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December 6th, 2007

Busted: Peter Bebergal and Scott Korb

Reflections on God from a Spiritual Odd Couple

by and Bill Mcgarvey
 
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The Faith Between Us, by Peter Bebergal and Scott Korb, is the story of a failed Jewish mystic and a would-be Catholic priest who meet and become friends while searching for the meaning of God. The book’s range is broad, encompassing rock-and-roll, drug addiction, cancer, sex, veganism, marriage and family, but it always comes back to the same small group of inescapable, maddening questions. What is faith? What is belief? What is holiness? What is love? Bebergal and Korb are a kind of spiritual Odd Couple, separated by religion and life experience but bound together by a thirst for God and a deep trust in one another. The book they have written is funny, heartbreaking, thought-provoking, unsparingly honest and ultimately thrilling in its refusal of easy answers.

BustedHalo (Robert Siegel): Where I’d like to begin is where you begin—this sense of living in a secularized society where talking about faith or belief is uncomfortable or might be embarrassing. Can you talk a little bit about what that was like and how you guys connected as friends?

Peter Bebergal: Sure. The interesting thing is that we both went to divinity schools, but even there, there wasn’t any talk about what individual people actually believed. Scott and I always joke that you could talk about God as the ground of being but that was about as far as it went at our prospective divinity schools. We learned that we had to bracket our faith, as it were, even amongst very close friends. And so when we met, the language that we used with each other and the things that we would say to each other hinted that there was something else going on for both of us, that when I talked about going to fast on Yom Kippur, Scott could tell that maybe I was really looking for redemption. And when Scott talked about teaching Sunday school, I could tell that it wasn’t just this job that he had—that there was really something at stake for him. And so gradually we got up the nerve to ask each other that question: ‘Do you believe in God?’

Scott Korb: Once we answered yes to that question, the thing that became important in our friendship was holding each other accountable to that belief. We disregarded all the differences between Judaism and Catholicism. Instead, we tried to offer each other ways to be more faithful in our lives, more faithful to one another, and to the people that we know and love. Being faithful in that way is doing the will of God as we understand it.

BustedHalo (Bill McGarvey): Are people caught off guard when you talk to them about God?

PB: When I started to tell friends about this book, how I was using it to come out as a believer, I got those very literal questions that I never want to have to answer. ‘So you really believe that there’s a God in an actual place called heaven?’ What I say to those questions is, ‘Look, I can’t tell you anything about God. All Scott and I can do is share are our stories, the stories about our lives and the things that we’ve encountered that, for me, point to holiness.’ I can’t ever escape that I have had encounters in my life that demand that I attribute to them some kind of religious language.

BH (BM): When it comes to religion, the general level of discourse is so rudimentary. People hear that you’re religious and assume that you’re a fundamentalist and don’t believe in evolution.

SK: Take a look at the conflict between the so-called ‘new atheists’—people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens—and Christian fundamentalists. Both sides read the bible literally. And that’s something that Peter and I refuse to do. It’s this pursuit of a middle ground that demands that we tell stories about what we mean when we say ‘God.’ And it sometimes takes more explanation than people are willing to listen to. What we decided to do was to make it all plain, and the only way to do that was to tell our whole stories. Laying ourselves bare allows people to have a reaction beyond, ‘Well, do you believe that there’s a God in heaven?’, or ‘Do you believe the world is six thousand years old?’ I say ‘no’ to both of those questions. But if God isn’t in heaven and the earth isn’t six thousand years old, I have to fill that space back up and so I have to talk about where I do find God and what I mean when I say ‘God,’ and then I have to also talk about what I mean when I call earth

“When I started to tell friends about this book, how I was using it to come out as a believer, I got those very literal questions that I never want to have to answer. ‘So you really believe that there’s a God in an actual place called heaven?’”

‘God’s creation.’

BH (RS): The book really does what you set out to do. It roots religious ideas in personal experience so that the ideas come from the experience rather than feeling imposed through, say, a literal reading of scripture or a repeat of doctrine.

