WNBC AND ME: Is God Really Relevant?
When I was a skinny young priest ( with a reasonable amount of fading red hair ) I interviewed ( professionally ) hundreds of people from entirely different educational, religious, political, ethnic backgrounds as I sought to surface an answer to a perenninally nagging question in my own soul. Does God really matter to people? Does His (?) Presence enter profoundly into the lives of human beings? Or is "it" merely some kind of socially acceptable mechanism which engineers of the human scene encourage as a means of tranquility of the social order? In effect, does God REALLY matter? Are the secularists right when they argue for some kind of non-theistic but consentually agreed upon mode of behavior for universal benefit? Are they right when they say that this is all the human being or society needs ?
I asked these questions under my guise as a television inter viewer on station WNBC-TV ( channel 4) in New York City during the years of 1958 until 1973. While anecdotal data are not really sufficient to prove a point, innumerable testimonies from a very large " N " ( as they say in statistics ) can give some reason for tentative convictions. How does one accurately interpret the hidden meanings of things people say? Or how does one trust one's own intuition or sense of another's in touchness with THE GREAT OTHER ?
When I interviewed Mother Teresa of Calcutta with her famous "fan" Malcolm Muggeridge, the immersion of God in her world fairly shrieked out in the studio into the camera. The Presence of God was EVERYTHING to this woman. Tiny in stature, quiet in voice, wrinkled lined face, rough hands--- she was a giantess ! Her motivation, her work, her charity, her love all stemmed from a total awareness of God. But Mother Teresa was some one almost out of human time. she was utterly one in billion. How many Mother Teresas are there? Or could be?
How many Malcolm Muggeridges are there? He was brilliant, creative, suave, witty—even sarcastic—successful in many careers even in espionage. In Calcutta, he was told by innumerable photographers that there was no way a picture could be taken of the Room of the Dying (in Mother Teresa's hospice). The light conditions were simply too atrocious. Yet, the unmakeable photo in his film WAS made . Malcolm insisted that it was a Miracle!!!! Miracle or not, he boldly proclaimed God's intervention. On public television, yet ! Was God relevant to his life? It certainly seemed to be so …..
And there was Big Jim Farley, the President Maker, who flatly denied that there could be anything contradictory between his open, obvious Faith and his equally open and obvious political savvy. He reported, in his interview with me, going to confession behind the High Altar in Cairo, Egypt with a casual taken for granted " that's what all Catholics do" demeanor. To Big Jim, God's influence in his life was basic.
It was unthinkable , in his mind, that Jim Farley could function as ably as he did without the help of the Lord. Relevance ?
No -- rather--- entirety. Pervasive ! Total ! Jim Farley continued his public worship of God long after he left public life, unlike other politicians who, while in office, pointedly carry Bibles leaving Divine Service ( in front of cameras, of course) but whose worship somehow abruptly ceases when they leave public office.
And Jackie Gleason, a theatrical genius in his own way, who made a huge impact in a competitive and ruthless business ! Without an entourage, he came with his usual red carnation and surprising ly quiet manner to do two completely spontaneous interviews. They were totally impromptu since he had no idea what I would ask him ! His sharpness and instant comprehension were staggering to me. But even more so was his open and almost Biblical childlike style. No fudging.
No evasion. With open admission of his failings, he spoke of his complete trust in God's mercy and his own belief in the life after death !!! This was no secularist who would use God only as a concept or as a convenient politic-speak. Jackie Gleason really believed in God and (though with some reservations) God's implacable love for him. Did God mean anything in this man's life? It seemed to me to be obvious that it did.
And the incomparable William F. Buckley Jr who unapologetically and with complete panache easily voices his own belief in God's Presence and seems stunned at another's inability to see the obvious which he sees. We discussed some apparently cerebral topic like " The Morality of Nuclear Warfare" but which WFB quickly turned into a theological question with profound spiritual consequences. Professor John Cuddihy has recently quoted Bill as asking " How can we discuss ethical questions if we cannot bring up God?" This resonates fully with me as I recall my interview. I further ask how can there be ANY morality without God? Perhaps, ethics—in a way—is possible if we define ethics as a series of mutually and consentually agreed upon criteria of behavior which can change as society changes. Morals are deep set into the very being of mankind and which as explained by Ray Kerrison of the New York Post: " When God gave the 10 commandments to Moses, He did not say that these are good only until 2000 ad."
