Dr. Robert Coles, children, and the sacred.
CHILDREN, IT IS SAID, are the future of the human race on whom we project our own hopes and fears. We are amused by the spectacle of the father who transfers his unfulfilled athletic ambitions to his son, or of the mother who is determined that her daughter not make the same mistakes the mother made. These individuals are plainly working out issues in their own lives in the lives of their children, forcing their sons and daughters into patterns of thought and attitude that may have nothing to do with what is best for them.
We naturally want to protect our children from negative influences, and in an age of moral relativism we are all the more inclined to see them as repositories of unalloyed goodness and virtue. That is, we seek to preserve in our children what we otherwise deny, that there are objective moral truths and non-relative values, a psychological zone wherein we preserve for ourselves as well as for our children the possibility of true goodness and moral rightness. However, childhood becomes all the more precious to us even as it becomes more susceptible to unethical pressures and influences. The last redoubt against sexual permissiveness in our society is childhood, but now even that has come under attack since "intergenerational" sex is seen by the apostles of sexual permissiveness as the last taboo to be overcome in the long march to a sexual utopia. (1)
We must face the fact that there are people who do not care about children for the children's own sake but for their own sake, and who would abuse or exploit them as workers, or consumers, or as sexual objects. We must also face the fact that there are people who want to use children for political purposes. Liberals and progressives, for example, seek to advance their political aims from tax increases to eliminating standardized testing to promoting homosexuality, and will first justify their agenda items with appeals to our concern for children. Senator Hillary Clinton and Marion Wright Edelman are examples of the crasser sort, but the longtime champion of this approach is the writer and child psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Coles.
Coles's reputation arises from what he has written and how he has written it, which helps to explain the enviable influence he has attained in discussions of public affairs and national social policy. He has achieved distinction not as a public official or policy "wonk" but rather as the outgrowth of his career as a child psychiatrist, combined with a strong literary sense and a relentless drive to achieve, and being as closely wired into the liberal establishment as it is possible to be. Born in Boston in 1929, Coles graduated from Harvard, Phi Beta Kappa, in 1950, attended medical school at Columbia University, interned in the field of pediatric psychiatry in a Chicago hospital, and then returned to work in Boston area hospitals. In 1958 he fulfilled his military obligation in the Air Force and was assigned to run a psychiatric clinic in Biloxi, Mississippi. Coles characteristically turned the latter interruption into an opportunity, first by writing essays for respected journals on race relations in the South, a subject of national concern during those days of forced school integration, black activism and white resistance. He systematically interviewed a large number of people, mainly children, but also parents, teachers, civil rights activists, and their segregationist opponents. The result was the book that made Coles's reputation, Children of Crisis, which contained accounts of these interviews, including quotations and also his own comments and personal reflections. (2)
Children of Crisis was originally published by the Boston publishing house of Little, Brown and Company and subsequently appeared, after receiving favorable notices, in a paperback edition. The origin of its publication, it is fair to say, is no accident since Boston was the home of the abolitionist movement in the nineteenth century in the lead-up to the Civil War, and this work, while ostensibly non-judgmental, follows in a tradition of northern condemnation of Southern race relations. It is composed of three sections, one on Coles's method of research; a central section consisting of accounts of his interviews with children, parents, teachers, and advocates and opponents of school desegregation; a third section that contains final conclusions and reflections. Besides interviews, Coles also relied on interpretations of pictures drawn by school children, several of which are included in Children of Crisis. Thus the book has the format of a social science report based on a precise methodology, with careful presentations of actual evidence, followed by conclusions in the inductivist tradition of natural science.
This book is not like that, for example, of Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma, (3) the report of extensive research by the Swedish sociologist and his team on the state of black Americans living in the South during World War II, which was used by the Supreme Court in the Brown school desegregation case. As revealed in the "Foreword," much of the interpretive material (and some of the interviews) had been previously published in such journals as the Massachusetts Review, Atlantic Monthly, the Yale Review, Daedalus and the American Scholar. In effect, the results of Coles's early research indicate that his approach is anything but scientific and that, instead, it is interpretive, literary, humanistic, and political, a conclusion corroborated by a study of Coles's text. Although Children of Crisis was ostensibly a report based on Coles's research, it confirmed everything that a white, northern liberal wanted to hear about the South and the desegregation crisis at that time, translated into psychological terms so that the economic and social deprivations caused by Jim Crow laws and the practice of segregation were seen in their deleterious effects on children's psyches.
