When I met Trey (a fabricated name) at contemplative prayer, I shared that I had written two books on apologetics. He skipped past my contributions, asking whether I had read his favorite writer on the topic. I simply shrugged and countered:
My perspective is grounded in unusual experiences.
Most popular Christian writing focuses on the theology of redemption or the experience of healing. I cannot claim to have been threatened seriously with destruction by sin – either in my own weakness or as prey to others. I was raised in a white, upper-middle-class community by a brilliant father and a mother committed to saintly service. The household had its issues, but they were issues that reflected the opportunity to negotiate choices, not the pressures of fear and want.
When my mother and I were discussing the psychological challenges facing her grandchildren, I observed:
We were a household of children raised by strong and caring parents. We spent our formative years struggling for influence over one another. It was only very recently that I realized how powerful my will had become, and so to appreciate how hard others had to work to maintain their autonomy.
The characteristic attitude of my childhood was an awed gratitude for the past. The most representative memory is standing with one foot on the sidewalk below the school, staring at the seam between the asphalt and concrete, and realizing that many people had invested their energies in manifesting this magical conduit that guided cars, people and water, each in their proper places. But my gratitude also kept me in reading my history books long after my siblings had gone out to play.
We were a Catholic family until I graduated from elementary school. I attended St. John Fisher in first grade, the strongest memory of which is kneeling for communion near the angry cross, and wondering why people worshipped that kind of God. I was consoled by the Catholic Children’s Bible, which I read in second grade. I found the Old Testament to be suspiciously like the Celtic and Norse myths that my elder sister brought home from the library, but the New Testament was an attractive promise of healing for the world. My father, unfortunately, could not reconcile the science of the day with Christian theology, and his critical analysis of faith eventually tore the entire family away from the Church – with the notable exception of my younger sister.
Faith was replaced by secular ethics. The foundation was gained in Church: our parish was a liberal Vatican Two congregation with an active lay membership. My parents were active in Democratic politics and the Civil Rights movement. Cub Scouts also provided a grounding in service to others, with weekly paper and bottle drives organized in collaboration with the Boy Scouts.
Unfortunately, it was clear that my peers were intimidated by me. I was aware that my intelligence separated me from others, and it was a tool that I applied forcefully to understanding of the world. Paradoxically, it was also the engine, powered by my father’s skepticism, that kept me from recognizing the silent voices calling out to me in my childhood. The closest encounter was on my first Jamboree. The other boys went off to make friends, but I found myself wandering on the paths above the campground, drenched in the peacefulness of the trees and brush, until a scout in my patrol ran up to warn that I needed to follow the buddy system, and dragged me back to camp.
With mature perceptions, today I recognize how my elders used my calming dispassion. For myself, I was far too busy trying to figure out how the world worked to think much about the impact I had on my peers. I studied physics in college because it was the most fundamental of the sciences, but in the rich social and political environment of UC Berkeley, I could not avoid the understanding that morality and politics determined the ends to which power was turned. I absorbed the popular ethics of the day, reading F. Scott Peck and Rollo May, supplemented by Foreign Affairs and the Christian Science Monitor.
There were a few signs of the impact my devotion had on those that managed to get close to me. After discussion section one afternoon, I followed the professor and my friend Peter up the hill toward the Campanile, thinking about how wonderful it was to have people like them in my life. They had moved ahead twenty feet, talking seriously. I was moved by a great joy. They stopped, looked at each other, and turned bemused smiles to me.