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Francis X. Clooney, S.J.December 04, 2010

Cambridge, MA. This is a hectic time of the academic year, as classes end and papers are due, and as other school business gets wrapped up before the winter/Christmas break; and of course, life goes on, so there are always other preoccupations as well. But in the midst of it all, earlier this week I had a three-day sojourn at the Esalen Institute, near Big Sur on the California coast. It is a spectacularly beautiful setting, right by the ocean and beneath what was a perfectly clear sky; the Milky Way was so very present and bright, sweeping across the night sky.

And of course, Esalen is famous, and has been since the 1960s, as a kind of new-age spa, a place for integral learning, crossings of the mind-body-soul boundaries, and experiments in the spiritual quest. From accounts given while I was visiting, it seems like every famous figure of the counter-culture came and played, performed, celebrated at Esalen at one time or another. Now almost 50 years old, it seems to have reached a settled middle-age, less edgy and experimental than its history records — though on any given day the rustic dining room seems to hold young-old men and women who might well have been there since the 1960s… (For the best current study of Esalen, see Jeffrey Kripal's Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion.)

There are famed hot tubs (with water flowing in from hot natural springs) and expert masseurs, but alas, I had no time even to dip a toe in the waters, since I was there for a rather crammed three-day conference on panentheism, the theological/philosophical/spiritual view that God is in all, and all in God. This is not quite the same as theism, holding the idea of a God beyond and separate from the world, nor pantheism, which may be taken (here) as the idea that the world is the divine. Proponents of panentheism in the West are taken to range from great mystics such as Dionysius and Eckhart to Romantic poets and process philosophers such as Alfred North Whitehead. Similarly, Buddhist, Hindu, Sufi teachers are often classed as panentheist.

Ours was an academic conference highlighting reflection on the topic from the perspectives of many different religious traditions, with a variety of expert scholars in attendance. (My paper, drawing mostly on south Indian Vaisnava Hinduism, dealt with the dramatics of the divine-human relationship – intense oneness in tension with moments of absence, the unpredictable interplay of God and self seeking one another in passionate love; I added some comparative reflections with Christian theology at the end, and as an instance of Christian panentheism cited Galatians 2: "For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.") But since all this happened at Esalen, there was an undercurrent flowing under our conversation that made me think other thoughts as well.

First, panentheism seems to mark for many people, including Esalen staff and some of the visiting professors too, a way beyond the narrow, dry, and too-strict categories of traditional religions. It seems that for many, theism suggests a God removed and distant from the world, while pantheism obliterates the distinctions between the divine and the world. Panentheism is then taken as standing in-between, revitalizing the energies of God-in-yet-beyond-the-world, while also validating the world, and living beings, as God and not-God at the same time. It is, some think, real progress beyond the limits of all traditional religions, and the best theology for the emerging world of the new scientific-religious synthesis. Second, the practical corollary is that many of those around Esalen are former Christians, or perhaps Christians-plus; and many of these were Catholics at one point, but have moved on, into the agile sphere of a post-Catholic spiritual identity.

So it was a challenge, being there as a Catholic, priest, Jesuit. (No, I did not wear a Roman collar, but yes, everyone knew who/what I am.) I participated as a scholar of Hinduism and comparativist, yet also had to be present as one of the tradition-faithful persons in the room, and as the practicing Catholic. I think I was able to elude two obvious temptations: on the one side, to go easily post-religious for a few days, as if there were no bonds between me and the Church; on the other, to smile smugly to myself about how “we” have answers to all the questions that were being asked, or as if there could be no conceivable reason why people might be inclined to move beyond the Church and Christianity. The challenge at this conference and of Esalen itself – and of many of the other places where we work, teach, socialize – is twofold: First, an examination of conscience doesn’t hurt; we can ask how it is that so many find the Church lacking theologically and spiritually, and how it is that they then find rich and deep religious lives in new-age and panentheistic spaces, or within the bounds of other religious traditions. We may not actually know good answers to such questions, but we are bound to ask them. And it is certain that no good is achieved by a sour or prudish disapproval of experimentation.

