which later helped him to “lead (spiritual retreats) without leading.” According to Mr. Malcolm Nazareth, a former Jesuit that trained under the guidance of de Mello, “Before and after his 1962 priestly ordination Tony worked in diverse capacities in the land of his birth. He is best remembered in South Asian Catholic circles as a spiritual mentor to countless persons of scores of nationalities and languages especially those who had embraced religious life and the priesthood. Tony’s first language was English. However, he mastered Spanish and was fluent also in-believe it or not-Ciceronian Latin. Tony also knew Marathi, French, and other languages. This may in part account for his popularity as a teacher of healing and of spiritual insight in English and Spanish-speaking parts of the world among Christians, non-Christians, and no-religionists as well.”
Mr. Malcolm Nazareth in his November 3, 2001 workshop presentation “Here & Now with Anthony de Mello,” given at the Call to Action Conference tells us that we could divide Anthony’s life in two basic stages: Sadhana One and Sadhana Two. Mr. Nazareth (who eventually left the Jesuit Order, married and founded the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research and the Center for Interfaith Encounter) also attests to have been a broad minded spiritual seeker when studying under Anthony’s spiritual guidance. He tells us that during Anthony’s life in Sadhana One “Tony’s theology of religion was primitive at that time. Having made my preliminary explorations into Hindu religion and spirituality, I approached him with my questions about Christology. The Tony of Sadhana One provided me with a set of answers that were most unsatisfactory. I told him so. I walked away from him knowing that Tony hadn’t dared to encounter any non-Christian religion with openness and vulnerability. His Catholic Christian conditioning was blocking his spiritual progress, if I may presume to say so.”
Later on, Mr. Nazareth goes on explaining that “It was sometime in the mid-70’s that Tony opened his heart and mind to vipassana meditation practice. I’m inclined to think that this was a major turning point for Tony as he slowly began to move into Sadhana Two phase. After seriously practicing vipassana and thus exposing himself to Buddhist spirituality, Tony dared to confront the theology which he had learnt in theological school with, what now seemed to me to be the vital existential questions of our time: What is our human situation? What are the various religious responses to the human predicament? Is the response of Jesus Christ to the human predicament substantially different than the responses of Krishna, the Buddha, Moses? If the spiritual response of Jesus Christ was qualitatively different than theirs or Confucius’, Lao Tzu’s, Muhammad’s, or Baha’ullah’s how or why is Christ different? Why should I as a catholic care about such differences? And finally, from the point of view of ultimate reality, do the similarities and differences between the various religious paths matter at all? In a nutshell, what is spirituality?”
Mr. Nazareth then leads us to Anthony’s conceptual response to the important question “what is spirituality?” by saying that “In his 1982 Song of the Bird we find Tony’s terrific reply: Spirituality is that which succeeds in bringing a person to inner transformation. Question: ‘If one applies the traditional methods handed over by the masters, isn’t that spirituality?’ Tony’s response: ‘It isn’t spirituality if it doesn’t function for you. A blanket is no longer a blanket if it fails to keep you warm.’ Question: So spirituality does change?’ Tony wrote: ‘People change and needs change. So what was spirituality once is spirituality no more. What generally goes under the name of spirituality is merely the record of past methods.’”
Regarding Anthony’s continuously expanding shifts in understanding I think that he may have had one or more eye-opening mystical experiences somewhere along the line. This I surmise from my conversations with Mr. Nazareth who tells me that he had such an experience under Father Calderas and from interpreting a segment of Bill de Mello’s biography of his brother. In Mr. Nazareth’s email dated May 31, 2009, I’m told: “I don’t know where you read that de Mello was a changed man after his return from Spain. Do you know what year that may have happened?” (Note: This may have happened in 1952 because in the biography written for his brother Bill de Mello lets us know that Anthony changed around that time his rigid, traditional outlook into that of an understanding brother or “mellow de Mello.” Bill writes that “In 1952 Tony was sent to Spain to study Philosophy for three years during which time some personal evolution took place. He gained charisma that made him a leader of men&rdquo.
Mr. Nazareth continues his letter by writing “I remember him saying in one of his public talks that one of the first major influences on his spiritual transformation was in a 30 days retreat which he made under Fr. Calveras, S.J., in Spain (probably during De Mello’s tertianship (final segment of Jesuit formation). Calveras was a world famous authority in conducting the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Perhaps Prabhu would be able to fill the gaps in my knowledge on this issue, so I’m forwarding this post to him.
During that Calveras’ retreat, de Mello had a very powerful mystical experience which gave him profound insight into the spirituality of St. Ignatius. After that, de Mello himself was much sought after for his skill as a retreat master. He conducted 30 days retreats but he also conducted weeklong retreats.”
Mr. Malcolm Nazareth also mentioned in his workshop presentation at the Call to action Conference on November 3, 2001 that “His 1985 book One Minute Wisdom, in my view, makes Tony an incipient heretic (a la Ratzinger). Because here Tony dares to come up with bold statements that only mystics can utter so brazenly. Here he sounds now Buddhist, now Sufi, now Taoist, now Hindu, now Jewish. The master in Tony’s book is clearly an interfaith master. The Christian is hidden, but absolutely there. Tony has begun to point out that theological formulas, including theological and spiritual ones are no more or less than formulas, intellectual concepts, fabrications of the human brain that cannot but think in terms of binaries. Tony’s final expressions of spirituality in his posthumous “One Minute Nonsense” (Loyola, 1993) are basically supplements to his One Minute Wisdom.” Regarding Anthony’s “interfaith master” I wonder if he is one and the same as the voice of the “Integrated Big Mind-Big Heart” referred to by Zen master Genpo Roshi (see http://integrallife.com/applications/big-mind-process-big-heart).
