The religious life of Joe Biden

The religious life of Joe Biden September 13, 2015

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I can count on one hand the times that a politician has brought me to tears. This interview, which many of you will have no doubt already seen, is one. Vice President Joe Biden’s obviously genuine responses to Stephen Colbert’s very personal questions about the recent death of his son, Beau, and the loss of his first wife and their daughter was visceral and moving.

What struck me most of all, however, is the way both men talked about their Catholicism. For years we’ve heard about Colbert’s faith, even as he mocked and ridiculed religion on his show. Those of us who loved The Colbert Report just looked the other way, I suspect, when the topic of his Catholicism came up.

I shared the above video on my personal Facebook timeline and the response was predictable. People’s loved the moment shared between the two men; a welcome respite from the absurdity and tragedy of the political circus currently transpiring.

What I wondered, however, was whether people would comment on the religious reflections shared between the two men. At one point Colbert asks Biden, “How has your faith helped you respond to having lost of your first wife and daughter, and now your son?”

A Christian friend took the opportunity to poke good-natured fun at me, saying, “…it’s never too late, man.” It was another comment, however, that for me really captured the nuance I was feeling about the exchange.

“I honestly find it so hard to separate what I loooooove about Colbert and Biden (which is almost everything) from what I despise, which is Catholicism. I was raised in a cult like version of that religion, and my fury is so deep towards anyone who still holds it to be true. It’s like when you find our your best friend is a misogynist or a cannibal (eating the actual body and blood of Christ). I wish I could just see how quaint it is to have religion hold you in times of crisis, but I can’t. Not when it’s that evil religion.”

I wasn’t raised Catholic, but I’ve been a pastor to many who were. I have heard their stories of pain first hand; I have witnessed their anger toward the church and particular people who were (and in some cases still are) in positions of trust and who abused that trust in the worst possible ways.

It is disorienting when we encounter people we admire who hold to an ideology we find reprehensible. Perhaps the instinctual thing to do is reject the person wholesale. But Joe Biden and Stephen Colbert are such likable characters. They are also famous, so this is not as easily done as, say, rejecting your Uncle Norm because he continues to hold to a religion that horribly abused you.

My first reaction to hearing Vice President Biden talk about his religion was identification. I found myself saying, “Yes! I know what you mean.” Notice a few things.

First, he humbly tries to deflect attention from himself, when, as he says, others have suffered worse with far less support than he has had.

Second, he turns to a statement by Søren Kirkegaard, shared with him by his wife: “Faith sees best in the dark.” Putting aside for the moment all the other things we might say about that statement—such as the problems with the concept of “faith” (and believe me, I understand those)—notice that his first attempt to explain his faith is to turn to an apophatic expression.

How has your faith helped you, Mr. Vice President?

“Ah, Stephen, as Kierkegaard said, faith is like stumbling around in the dark.”

I am immediately endeared to anyone who is honest enough to start a conversation about faith like this.

Thirdly, he talks about the phenomenology of religion. That is to say, he talks about his actual experience of participation in religion. Notice he never once says, “I’m comforted by the idea that I’ll see my wife, daughter, and son again one day.” I expected him to go there. But that’s not what he says. Instead he says, “I go to mass and I’m able to be…just…alone.” We get the sense that for Biden, being in the ritual space is a way of perspective-taking; a way of being mindful, to change the metaphor.

Fourthly, he uses the word “comfort” three times. We can pick this expression apart, as I’m sure many will, and say, “I guess if Joe is such a weakling he needs a crutch of religion to comfort him, so be it, but some of us grow up, am I right?” Yes, yes. I sense that, too, sometimes, but I also know what it is to desperately long for comfort. I also know what it feels like to receive it.

Finally, he talks about how faith doesn’t always “stick with you. Sometime it leaves me.” He says this because he’s concerned that he’s coming across too pious (“I understand the feeling,” says Colbert, “you don’t want to come off as pious, or a Holy Joe”), but I suspect he also knows that his faith doesn’t make rational “sense” all the time. It’s nonrational and I’m guessing he knows it.

Why this close reading of Joe Biden’s expression of his faith? Is it to defend faith as useful for people? Not really. Is it to say, “We shouldn’t be so hard on people of faith?” Truthfully, I don’t think we always need to be hard on people of faith, but that’s really not my purpose, either.

The thing that occurred to me as I listened to Vice President Biden’s very courageous and vulnerable expression of what his faith means to him is this: every one of those emotions and longings is a human one. We all experience loss. Many of us have experienced unspeakable loss. In those moments we know what it feels like to be unmoored—floating in a turbulent sea of uncertainty. We know the feeling of comfort that comes from being deeply cared for. It helps us become grounded again. Most of us also know the feeling of calm that comes from the architecture of transcendence, whether that is the built architecture of a church or the natural architecture of nature. Those moments put our suffering in perspective; we remember that we are part of a vast web of life.

The thing that struck me most significantly as I listened to this interview, tears quietly rolling down my cheeks, is that we in the humanist community need to be attentive to these experiences. We need to be mindful of the inner world of our emotions. For many of us, our inner life was manipulated by religion and religious authority. Out of distrust, we often retreat to our intellect. I do it all the time. But our emotional lives are real and can completely short circuit our intellectual lives if we’re not paying attention. In Jon Haidt’s memorable metaphor, we are like a rider on an elephant. The elephant represents our emotions. The rider, our intellect, thinks it is in control, but this, too, is an illusion.

How is humanism paying attention to the elephant? How are we creating spaces for people to be attentive to the health of their inner lives? I’m not saying we need an exact analog for the Catholic Mass, but how incredible would it be if there were public spaces to which secular people could retreat, to gain perspective. Nature is the best such space, but I live in a big city. My favorite example of such a space is the beautiful public library we have in downtown Los Angeles. It is a secular cathedral, full of the wisdom of the ages (and some woo, too) which has not short-changed the city in terms of beauty. It is an impressive bit of architecture, holding public space for inquiry and wonder.

As I think about the future of humanism and the thousands of religious “nones” that will be joining our ranks, I wonder how the Joe Bidens and Stephen Colberts of the future will respond to tragedy and reground themselves. The work of organizations like Grief Beyond Belief are an incredible start but it will take all our creative energies and emotional intelligence to craft a hospitable world for those who are seeking a rich and full life after God.

[Image: Vice President Joe Biden appears on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert / YouTube screen capture]


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