Interview: James Carroll

By ADAM REILLY  |  April 1, 2009

But I also would say that there's something profoundly meaningful about the awareness that I have as a religious person — that this is the meaning of my being.... Homo sapiens became homo sapiens sapiens, if you'll forgive me; we're the creatures who know, but more than that, we're the creatures who know that we know. We can actually think about our knowing; that's the importance of 'I think, therefore I am.' We think about our thinking. And that move qualifies us — stay with me — to be homo sapiens sapiens sapiens. Our knowing that we know opens us to something infinite. My knowing that I know makes me aware that I am known. And it's not Michelangelo's God on the ceiling; it's not a person up there. We talk about God as an object all the time, and atheists deny that God is an object, and they're right. The atheist affirmation is religious, because it says don't confuse God with that thing that you talk about up there. God is beyond God. And the Catholic tradition has a language for this.

Monotheism is not what people think it is. It's this intuition that we are known and loved by something, someone, that we have no words for, no image of, no way to describe.

The most important symbol of this was in the Temple of Israel, in the Holy of Holies. Only the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies, and only on one day of the year, Yom Kippur. And you know what was in the Holy of Holies? Nothing.

And yet, as people of language we're constantly attempting to put the unspeakable into words. And as human beings, we're constantly tempted to take our words as God, our images as God. The church does it by taking the church or the tradition or the authority as God — and the next thing you know, you're committing crimes in the name of it. In the Protestant Tradition, the Bible becomes God. In the Islamic tradition, certain texts in the Koran begin to do this.

Human beings are constantly doing this. And happiness — meaningfulness — is to have a tradition and culture and language to be self-critical, and within which to be hopeful going forward. The Catholic Church is a magnificent tradition for that. So I'm not a reluctant Catholic; I'm not ambivalent. I'm in dissent from the particular authority as it's manifest today. But I also am conscious of how that itself is a violation of the deep tradition. Why? We measure everything in our tradition against the person of Jesus, whose affirmations are very clear.

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