If one could be both poet, philosopher & historian, one could write a pretty bully book.
— William James
The churches in Atlantic City weren’t the biggest show in town anymore. Gaudy casinos stood like architectural braggarts next to stone temples crumbling and suffering the disgrace of graffiti. This was 1999, long before I conceived of The Devil is a Gentleman, and mass was about to begin at Our Lady Star of the Sea, a shrub-fenced Catholic complex on Atlantic Avenue. I lived in Atlantic City for a time; this was my neighborhood. Mr. Lucky Barbershop, Alcoholicos Anonimos, a bail bonds joint, a funeral home, and my dinky apartment all shared a view of the church.
In the courtyard I headed for a statue I knew—I’d seen it before on walks, and returned to it sometimes. It was a Christ. The statue was all white except where it was streaked with city soot, and it stood in an open-armed Christ pose, as though you should look at its abdomen for some reason. It was the statue’s eyes that I came back for. Someone had gouged out the concrete and inserted glass replicas. They weren’t particularly lifelike, but they gave the statue an eerie presence because you could see that someone had tried to make it look alive. Much later, I would come to learn of the undulating definition of God: when things went bad, from war or exile or pestilence, people turned their backs on abstract conceptions of God and set off toward anthropomorphic visions. They resurrected a personal God, brought him back to life. They gave him eyes that looked real.
Atlantic City had a population of only about thirty thousand, but its blight had been world-class ever since commercial airlines diverted East Coast tourists to Florida. When I lived there I made a habit of exploring the city’s tiny forgotten neighborhoods, the whole town sucked down into that special form of squalor available to places once grand. Corpses turned up pretty regularly in Atlantic City. Left in abandoned cars, dumped under bridges, once stuffed under the motel bed of an unsuspecting couple. One day, I watched two men load a body into a station wagon in broad daylight. They didn´t have a stretcher, so they had rolled the stiff into a length of old carpet. The following summer there was a spate of suicides in the city, five in eight days, people throwing themselves off the casinos’ huge parking structures. One of them was a friend of mine.
I had come to Atlantic City for a job, but I rationalized staying for a while with the observation that, like it or not, most of the world lived like this. Like a much larger metropolis, Atlantic City was divided into ethnic neighborhoods, Hispanic, African American, Vietnamese. This last drew me to Our Lady—the church held a weekly mass in Vietnamese, and on November 24, 1999, there was a special service for the Martyrs of Vietnam. More than a hundred priests, nuns, and believers had been murdered for their faith in Vietnam since Portuguese missionaries first arrived there in 1533. Pope John Paul II canonized all of them in 1988.
I’ve never really felt the need for faith, though I admire it in others. I’m told that as a boy I enjoyed mass and memorized hymns prodigiously so I could sing them at a little church by the ocean. But all that is beyond the horizon of my memory. What I remember is rejecting mass, despising it, hiding in closets to avoid the stucco suburban churches we attended once my family moved inland. I generally felt traumatized by mass though not for any good reason. I became an altar boy for a time, back when the priest still placed the Eucharist directly onto the tongues of the congregation. One of my jobs was to hold a little metal disk, a paten I think it was called, under people´s chins. But at ten years old, I wasn’t in the spirit: I imagined my paten as razor sharp, and I could cut all those throats if I wanted to.
Eventually our family stopped going to church altogether. I grew up, left home. Since then, I’d wandered into mass only a few times, and it wasn’t until I heard about the Martyrs of Vietnam and connected them to the glass-eyed Christ that I considered taking the first step toward what would become The Devil is a Gentleman. I just decided to go to the service. I’d sit in a pew, no one would look at me. It would be awkward to refuse communion, but I didn’t have to participate.
I stepped into Our Lady’s foyer, where the little church had declared war on the casino hotels. Bingo flyers dabbed a pattern on a bulletin board of upcoming events. One sign read:
This wasn’t such a surprise. Catholicism might have been alone among the Christian traditions to openly embrace gambling, but the wager concept had long played a prominent role in the philosophical wrangling over God. Once Western Christianity committed itself to an anthropomorphized Trinity—triplets perched on the fence between polytheism and monotheism—rational thinkers felt compelled to explain their faith with logic. More than one stumbled onto the metaphor of a bet: Luther described his faith as “a free surrender and a joyful bet on his unfelt, untried and unknown goodness. “Pascal was more to the point: “Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate the two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.” Kant was less explicit, but just as concerned with the wager´s outcome: “The speculative interest of reason makes it necessary to regard all order in the world as if it had originated in the purpose of a supreme reason.” The basic idea, much older than even these thinkers, was eventually shorthanded to “Pascal’s wager,” and divinity itself came to be understood with a principle familiar to the professional gambler: the expectation of loss. God was a good bet.