So what might be a deeper Catholic way of engaging this pervasive dissatisfaction with exclusive hierarchies, religions-without-spirituality, lack of integration between body and soul, pleasure and asceticism? During the nearly last session, I ventured to say that while I respect the search for a divine-human dynamic that avoids the suffocation of spirit or denial of body, I’d always been guided by a sense that the Trinity — God beyond the world as its source, God incarnate, God infusing all reality with divine presence — captures this dynamic of panentheism in a powerful way. I added that I’ve always found that the tension between Catholic (the Church, community, tradition) and catholic (the boundary-crossing, universal, incarnate, both-secular-and-religious) has helped many of us to create, if not an Esalen, nevertheless real spaces in which to celebrate the mysteries of this world as well as the next.

But saying such words is not enough; are we as a community ready to show how catholic Catholics can keep soul and body together and find God in unexpected places, without serenely floating away from the Church?

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PJ Johnston
12 years 2 months ago
I think you're definitely on to something.  You might be able to connect it somehow to the conflict between Newman and Kingsley on casuistry - the harsh Anglo-Saxon Kingsley thinking people should say exactly what they mean and mean exactly what they say, with the alternative being deceptive, decadent, and (of course) typically continental.  The very same theology in the hands of Latins may be reasonable, and in the hands of Anglo-Saxons an inflexible fundamentalist ideology - worth exploring!
12 years 2 months ago
I'm sorry to be blunt, PJ; however, the Church is not about fitting your needs and adjusting to your subjective theological perspectives.  This is not a personalized shopping experience - there is authority from God through Christ and all must submit to this authority as Christ did.

You sound like a liberal professor, so you should read up on Moral Theraputic Deism, as you seem to be a perfect representitive of this solipsistic trend that is dominating baby-boomers and some of their children.


12 years 2 months ago
PS - to be truly "counter-cultural" today is to be against the culture that promotes rabid individualism, homosexuality, pornography, abortion (all in the name of "freedom")

Those in the church that wish to make the church more modern are not "counter cultural," they are purely liberal bourgeoisie.
PJ Johnston
12 years 2 months ago
I'd swear there's a script that circulates in conservative Christian circles, especially over at First Things - some Christian appears to have liberal views on (insert issue here:  usually something to do with gender/sexuality), ergo they must be a Baby Boomer and/or a liberal professor, so now I am free to invoke all the stereotypes I've been taught to use about Baby Boomers (solipsistic, relativistic, hedonistic, self-indulgent, etc.) with the hope that one or more of them might stick.  Let the verbal barrage begin, and hopefully it will cause enough pain that the offending party will shut up or leave.  That's my experience of Christianity in a nutshell.

I've read about the Moral Therapeutic Deism label and I've previously written about it elsewhere.  It's nothing more than a bunch of neo-con Christians finding cultural tendencies they find objectionable and putting a label on them to marginalize the phenomenon from mainstream theological discourse without actually having to have deal with the concerns of Christians who don't fit their particular agenda in a substantial way.  Christianity inculcurates differently wherever it takes up residence, so it should be neither surprising nor objectionable that there should be a particular understanding of Christianity and the Gospel prevalent in a culture or subculture and that this will be different from other incarnations of Christianity.  The Moral Therapeutic Deism label is just a relatively sophisticated way for a particular group of Christians to say "Your inculturation of Christianity isn't really Christianity, but ours is."

Jesus fairly consistently subverts authority in the Gospels and always puts people before ideology.  It'd be a good example for Christians to follow.  But Jesus would probably get accused of being a liberal intellectual who fosters Moral Therapeutic Deism for putting human needs first.
PJ Johnston
12 years 2 months ago
PS:  Fr. Clooney, you've got your answer why some (many?) people of a liberal and/or New Age persuasion leave Christianity for alternative religions, though there are probably other reasons too.  The mini-conversation with Brett Joyce is a carbon-copy replica of what eventually has happened in any sustained conversation I've had Christians (theologically-trained or otherwise) since I was a teenager in which I've tried to forcefully and unapologetically assert liberal values.  I would strongly recommend Putnam and Campbell's "American Grace," which argues that as a result of the evangelical take-over of Protestantism and the growing cnservativism of the Roman Catholic Church, the strongest statistical predictor of someone in the Gen X/Gen Y age groups leaving Christianity is social liberalism.  There is a lot of pressure put on people who don't fit the liberal/secular vs. conservative/Christian construction of Christianity that prevails culturally at present to reassign themselves to the religious camp that corresponds to their social and political opinions.
12 years 2 months ago
Yes, yes, we have all had this conversation on here before PJ and I am as bored with it as you are (hence the short reply).  I assumed you were a prof only because you said something about students and were rather wordy.

