"There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds"
(By Alfred Lord Tennyson, from BrainyQuote website)
For those of us who grew up in the fifties and sixties, and were exposed to the turbulence that characterized those years, most of us have been raised in some church tradition, many of us have come to shed much of that tradition. Little wonder!
It was Phil Donahue, appearing yesterday on NPR's On Being, with Crysta Tippitt, who reminded his listeners of the Tennyson quote. Donahue, who had a special window on the history of the late sixties and through the seventies with his daily television "talk show" grew up a "good Catholic" as his mother consistently reminded him, especially when compared with the others, merely "Catholics". His undergraduate years were spent at Notre Dame where he proudly read Kant's "Prologomena to Any Future Metaphysics" and also proudly reminded his college dates of his prowess, only to proceed to a career in broadcasting, starting with CBS news in Dayton Ohio. One of his first assignments took him to West Virginia to a mine disaster, where several miners were lost in an underground mine accident. One of the scenes he portrayed in his "Tippitt" interview yesterday was of a clergy praying with the rescuers around a smudge pot, the gathering place for those emerging from efforts to retrieve the men, and those readying to go underground to replace them. Wanting to secure that image for television, Donahue approached the clergy, asking him to "repeat" the act of the prayer only to be met with the retort, "No Sir, I have prayed and I will not pray again!" Even Donahue's pleadings that he would be on television (this was 1967!) and get his message heard and seen by thousands as justification for the "acting" of a second prayer could not convince the protestant clergy to reverse his decision. Going to a telephone booth to call his producer, Donahue recounts closing the door on the booth and repeating over the phone, "The sonofabitch will not pray!"
Later, however, Donahue considered the clergy's refusal "one of the best examples of moral courage" he had met, up until that time in his life. It so impressed Donahue that he sought other examples of moral courage to appear on his daily television show, beginning with a very controversial atheist, and following up with a "gay man" at a time when literally no one had come out of the closet. Donahue also recounted his filming of an abortion and then, for his show, interviewing Catholic hierarchy on the subject, after they had watched the film. Their reaction, he recalled, was "It looks so easy!" and Donahue's response, "Because it is so easy, many women will have them!"
Of course, the show depended on both high ratings in Dayton, and a producer whose moral courage equalled that of the West Virginian clergy, the atheist and the gay man. That producer helped to sustain the show, and grow it into one of, if not the first national talk show on public issues, when King and Bobby Kennedy were both shot, and when the Haight-Ashbury scene with the tie-dyed tee shirts on thousands of young people were the "rage". Protests against the VietNam war were also raging in the streets in the U.S.
Throughout, Donahue, a previously liberal Roman Catholic morphed into a significant doubter, holding as he said yesterday, that honest doubt was probably the only honest position, given the serious problems with a faith based on absolute certainty. Nevertheless, he, like many of us, continues to be awed by the spectacle of the stars ("each of them suns!" in his exulting words) and the complexity of the universe. Having been raised in a strict Catholic home and church, Donahue, now 77, represents the development of a kind of life and accompanying introspection that parallels that of many of his contemporaries.
Writing in his autobiography, he sadly pleads his case for wishing he had been a better parent, another of the echoes of his contemporaries, including this scribe. When he sees mothers and fathers today fussing merrily over their babies in their strollers, while walking New York streets, he wishes he had spent more time in that kind of abandon with his young infants.
We were a serious generation, walking through stormy days, and years and, while we were raised on something our parents considered a "solid foundation" of religion and morality, we can, upon reflection, perhaps too late, see many of the gaps and errors of the ways of both our parents and our own generation.
Donahue's moving from Kant to Tennyson represents a lifeline that probably parallels many of us whose lives were shaped by the same events, including, in my case, exposure to his daily television show, as an incipient broadcaster, witnessing the depravity inflicted by some human beings on other human beings, and wondering about the role of faith in all of our lives.
Some of us are still wondering, searching and like Robert Redford, in the opening lines of his new movie "All is Lost" trying to be "right"....the only truly impossible goal at which we have all failed.