Mr. Nazareth tells us that “Tony’s charisma was compelling. He very easily charmed and convinced his audience to radically sacrifice their earthly possessions to favor the poor. He magnetically drew his admirers to commit themselves to the making and conducting of 30-day Ignatian exercises. Tony strongly encouraged his audience to become practitioners of vipassana and to go study this form of Buddhist meditation under Burmese master Goenka. In his earlier years Tony had delved deeply into Ignacian spirituality which he mastered in Spanish under the guidance of Father Calveras, SJ. Later on, Tony had been gripped by the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi. Tony had also come for a while under the spell of Bertrand Russell. Tony had been taken by the British philosopher’s brutal honesty. In Tony’s final years, however, he was quite captivated by J. Krishnamurti. In my estimate this was when the Tony of Sadhana Two reached the zenith of his achievement as an East-West healer-and-guru.”
Analysis with an AQAL Approach
Anthony de Mello lived in a multicultural environment which was predominantly Christian and Hindu. According to testimony, he demonstrated a high level of (UL) cognitive intelligence in childhood and also a high level of (LL) interpersonal skills. Thus, at least two of his lines of development probably scored high. Interestingly enough, even from childhood, he manifested his desire to become a priest and, therefore, probably was also born with a high level of latent spirituality and/or his position as the eldest son in the family led him to conceive of a way to fulfill the highest possible expectations. Apparently his (UR) physical constitution was normal although not particularly athletic. His mother must have been around 27 years of age when he was born, a likely ideal age to give birth to an intelligent, healthy child (when his brother Bill was born she was forty, probably having something to do with a less integrated brain structure and a lack of interest for academic learning).
We could say that Anthony was born with a great potential in his spiritual line of development and that life would likely lead him to a natural expression of a level that may have been present in previous lifetimes. We also could say that Anthony’s (LL) cultural milieu was not only steeped in the centuries- old Catholic tradition but also steeped in a strong work ethic since the inhabitants of Goa (a Portuguese colony in those times) such as their immigrant parents were highly estimated by the British rulers of India, not only due to their Christian faith, but by their educated background and by their proficiency in the English language. Near Anthony’s home there was an apparently wholesome school which (if current indications reflect what was like back in Anthony’s time) promoted high values and discipline and may have appeared to young Anthony as a wonderful place to excel and develop. We cannot know for certain but, after the birth of his brother Bill, both of them may have strengthened their opposite psychological characters (Anthony responsible and ruly and Bill less responsible and unruly) in order to differentiate from each other.
The (LR) social situation during Anthony’s childhood would have been agitated because there already were intimations of an incipient revolution for a free India (Mahatma Gandhi was already in action) and because Second World War raged on for part of that period. Maybe (as Bill de Mello lets us know) economic security was an issue that kept everyone alert. Anthony would have also known what it is like to be part of a minority because his family had moved from a Portuguese colony to Bombay which was predominantly populated by Hindus. The need to speak different languages (at least Hindu, English and Portuguese) was also apparent.
We don’t know what may have arisen interiorly for Anthony but we could make a case for validly saying that his innate outgoing characteristics were also assisted by the conjunctive support of reality elements in all quadrants: A healthy brain, an ethical family proselytizing strong spiritual traditions within a well-established culture, a social need to be flexible and multicultural and a nearby adequate –and likely- open-minded school (Jesuits are known for fostering intellectual freedom) that offered rigorous academic training. Anthony himself may have come to his lifetime with a certain level of evolution potentially ready to latch on to any opportunity to unfold but it’s also as if a portion of the Universe as a certain objective, historical time and space had collaborated to assist Spirit to leave a mark in humanity through Anthony. Perhaps (remembering Chogyam Trungpa’s Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism) sometime and somewhere outside and inside human time and space, Anthony had become a “Tathagatha,” having completely “crossed over” in total availability and openness. His lifetime would have been a recapitulation as well as a new phase.
Anthony de Mello’s “Kosmic Address” (altitude + perspective) at the time he joined the Jesuits right after High School, may have been partially Second Tier in that he sincerely wanted to dedicate his life to a universal calling but was nonetheless well-possessed by an amber mental structure. He probably naturally experienced a persistent state of heartfelt openness (an indigo sensibility) which called for being filled in by information from a Second Tier perspective. To me, his incessant curiosity and continuous development in perspectives shows that perspectives themselves gradually caught up with his basic inborn altitude. At the moment of his death most of his being lines of development may have been well into an indigo Second Tier as his ability to find truth in the resolution of paradoxes, his having emptied himself as a vessel for the service of God or Spirit and of others attests. We could affirm that –as a perceiving subject- Anthony’s quadrivia had become quite developed and functioning in harmony later in life. The aspects of reality (quadrivium) that he perceived/disclosed in his “Sadhana Two” phase set him apart from the majority of religious people and he knew that only speaking in apophatic (via negativa) ways he would be able to transmit anything meaningful inspired by his direct spiritual experiences.