That said, I am simply responding to the information you put forward in your post - i.e. "forcefully and unapologetically assert liberal values."  I am simply pointing out the fact that you are pushing a particular world view that is really antithetical to the Body of Christ.  "liberal values" are values of the traditional secular thinkers such as Locke, Hobbes, Decartes, Bacon etc. etc.  who (basically) saw the individual as atomized or connected only by self-interest. 

Throw in a bit of Freud and modern psychologists and you have Moral Theraputic Deism - where religion is ordered only on boost the individuals self-esteem and coping mechanisms - and should serve this utilitarian purpose.  God should fit your particular world-view and values rather than bending your autonomy and ideology to the Truth of God.

Finally, liberal love to show Christ as a "counter-cultural" figure; however, this is not the case as He came to fulfill the Law, not to break it.   To say that He put "human needs" first is absurd.  He commanded complete submission to God - as this is the only need that will bring peace - and led us all to this realization through the passion and submission unto death. 

Liberal values put things in backward perspective (to disastrous results): focusing first on "human needs" (love) and then on submission to God (truth).  Christ showed us the error of our ways and of our pride and stubbornness - even if liberals still refuse to see this paradox for what it is and continue to try to "find themselves" at absurd places like Eslan.

The BBC documentary "Century of the Self" is a good place to see where the methods of new agers and eslan types leads to:


12 years 2 months ago
PS - you can't blame the exodus on upholding traditional values because the churches that are truly dying out are the most liberal strands of mainline protestantism...

No need to go to church when you can hear the same liberal mantra from the popular culture at large and esp. when you feel that the centralized government now takes care of all social ills.  Simply pay your taxes and read the NYTs religiously and you have done your part.
PJ Johnston
12 years 2 months ago
Humanistic liberalism is simply the secularized version of the Christian Gospel, a direct lineal descendant of Renaissance Christianity and the traditional Christian emphasis on the infinite value of the individual human person created in imago dei.  The argument that Christianity is essentially about authority and submission and the obliteration of individual will is simply a mid-20th century neo-conservative hijack of the faith in reaction to accelerating social change in the 1960s and 1970s.  Jesus Christ is the love that sets free from every bondage.  That which promotes submission rather than freedom is not truth, because the criterion which Christ himself gave for establishing that something is true is that it sets people free.
PJ Johnston
12 years 2 months ago
The evangelical churches are also in accelerated decline.  They have a larger share of Christianity, but there are fewer Christians, and fewer evangelicals now than there have been.  The demographic change has been studied by sociologists and the best explanation of the data is that evangelicals held out longer because they until recently they had slightly larger family sizes and slightly greater youth retention, not anything distinctive about their doctrines or practices.

It's strange that liberal Christianity is supposed to be "exactly like the culture" when in fact it is nothing like the culture, which is deeply conservative politically, economically, and socially.  The culture is a coalition of the Tea Party and libertarians and the Religious Right.  Liberals are DOA.
12 years 2 months ago
"It's strange that liberal Christianity is supposed to be "exactly like the culture" when in fact it is nothing like the culture, which is deeply conservative politically, economically, and socially."

I am sorry, this incredible.  To say that the culture which dominated by the sexual revolution (something liberal love to push) in both commerce and politics is completely absurd.

You are looking at the culture through your ideology rather than looking at reality.  The popular culture is anything but "conservative".  Republicans push radical individualism and liberalism in commerce and Democrats push radical liberalism and individualism in sexual mores.