Research for the book was underwritten by several foundations including the Rockefeller and New World foundations and also Harvard University; funding from non-governmental agencies enabled Coles over the next decade and a half to conduct further interviews with the children of migrant workers and other groupings. In all he produced five large volumes that collectively were given the title of the initial volume, Children of Crisis. Volumes two and three, Migrants, Sharecroppers, Mountaineers and The South Goes North, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973. Coles has written many books since and published a multitude of articles, extending his interview-plus-commentary technique to women in a multi-volumed work, Women in Crisis. But he has capitalized mainly on his interest in children. He has also written books for children, as well as books on the political, moral, and spiritual attitudes of children. In addition, he has written biographies, the subjects of which indicate both his range of interests and the figures who have influenced him, including the physician-poet William Carlos Williams, the child psychologists Anna Freud and Erik Erikson, and the Christian social activists Dorothy Day, Simone Weil, and Daniel Berrigan.
In 1978, Coles returned to Cambridge as Professor of Psychiatry and Medical Humanities in the Harvard Medical School, where he has pursued his research, performed clinical duties, and given courses on literature and social issues, such as "The Literature of Social Reflection," while producing a constant stream of books and articles, securing, according to The New York Times, a reputation as a "revered author." He has continued to appear in print into his seventies, having started a journal called Double Take in 1995, which was recently rescued financially by two benefit concerts performed by rock music star Bruce Springsteen, about whom Coles has published a recent book. (4)
Robert Coles has achieved a position of eminence rare among writers not simply because he has received a Pulitzer Prize or because he is a professor at Harvard University. No author writes in a vacuum, and Coles wrote for that most influential of audiences, the liberal establishment, most of whose members graduated from elite prep schools and colleges of the northeast, read Atlantic Monthly and the New Yorker in both of which journals Coles has published, and dominated into the 1980s debate on such issues as defense, welfare, and race relations. Liberal control of the national discourse was pervasive in the discussion of the arts, literature, morals, culture and political policy. Such was its domination of national discussion that liberalism defined a moral and intellectual universe in which alternate ideas were not resisted by arguments or the logic of evidence, but were simply rejected out-of-hand as irrational or immoral.
The liberal establishment ruled because it defined what counted as rational and moral, and Coles's writings were a major influence in defining that universe of liberal discourse. Over time, however, the period of liberal dominance came to an end with the realization that Liberal social policies had often failed. After Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 it was clear that there were coherent alternatives to liberalism. Many liberals who learned that lesson became neo-conservatives or started to try to articulate the basis of their left-wing beliefs, something they had not done before. This has not been true of Coles, however, who still writes as if there have been no unintended or dire consequences of liberal programs (such as bussing and affirmative action, or the installation of a permanent underclass supported by welfare), or as if conservative alternatives need not be taken seriously.
This is a curious lack on Coles's part, for children have become the victims of much that was wrong in liberal-sponsored government programs that had to be corrected once the unintended results became apparent. Perhaps the largest event which reflects this problematic aspect of liberal social policies was the elimination of the AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) program during the Clinton administration. Indeed, no single redistributive social program, except for Social Security, seemed more secure and unlikely to be overturned than this program that provided monetary support for most single mothers where no father or breadwinner was on site. The unintended consequence, cited prominently by the late Senator Moynihan, was simply that the program encouraged men to leave their children with their wives or girl friends to depend upon financial support from the federal government. In this way, the AFDC program was encouraging as much as it was relieving dependency, thus subverting its original purpose.