Anthony’s intellectual understanding had probably reached a non-dual, post trans- systemic level and his experience or inward-participatory sense of people, God and all of nature (as LL meaningful discourses and LR systemic, mutually needed relations) may have also reached a high level of intuitive understanding. I think that his non-dual altitude was accompanied by an Integral, all-around intuitive perspective which, nonetheless, still held a Green altitude theoretical level in some aspects like psychology. Anthony’s overall high altitude called for a structural understanding and this structural understanding probably also inspired him to soar in higher altitudes.
What would Anthony’s shadow(s) have been like? As far as we can tell he didn’t abuse anyone and he always seemed to be a paragon of virtue and excellence. However, he probably shouted to his sister at an early age. In the biography written by his brother Bill, there’s mention that Anthony “never complained.” This may be indicative of a level of unhealthy self-denial or of a lack of need to complain. I don’t know but it would have been extraordinary. Since Anthony’s relation with his family seems to have been a healthy one we I cannot speculate about an “evolutionary shadow” in this respect. Maybe during his early “Sadhana One” phase and earlier Anthony might have had a “bright” or “emergent” shadow” since he may have been unable to tolerate non- amber theorizing or what may have first appeared to him as openly non-dogmatic points of view. In this I see a possible trend manifesting in that, maybe highly evolved human beings not showing “submergent” shadows will be found to have them in emergent or more refined, less spiritual differentiated, involutionary levels of being. Actually, perhaps the fact that Anthony’s understandings only prospered among a rather small percentage of priests; the fact that his views were censored by the Church and, the fact that he died unexpectedly at a premature age was due to a spiritual manifestation blockage in his most refined inner levels of being. In this levels of being perhaps all human beings on Planet Earth are connected and the “We” relationship that allows or doesn’t allow the influence of a particular person on the whole is directly connected as one with that person’s innermost being.
Anthony de Mello’s specific spiritual practices were practices to become aware of a grander spiritual life through an acceptance of the “still and small voice” of the heart. This can be appreciated in his book Sadhana (which became a classic of contemplative prayer) and in all of his published works. Anything that works to stop the egoic self-mind from blocking the perception of the simple wonder of God’s presence in every aspect of life would have been welcomed by Anthony. Reflections with surprising resolutions, or specific breathing and yoga practices practiced at one’s own pace and aiming at openness and sincerity rather than at methodological perfection would have worked. For instance, in exercise 13 of Sadhana, Anthony asks the practitioner to simply listen to any body sensation without naming it, then to do the same with any sound and then he tells the practitioner that he or she will notice a “great calm,” a “profound silence.” Then, Anthony advices us to focus on this quietude and to experience how good it is simply to be in the here and now without having to do anything; just simply being…being. Later on, he advices the practitioner to feel God in the air, the sounds, the world of the senses, the sensations of touch, to surrender to God.
As previously stated, Anthony’s definition of spirituality came to be “that which succeeds in bringing a person to inner transformation.” This definition allowed for an open-ended large array of methods and, I’m suspicious that Anthony had a kind of Integral Post Metaphysical intuition on this issue. Here he seems to be giving priority to method over definition as he had probably come to see that specific definitions of spirituality evolve over time or are not universally applicable to people from every cultural background. In this way, without apparently having developed an explicit complex theory or Meta theory, Anthony de Mello seems to have demonstrated an intuitive (or perhaps, incipient conceptual) post postmodern understanding about spirituality due to his own profound familiarity with it. I would also say that this intimate familiarity could have stemmed from his lifelong search for radical openness and authenticity, a required feature for spiritual advancement according to Chogyam Trungpa.
I don’t have much information regarding Anthony’s ILP physical (UR) practice. Perhaps they include yoga asanas. Nonetheless, I’m quite certain that he did pray or contemplated in a regular manner. I’m also quite sure that he was an avid learner and that he read regularly. Thus, his (UL) practices were probably quite skillfully developed. We are told that Anthony was a good listener and that he listened to each different person differently, so I suspect that he also intuitively had a regular (LL) hermeneutical practice that included effective means or translation. In terms of practical worldly relations his activities as communicator, as spiritual director and founder of Sadhana Institute and, previously, of the Jesuit seminary in Bombay would have kept him busy with practical business and inter institutional duties. It is also well known that he was heavily influenced by Vipassana and I believe that he didn’t just recommend it but practiced it regularly. In other words, I think that Anthony de Mello had most of his ILP quadrants covered, perhaps with the exception of his (UR) physical quadrant. I just don’t have any information regarding his physical exercises (except perhaps for the possible practice of some yoga exercises) or his diet. As most of us in search of a balanced Integral Life Practice leave out a significant quadratic aspect (due to lack of time or other influential reasons) Anthony may have simply left out an important aspect, which also perhaps led him to an ‘untimely’ death.
I don’t have any specific information regarding Anthony’s aptitude with specifically trained states but suspect that, since he was a ‘master teacher’ in spiritual exercises, he must have been able to sustain some kinds of higher states of consciousness. Actually, I don’t think that he would have been able to live the kind of life he did without being able to rest in some kind of contemplative abstraction. What we know is that he had become proficient in Ignatian practices early in his career, so much so that he seems to have had one or more transformative mystical experiences. I think that, maybe, Anthony had a deep awareness of God along with greater or lesser levels of abstraction from the outer world, but he probably didn’t flaunt about it. Anyhow, he might have been able to sustain levels of self-absorption or “ß as he was familiar with Yoga, Vipassana and self-emptying Contemplation.