We have libertines and economic liberals on the left and right.  There is nothing like a Catholic center that would embrace holistic views on sexuality and on the economy.
12 years 2 months ago
"Humanistic liberalism is simply the secularized version of the Christian Gospel"

No, humanistic liberalism is the attempt to put man in the place of God so that all men are gods to each other. 

(Though, I agree that the basis of liberalism is Christian theology (....even if most liberals/atheists are loath to acknowledge it)
PJ Johnston
12 years 2 months ago
If we have a sexually liberal culture, why is it that the only way homosexuals are granted the right to marry or enter into civil unions is if the courts decree that it is unconstitutional to deny them the right to marry?  Why is it that when it is left to the majoritarian bodies of government, the civil rights of homosexuals are never protected?

Look at Iowa - a relatively tolerant place, for the most part.  Even here, it took action by the courts to secure the right to marry, and the result of the courts following the constitution was an orchestrated campaign by Christian conservatives to have the judges responsible for the decision removed from office in a judicial retention vote.  And it worked, despite the fact that no sitting justice has ever lost a retention vote in the entire time the system has been in place in Iowa.

It simply isn't true that American society is sexually permissive.  It is deeply puritanical at its core.
12 years 2 months ago
Immitation of the complete submission of Christ to God the Father - even unto death - is the only true freedom, that is the message of the NT.  It does not destroy the individual, it transforms him.

All other "human freedoms" - including atomistic "liberal values" are a distortion of this message, even if they are promoted with the best of intentions.
PJ Johnston
12 years 2 months ago
Brett:  I have papers to grade, but it's been a great discussion and I thank you.  I especially thank you for proving the main point of contention beyond any shadow of doubt - that if you express liberal social or theological views in a Christian context, you will inevitably encounter someone who says your views are the antithesis of Christianity and puts pressure on you to conform to their viewpoint or else stop claiming to be a Christian.  That's why people leave.  These conversations have a cumulative psychological cost, and for almost everyone it is one that they eventually become unwilling to pay.
12 years 2 months ago

"It simply isn't true that American society is sexually permissive."

Open your eyes, PJ - every other message out of Hollywood and Madison Ave are promoting instant gratification and sexual promescuity.  They are also promoting homosexuality in many, many other shows and movies.

It was a Protestant nation, now it is a nation of atomized consumers and sex is just one more commidity to buy and sell - and as Benedict says - it is made banal and utilitarian and administered as simply another drug.

A la Brave new world...

Douthat speaks on this in his current column:

12 years 2 months ago
Well, PJ, that was not the point of the conversation - the objective nature of our faith is worth arguing over, i think.  Saying that it is relative will cause more problems in attrition than standing up for what we believe in and stating it clearly.

I the same as you, I was a liberal at one point and reconsidered my opinions when deciding to rejoin the Church - perhaps you can do the same at some point.
12 years 2 months ago
PS - I am not putting forward "my" view, but am simply trying to argue the logic and faith of the long tradition of the Church.  I happen to have come to see its truth and value - but it is not "my opinion" as such.
PJ Johnston
12 years 2 months ago
Of course you're putting forward your own view!  There is ultimate reality, and there is what human beings think about ultimate reality.  Even if you're lucky enough to be right about the nature of ultimate reality or even just decide to go along with what someone else says is true, you don't escape the fact that you yourself are making an individual interpretative judgment about the nature of ultimate reality - that is, taking a view.  There is no shortcut out of having to decide what you think is right or wrong.  "This is not my view, this is just the truth or the tradition or whatever" is the language of a view that's trying to disguise the fact that it is a view.  You're an individual consumer of religion who is making choices on the free market of commercialized religious belief just like anyone else, it's simply that your preferences are a little more conservative.

I think it's unnecessary and mostly destructive for religious traditions to focus on what is objectively right and wrong rather than what is pragmatically helpful for individuals and society.  It shows far too little humility about human epistemic liabilities and simply leads to a war of absolutisms in which one side feels like it cannot allow dissenters in its midst and excludes or silences or exterminates them.