The availability of AFDC, plus other governmental support programs such as Food Stamps, Section 8 housing, and Medicare, in addition to support from non-governmental organizations such as the Salvation Army and local churches, made single motherhood an economically rational option for young women, as has been pointed out by Charles Murray. (5) Single motherhood also made sense because for young women, living in the inner city in an unstable setting where young men were not encouraged to marry, having a child out of wedlock meant a child of their own to love. The result was to encourage an increase in illegitimacy, single motherhood, children who did not finish high school, social instability, and juvenile crime. Due to this noxious and bitter result, Clinton signed into law the elimination of AFDC (and its replacement with state programs with a work requirement). Coles has apparently not commented on this directly, nor written about AFDC, nor conducted a survey of families before and after the end of cessation of AFDC.
Coles's style is especially important because it replaces analysis and hard thinking on social issues, and because it is the means of his persuasive powers. His written accounts of his encounters provides a narrative for which the reader is prepared by prior ruminations of the general social science sort. For instance, Children of Crisis has a self-contained chapter, part of which had appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, which was ostensibly about what Coles had discovered about children through their crayon drawings but which concluded with a significant moral point regarding race relations in the South.
Allan and Johnnie, Ruby and Jimmy, the boys and girls I have known these past years have all had in common their childhood, their developing sense of themselves and the world around them. Each of these children has learned to identify himself, somewhat, by his or her skin color--learned so during the first two or three years of life. What they have learned about their skin has been but the beginning of what they will learn. Yet, when they finally know what color they possess and what color they lack, they know something more than a few facts; they know something about their future. As one little Negro girl in Mississippi said after she had drawn a picture of herself: "That's me, and the Lord made me. When I grow up my momma says I may not like how He made me, but I must always remember that He did it, and it's His idea. So when I draw the Lord He'll be a real big man. He has to be to explain the way things are." (6)
Coles is frequently self-deprecatory, presenting to us his misunderstandings of what "Tess" or Anna Freud are saying, how they, corrected his misinterpretations, and why he misunderstood them in the first place. (7) The reader begins, however, to realize that the self-deprecation is also a clever and effective device to keep Coles and his opinions at the front of the narrative. His writing style is adverbial and self-consciously literary, often referring to the novelists and poets he has read, until it also becomes apparent that Coles is a literary name-dropper. Since his style is more literary than scientific, it does not lead easily into general conclusions of the sort that social scientists prefer most to make. This technique leaves a vacancy that a liberal reader is expected to fill.
Coles's method for reporting the words of his interviewees is not to transcribe them directly but to correct their grammar and smooth out their sentences so as to make them more acceptable to a middle-class audience. This contrasts with that of another socially aware writer of the 1960s, Oscar Lewis, who interviewed poor people in the United States and Latin America, but who also transcribed the words just as they came off of his tape recorder. (8) Coles not only edits the words of the interviewees, he situates them in a running commentary, giving their personal histories and psychological and family backgrounds, as well as his own opinions. (9) In this way, his liberal perspective is kept constantly before the reader, and most obviously when he confesses his own difficulty in overcoming his prejudice against the well-to-do children he interviewed in Privileged Ones: The Well-Off and Rich in America, (10) or his outright assumption of the spiritual poverty of a former interviewee whose religious point of view is far more individualistic and less sympathetic to beneficiaries of the welfare state than Coles's. (11)
His literary output has been close to phenomenal, including numerous articles in both lay and technical journals, and over 40 books. It would be impossible to read them all in less than a year of full-time reading, yet a sampling is enough to realize that over and over again Coles will write in a self-deprecatory way, one that criticizes not only his own reactions (those of a white, well educated, middle-class professional) but also the presumptions of his own fields of social science and psychiatry. But the self-deprecation is often likely only a matter of technique, as a way to elicit the reader's confidence. Here, again, the literary and ruminative aspects of his style are paramount.