The location of Anthony’s faith community on the “conveyor belt” would probably be in a special situation within the Roman Catholic Church since Jesuits in general (especially after the Vatican II Council) had become like the intellectual, “free thinkers.” His more local community was also positioned in the middle of India’s great religiosity and transcendental ethos thus being stimulated by LL and LR forces to create a more attractive, understandable and ecumenical approach which naturally re-emphasized some kind of direct, experiential mysticism. The superiors of the Society of Jesus defended themselves and their spiritual-religious, Mid-Asian ways.
I think that Anthony de Mello’s faith community was so well settled in modern, rational outlooks and methods that it was ripe for post-rational explorations, especially in the multicultural setting of India. I believe that –generally speaking- this community is still vying to move forward amber structures and awarenesses in today’s world and that, perhaps one day along with the contributions of other pioneering elements in their church (elements quite at home with free thought and with contemplative prayer), the church will be eventually lead by a splitting and less exclusivist, unimaginative and rigid faction.
Anthony de Mello is an example of an enlightened man who offered his life to serve Spirit and mankind in the milieu available to him. We don’t know why a person becomes likes this. He might have been born with the propensity. He may have been chosen. However, a spiritual experienced did hold a transformative sway in his life. His life will serve as an example for many of us today trying to ignite an integral civilization. It will serve future efforts aimed at recreating the relationship between man, religion and spirituality in an integral way. Anthony displayed –perhaps in an intuitive and/or conscious way- not only many of the characteristics of a universal, wise man but of a radically genuine Integral or Second Tier person. His understanding surpassed his era’s and his openness probably taught us that those possessed of a loving heart and a particularly developed spiritual line can overcome many cultural and structural deficiencies in their societies and rise to be pioneering representatives of a truly Integral stage.
Bárcena, Elcira Díaz (date unknown). Biografía de Tony de Mello SJ. Retrieved from: http://www.geocities.com/tony_de_mello/index.html
DeMello, Bill (circa 1989). Tony deMello, SJ –a short biography. Retrieved from: http://users.tpg.com.au/adsligol/tony/index.ht
Q: Let me begin by inviting you to sum up, if you would, the central idea of The Future of Faith.
A: Let’s say it’s a tripartite thesis in this book. One is that the resurgence of religion around the world and the various religious traditions, which is unexpected, global—there were people who were predicting the marginalization and even disappearance of religion in my early years as a teacher. That disappearance, marginalization, didn’t happen, and in various religious traditions, almost all of them, there’s been a resurgence for complicated reasons. I do not think that is a mere transient phenomenon. I think it’s a basic change in the nature of our civilization, that it will continue, and so, therefore, programs like this one probably have a future. You deal with religion and ethics. The second part of the thesis, however, is that fundamentalisms, I use the word in the plural, which have often been associated with this resurgence of religion, at least in the popular mind, are on the decline. I do not think that they’re going to last out much longer. It’s a recent phenomenon, began in the early 20th century and has appeared in various different religious traditions, always as a kind of a reaction against something that’s going on in that tradition. They claim to be very traditional, but they’re not. It’s really a modern movement, and I think there’s evidence that, in every one of the religions, they are on the decline. The third part of the thesis, and I think it’s one of the most important, not the central part, is that we’re seeing a change in what I call the nature of religiousness, that what it means to be a religious person, or frequently now people will say a spiritual person, they have some questions, occasionally, or often, about the word “religion.” We’re seeing a fundamental change there so that it means something now different than it did 50 or 100 years ago, to say nothing of 500 years ago. And that’s the main thesis of the book. It’s a a mixture of some of the things we’re talking about here as well as some autobiographical illustrations—my experience with liberation theologians, my experience with Pentecostals, with the Catholic Church, in fact with the present pope, and also my early years of formation in a Baptist evangelical congregation. I think it’s important when people are reading about issues as important as this that they know something about where I’m coming from when I’m saying these things and what life experiences have led me to make the kind of statements that I have here.
Q: So how is it changing? Tell me what the elements are of this new thing that you see.
A: For Christianity, in particular, to single it out among the various world religions, there’s a movement away from a more belief-and-doctrinal formulation of religion into a more experiential, practical, you might even say pragmatic understanding: How do I get through the day? How do I get through my life? What resources do I have—spiritual resources? There’s a very distinct move in that direction away, from hierarchical kinds of structures in religion toward a more egalitarian form of religious organization. I think the major evidence for that is the enormously new and important role that women are playing which they didn’t play 50 years ago, and there are other evidences for this egalitarian tendency.
Q: Let me take you back to the emphasis on faith and the movement of the spirit and the presence of the spirit in people’s lives, or the hope for it, and contrast that to 1,500 years in which beliefs and doctrines were primary.
A: I contend in this book that for roughly the first 300 years, early Christianity was a faith movement. They didn’t have creeds until the early fourth century, until Constantine. They didn’t have hierarchies. There was enormous variety of different expressions of Christianity which we’re now uncovering, with the different scrolls that are found, have been there all that time. Then, around the early fourth century, with Constantine in particular, there was a massive movement toward hierarchy, a clerical elite, and a creed. Now remember that the creed was insisted upon by the emperor. Not by the bishops, not by the pope. He wanted a creed so he had a uniform expression of Christianity as an imperial project. He wanted something that would bring the empire together. Now it didn’t work that well for him. Nonetheless, I think the creedal understanding, that is, the rather doctrinal and hierarchical understanding, goes back to that very, very unfortunate term under Constantine, which then set the pattern for the next centuries. Now we’re in a new phase in which that is no longer the case, a third phase.