We walk by faith, not sight.  This means that we do not know and should not claim to know - we must recognize our limitations and walk humbly with our God.
12 years 2 months ago
"It shows far too little humility about human epistemic liabilities and simply leads to a war of absolutisms in which one side feels like it cannot allow dissenters in its midst and excludes or silences or exterminates them."

Saying that we have limited knowledge does not preclude us from acting on the nature of revelation of Christ and natural law through the God-given facultities of reason.  Like you said before, it is both mythos and logos and this process is guided within the authority of the Church as established by Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit.

As for the Church, the center (Christ) does hold and - while we can diverge on small issues - we need to be unified on the essential understandings and revelations.  Please dont confuse authority with authoritianism...
PJ Johnston
12 years 2 months ago
You try being on the other side of a theological disagreement you think is insignificant or even trivial and someone with overwhelming nstitutional and/or political clout thinks is absolutely essential and then tell me that the difference between authority and authoritarianism isn't simply something we tell ourselves to feel better about dominating those with whom we disagree.
12 years 2 months ago
PJ, this is not about dominating opposition or even winning arguments, it is about locating and adhering to the truth of God - as shown by the Incarnation and crucifixion of Christ - the best that we can as feeble creatures.  No one said that it would be easy or agreeable. 

PJ Johnston
12 years 2 months ago
When an epistemically limited creature says that they know the truth of God and that the positions and policies of some institution (theirs) just happen to correspond with the truth of God in all salient details, it is almost certain that they are overreaching, attempting to arrogate contestible points of doctrine to the status of absolute truth - in short, attempting to dominate.  Even by its own lights, the Church is indefectible only in those things that are absolutely necessary to salvation and fallible in all the rest (that is, it is fallible in almost everything and infallible in almost nothing).  The Church is better served by minimalism, humility, tolerance, and even incoherence than any robust exposition of doctrine.
Marie Rehbein
12 years 1 month ago
Just curious about the picture accompanying the article, did this gathering involve naked co-ed swimming?

Note: Glad you asked. This is a standard picture downloaded from the web - our session was way too busy even to enter the tub! FXC
12 years 1 month ago

I think it's a shame you didn't try the tubs, especially if you were that busy, very therapeutic. 

One tip, it is always wise to check the hosting site of any photo you snag off the internet. It is almost inevitable that someone will claim that you are posting nude photos from a London brothel's website.    

PJ Johnston
12 years 2 months ago
Thanks everyone!  Part of the problem is no doubt being stuck in a small Iowa college town whose Catholic churches have an adversarial relationship with the university.  We get constant sermons about the evils of Iowa's acceptance of same-sex marriage, a Newman Center which preaches against contraception to college students - I could go on, but I won't.  There does seem to be an alternative perspective out there (thank God!) but there are places where it just doesn't penetrate, and it's a long enough drive to a major metropolitan area that commuting to a more friendly church isn't a very good option.  San Francisco sounds like heavenly bliss!
PJ Johnston
12 years 2 months ago
I can offer a personal take on why many people become ex-Catholics and end up involved in alternative religions.

I've recently given up on the label "Catholic" at least in public contexts (substituting "non-exclusivist") - and though I sometimes attend Anglican and sometimes Roman Catholic churches and would not claim to have repudiated either tradition, there's so much emotional distance this reluctance makes little sense.

There are purely pragmatic issues - when interested students/colleagues ask me about my religion, "Catholic" is a misleading answer (it may be true, but they're habituated to assume Western religious exclusivism and do not go on to imagine possible additional religious involvements that may be equally as significant, so they are deeply misled).  There are political issues, among these the constant hectoring of local Roman Catholic congregations on the issue of homosexuality, which make the church look less like a sacramental body than a reactionary political advocacy group.

But probably the biggest factor is that I never, ever feel welcome.  No theologian or church leader who knows anything about my theological views or spiritual practices ever says "You are a Christian among Christians; welcome!" and then is able to suggest positive ways for me to get involved at a local congregational level that tap any of these interests or abilities.  The worst reactions are rejection or outright denunciation, and the best amount to a sort of "don't ask, don't tell" policy where it is made clear that my presence will be tolerated but I must not broadcast the things that are of interest to me and really it would be better if I changed and became someone else.  My principal theological mentors are always either hectoring me to adopt different positions or else ignoring everything I write in order to be diplomatic and avoid conflict, making the effort of communicating completely wasted.  A person can take only so much of this before they want to find a place where they're actually welcome.

