Thursday, November 03, 2005

Conversion - Part One


Nancy and I got back from Glorietta Sunday night. We had an absolutely wonderful time.
We each came away with several signifigant requests for proposals, including sample chapters, marketing plans for the proposal, etc. We'll see where it all goes.

I'm planning to have my first proposal out by the end of the day tomorrow.

Blogging here has been light and will continue to be so for a while till I get all the proposals out.

Until then, I'm going to start re-publishing some of my first posts, beginning with my four part series detailing my conversion to Christianity. Part one follows:

“Within the Christian community there has been a great divide between those who understand salvation in essentially private or essentially public terms. In the privatized version, salvation is essentially a matter of my getting my soul into heaven, while the rest of reality we call history can, quite literally, go to hell. This is the stereotype (my emphasis added) of a certain kind of fundamentalist and revivalistic Protestantism. In this version of the Christian message the world is condemned, and the most urgent question, indeed the only question is, “Are you saved?” Christians outside the fundamentalist camp have been generally critical of this understanding of salvation. They have insisted that the gospel is of public significance, that it provides a context of meaning that illuminates human experience within actual history. Thus it has been thought that fundamentalism, with its focus upon privatized salvation, is indifferent to history, while liberal Christianity takes history seriously but shortchanges the quest for private, or personal, salvation. This way of understanding our differences is, I believe, no longer adequate.”
Richard John Neuhaus – The Naked Public Square (page 15)

No one I’ve read in the last ten years has expressed better than John Neuhaus the tension between these two Christian camps and the political world we live in today.

On one hand you have a group (liberal Christianity) that until the 1980’s had dominated the American social landscape. On the other you have a group (Neuhaus calls them fundamental or revivalistic) who, after a long absence, have re-entered the public debate. That has meant, in turn, that one Christian camp, which was almost unchallenged in the public arena for decades since the 1925 Scopes trial, had to compete with a rival to get its message out to the public, particularly those with political power.

The debate began in earnest in the 1980’s with the ascent of the Moral Majority and other conservative Christian organizations.

Now it must be explained that the rise of the religious right was not only a response to the politics of the time, but also to the theology.

For me the debate began back in the late seventies and early eighties when I was attending seminary. I was working toward a masters degree in theology, having decided to avoid the master of divinity program the seminary offered. I did it because, as I used to tell other students, I wanted to avoid becoming smarter than God. I’d read enough theology, particularly Thomas Altizer, to know that there are times and circumstances when one can profess to be wise and actually be a fool. We used to have raging debates about the theology of the times, particularly the “God is dead” theology that was in vogue. A sample of Altizer’s wisdom follows to give you a flavor of what I mean:

“Only when God is dead can Being begin in every Now. Eternal Recurrence is neither a cosmology nor a metaphysical idea: it is Nietzsche’s symbol of the deepest affirmation of existence, of Yes-saying. Accordingly, Eternal Recurrence is a symbolic portrait of the truly contemporary man, the man who dares to live in our time, in our history, in our existence.”

Seminarians used to love to run around quoting Altizer in those days. My question to them was always, “How would explain that to a cab driver or a stevedore or a baker or a butcher or a candlestick maker?” They couldn’t (or wouldn’t) of course, but it didn’t seem to matter to them. Did the “God is dead” theology, and other theologies of the time, build their faith? Read these words from Altizer, put yourself in seminary classroom, and imagine what they would do for you:

Another and intimately related form of Christianity’s new estrangement was posed by the historical discovery of the eschatological "scandal" of New Testament faith. Modern scholarship unveiled a Jesus who is a "stranger and enigma to our time" (Schweitzer’s words) because his whole message and ministry were grounded in an expectation of the immediate coming of the end of the world. The Jesus whom we "know" is a deluded Jewish fanatic, his message is wholly eschatological, and hence Jesus and his message are totally irrelevant to our time and situation.”

If there are any cab drivers who happen to be Christians reading this post I’ll translate briefly for you. Your faith is useless and you’re on your own in this world. Comforting words, wouldn’t you say?