Q: Define for me, if you would, just what are the principle components of this turn toward emphasis on faith?
A: I call it an age of the spirit, with the age of faith in those early years, and then the age of belief, and now this movement toward an age of the spirit, because the spirit indicates, at least in Christian history, the personal, communal, even subjective element as opposed to the hierarchical and doctrinal element in Christianity, and that’s where everything is moving, I think, clearly. The fastest growing movement in Christianity today is the Pentecostal charismatic expression of Christianity—vast variety of them. Nonetheless, what they have in common is an enormous emphasis on community and spirit and experience, and that’s drawing a lot of people away from these previous forms.
Q: Why do you think that is? I mean, why is there this emphasis on the spirit now, as opposed to creeds and beliefs?
A: Well, I think that, given the fact that we are often deprived, in modern technical society, of very much chance for deep, personal experience—we pass each other by in elevators—the yearning for some kind of personal experience, even the yearning for some kind of let’s call it an ecstatic encounter with God or with the divine is there, and the Pentecostals offer this, and they offer it in a community where people support and take care of each other, where there’s also healing. A lot of people are drawn in by the healing. So I think it combines elements that have an enormous appeal. It has no hierarchies. That’s why it branches out in so many different directions.
Q: But you have said that this is not just among Pentecostals, that this movement of the spirit, this emphasis on the spirit, is very broad.
A: It is very broad. I think in the mainline Protestant churches and the Catholic Church the emphasis on community and experience, and also the language of the spirit—and one of the favorite ways for women theologians and ministers now to refer to God is using the language of spirit, because the traditional language of the sovereign God and so on seems, and is, rather hierarchical and masculine.
Q: People have said when they’re referring to this experiential part of the heart it is often described as the heart versus the head—that for a religion to be healthy, it has to have both the spirit and some kind of structure, creeds, or beliefs, to hang all the rest of the feelings on.
A: I agree with that completely, and I think what we’re seeing now is a compensation for centuries in which the main emphasis was on doctrinal assent, hierarchical control suspicious of laity and lay movements, and now we’re seeing a kind of reaction to that, if you will, which inevitably is going to have to find some balance. I study the Pentecostal movement pretty carefully. The younger Pentecostals now are saying, “Hey, we ought to deal with the head a little bit here, too, you know,” some doctrinal or philosophical basis. So you’re noticing that, and they’ll work on that, as well. But what it is is really a complementary movement.
Q: I was particularly interested in your idea that the so-called apostolic succession after Jesus wasn’t something that right back to his giving the keys of the kingdom to St. Peter, but it was something that was created by human beings some centuries later, and I’m wondering if you could describe how that happened and then tell me, particularly, how you think that affects the authority of the Catholic Church.
A: Well, I think the evidence is now in that the whole idea of apostolic authority, apostolic succession, came in much later, let’s say in the 200s and 300s, when Christianity was growing and people were looking around for some way to assert, especially the early bishops, their own authority, and you can see this emerging. The bishops would say, “Well, I go back to Matthew” or “I go back to Peter,” and they would even construct or write gospels and statements that were really—we would call them forgeries. They didn’t have that term in those days. And the interesting thing now is we’re beginning to find these things. You know, that whole stash of documents in Nag Hammadi, the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Peter, and all those things, which are late. They’re not early. They’re not the apostles doing that. But it was an invention. It was an invention to secure the authority of the church leaders who needed to have some kind of historical backing. I think it means a rather serious rethinking of the basis on which churches that claim the apostolic authority continue to assert their authority. Now, whether they are going to do that or not is another whole question. But when you find out that the historical basis for this is a little shaky, does that affect the way you exercise authority today? I think it should.
Q: Not only how you exercise it, but how the rest of us look at it. Does the scholarship you refer to undermine the authority of the Catholic Church?
A: Well, yes. I think it does. You know, there was a document around just about the time of the Renaissance called the Donation of Constantine. You may have heard of it, and it was supposed to be a document by which Constantine gave a lot of the property in central Italy to the church, and they used that to claim the church’s sovereignty over that. It was proven to be a forgery, and the Catholic Church made the adjustment, and eventually they gave up, many years later, secular sovereignty over central Italy and in some ways the moral authority of the pope became greater after he didn’t also have to be a secular sovereign. I think the Catholic Church can adjust to this quite well, and maybe it’s a very good thing that they have this coming. Now, I don’t know. I’ll be interested to watch, but they have to deal with the fact that the early historical grounding for apostolic succession is really no longer held by most scholars.
Q: In 1965, you published a book called The Secular City in which you thought that the role of religion in modern city life was becoming pretty less important than it had been, and some people said you were wrong about that assertion.