SK: Yeah. We had our first real sad experience the other night at the Harvard Hillel where we had contacted the Hillel to try to set up a book event for us, and they had arranged with the the Harvard Catholic group to co-sponsor the event. And when the Catholic group read the book, which talks about what I consider my Catholic atheism, they didn’t feel that they could sponsor it. Which was disappointing to me. But the sad moment came when there were a good number of Catholics in attendance, and one in particular was this guy sitting in the front of the room and he felt so sure that the only way to have religious experience was through that literal belief and through that literal connection to God and through the doctrine, that when I tried to explain what you were just talking about—that a religious experience is a lived, personal one—he couldn’t quite get it and he asked two or three times the same question: how do you find meaning if you’re not looking to join God in the end? how do you find meaning in your life? And I said, I gave him the example that I give in the book which is, I was sitting there with my stepfather in the days before he died and he said to me, ‘Look, you have to take care of your mother when I’m gone.’ And that became my Christian inheritance, and that became my experience. My stepfather was a very devout Catholic and for him, his experience was that his own afterlife didn’t seem to matter to him in the moment, but only that we—his children—would take over where he left off in taking care of my mother.

BH (RS): It’s a beautiful moment in the book. It reminds me in the Jewish tradition, the eldest son who would get kadish for the father.

SK: In the end with the guy in the front row, he just had to look at me and not connect with me. And then he just sort of dropped his head and that opportunity for us to have a conversation, stopped.

PB: He didn’t ask for us to sign his book, by the way. [laughter]

BH (BM): Did he buy the book?

SK: I don’t think so.

BH (RS): But you never know with people. You start a conversation and that person is unwilling to continue, but may continue ten years from now, pick it up at another point in his life.

SK: That’s another point I made that night that I make in the book, is that for twenty years of my life I was sure that I knew how to be a Catholic, that I knew how to live as a religious person, and that meant to be as disciplined as I could and to develop an eating disorder and to decide I wanted to be a priest because I thought that that was what God wanted —was for me to be lonely my whole life. And that’s not to say that I think that priests are lonely. That’s to say that in my perception of the priesthood I was lonely and I wanted to make loneliness—as I say in the book—my vocation.

PB: And in a similar way I believed that the only way to know God was to be completely burned by God, to be a mystic, and the only way I understood to do that as a sixteen-, seventeen-year-old was through extreme behavior.

BH (BM): So your drug use, Peter, was really extreme. Did you really feel when you were younger that you were taking LSD and getting stoned because you wanted to get close to God or is that something later you projected onto the behavior?

SK: That’s a question I ask him all the time. [laughter]

PB: I mean, here’s the thing: it’s a double-sided, very painful coin. The one is that I justified much of what I was doing because I really, truly believed that if I had the right experience I would be able to stop doing what I was doing. And at the same time I became an addict and so I just needed to continue to do that, no matter what it meant for me. And then at the end all those great ideas that I had read in all the literature of the sixties and reading about eastern mysticism—all those great ideas that I thought were going to lead me towards some kind of spiritual, not revelation but enlightenment, all that turned into paranoia and a kind of psychosis where I was no longer looking for God, I was looking for symbols and weird meaning in the world, and that’s what I had reduced God to.

In a way it was also putting God in a very small container even though in my mind it was the biggest thing you could do, it was still limiting what that is. I’ve been sober now for almost twenty years—and I recently have been doing a lot of research though on hallucinogenics and mysticism—it’s very interesting to me. I recently asked a friend of mine who’s also been sober for a very long time ‘Do you think now that I’ve been sober for this long that maybe I could go to Mexico and take some peyote with the Indians —do you think that would be okay?’ And my friend looked at me and he said, ‘You know what? Your sobriety has you so plugged in that it would be an insult to God.’ And that’s what I’ve had to learn now. And what it also means is that I’ve had to learn that coming to know God is gonna take work, and it’s gonna take two steps forward, one step back. That if I don’t, that maybe, you know, not very many of us are supposed to get that kind of experience.

