Sometimes it’s helpful to imagine you’re a strip of litmus paper and then analyze the colours you turn as you fall into the various acids of life and religion.
I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, a time both of great stability and mind-boggling change. I had some things that helped keep me steady, wonderful parents and a strong faith community. My parents were immigrants, honest, hard-working, Roman Catholics, with a deep faith. More than that, my dad was one of the most moral men I’ve ever met and my mother was generous and soft-hearted to a fault. Not bad for luck.
By temperament they were both conservative, with an immigrants’ fear of change, the world, the dangers out there. They liked things safe, solid, to be known in their consequences before they were tried. And they wanted us, their kids, to play it safe too, to venture away from home only when we knew we could find our way back again. They had faith in the old taboos: Always be careful about your friends, your morals, your religion, your soul. Be careful too about sex. Partly this was fear; partly it was wisdom, deep wisdom that more parents ought to impart to their children.
The old taboos contain not just the fears of past generations, but the wisdom and experience of those generations as well. In essence, what they say is that naive freedom can be dangerous, there are lots of places you can get lost, where your mind can snap, your heart can break, you can lose yourself, and, as Iris Murdoch says, get into a muddle and never get out. There’s wisdom in that old advice: Only venture as far from home as your soul can safely handle.
I’m grateful that my parents started me out on such conservative footing. It gave me the foundation I needed from which to build. When I began to study literature, philosophy, and theology, I found myself in ever-more liberal classrooms. I’m grateful for that. My parents gave me both wisdom and fear, and those classrooms helped free me from some of the fear.
But it wasn’t without struggle: I remained my parents’ son and didn’t take to new ideas easily, but great teachers, caring colleagues, wonderful friends, and the experience of ministry stretched my horizons against my early training, taking me, sometimes, a long ways from the religious home of my parents: immigrant Catholicism, the Baltimore Catechism, Catholic devotions, distrust of other faiths, uncritical obedience to the letter of the law, fear of what’s outside my circle.
Today I’m pretty comfortable in many circles. I move with ease among Protestants and Evangelicals. I’m comfortable there, in their churches, with their prayer, their faith, their friendship. I’m growing more comfortable too with Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Native religions, even secular religion. I’m not always fully at home here, but there are aspects in all of these faiths and cultures where I’m at home and from where I can travel easily back and forth to my own religious home.
I’m not sure any more whether I’m liberal or conservative. A younger ecclesial set sometimes sees me as a (burned-out) liberal. They may be right on the “burned-out” part, but my liberal friends distrust me almost as much, they know me too well, and are even more suspicious now because I spend time in Rome. Liberal or conservative, it doesn’t matter, I’ve a decent comfort zone on both sides of that ideological fault-line.
Much of that is because of my conservative roots. Because of them I can be more free. Like everyone else, of course, I’m still struggling to be free and creative. We never quite get there. Many of the old taboos, still have their hold on me. And I’m grateful for that too. I may be more uptight than I should be, but, on the positive side, I can still find my way home from most any place and I can find a home most any place in the world and inside most any church, faith, or culture.
Sometimes when I’m in Rome, I pack a lunch, walk down to St. Peter’s Square, sit in the shade of one of its pillars, and watch people from all over the world snap photos and eat Italian ice-cream. I look across the square and see lights on inside the papal apartment and suspect that an aging pope is sitting at his desk right now with his sleeves rolled up, over strong peasant arms, and is penning some encyclical or church ordinance, parts of which will no doubt irritate me. No matter. I’m home. It could be my dad writing that piece. Like my dad, the pope knows the value of the old taboos, even if sometimes they express fear along with wisdom. I’m at home in Rome, just as I am with my Protestant friends. I thank my parents for that.
Conservatism is a good place to start from.