A: The original title of that book was God in the Secular City. Most people don’t know that, and the thesis of the book was the decline of institutional religion should not be viewed as a catastrophe, because God is not just present in religious institutions. God is present in all of creation, in other kinds of movements and institutions and to be discerned, presence of God to be discerned there and responded to. The publisher said no “God in the Secular.” It’s too complicated. Let’s just call it The Secular City. So I’ve lived with that title now for—that was 44 years ago, and I have learned a few things since then. I wouldn’t swear by every sentence in that book. Nonetheless, the central thesis of the presence of God in all of creation and historical institutions, culture, and politics and family I would certainly hold to enthusiastically and say that what I say in this book is the decline of creedal Christianity and hierarchical Christianity is also not a catastrophe. Maybe it points to a really important renewal of facets of Christianity that have been repressed over many, many years. I think it does.
Q: What are the implications of an age of the spirit for everybody who’s religious?
A: Well, I think it means, among other things, that we’ll be seeing, and should be welcoming and affirming, a much wider range of expressions of Christianity. I’ve often been thought of as normative over these 1,500 years of what I call Constantinian Christianity. We see it happening frequently, now, all around the world, especially since Christianity is no longer a western religion. That’s a central and important change in the composition of the Christian world—dates back to only about 20, 25 years. The majority of Christians in the world are no longer in the old steer of Christendom in which Constantinianism was the rule. So we see all kinds of very interesting new theological and liturgical and ethical movements emerging, often around what we used to think of as the periphery. But it’s not the periphery anymore.
Q: And what are the implications of that for the influence of religious life?
A: Oh, I think the influence of religious life is continuing. Not necessarily institutional, hierarchical religious life, but the influence of people who are religiously informed and inspired and supported in communities, working in various kinds of even nonreligious structures and movements. I think that’s on the increase and will continue to be.
Q: The spread of this kind of emotional Christianity throughout the southern part of the world—what do you think that implies for the future of Christian practice in the United States?
A: You know, the term “emotional” doesn’t quite do it. I would prefer personal, experiential. Emotion is part of that, but the experience of community and hope and of affirmation is part of it, too, but they are experiences. I think it’s already having its impact. Somebody has talked recently about the reverse missionary movement of Christians coming from South America, or especially Korea, into the United States and influencing American—or Africa, most recently, African religious movements coming in and influencing American Christianity. I think that’s really going to be a big development in the future.
Q: Influencing it in what ways?
A: Well, toward a more communal and more experiential direction, largely. There may be other influences as well, but I think that’s mainly the way it will influence.
Q: In your teaching and writing career, you’ve been well known as someone wit an uncanny ability to spot new developments in religious life. One of them, certainly, was liberation theology.
A: Liberation theology emerged in Latin America as a way of understanding Christianity, a new way of understanding it from the perspective of those who had been excluded and not part of the clerical elite or the theological elite. They talked about the preferential option for the poor—not just doing something for the poor, but helping the poor to understand the claims they can make on the basis of the gospel. I have a chapter in the book on that as illustrative, precisely of this movement away from the control of hierarchies and creeds, because the basic structure of liberation theology, or what they call the ecclesial base communities, small groups of people, tens of thousands of them, all over Latin America and in other places, getting together, sharing, reading, sharing food, singing, studying biblical texts and thinking about how that would apply in their own lives, and it made, and continues to make, a very significant impact not just on that continent and not just among Catholics. It’s going strong, especially among people who had their first experience within these base communities and are now in other kinds of institutions, especially political, and journalism and education and things like that. That’s where its impact is being felt at this point.
Q: We talked about Pentecostalism a little bit. What are the real implications of that for us?
A: The most important development in the world Pentecostal movement is a movement toward social ministries. They didn’t used to be interested in that in their early years. They were really very much fixed on “my own experience” and, really, getting to heaven. There’s a recent book on Pentecostalism in which the author has coined the term progressive Pentecostalism. They went around and studied congregations all over the world, especially in the nonwestern world, and found that the ones that were involved in community service, in clinics, in hospitals and schools and all of that mainly were Pentecostal and charismatic churches. And they said this is the major trend now. This is what’s happening. So this combination of social ministry and experiential worship is a dynamite combination, and I think that is really going to be influential on North American and, eventually, even European Christianity, which, we all know, needs kind of an injection of life at this point, and it could happen there as well.
Q: Why did the mainline Protestants suffer such a decline over the last 20, 30 years?
A: Well, I think one of the reasons is the mainline churches did allow themselves to drift toward a more hierarchical, less communitarian structure—away from where they were, let’s say, 50 years ago. People need to have a sense of belonging, and that wasn’t there. It was a little bit too audience-oriented: There’s the pulpit there, and here’s the congregation and a choir performing for—now the Pentecostals: everybody sings. Everybody testifies. Jimmy Durante used to say, “Everybody gets into the act,” and it’s richly participatory—if you want to be a participant.
Q: I’ve heard it argued that they became too intellectual and not enough spirit.
A: I think that’s another way of saying the same thing. The clergy—and I take some responsibility for this, having been involved in it for over 40 years—was trained in Christian thought, Christian philosophy, Christian theology, how you deal with the problem of the modern world and all of this, you know, and not enough in how to nurture the experience of God, the experience of the spirit and encounter with Christ, and so the churches which have brought that back in, I think, are finding that it appeals to people.
Q: And what about the place today of what we call the religious right?