The divide between the Christian camps I mentioned earlier came into focus in these classes. The long and short of what I learned was that if I wanted to be engaged in the world I’d better act like God didn’t exist at all. So, if I’d come to seminary to learn and then go out into the world and contribute meaningfully to society I had to abandon the very faith that had brought me there. I could go and call it Christianity. I just couldn’t act like it really meant anything.

But I was, as Altizer had said, a man who would “dare to live in our time.” I was a fundamentalist who, I believe, had his feet on the ground.

I hadn’t always been that way. I won’t bore you with the details right now, especially after you’ve had to muddle your way through a couple of snippets of Altizer. Perhaps in some later post I’ll fill you in. I’ll give you just enough to let you know what experiences guided my decisions in life.

It’s safe, I believe, to say that my background truly did inform my pilgrimage. My father had died when I, my brother, and sister, were very young. He died of tuberculosis which had been helped along by alcoholism and the stereotypical Irish gift of melancholy. My mother went into a deep depression and was subsequently hospitalized for years. This left us as wards of the state. We were sent to a preventorium in Mattapan, a suburb of Boston to ensure we were taken care of and to also ensure that we didn’t contract the tuberculosis that had killed my father.

While I can’t say we were treated badly there, I can say that I came to see that kindness does not always translate into caring. The kind of caring I experienced in Mattapan was one that taught me to always be grateful to my benefactors. The kindness seemed to me to have no inner life at all. It had all the outward trappings of kindness, the food, the medicine, etc. But it didn’t have any of the inward signs of caring. I never remember once having anyone ask me how I felt about wanting to go home with my mother. I never heard anyone ask me what I wanted to do.

This, for me, was lesson number one. I was state property.

Lesson number two came later. My mother was released from the hospital after about eight years of therapy, shock treatment, and God knows what else. At that time my brother was sent to a trade school, my sister to some relatives in Maynard (another suburb of Boston), and I got to go home to live with my mother in Cambridge, just across the Charles River from Boston. One of my mother’s first tasks was to get me some religion. She started sending me to Christ Church, which still holds the distinction of being the oldest church in the city (it was established in 1759). I have very little in the way of significant memories of my first few years there. As I grew and became more thoughtful, though, things changed. In the two or three years after my mother and I moved to Cambridge my brother and sister also came back home. We were a family once again after years of separation. They were among the happiest years of my life. While my sister and I didn’t get along especially well, I still loved having her at home. But my greatest joy was being around my brother. We spent our non school time playing stickball. He was four years older than me and used the age advantage he had to the fullest. I don’t remember how many sixteen hit shutouts he pitched against me in those days, but there were a lot. He took great delight in allowing me to load the bases and then turn to his patented “pimple curve” and strike me out to end every threat. As the ball would pass my stick he’d howl with delight, “Yerrrrr ouuuuuttttt.”

I’d have a momentary fit of anger, but I really didn’t mind. Just being around him was enough for me.

It was around this time that I began to develop my own religious thinking. We became acolytes at Christ Church, read from the Book of Common Prayer, took instruction, and observed the mysterious liturgy of the Episcopal Church. I developed a real interest in matters of faith during those days. I attended classes religiously. I even started having dreams about mysterious things. One recurring dream was of me sitting at our apartment window and seeing a man being crucified on the privacy fence that surrounded our complex. After five or six episodes I asked the rector of the church what the dream meant. “I don’t know,” he responded.
“Could it have been God talking to me?”
“Maybe.”
“What would He be saying?”
“Well, I’m not sure He was talking to you so I can’t really answer the question.”
There was really a more burning question for me, a question that had haunted me since I was a little boy. “Does God know when you’re going to die?”
“Why do you want to know that?”
“I just do.”
“You really want to know?”
“Yes.”
“I’m afraid that’s something He doesn’t know. It’s not like He’s got a clock and says, ‘well it’s 6:00 PM, I guess I’d better go and get Phil Dillon.” It just doesn’t work that way. You wouldn’t want it that way.”
“I would.”
“Why?”
“Because I want to know He’s not just out there. I want to know that He’s here too.”
“I wish I could help you but I can’t.”
“Was that Jesus in my dreams?”
“Well Jesus went to sit at the right hand of God.”
“Do you mean He’s not here?”
“Well, He’s here because you’re here.”
“Why can’t He be here and there at the same time?”
I got no answer, only the silence that told me I had asked one too many questions.