In Our Lady’s sanctuary, religion, like Atlantic City, seemed like a bet already lost. It was all in decline. Below the pipe organ a camera oscillated meanly over the pews, and what sounded like the ocean a block away was really a malfunction in the public address system. Casino dealers skulked into confessional stalls, dressed in their tacky uniforms. The votive candles were electric, and I watched a man sneak up and light six of the twitchy bulbs without leaving a donation. I was just about to abandon my adventure when the Vietnamese began to arrive. They came in neatly dressed waves, threading through the washboard pattern of pews. I took a seat behind a hunched old man with an ornate wooden cane, a flimsy white beard, inch-long thumbnails, and thin beautiful clothing like vestments.
I admit I was baffled by the Martyrs of Vietnam. I could imagine dying for an idea, but I couldn’t imagine dying for an imported idea, for someone else’s idea. It was still a few years before I would go back to William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, and it wasn’t until I picked the book up again and took James as my patron that I began to understand how I could be curious about religion when some part of it still repelled me. “Our faith is faith in someone else’s faith,” James advised, “and in the greatest matters this is most the case.” For James, religious experience—something quite different from going to mass—stood as a marker of both extremes of human potential: its fruits were the best that humanity was capable of, yet its distortions had resulted in the worst atrocities the world had ever seen. James was neither a strict believer nor a complete skeptic, a contradiction that has frustrated his biographers and which serves as a fair introduction to the elasticity of his thinking. The same flexibility was also why he wouldn’t have been baffled by the Vietnamese. Nor by Pascal’s wager:
And here was where James began to get a little tricky. A certain kind of “risk,” he went on, was not entirely without merit. We play the game of life not to escape losses, but to reap gains. Not wagering at all created its own problem: a society unwilling to risk “loss” in the form of error. The scientific world´s “fear of loss” prevented it from entertaining that which might be true, and cut it off entirely from truth that came about as the result of commitment. Risk was not preferable, James said, but “the risk of being in error is a very small matter when compared to the blessings of real knowledge.” Here he was gearing up for The Varieties of Religious Experience, in which he would explore and entertain a number of unusual religious beliefs and practices. It wasn’t far into this book that he offered a defense of his method, a dictum that applied just as well to risk as to my uncertainty over attending a Vietnamese mass a century later:
Varieties was distilled from a series of lectures James delivered in Scotland in 1901-02. In it, he quoted at length a broad range of testimonials and biographies of “religious geniuses,” mapping out a few consistencies that could be observed across the range of religious experience. The book was an act of generous synthesis. It was characterized by James’s willingness to believe—not in the accuracy of any given testimony, but in the idea that patterns among them must hint at truths that science, for all its reliance on the observable and the repeatable, could not access. Varieties pioneered the study of comparative religions. In the book itself, James wrote, “We have the beginnings of a ‘Science of Religion,’ so-called; and if these lectures could ever be accounted a crumb-like contribution to such a science, I should be made very happy.”
More seed than crumb, it turns out. Varieties helped to kick-start a field, just as The Principles of Psychology triggered the science of psychology and Pragmatism nearly spawned a religion. Yet now Varieties is remembered more for its methodology—comparing religions—than for what it said about them. Throughout his life, James expressed concern over the fragmentation of academic study and warned that science was threatening to become a religion no better than the faith it hoped to displace. Not long before he died he wondered whether all the dialogue had been worth it. Now James has been plastered with two labels: father of a psychology he would have despised, and adherent to a wacky Spiritualism long since discredited. His biographers pick at his bones, often seeming to dislike him even as they are fascinated by him. “James is our great philosopher of the cusp,” is typical of the kind of backhanded compliment he is paid.
I took him differently. James kissed me awake with his work, his voluminous letters, a slew of haphazard biographies, and I carried him through the adventure of The Devil is a Gentleman, his voice like a conscience as I wandered from monks to Druids to Satanists to Christian wrestlers and Scientologists and witches. What characterized James best was his spirit of participation. He had experimented with drugs to test alternate forms of consciousness, he had consorted with channelers and mind-curers. He was a hypnotist, and had studied ‘psychical’ phenomena earnestly. He willingly embraced that which he could not explain but to which he would neither fully subscribe. It was intellectual generosity that saved him, shamelessness in the face of the academic scorn he sometimes suffered over the company he kept. James did not argue that one could or should will oneself to believe in anything. Instead, he entertained the fringe of belief and argued that all of us had a right to believe whatever chimed with our sensibilities. Part of James had died in academia, yet some of his fruits survived in the many new religious movements of the twentieth century.
Back at Our Lady, a spirit of participation was the lesson I was just about to learn as I realized the fallacy of sitting through mass without participating in it. Varieties: “One can never fathom an emotion or divine its dictates by standing outside of it. “The service commenced and came to that moment of Catholic calisthenics when we all had to stand, to sing or be sprinkled. The Vietnamese turned on me as one. I had never before been the tallest man in a room. In Jamesian language, Catholicism was a hypothesis that had died for me. But now I stood my ground through the awkward moment, and then we all faced forward to worship in a faith once mine but long since taken by the Vietnamese as their own.