Keeping Faith

A White Crane conversation with Fenton Johnson

Fenton Johnson is the author of four books, the most recent of which, Keeping Faith: A Skeptic’s Journey was the winner of the 2004 Lammie Award for Spirituality Writing. White Crane Editor, Bo Young spoke with Johnson.

Bo Young: … Keeping Faith’s subtitle is “…a skeptic’s journey”…what role do you think skepticism has in spirituality?

Fenton Johnson: Oh, that’s an easy one. <g> I think I can answer it in a sentence. Or two.

Another term for skepticism—one that I first heard among the Buddhists — is “great doubt.” When I began my research for writing Keeping Faith, I thought that great doubt was a barrier to great faith. Across the time of writing the book—which is to say, across the time of spending large portions of several years living and practicing a contemplative life—I’ve come to realize that for me, probably for many thoughtful people, great doubt is a prerequisite for great faith. When I think of Americans of great faith, I don’t think of various fundamentalist clergy, preaching from their smug certainties. I think instead of people like Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, Jr., and Audre Lorde and Harvey Milk and Cesar Chavez and Gene Robinson. (Note that some of these people were regular churchgoers and some never darken the door of a church.) These people were beset with doubts all the time, as any glance at their writings or speeches will show. Faith was for them a discipline, an exercise in engaging doubt and turning its considerable energy into a positive force in their lives and the lives of others.

A good morning to ask that question—as gray and chilly as San Francisco can be in the summers, and I’m all but swamped in a tidal wave of doubt regarding the novel I’m struggling with writing.

BY: What do you mean by “engaging doubt”? And how can doubt be a positive force?

FJ: I’ve come to see doubt—as I’ve come to see anger—as a force that can undercut and overwhelm or support and nourish. Think of water, or fire. Unchanneled, or undirected, either can be (and often is) a force for destruction. The key lies in their channeling—in devising forms that enable their energies to be turned to constructive ends.

Although “devising” isn’t the right word, because it suggests that each of us must reinvent the wheel, and I don’t believe that’s the case. I see myself as a reformer, at the same time that I value tradition. That’s why I attend a church (albeit a left-wing church) and sit zazen (albeit with nontraditional sitting groups). I see these traditions as providing models on which I can draw in channeling these potentially destructive—or potentially constructive — energies. If I were a Native American, I’d be engaged in powwows and sweat `lodges. I admire non-Native Americans who seek those routes — so long as they do so from a stance of respect and humility — but I think that in going so far from their birth traditions they’re choosing harder rows to hoe. As a writer and a Gay man I have enough hard rows to hoe, so in embracing this particular challenge I’ve opted for the standing forms. All the forms have something to teach us, starting with the very value of the forms themselves—which is as a means to channel and direct the forces of our lives. We’re all carrying a lot of anger these days, because we have good reason to, though perhaps Gay men have more than our share.  And so the study and practice of the forms becomes especially critical.

BY: You may be one of the only seekers I’ve encountered who recommends “anger” and “doubt” as good catalysts for spirituality.

FJ: Well, gee. I never met the woman, but I can imagine that Mother Teresa was one of the angriest people on the planet—angry at the suffering she witnessed, of course, but more to the point angry at its causes. How could it be otherwise, when one only has to walk a few blocks to see people who have so much more than they need and yet are unwilling to act to alleviate that suffering?  Imagine the suffering the Dalai Lama witnessed in his youth, even as one sees in his face the peace he has attained. That comes about—surely—not because these spiritual figures were born with greater access to internal peace than you or I but because they have earned it—partly through their own willingness to embrace suffering as a means to an end. And what is spirituality, finally, but a path through which one seeks to find redemption in suffering, the world’s and one’s own?

There’s a passage from the letters of the Russian writer Chekhov that moves me greatly.  In describing himself late in his short life (he died at 44 of tuberculosis), he wrote, “Write a story, do, about a young man, the son of a serf,…brought up to respect rank, to kiss the hands of priests, to truckle to the ideas of others…write how this young man squeezes the slave out of himself, drop by drop, and how, on awaking one fine morning, he feels that the blood coursing through his veins is no longer that of a slave but of a real human being.”  What is the spiritual path but the squeezing out of oneself, “drop by drop,” the blood of the slave—in this case, anger and doubt?  But, since the universe wastes nothing, the challenge then becomes: How does one use that old, tired, angry, knee-jerk doubting blood?  And that is the challenge of the seeker.

BY: One of the statements I loved in the book was “If I am to be brought to faith, it will be through the body.” Can you speak a little about this? And how would you characterize your spiritual practice these days? The Gethsemani monks sure seemed to make a pitch for you! How hard was it to walk away?

FJ: The easier question first:

I like to think that some of the Trappists at Gethsemani [nb: the rural Kentucky abbey where Thomas Merton wrote, and near which Johnson grew up] recognized in me the qualities that define a monk. I’d be honored. I know many people whom I’d characterize as “monks” who haven’t taken formal vows, and I’d like to think that I’m among them, even as I recognize and honor the discipline required to undertake to pursue monasticism as a life commitment. I know from various sources that some of the Gethsemani monks opposed the abbot’s decision to allow me to write about the monastery from the inside, so to speak. I’m not surprised, and I understand their reluctance—opening one’s house to a writer is always a risky undertaking. At the same time, many other monks recognized my sincerity of intention—sorely tested by the revelations of sexual abuse, but still intact. I like to think that Keeping Faith will ultimately benefit, not harm the institution of monasticism, both inside and outside the traditional monastic enclosure.