Coles wrote his senior thesis at Harvard on the poet William Carlos Williams under the tutelage of Perry Miller, the literary scholar and expert on Puritan thought. After having met Williams and corresponded with him, Coles decided to follow his career path, for Williams was a full-time practicing physician at the same time that he was writing quality poetry and literary criticism. In fact, Coles's early influences were literary, a fact apparent not only from his mentoring by Williams, but also from an upbringing in which his parents, his mother especially, encouraged him to read such serious authors as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. His family found a certain religious meaning in these texts; for Coles himself, this influence is apparent in his own technique of writing what are essentially narratives, literal stories of children's lives through their own words and his own response to them. (12)
In Coles's account, the children are preternaturally wise, insightful, thoughtful, sincere. And while he manifestly likes them and is concerned with the children he interviews, even maintaining contact with some of them for years afterwards, there is an odd emptiness in his view, as if the children serve mainly as exemplars of social concern. Coles makes no attempt to generalize on the psychological depths of children's interactions with the world: unlike Sigmund Freud and St. Augustine, he does not see in the rages of infants an indicator of the human psyche's demands for continued attention, or of an infantile egotism destined to be confronted by the reality principle. In his works, Coles presents the results of his research, but he rarely gives parents, teachers, or others practical advice on how to deal with children and their problems. (13) Cole's political beliefs become apparent in his narratives as much by his presumptions as by his own declaration. His books on children who face crises reach his readers as ways of encouraging social welfare programs, as he proceeds to highlight the needs of black children in the South, or of the children of migrant workers, or of Eskimo families. Their needs can be met, he implies, only by the liberal promise of government intervention and better welfare programs. He is a man who has deep concerns it seems, but the particular crises the children face are always reflections of a larger social crisis, such as poverty, racism, etc. At the same time, Coles's books act as reassurances to his liberal readers, that the little children can "take it" after all, since they can muster the necessary strength, insight, and calm wisdom, even better sometimes than adults, when they have to confront social change and, too, must come to terms with the adult-made difficulties of their situations. (14)
In the middle of his career Coles came to an appreciation of the spiritual aspects of life and to a reconsideration of his life's work. Looking for a new subject to write about, he says he was encouraged by Anna Freud to go back over his material, to take the notes and tape recordings from his earlier interviews, and to re-study them. (15) He found, with his wife's encouragement, that he had neglected the religious and ethical opinions of the children he had interviewed, and had not included in his published accounts what their thoughts about religion and their personal ideas of right and wrong were, as mirrored in the crises they were experiencing in their lives. The result of Coles's spiritual awakening were several books, including The Moral Life of Children (1986) and The Spiritual Life of Children (1990). Also, during this time, Coles was asked by the editor of The New Oxford Review to write a series of brief articles, or ruminations, which appeared on a monthly basis for about three years and were subsequently published as a book. Harvard Diary: Reflections on the Sacred and the Secular, a subject on which he published some further thoughts in a small but influential book, The Secular Mind. Coles has also been writing occasional pieces for America, the left-leaning Jesuit weekly.
In the books on children, Coles does not reach explicit conclusions about the subject of religion except to describe it in social terms as he deals with his young interviewees' dilations on God, religious practices, moral judgments, meaning in life and so forth. In line with his liberalism, Coles makes it a point in The Spiritual Life of Children to survey children of all the major religious faiths, including Christian, Jewish, and Muslim, plus a chapter on those who have no religious affiliation and his own apology for not including Buddhist children! (16) While Coles's religious thinking and moral beliefs are implied in these later books on children, they are explicit in other books he wrote at that time about major figures he had either met or studied. Here his attachment to Dorothy Day and her Catholic Worker movement based in New York City, where he spent several months, his colloquy with the peace activist and dissident priest Daniel Berrigan, (17) and his remarks on theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich make it clear that for Coles religion is conflated with social activism, and that his religious belief is identified with a contemporary form of the social gospel.
Coles's identification of sincere religious belief with social activism ultimately makes him unable to understand the thought of those sincere Christians who are not devotees of the social gospel, particularly in the cases of Flannery O'Connor and of Simone Weil. The Christian and spiritual themes of O'Connor's neo-Gothic stories obviously attracted him, but her unsentimental approach to race relations and lack of enthusiasm for the civil rights movement made her a daunting subject for him. (18)
His appreciation is even more conflicted in the case of Simone Weil, as he attempts to understand someone, a virtual prophet of our time, whose thought was based on a mystically inclined Christian perspective combined with a devotion to Greek classical culture. Weil had a contemporary sense of the need for social justice that she expressed not only in words but also in action as a laborer in a Renault automobile factory for a time, thus expressing both a sensibility that was both political and religious and a willingness to apply the most stringent moral logic to the political and social issues of her day. In consequence, this brought her down paths Coles was unwilling to follow and barely able to understand, such as her wish to censor literary works that incite criminal activity or lower moral standards, even while supporting freedom of expression of ideas.
