Friday, September 11, 2015

Joe Biden's Religion

The Washington Post has the two parts (separated by commercial break) of Stephen Colbert's interview with Joe Biden last night. Biden and Colbert are both prominent Catholics, and they have suffered similar tragedies. "Brothers in grief" Russell Burman calls them in the Atlantic.

Biden lost his wife and young daughter in a car crash soon after entering Congress in 1972.  His son, Beau, was badly injured in that accident, but grew up to serve in the military, become a lawyer and a two-term Attorney General for the State of Delaware. In the spring of 2014 he announced he would run for governor of Delaware. This summer, on June 6, 2015 Beau Biden died of brain cancer.

Stephen Colbert is just five years older than Beau Biden. He was the youngest of 11 children and grew up in Charleston South Carolina. On September 11, 1974 (when Stephen was 10 years old) his father and two brothers were killed in a commercial plane crash at the Charlotte N.C. airport. They were returning from a college trip.

In the first half of the interview last night Colbert asked Biden to share some stories about Beau. Biden talked about loss, and support he has had from many people in his life. And then Colbert asked Biden how his faith has helped him cope, first with his wife's and daughter's loss, and now with the loss of Beau. In response, Biden gave an eloquent explanation of what religion means to him:
Colbert: How has your faith helped you respond to having lost your first wife and your daughter, and now your son? How important is that in your life, and in what ways has it helped you? 
Biden: First of all, it's a little embarrassing to speak about me. There are so many people, and perhaps some people in the audience, who've had loss as severe or worse than mine and haven't had the incredible support I have. I have such an incredible family. And so I feel self-conscious talking about--loss is serious and consequential, but there's so many other people going through this--but for me.... My wife, she's a professor, and when she wants to leave me messages, she literally tapes them on my mirror when I'm shaving. She put up a quote from Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard said, faith sees best in the dark. And for me, my religion is just an enormous sense of solace. Some of it relates to ritual, some of it relates to comfort and what you've done your whole life.... I go to mass and I'm able to be just alone. Even in a crowd you're alone. I say the Rosarie. I find it to be incredibly comforting. 
What my faith has done, it takes everything about my life with my parents and my siblings, all the comforting things and all the good things that have happened, have happened around the culture of my religion, and the theology of my religion. I don't know how to explain it more than that; but it's just the place you can go. A lot of you have been through this. 
The faith doesn't always stick with you. Sometimes it leaves me; sometimes .....   My mom had an expression. She'd say as long as you're alive you have an obligation to strive, and you're not dead 'til you have seen the face of God. It really, really has been imbued in me, my siblings, my mother, my grandfather: life is .... no one owes you anything. You've got to get up, and I feel like I was letting down Beau, letting down my parents letting down my family .... if I didn't just get up. I mean you just got to get up. Think of all the people you know who are going through horrible things and they put one foot in front of the other, and they don't have anything like the support I have. I marvel at the ability of people to absorb hurt and just get back up, and most of them do it with an incredible sense of empathy to other people.

Religion in the 21st century, of course, is not about metaphysics. Although religions have traditions and doctrines about the world and our place in it, today, any serious person looking to find out how the world really works, and how we fit in it, will look to physics, biology, chemistry, medicine, psychology, psychiatry, law, political philosophy, moral philosophy,  sociology, anthropology, economics. We read the news, we consider political analysis, documentaries, movies, poetry and novels. We may also study religion and its traditions because it continues to have a hold on people, and--as with Joe Biden--it can provide a tremendous sense of solace. But we don't study religion to find out how the world works.

That's relatively new. And not everyone has gotten the message. In the 17 century Descartes, Leibniz, and Locke still thought of their science in terms of God. When they did science and metaphysics they thought they were also doing religion. Descartes, as John Searle says, sent us down a 200 year false alley with his conception of the mind/body split motivated in part by his religion. (Here is an e.g. of Searle speaking of consciousness--listen long enough and Descartes will come into it) We've come out the other end of this. Today we don't look to religion for cosmology, metaphysics, or to figure out what consciousness is. Religion and metaphysics have been split.

When Biden refers to Kirkegaard and his advice that faith sees best in the dark, I understand him to be hinting at this truth: that we don't look to religion for enlightenment, we look to religion for solace. How much solace we get will depend on how familiar it is to us, how much we've studied, how much we've practiced the rituals. Like anything, the more we spend time with a religion and its rituals, the more we know about its history and symbolism, the more solace we can derive from it.

In Biden's case, for him and his parents, siblings, and children, everything good and everything bad that has happened has happened around the religion. Around those magnificent buildings, the rituals, the culture and the doctrine. It has and continues to be "incredibly comforting."

Sometimes faith (and what is faith, really, in this context?) leaves him, says Biden. What he means is the courage to go on. And when that happens, his mom reminds him: nobody (meaning "and not God") owes us anything. When things are bad, we've got an obligation to get back up and strive, and to do it with empathy for other people, and to do it 'til we're gone. And, if while doing that, we can retreat into a cool, magnificent space, with others and derive comfort and resolve from the rituals..., then why not?

Santa Maria Trastevere, Rome/Nikles photo

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