The second lesson I learned in my youth was that I, as many theologians say, was on my own.

As I look back at it now I realize that I was having a dialogue with the rector about transcendence and immanence. I wanted both, but I got no answer then. It was to take years until I did.

While I felt on my own after my philosophical discussion with the rector of our church I didn’t feel totally abandoned. I still had my family; I still had my stickball in the summer and my beloved Boston Celtics in the winter. I still attended church, but something was missing. I recall often being caught up in a sense of wonder in mystery on those Sunday mornings. There were times when I just wanted to float away, hoping to find the the man who hung crucified on the privacy fence of my recurring dream. I wanted to find him and ask him who had done this done him. I wanted to find him and ask why they’d done it. But more than anything I wanted to ask why no one would help him. Praying the traditional “collects” and other “prayers and thanksgivings” seemed to heighten the sense of mystery in me. A few prayers, in particular, have stayed with me through the years. One was a prayer we often recited for our “national life:”

Prayers for National Life18.
For our Country"Almighty God, who hast given us this good land for ourheritage: We humbly beseech thee that we may always proveourselves a people mindful of thy favor and glad to do thy will.Bless our land with honorable industry, sound learning, andpure manners. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion;from pride and arrogance, and from every evil way. Defendour liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudesbrought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Endue with the spirit of wisdom those to whom in thy Name we entrustthe authority of government, that there may be justice andpeace at home, and that, through obedience to thy law, we may show forth thy praise among the nations of the earth.In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness,and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in thee to fail;all which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."

The other was a prayer we prayed on Palm Sunday:

Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday

The Proper Liturgy for this day is on page 270.

“Almighty and everliving God, who, of thy tender love towards mankind, hast sent thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our flesh, and to suffer death upon the cross, that all mankind should follow the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may both follow theexample of his patience, and also be make partakers of hisresurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”


These prayers, as beautiful and rhythmic as they were, only added to the growing sense of alienation I was experiencing. God was out there, somewhere, and I wanted to find Him. Was He just a part of some recurring dream? Was He so transcendent that I would probably never find him? Was He even there at all or was all that I was going through nothing more than ritual?

My weekdays were filled with school, stickball (in season), hanging around with my brother and other kids in the neighborhood. In time I became the stickball champion of Chatham Street. None of the kids in my age group could beat me. For that I had my brother to thank. Those frustrating episodes of swinging wildly at his “pimple curve” had prepared me for better things. I can’t say that my childhood was unhappy. When I’ve spoken to people over the years, particularly liberal friends, they have a tendency to feel sorry for me. I’ve never felt that way. In fact in 1995 I expressed my feelings about my background this way:

The Romantic’s Ghetto

Some say their roots are in the land
In the strength and dignity of furrowed country rows
Mine are in the blaze of neon
Giving light and breath to the tenements lining ghetto streets.
Some say their faith was honed on cathedral glass
And sharpened by regal priestly robes
Mine was cut on jagged ghetto glass
And purified by the clatter of subway steel.
Some say they have an eye for distant landscapes
Or the refined beauty of a mountain stream.
Mine is tuned to a ragged ghetto face
Or the cloistered ghetto masses forgotten by the rush of time.
Where's the dignity of life to be found?
In the land? In a stream?
For some it is for sure.....Where is it then for me?
It's the romance of the Ghetto that will always fill my soul.
© 1995 Phil Dillon


Our family was poor. My mother only had a third grade education followed by a nervous breakdown, and years of hospitalization to support us. In practical terms it meant we had to live as recipients of the welfare state. One of my mother’s failings was her inability to maintain any kind of economic balance. She would shop, see something she liked, and buy it, as she often said, “On the cuff.” That was her slang for credit. The credit would be extended and the bills would mount up. In time there were a long line of creditors coming by looking for their money. Our way of dealing with the problem was to stay on the move. In one three year period we must have moved nine or ten times. In the times I’ve revisited Cambridge over the years I’ve been a great amusement to my wife. We’ve strolled and passed apartment buildings or tenements and I’ve often said as we’ve passed, “I lived there for a couple of months” or “I remember that place too.”