Bill Buckley has his interesting series of little movements—his eyes bulge, his tongue slicks out, his ears wiggle— his voice is resonant and crisp-- his tie hangs diagonally as he leans back in casual elegance—his pen points into the air—he clutches his clipboard---but his message is` ( as his book proclaims) NEARER MY GOD. Is God relevant to Bill Buckley? The question is rhetorical.
Another of my guests, Tommy Loughran, the light Heavyweight champ of the World, would outbox the best, knock some unconscious , but would finger his beads in public, oblivious to the world.
Did God mean anything in Tommy's life? Relevance is the word!
While one could go on citing such believers almost endlessly, one has to boggle at those who seem not to believe that God has any force in their personal lives. It is the old Deist notion: God made the world but abandoned it to its own pitiful devices. But perhaps in assessing the secularist mentality the focus should be on "..seem not to believe."
I recall interviews with guests like David Merrick of Broadway, David Susskind of television fame and Al Capp with the prosthetic leg and the nervous giggle ( who created Lil Abner and his girl friend, the physically endowed Daisy Mae and B.O.Plenty and the whole Dogpatch gang)
None of them seemed aware or interested in God's Presence and His involvement in human life. Their conversation level was on the mundane or at best on the "Good Face" for example, Merrick made a feeble attempt to show how chaste and self restrained young Show people are. ( I, from a show business background , had to blink twice and swallow hard to keep a straight face in that interview). Yet, I sensed some kind of almost frenetic energy desperately trying to make sense out of so much nonsense, absurdity and illusion.
Under the breezy façade of Ed McMahon, I sensed some kind of hunger, some kind of spiritual need. And likewise behind the dulcid tones of Mel Allen. And from the trumpet of Dizzy Gillespie and under the bewildering verbiage of Jeanne Dixon . I heard a scream of SPIRITUAL HUNGER or was it SHALLOWNESS!
Archbishop Jacavos saw the real vision. So did Rabbi Marc Tannebaum and Eli Weisel who spoke of the hell of the concentration camp. Even the smooth talking, articulate professional politicians, good men, knew somehow that there is SOMETHING ELSE !!!!! Govenor Dick Hughes of New Jersey and Governors Wilson and Carey of New York could articulate well the limitations of human effort.
There is an elderly Jewish woman in my swimming club who works for HUNGER PROJECTS and who claims ( I think rightly) that everyone has a hunger of some kind. Mother Teresa held that modern human beings are sickened with loneliness in spite of all the high powered programs to fill our time. What IS the human being looking for? I recall interviewing ( in a different television setting) the noted and flamboyant writer Norman Mailer whom I liked instantly as a warm, interesting, intelligent if confused man. He caroused verbally all over the studio with spectacular talent but with a somewhat pathetic emptiness. After five marriages and numerous liasons ( his report ) he still seemed restless and unfulfilled. What would do it? What was he seeking?
I have interviewed psychiatrists, politicians, clerics, educators, athletes, show people, married, single, homosexual, heterosexual, extraordinary and very ordinary folk, black intellectuals like Roy Wilkens, Ken Clark, Bayard Rustin, Jewish leaders from Israel, UN diplomats . I have been the confidante as psychotherapist, spiritual director, friend of hundreds of people over my 56 years of priesthood ---- I hazard a theory ! While every one basically has the same need and nature, regardless of age, religion, race, era, culture, ethnicity there is the BASIC God question in all of us. But the ANSWER to the question is what?
The Greeks had a word for it. Consult Paul at Athens where the intellectual Greeks somehow knew that a Supreme Being (or God) was the very essense of Reality. They had an altar TO THE UNKNOWN GOD!!!! The essence of being human is to be incomplete and anxious and depressed by itself. When all the baloney is sliced and spiced up, the answer is offered by a high level saint, philosopher, and psychologist, Augustine of Hippo, who in his Confessions ( more correctly translated as " testimonies" cf. Garry Wills) in this ancient and penetrating manner:
THOU HAST MADE US FOR THYSELF, O GOD, AND OUR HEARTS ARE RESTLESS UNTIL THEY REST IN THEE.