His book Simone Weil: A Modern Pilgrimage is not explicitly a biography but an attempt to deal with a figure he was attracted to but whose life and work seriously clashed with liberal thought. (19) Admittedly difficult as she is both as a writer and a personality, it is typical that rather than attempting to gain a deeper understanding of Weil in her own life and work, much of the book consists of Coles's personal reflections and commentary on her attainment, specifically as these conflict with his liberal beliefs. Often, the only way for Coles to deal with Weil is that, once aware of a particular conflict between her ideas and liberal opinion, he discourses on his own opinions on the same subject by referring to conversations he had with Anna Freud. Yet, she, agnostic and apolitical, was an unlikely person to inform Coles about Weil. Indeed it would have made much more sense for Coles to have read and assimilated Weil in an attempt to understand Anna Freud (and her father). (20)
While Coles has a more than casual regard for the secular, assiduously writing books and articles and pursuing his successful career, he seemingly has none at all for the sacred in itself; in fact, he does not seem to know what it is. Thus, he is deferential in his reports on Simone Weil's mystical experiences, but he describes them with a peculiar neutrality. Coles's reticence is peculiar, for as a clinical psychiatrist familiar with the doctrines of Sigmund Freud, he might have observed the possibility of psychosis or of delusion: As a Christian (Episcopalian) he might have observed the possibility that God actually spoke to her and that, as Weil said, Jesus visited with her. As a teacher of literature he might have compared her vision to that of St. Theresa, or of William Blake, or of Thomas Merton. It is Simone Weil's mystic sensibility that yields her precision and insight as she comments on the politics of her time, for by definition, the mystic sensibility presumes contact with the ultimate reality, the Divine, a contact as Plato has said, and the saints have exemplified, that allows the mystic to perceive essential truths behind the flux and confusion that make up everyday life.
Coles's later writings manifest a confusion between the sacred and the secular in which it seems he cannot discern the realm of the sacred, including mystical and ordinary religious experience. Regarding the secular, he is critical, constantly aware of the limitations and pretensions of the scientific approach to psychology and psychiatry. Yet, regarding the sacred, he never fully commits to faith and is always aware of the doubts and intrusions that interfere with religious belief from our constant involvement with the world. While Coles seems to be a man of faith, as seen in the Harvard Diary, he never declares that he is, preferring instead to show concern with moral implications while willingly admitting to his own ignorance as a psychologist. For example, he acknowledges that he was presumptuous when early in his career he favored an abortion for an unmarried teenager, but his stance on abortion is at the same time one of doubt rather than a reasoned one on the issue. (21) His position, hence, is not one of being "personally opposed but unwilling to impose my beliefs," but instead one of being "usually acceptable, but watch out for those moral implications you might just be missing."
Coles's inability to bridge the chasm between the sacred and the secular may very well be based upon his own involvement in promoting his standing in the secular world. He has published many books and seems to have an unrelenting desire to write and to promote both his books and himself; his efforts at self-promotion have certainly paid off for Coles has attained an extraordinary level of success as an author and an academic. Fully embedded into the liberal establishment during his professional life, he has success largely because he has been able to fit within it. One of the most obvious and least attractive aspects of his hunger for publicity is his involvement with authors more famous than himself, what one commentator has called Coles's "shtick," that is, his "talent for publicizing himself by associating himself with the famous." (22) Figures with whom he has personally approached and written about include Walker Percy, Anna Freud, Daniel Berrigan, Dorothy Day, Paul Tillich, William Carlos Williams, Karen Horney, Erik Erikson, and Bruce Springsteen. (The great spiritual writers remind us that devotion to the things of this world such as fame and success disqualify us from understanding the sacred, spiritual life, and the kingdom of heaven; hence we must perhaps question whether this is not true in Coles's case.)