A: By religious right I think of a particular political expression of conservative evangelical Christianity, and I think that movement, if it indeed ever was a movement, is now divided and declining in many ways. The agenda used to be driven by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and a couple other people. That whole generation is now either dead or really gone, in one way or another, and you have a whole variety of people now in the evangelical community, and they have a political agenda which is far more diverse. I mean, you think of the evangelicals for ecological causes, or the ones who got together to sign the petition against torture, and the opposition to the war in Iraq, where a lot of evangelicals became involved. I don’t consider that a religious right. I consider that religious involvement in the public sphere, which they ought to be doing. I mean, as Christians and as citizens, you ought to be involved. But I think the last couple of presidential elections and by-elections have exposed the religious right as really kind of being, in part, a paper tiger. They just didn’t produce the votes. They were really kind of angry—the fact that they didn’t get a Republican nominee that suited their profile. And I think they’re in considerable disarray, and frankly I’m not mourning over that.
Q: Let me ask you to look around the country and size up what you see going on there. A lot of people think that there’s been a rise of selfishness that perhaps was of basic reason for what happened to Wall Street, what happened with sub-prime mortgages and in other parts of life. What do you see as the problems in this society right now? We’ll get to religion’s role. What’s wrong?
A: It’s the best of times and the worst of times, I think, and I’ll explain that in a minute. But there is no doubt that a rampant culture of market and consumer values really has a grip on many people in America, and therefore accumulating, getting things, getting ahead is for many kind of a principle life goal. I’m told we work harder in America than any country in the world. Productivity is up. But everybody seems to be driven by, especially, the lure of advertising, which says, “You ought to have this. You really need this. You owe it to yourself to have this and that,” and therefore mounting credit card debt, and these people who buy houses on mortgages that they’re not going to be able to afford. I think the role of religion at this point is to make very clear that this structure of values, of consumer values is not coherent with Christianity, with the gospel, with the life and example of Jesus. That’s not what he was talking about at all, so we in the religious community need to take a much more critical, even confrontational, role about this, I think, than we have in the past. There have been moments in the history of American Christianity in which there has been a more confrontational role between Christian values and the values of consumer society. Reinhold Niebuhr, one of my great teachers, was really a great spokesman for that, But that seems to have faded out as the churches have largely simply adjusted to this, even taken over some of those kinds of advertising techniques and consumerist values. But I think we have to get tougher about that and really remind people that this is not what we mean by a Christian way of living.
Q: There is what’s called a prosperity gospel, and lots of ministers preach that God will reward you with everything you want.
A: Yeah. Can you imagine that kind of sermon coming from the mouth of Jesus himself? No. I mean, it’s a rank contradiction, the prosperity gospel. When Jesus says blessed are those who serve and have compassion on the poor, beware of riches, it’s very hard to get into the kingdom of God—passage after passage. It’s right there. You don’t have to look very far for it. The contrast is quite stark, and yet you’re right. There are ministers and preachers who pick up on this prosperity gospel, promise this to people, and I think it’s really, let’s call it by its name, it’s a heresy and needs to be pointed out as such.
Q: You spoke about religious leaders needing to stand up to consumerism. What do you want the churches to do?
A: Well, I think it does start with the ministers and priests in the pulpit, with the congregations, and then I think churches have to speak publicly, and some of them have, about the dangers to the soul of consumerist values, the lethal danger that the accumulationist light poses for you spiritually. There has to be more of that, which is really quite the opposite of the prosperity gospel. I said this is the best of times and the worst of times. I notice increasingly among my students, both undergraduates and students in the divinity school, a deep suspicion of this life of accumulating, consuming, and a realization that a truly spiritual life is going to be more simple and more oriented toward building community rather than competition with the other guy to see who gets ahead. It’s a canard about all young people, that they’re all “me first,” “I first” oriented. I don’t think that’s true. There are many who are. But let me tell you that the urge to graduate from college, like this one, and immediately go down to a Wall Street investment firm is greatly shrunken this year from what it was last year. We’re learning something from this—that this is not only economically, but spiritually a dangerous way to think of your life. I think there’s real hope in a younger generation coming along with that viewpoint.
Q: You’ve been teaching here for 44 years, since ’65. You’ve seen a lot, you’ve written a lot, you’ve studied a lot, you’ve taught a lot. What are the most important things you’ve learned?
A: I have learned how to think about Christianity as one of the possible symbolic ways to approach reality, among others. I used to think of other world religions as kind of exotic, and they’re out there, and they’re kind of curiosities. Now I have made a big adjustment, I think, in my life, and many people are, to say this is the way we see it. Other people see it other ways. This doesn’t invalidate, at all, our way of understanding reality. Rather, we have to look for the common threads, common values, and with these other folks, with Hindus or Buddhists or Muslims, even secular people. That is how to live with radical pluralism. The other big change that I’ve seen is the enormous growth in the hunger and interest in religion and spirituality among students at this university. It’s phenomenal. When I first came here, we didn’t even have a religious studies program at Harvard College. Didn’t exist. We had a very small divinity school. Since then, we have a religious studies program. We can’t add enough courses to respond to all the interest. Furthermore, if you clocked how many students here, on any given weekend, are worshipping, one way or another either at a church or a synagogue or a mosque or Memorial Church, there are more now than probably in the history of the college—a vast variety of ways of worshipping, and being spiritual, religious. It’s not singular. But—there it is. And I think they’re very interested. It’s intellectual curiosity. It’s also personal quest. And we have a responsibility, I think, to help them with that. I’m talking about the students now. But I think it’s also true in the public at large, maybe especially in the younger cohorts of the public at large.