The lack of welcome is mostly about being a specific kind of person, and it's the kind of person you're addressing in this article - the socially liberal, counter-cultural, experimental type of person who is likely to be a panentheist, to routinely cross religious boundaries, and possibly to practice magic.  (All these tendencies are commonly wrapped up in a single label and called "the New Age," though this probably isn't fair).  Contrary to intuition, some people (even within Christianity) start out with these views, and don't have to adopt them reactively.  Mainstream Christianity doesn't want these people.  Even if they try to remain in the institution and do something positive for it, all they can expect is to be kicked in the teeth on a regular basis, or grudgingly tolerated at best.  Too much contemporary Christianity appears based on an implicit culture war against the 1960s counterculture and its spiritual descendants for any of those people to have much chance of being (or feeling) welcome, even if they're willing to try to find the theological and spiritual resources they need to sustain themselves within the Christian tradition as opposed to elsewhere.

But your mileage may vary - perhaps there are countercultural Christians who would feel that their efforts to stay in the tradition through comparative theological exploration and reconceptualization of doctrine are generally welcome and encouraged, so it is NOT necessary to find an alternative.  It would be interesting to hear from them and learn their strategies.
Chris Sullivan
12 years 2 months ago

I don't know that I'm much of a theologian or Church leader but, hey,

'You are a Christian among Christians; welcome!'

Maybe I'm missing something, but I don't see how panentheism essentially differs from stock standard traditional Catholicism.

God is a lot bigger than we are able to imagine. 

As Fr Ron Rolheiser puts it:

God is ineffable. What that means is that God cannot be captured in our thoughts or pictured inside our imaginations. This truth is one of the first things that the church affirms in its understanding of God, defining as a dogma at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 that God is so metaphysically different from anything we can know or imagine that all of our concepts and language about God are always more inadequate than adequate. God can be known, but never imagined or captured in a thought.


God Bless
ed gleason
12 years 2 months ago
I just came from Mass in SF about 80 miles north of Esalen; at  an inner city Franciscan parish that welcomes a diverse people un-known in most places. PJ would find a clapping welcome when he introduced himself.
here is a short sampler of people seeking the Divine..
Jim McCrea
12 years 2 months ago
"San Francisco sounds like heavenly bliss!"

It is, PJ - it is.  St. Boniface has been an embarrassing beacon about what the church could be in SF for years.

It was the home to Dignity/SF until Archbishop Quinn was forced by Holy Mother the Church to issue the eviction order on December 18, 1988, a day that will go down in infamy in the annals of church history in this City of St. Francis.

Today, however, there are many parishes that are open and welcoming to LGBT Catholics, not least of which are St. Agnes, St. Teresa, Most Holy Redeeomer, St. Dominics and St. Ignatius on the campus of USF.
PJ Johnston
12 years 2 months ago
I'm done with grading now - a few papers for an intro class in Asian religions.  This made me think of a bit of Buddhist scripture that's relevant to the discussion.
From a loose and vernacular internet paraphrase:
Toward the end of his life, the Buddha took his disciples to a quiet pond for instruction. As they had done so many times before, the Buddha’s followers sat in a small circle around him, and waited for the teaching.
But this time the Buddha had no words. He reached into the muck and pulled up a lotus flower. And he held it silently before them, its roots dripping mud and water.
The disciples were greatly confused. The Buddha quietly displayed the lotus to each of them. In turn, the disciples did their best to expound upon the meaning of the flower: what it symbollized, and how it fit into the body of the Buddha’s teaching.
When at last the Buddha came to his follower Mahakasyapa, the disciple suddenly understood. He smiled and began to laugh. The Buddha handed the lotus to Mahakasyapa and began to speak.
“What can be said I have said to you,” smiled the Buddha, “and what cannot be said, I have given to Mahakashyapa.”

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