Of course, it is churlish to deprecate a man's reputation merely because of the degree of its success, for if it is to be the case that only saints may comment on the sacred, whose words can stand? But the issue is not only that of Coles's ability to understand the sacred in itself, but also and more generally, about the secular world's inability to understand and an unwillingness to tolerate religious opinions in contemporary debates on social policy, law and culture. Here Coles's confusion regarding the secular and the sacred is representative of the crisis in contemporary social policy.
In his recent book, The Secular Mind, Coles deals with the fact, observable in his own career, that religious approaches to psychology have been overtaken by secular, and especially Freudian approaches. This is a short book, only 189 pages long, based on four decades of reflection that began when he took a seminar with the theologian Paul Tillich, who often employed the term "the secular mind." This book, which is dedicated to Tillich and Dorothy Day, is organized into a brief introduction and four chapters: on secularism in the Bible, secularism in the early 1900s, in the late 1900s, and in the future, in the chapter entitled, "Where We Are Headed." Coles's examination is primarily literary, citing numerous novelists, critics, and on occasion a theologian, as well as interviews with Anna Freud, Dorothy Day, Erik Erikson.
The sentence that starts the main text is of dubious value, but it does reveal the whole project of the book: "Throughout the history of Christianity the authority of the sacred has never been taken for granted as a compelling moral and spiritual given of unassailable sway." Nobody, it is true, is likely to take a claim of the authority of the sacred for granted, but Coles wants to say something else in that sentence, namely that the sacred has no independent reality from the secular, a point made clearer in the second sentence that is not only dubious but also plainly false: "Indeed, the lives of the saints have borne continuing witness to the vulnerability of religious faith, its bouts of frailty in the face of this or that era's challenges." (23)
In truth, the way people become saints is not to give in to the "challenges" of their times, but to maintain faith in the face of discouragement and temptation while engaging the challenges, something Coles should have perceived in his personal contact with Dorothy Day and in his study of Simone Weil. As Chesterton has said, saints are an antidote to their times. Both the psychology of the saints and contemporary politics suggest that recognition of the possibility of a sacred realm beyond the mundane for which religious belief aims must rest on something more positive than secular angst. The function, as it were, of the recognition of the reality of the sacred is something Coles should have discovered by his reading of Flannery O'Connor on whom he wrote a book, and of Walker Percy on whom he wrote a 25,000-word profile for The New Yorker. Did Coles learn nothing from the character Rayber in The Violent Bear It Away, or from the secularist scientists in The Thanatos Syndrome?
His book on secularism has an odd tone throughout as he describes the decline of religious belief in Western society, as if he were describing a bloody and violent accident in the calmest of terms. It is apparent that Coles is concerned about the decline of religion and the ascent of Freudian influences, though he cannot seem to get too upset about it. He quotes Anna Freud repeating a statement of her father's. "They [his religious critics] are right, psychoanalysis is 'godless,' it is 'godless materialism.'" (24) He goes on to point out the irony that Freudian psychoanalysis eventually replaced religion for many of Freud's followers. The most critical remark he makes about Freud is that given by what Coles knows from his study of Pascal. Augustine, Bonhoeffer, and Day: that Freud's understanding of religion was "inadequate, to say the least." (25)
There is an absence of specificity in Coles's ruminations, an absence which obscures certain moral aspects in the displacement of religious concepts of personality by Freudian ones with which Coles never comes to terms, substituting for analysis and judgment reports of his readings of Kierkegaard or George Eliot, or of his conversations with Dorothy Day. The root of Coles's perplexity in dealing with the secular and the sacred is inevitably bound up with the liberalism which accommodates the world. Clearly, in the liberal mind-set difficult issues are not dealt with head-on, but are surrounded by doubt and subtle recrimination for not having gotten things exactly right, in effect paralyzing the ability to take action, and leaving things as they are. (26)
The certitudes that people of faith gain do not fit either the liberal mind-set, which prefers a comforting sense of complexity, or Coles's desire to understand spiritual life in terms of angst and self-criticism (also a form of self-regard). His position as a searcher is often assumed to be the more mature and intelligent position regarding religious belief, but it may in fact be a stage of arrested spiritual development--the inability to prefer either secularism or religious faith. Acquiring religious belief does not relieve the believer of the experience of the trials of living; however, dwelling on the angst produced by the contemporary world can be a form of complacency and an excuse for not taking necessary action. Spiritual experience in itself is what contemporary psychology cannot deal with on its own terms, but must define reductively as a form of psychosis or neurosis. The super-ego is the socially implanted element that battles the unregulated desires of the id in the psychological process that Freud said defined the human personality. The super-ego in this portrayal replaces the conscience, which is reduced to psychic machinery. Conscience, however, is the spiritual agent that suggests or, rather, compels its strictures; it is the means by which we recognize and accept responsibility for our actions and ourselves--the inner ear by which we hear the voice of the spirit.
