Albacete lectures about religion and modernity

As part of the Newman Catholic lecture series, Lorenzo Albacete took these issues head on in a talk entitled, “God at the Ritz: Is Religion Just A Lot of Bull?” With degrees in astrophysics, applied physics and sacred theology, Albacete is a sought-after commentator on religion and modernity and has contributed to such publications as The New Yorker, The New York Times and the Italian daily Tempi. On Wednesday he also gave out a few dozen signed copies of his new book, God at the Ritz: Attraction to Infinity.

Albacete’s involvement in the PBS Frontline documentary entitled John Paul II: The Millennial Pope indirectly served as the impetus for his writing God at the Ritz and most recently as his opening anecdote to an eager Williams audience. In 1997, he accompanied his producer on a 2-week holiday at the Pasadena Ritz Carlton to pitch the new documentary to critics and industry movers and shakers. At the press conference, Albacete and the producer took turns answering questions. His first question, he recalls, was about the show. The rest of the questions during the hour-long session focused exclusively on religion and whether it was still possible, given the pressures in modern life, to hold religious belief.

Wholly unprepared for what he loosely termed an “inquisition,” Albacete drew upon his colorful and accomplished life and gave some answers. These answers, with added references to scholars and to Monty Python, form the basis of his new book.

“There is an interest,” Albacete said, referring to the increasingly ambiguous role of religion in the present day. “There is a thirst for the real, not for the real in a philosophical sense, but for what’s. . .authentic.” He then sought to distinguish the world of thought, logic and reason from the world of personal experience. The problem is that the two have become detached, each following its own path.

“The three figures that have been called the masters of suspicion are Freud, Marx and Nietzsche,” he said. “The religious quest was real: people had it. It was an expression of a conflict within you that had nothing to do with God, infinity or anything religious.” Despite any differences between them, the three corresponding schools of thought attempted to fill the void with something entirely unique. “To acknowledge a religious passion or thirst was embarrassing. All along, you did everything possible to suppress that desire,” Albacete said.

The need to contextualize religion in a technologically advanced society drew a resolute response from Albacete: “If religion wants to be taken seriously today, it must withstand scientific criticism.” Otherwise, he cautions, “[religious claims] cannot hope to recapture their standing as a way of grasping what is real.” If such claims fail the litmus test of the empirical method, one must abandon them. The fallback rebuttal that aspects of religion are beyond the realm of science alludes to sentimental claims, Albacete suggested.

And then there are notions that current basic research cannot test, and these are “authentically human experiences that don’t exist for scientific rationality.” Albacete introduced the humorous example of a pathologist who goes home after a long day in the lab: “I’ve always wondered how a pathologist makes love.” Science cannot explain what it is that attracts the pathologist, both physically and emotionally, to her husband, but the sentimental claim and reality are most certainly there. The pathologist’s strictly empirical statement in this case rang true in the speaker’s accented, baritone impersonation, “I know what’s inside of you!”

“Don’t suppress your desires,” Albacete said. “It is the act of raw power. When it is shown that it cannot deliver what it promises, it suppresses the desires or distracts them.” He recalled the result of this same desire of noted author and journalist Germaine Greer (The Female Eunich, The Politics of Human Fertility), who became an atheist in light of the widespread suffering of children in Africa. In an orthodox church, she uttered, “All the music. . .is the human cry to nothing. There is nothing there. If God exists, I hate him.”

“All I can ask is that nothing be suppressed,” Albacete said. “That the mind be open to the totality of everything, to all aspects of the experience and every chance to ask, ‘why?’ The immoral suggestion that suffering is tied to misbehavior– that is another derailing of the path to follow, the questioning why. If we follow that path, it will put us at the doorstep of the great mystery that the heart desires.”

The evening’s topics begged the question: If the mystery were to be revealed, what shape would it take? Albacete responded by quoting Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who in his defining work Entre Nous answered that the mystery “will bear the face of absolute humility, the face of the poorest of the poor.”

The man at the podium, who by the end of his remarks had tears in his eyes, whispered. “It will be by reaching out to that absolute need that we will encounter. . .the mystery.”