BH (BM): The arcs of your faith journeys are very different. Peter came from a more traditional story of excess. You didn’t find God in the way that you become born again and you eschewed all that you had done before as being sinful, but you clearly saw that your drinking and drugging was obstructing your ability to get to any sort of greater spiritual truth.

PB: That’s exactly right.

BH (BM): And Scott was very rigid with yourself in Catholic sense and then growing up your faith drifted a bit.

BH (RS): Looking from outside you seem like an odd couple of friends.

SK: We switched roles in our life.

PB: And I’ll say for me, the thing that immediately made me feel connected to Scott was that he said he believed but his emphasis was not on the other-worldly, his emphasis was not on doing what he thought he was supposed to do—you know, so that when the Messiah came he would rise up in rapture. His emphasis was on the world. And that was my transformation in my own religious life. Even though we both had different experiences, we both were seeking transcendence outside of this world either through Scott as a devout Catholic or through me as a drug-addled mystic. And what we both came to find is that if God is anywhere, God is in the world.

SK: And ‘how are we friends?’, I mean, the friendship in a very real way came first and we became friends because we liked to read the same things and we enjoyed talking about them and we liked to listen to the same music and we laughed at the same jokes, and we found each other’s family stories compelling. And it was really only through developing a friendship based in the things that everyone normally develops friendships about that we were able to get to the bigger core of the friendship now which is the faith life.

BH (BM): And Peter gets away from his personal demons to encounter a reality beyond himself. Where for Scott, it sounds like when you got beyond your personal piety there was nothing there. Can you talk about that a little bit?

PB: I want Scott to handle that first because for many ways it’s one of the big surprises of the book, and I think that at first it was hard for me when at the eleventh hour Scott would say that he did not believe in any reality beyond the one here. I have trouble trying to describe what that thing is myself, but I would still use the word “creator,” I say knowing the prayer ‘God is my rock and my redeemer.’ And I believe that, but I always have to make sure that even when I am talking with Scott or anybody, that those are just metaphors. Those are just the words that I have, I don’t have any other words to describe that. But I do believe that there is—to use the academic language—the ultimate reference by which our language references, and Scott doesn’t believe in that thing.

SK: I think an interesting part of our friendship has always been a kind of envy that we have for one another, for what the other person has experienced and for what the other person has believed. This will maybe sort of be a roundabout way of getting to the question of how Peter challenges me and how I challenge Peter, but living the controlled life that I did for so long, and still to some degrees do today, I always loved stories of excessthere was a kind of vicariousness that I could experience. I could experience all of that excess through Peter’s stories. And I think there’s something similar to that in my appreciation of Peter’s belief in that sort of alternate reality, that I don’t have to believe it because Peter does, that I can experience the sense of God tearing the roof off my life that Peter often describes, without having to believe that there is that sort of ultimate referent out there.

For me, growing up to believe in God, as you said, was about pleasing God through personal piety and what motivated that was my literal belief that there was the reality that I was pursuing. And that belief ended up being so destructive to me and I think to my relationships that there were times that I was in high school where my family life was really difficult because I wasn’t eating enough and because I was sometimes morose, and my mom and my sister didn’t really know how to deal with me. They couldn’t be nice enough to me. I would snap at thembut they were always on eggshells and I thought that I was doing something good in being the way I was. I don’t blame the Catholic church for this, this is something that I did for my own reasons and in my own way. As I say in the book, there’s no law, there’s nothing in the bible that talks about the kind of dietary restrictions that I put myself under.

 
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The Author : Robert Anthony Siegel
Robert is the author of All Will Be Revealed and All the Money in the World. Born in New York City and educated at Harvard, the University of Tokyo, and the Iowa Writers Workshop, he teaches creative writing at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington.
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