If the element of the experience of the sacred is left out of one's consideration of the relation between the sacred and the secular in modern times, one's view is going to be biased or at least foreshortened since the sacred only remains as the doubt that is left over when the secular fails to satisfy. Here is Coles's summation, found in the last sentence of his book. The Secular Mind:
One prays at the very least on behalf of one's kind, though unsure, in a secular sense, to whom or what, such prayer is directed, other than, needless to say, one's own secular mind, ever needy of an "otherness" to address through words become acts of appeal, of worried alarm, of lively and grateful expectation: please, oh please, let things go this way, and not in that direction--the secular mind given introspective, moral pause, its very own kind of sanctity. (27)
The turgid sentence seems to be asserting that sanctity is to be found in the secular. For Coles this is true neither in a sacramental nor in a symbolic sense--as if through the mundane we could reach hidden realms. There is really nothing for serious people, he is saying, but to hope that the here and now provides its own sanctity, as long as we express moral concerns even without faith in God or in the sacred.
The implication of Coles's conclusion regarding social change in the areas of civic authority, abortion, marriage, genetic alteration, family life and gender relations currently being debated in our country is that true religion is best defined in liberal terms as that residuum of discomfort when we realize that the secular fails to satisfy. By implication, too, it excludes true religion, including the experience of the sacred that most religious believers undergo. Hence, believers in the traditional forms of "monotheism" whose religious experience is not on the border between doubt and faith, but more or less fully within the bounds of faith, are excluded from the debates. Their point of view is misinterpreted as a form of psychological defense against the dilemmas of the age. As Freudianism has replaced traditional religion as the source for understanding human behavior, religion that is based upon the experience of the sacred has been relegated to a "mass neurosis," in Freud's contemptuous term. Coles's response is to note the fact somewhat sadly, and then to move on. But the transformation of clinical psychology from a religious to a Freudian basis (and most recently a pharmacological basis) has practical consequences.
From the Freudian point of view we cannot ever blame one in the moral sense, for one's evil actions are the results of a slippage in the gears of the psyche, when the super-ego is perhaps not functioning precisely, and the id is out of control. One of the key elements of the "talking cure" in Freudian psychology now generally accepted among clinicians and counselors is that the psychologist must be "non-judgmental" and never condemnatory when hearing patients' statements. The aim of therapy is to cure the patient so that he or she can return to society and participate in a normal fashion in an interacting human society. Condemnation, in short, will not aid a patient along that path. Evil acts, no matter how blatant, are not to be characterized as such, but rather to be regarded neutrally, even when these acts include the sexual abuse of children.
Here we hit a nerve in the ongoing crisis in the Catholic Church brought about by the exposure of pedophile priests. The hierarchs whose responsibility it was to get rid of priests who were sexual predators relied on the authority, they claimed, of psychological experts who often (but not always) affirmed that after a period of rehabilitation and counseling, a pedophile priest was "cured," and could be trusted not to repeat his evil behavior. (28) The displacement of moral categories by psychological ones is thus now cited as one of the reasons why bishops did not take action, which in turn brought about the gravest scandal in the history of the Roman Catholic Church in America.