As for coming to faith through the body: Sitting meditation (i.e., zazen) taught me a great deal about discipline for the body. Perhaps someone who’d been a serious athlete would have learned the same lessons in a different manner — when I watch a diligent athlete such as a gymnast or basketball player that thought occurs to me. But — largely because of being Gay, and so as a child being so deliberately walled off from my body — I had to come to that lesson relatively late in life. In the rituals of the Roman Catholic Church I learned at least that the body has a role in the expression of faith, but those rituals were and are characterized largely by their sloppiness and indifference of execution — the Church preferring these days to devote its energies to politics rather than to the tending of its own liturgical garden. The Buddhists taught me first and foremost to pay attention — is the head up? Is the back straight? Are the hands correctly positioned? What that tradition understands—what I had to learn — is that paying attention is the first step to faith. And paying attention begins and ends in the senses. From that place — sitting zazen — it’s a short and logical step to paying attention in other aspects of one’s life. From there one begins to see how little of life is under one’s control, how the illusions of the ego (money, sex, power) are barriers against the world’s suffering and its joy, how faith is a matter of letting go of those illusions so as to be able to experience fully both the suffering and the joy.

BY:  I’m glad you take the time to redefine “suffering” as “dissatisfaction” in Keeping Faith. I personally despise the whole cult of victimhood and the almost fetishization of victim in both Western religions as well as Eastern philosophies. One can get just so lost in righteousness. So I was very heartened to read your clearer Buddhist interpretation of “suffering” as “dissatisfaction” which also sort of echoes your ideas about “anger.” But I’d like to talk to you about “gratitude.” Especially around those things in life that are difficult or that actually leave us with that feeling of “dissatisfaction” or in those very human sensations of pain or loss. What role does gratitude have in your own spiritual practice? Any thoughts?

FJ: First off, another note on “suffering” vs. “dissatisfaction.” “Dissatisfaction” is the more accurate translation, because this is the first principle of Buddhism, and thus the foundation on which the whole philosophy is built; if it weren’t universally applicable, it would be a pretty weak basis. As a reasonably prosperous, reasonably healthy American I can’t really be said to be “suffering,” at least not in the context of much of the world’s population; but we all suffer from dissatisfaction, always and everywhere.

And what is the antidote to dissatisfaction? Gratitude. (Move to the head of the class.) Life is a gift, uniquely yours. No comparisons are permitted to others’ situations, whether “better” or “worse” — who can know the heart of another? One’s own heart is a lifelong mystery, which is to say a lifelong exploration, a trail that constantly opens to new, strange, unfamiliar territories, now the slough of despond, now the high pinnacle of joy, and often the long, long plain of slogging on in between—but as anyone who has seen the prairie in spring knows, the plain has its rewards, too.  The main purpose of God, or the gods and goddesses, is, I think, simply to have a concept at which to direct one’s gratitude.

And gratitude can be hard, very hard. To give only one example: As I grow older I miss my partner more, not less, as I see how much poorer my life is without him. [ed. Larry Rose, who died of HIV in 1990 and was the subject of the memoir Geography of the Heart.]  And yet:  How much richer I am to have known him at all; how excellent that we were able to help each other along our paths.  My mantra for life: The harder path is almost always the more rewarding.

BY: A slight change of direction…you speak about being a Gay man and this being a “harder row to hoe.” Do you think Gay people, to use a modern term, have any particular contribution to make to spirituality?

FJ: Did I write that? As my mother said, don’t ever write anything down that you don’t want somebody to read.

Being born Gay, as Freud noted in his famous letter to the mother of a Gay man, is certainly no advantage in any conventional sense. But being born an English-speaking citizen of the Empire is an advantage that by any historical standard outweighs all other considerations. 

What I want to say is that suffering can produce virtue; it’s an old observation but true. And Gays and Lesbians are given box seats in the theater of suffering, but in that we’re hardly alone. The challenge is to learn to use suffering as a catalyst. I do think that desire lies at the very heart of the mystery of life — some medieval mystics would go so far as to equate God with desire — and Gays and Lesbians are given very particular access to that aspect of the human experience. (This is at the heart of why we have such a strong presence in the arts, since the arts in all their forms are so often a means to the end of processing suffering, of turning lead into gold.)

To be given access to it is not the same as taking advantage of it, however. More and more these days we hear the voices of Gay people who just want to be like everyone else. Egads, what a fate! The Jewish mother in me wrings her hands and says, “For this I raised a Gay son?” I believe absolutely in the importance of community, and I believe that the cult of individual genius may be our downfall. But our challenge — perhaps the very key to our survival — is the creation of communities in which everyone is not like everyone else—communities that celebrate and encourage diversity and difference, and where we expend our energies and resources in community celebrations of that diversity rather than in every house having three cars and a yacht. 

To the extent that we aspire to be like everyone else we’re selling our birthright for a mess of pottage.

Johnson writes regularly for White Crane. The ninth of nine children of an Appalachian whiskey-making family, Fenton Johnson was named after and grew up with Trappist monks. He is the author of Geography of the Heart: A Memoir (Lambda Award and American Library Association Awards, Best LGBT Nonfiction, 1996) and Keeping Faith: A Skeptic’s Journey (Lambda Award, Best GLBT Spirituality, 2004). He is on the creative writing faculty of the University of Arizona and was a recipient of a 2007 Guggenheim Fellowship.