Q: On this question of being open to the wisdom in lots of other religious traditions: If a Christian says, well, I’m a Christian, but of course that’s just one way among many others, what does that do to that person’s confidence and passion about his own faith?
A: Well, it requires a transitioning. It requires a maturation. I think we all grow up with serving ourselves, the center of the world. Then we learn that there are other centers gradually. Not only do I not think it diminishes the validity or power of the faith, in some ways I think it enriches it. I wrote a book about this some years ago called Many Mansions. You know, Jesus says at one point, “In my father’s house there are many mansions.” I would even argue that the plurality of religions in the world is a check on any one of them, including ours, not to get too pretentious and think that we have the whole truth. One of the most dangerous things in any religion is to identify my understanding of the truth, my take on it, with the truth itself. The truth itself is something out there, it’s absolute, but my take on it is relative. Otherwise, I’m guilty of the sin of pride. I mean, I identify my view with God’s view. God is larger than this. God is much larger than any particular understanding of God.
Q: So I can be just as faithful, I can be just as active. I can be just as convinced of the importance of what I’m doing with my life if I say mine is just one tradition among many others?
A: Some of the most faithful and zealous Christians I’ve run into in the last 20 years traveling around the world are precisely those Christians who are living in India, Korea, China, Indonesia, Africa where they are surrounded by people of other religions. It has not in any way diminished how they feel, or their faith. They believe that they have unique contribution to make. It’s different from these other. But it hasn’t diminished it at all. In fact, in many ways it’s enhanced it. And I have a feeling that’s the way it’s going to go.
Q: You are an American Baptist married to a Jewish woman. You have one son by that marriage, and I think a lot of people would be interested in how you accomplish the religious education of your son when the mother is Jewish and you are Protestant?
A: Well, as you can imagine, my wife, Nina, and I talked about this a lot before we were married. We did not want our marriage to be one of these religion-free zones. She’s a serious, practicing Jewish woman. I’m a serious Christian. And we decided that what we would do was to try to learn about and participate in each other’s traditions to the extent that conscience permits. And so that’s what we’ve done. And we also decided before that I would respect the Jewish custom, and indeed Jewish law, that the child of a Jewish woman is Jewish and should be raised with that understanding of himself or herself. And I said, “Look, I agree with this. I endorse it—on one condition: that I also, maybe mainly me, will be responsible for his religious education and formation.” And I was. When he had his bar mitzvah, she’s the one who sent out the invitations and prepared the reception. I was the one who prepared him in studying his Torah passage, and he gave a wonderful exposition of his Torah passage at the bar mitzvah. Now I have to say that, of course, as the son of a Protestant Christian theologian, he got very interested in Christianity and is, I would say, very sympathetic to it and has studied, at Princeton, early Christianity and some recent thought. He’s interested in the phenomenon of religion at large. But he considers himself Jewish, with this interest in religion in general and Christianity, of course, as his father’s particular way of life. So we think it worked out very satisfactorily. Both of us are quite pleased with the way it’s gone. And when I am asked by people about this, “What would you have done if you were Jewish and you’re marrying a non-Jewish woman?” I don’t know. That’s a theoretical question, because the child would not then, by Jewish custom and law, have been Jewish. That would have to be negotiated otherwise. But that’s the way we did it and are continuing to do it. We mark the Sabbath every week, with the lighting of candles and prayers. I go to the Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur. She comes with me to various Christian festivals, as does Nicholas. We have successfully shared in each other’s spiritual traditions, I think, and it can be done, and it’s also very enriching. I mean, I really believe that I understand Christianity better for having participated in Jewish life—and remember, Jesus was a rabbi—than I would have if I hadn’t done that.
Q: How do you pray? What are your practices? How do you attend to these things through the day? A: I start the day with a prayer, just turning the day over to God, thanking God for this day. We have prayers at all of our meals, a mixture of Jewish prayers and Christian prayers, depending on how we feel. We mark the Sabbath. I have told my friends I’m in search of the perfect congregation. I haven’t found it yet. So I’m one of those people who bounces from one congregation to—I’m somewhere every week, but I go back and forth between the Baptist church which I belong to here, and an Episcopal church in our neighborhood, a black Pentecostal church, and sometimes Memorial Church, the university church here, and I get something from all of them. I feel a little guilty that I’m not sort of committing completely to one of them. But that’s how I do it.
Q: You have the reputation of being a pretty staunch liberal theologically and in every way. Is that fair, or has it changed at all over the years?
A: I’m a chastened liberal, as they say, both theologically and politically. I have been greatly enriched in my fairly liberal understanding of Christianity by my evangelical boyhood, by very significant experiences among Catholics, especially liberation theologians, and others, by my experience with Pentecostals. So I’m an unusual kind of liberal in that—maybe that’s what a liberal should be, one who can affirm and learn from a lot of different sources. But I suppose the label is still a useful one, yeah, and not one to be shied away from.
Q: Have you become more committed to that position as the years have gone by?
A: More committed to the position of being open to learning from various sources? Yes, yes, I have. I started early with that, and it’s really kind of a hallmark of who I am. I think you have to be anchored, though, and I’m really pretty anchored in a form of Protestant Free Church Christianity. That’s pretty secure. That allows me, then, to be open to think other things that I can participate in without feeling that I’m floating away. I have something secure as an anchor.