The current scandal, in this sense, could have a beneficent result in underlining both the evil effects of sexual permissiveness with respect to children and the moral absoluteness demanded in any association with children. For secular authorities and agencies now in fierce pursuit of the Catholic hierarchy clergy, the scandal may have a chilling impact on their own promotion of sexual freedom since the manifest contrast will be too obvious and lead to charges of blatant hypocrisy. We cannot, then, condemn Cardinal Law while at the same time espousing same sex marriage without forcing a rigorous re-examination of the psychological and the moral bases of sex, family structure, and society. It would be very interesting, and perhaps useful, to have Coles's opinion on this issue. As of the time of this writing, Dr. Robert Coles has written nothing either about the pedophilia scandal, including the role of therapy, or about the effects on the children who are its victims.
1. Feminist Germaine Greer is publishing a new picture book, The Boy, "full of pictures of 'ravishing' pre-adult boys" in provocative poses which she expects will get her called a pedophile. See the devastating review article "Generation of Taboo Breakers are a Selfish Lot" by Miranda Devine in the Sydney Morning Herald, July 10, 2003. 2. Children of Crisis: A Study of Courage and Fear (New York, 1967). 3. Gunnar Myrdal et al., An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (New York, 1944). 4. The New York Times, March 20, 2003, "A Rocker and a Revered Author Bond for a Cause." 5. LosingGround (New York, 1984). 6. Children of Crisis, 71. 7. Ibid., 65. 8. Oscar Lewis, La vida (New York, 1966). 9. On editing the words of interviewees, see Terms of Surrender, republished in A Robert Coles' Omnibus (Iowa City, 1993), 59. Also see The Moral Life of Children (Boston, 1986), 10, "'Children don't speak the way they do in your books,' I was told at a psychiatric meeting once, and I could not disagree." 10. Privileged Ones: The Well-Off and the Rich in America (Boston, 1977), 54. 11. Harvard Diary: Reflections on the Sacred and the Secular (New York, 1988). "A Victim of Spiritual Poverty," 170-173. 12. Children of Crisis, 2. "Today, philosophers increasingly recognize that persuasive story telling--the genre in which [Jane] Addams and Coles excel--may count as effective argument." Carlin Romano, Chronicle of Higher Education, March 29, 2003. 13. See Coles's The Moral Intelligence of Children (New York, 1997). Although subtitled "How to Raise a Moral Child" it does not give practical advice and seems to be an attempt to ride on the popularity of William Bennett's Book of Virtues. 14. Children of Crisis, 319. 15. The Spiritual Life of Children (Boston, 1990), xiii. 16. Ibid., xix. 17. Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion and The Geography of Faith, written with Daniel Berrigan. 18. Coles mentions O'Connor's "social conservatism" in Harvard Diary, 13. 19. Simone Weil: A Modern Pilgrimage (Reading, Mass., 1987), xvii, xviii. 20. See the critical essay by George A. Panichas on Coles's treatment of Simone Weil. "Advocates of Debasement" whose main point can be gleaned from its first sentence: "How do our 'terrible simplifiers' view great religious geniuses?" Growing Wings to Overcome Gravity (Mercer, Ga., 1999). 21. Harvard Diary, 66. 22. Regarding Coles's connection with Springsteen, Mickey Kaus, on the website Slate wrote "There's a lot of evidence of Coles' talent for publicizing himself by associating himself with the famous." March 21, 2003. [Italics in original.] 23. The Secular Mind (Princeton, 1999), 11. 24. Ibid., 53. 25. Ibid., 57, 58. 26. "Coles was the very archetype of the secular postmodern pilgrim--not a believer himself but a person who is attracted to belief, often covetous of it in others, and who is brought to the threshold of belief imaginatively through his reading." Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own (New York, 2003). 27. Secular Mind, 188, 189. 28. In a legal deposition in a case of priests who molest children, Cardinal Law stated: "I viewed this as a pathology, as an illness, Obviously, I viewed it as something that had a moral component." See also the Cardinal's letter to Priests of the Archdiocese of Boston. April 12, 2002, available online in the Boston Globe archives.
JOHN CAIAZZA is a New England college administrator who holds a doctorate in philosophy from Boston University.