My first sense of anger at my station in life came when my mother would send me to city hall to get our welfare check every month. One visit is still very vividly planted in my memory. It wasn’t the visit that hurt. I’d made enough trips to city hall to swallow my pride and accept the goodness of the state. On this occasion it was a whispered conversation that cut to the quick. While looking for our check he was asked by another counselor, “Who’s this?”
“That’s one of the Dillon kids. This poor kid doesn’t have a chance. His father died a drunk and his mother’s a dolt. He just doesn’t have chance in life.”
His conversation was meant to be out of earshot, but I heard it and it hurt. When he came back to me with the check he saw that I was crying. “What’s wrong?” he asked
I didn’t have the courage to say how I felt. “Nothing,” I responded meekly.
I left, vowing that some day I would be my own man and that I would never again have to be dependent on the goodness of the state for my welfare or dignity.

This incident, along with my growing sense of alienation from God, brought me to my first major adult decision in my life. I made it when I was fifteen. I was at a friend’s apartment watching television on a Sunday night. I don’t recall who was conducting the interview, but the interviewee was J Paul Getty, who was at that time the world’s richest man. The interview was being conducted at his English estate called Sutton Place. I didn’t hear much of what Getty was saying, but I did notice all the trappings of wealth that surrounded him. Something inside of me just snapped. “How can this be?” I thought. “This man has more than he’ll ever need and I have to beg the state of Massachusetts for the little our family gets.” The internal anger hit a crescendo. “There can’t possibly be a God! There is no God! There never was, there isn’t one now, there never will be!”

As I look back on it now, the decision didn’t make sense. But it didn’t have to. Anger and alienation were to be my “guiding principles” for the next ten years.

When I got old enough I decided to leave Massachusetts. I joined the Air Force in 1961, did my boot camp at Lackland AFB, an uneventful tour in California, and some time on temporary duty in Washington D.C., and then got an assignment to Ernest Harmon AFB, Newfoundland. The assignment was, actually, quite providential. My mother was born in Newfoundland, in a little fishing village called McIvers Cove. This gave me the opportunity to meet relatives I would never have been able to if it hadn’t been for the Air Force assignment. During my time in Newfoundland I spent three leaves in McIvers, all of them wonderful. My aunts, uncles, cousins and other assorted relatives were all very kind, gentle people. I grew to love them. One uncle, in particular, captured my heart. His name was Fiander Louis Park. Fi (pronounced fye), as he liked to be called, was a tall man, almost toothless. If you’ve ever read Richard Brautigan’s “Confederate General from Big Sur” you’ll get a small glimpse of what Fi was like. The one tooth in his head seemed to float from place to place. One morning at breakfast it would appear to be in the upper right part of his mouth. The next morning it seemed to be on the bottom left. And, no dear reader, it was not my imagination. When I visited McIvers Fi was my official tour guide. He would glide down McIver’s dirt road to my Aunt Mabel’s to get breakfast each morning and then take me from place to place. Some days we’d just go up to his cabin. On others we’d go out in a dory together. If would row (he insisted on it) and I would sit and view the breathtaking cliffs of McIver’s and the other inlets in the area. On one excursion we saw a couple of whales. Fi whispered to me, “Look my son. Look I think they might’s be a couple of blues. Oh my son, have you ever seen the likes?
“No Fi, I’ve never.”
They’s beautiful, ‘eh?”
“They are.”
“Oh my son, my son.”

It was on these journeys that I would occasionally recall the mysteries of Christ Church and the man being crucified on the fence from years before, but I would try to dismiss them as soon as the thoughts came. I had decided that I would enjoy these moments for what they were. Life, as I’d come to believe, had very few of them. One had to enjoy them, endure the rest of life, then die, rot, and be forgotten. That was the sum total of life as I saw it back then.

1 comment:

Gone Away said...

I am honored to be your friend.