Busted: Peter Manseau

BustedHalo's conversation with the co-founder of Killing the Buddha and author of the memoir Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and their Son

Busted Halo: How do your folks react to the fact that their three kids moved far away from the church?

Peter Manseau: They’re fine now. But I think when I was growing up it was hard for them to see it happening. Although we aren’t practicing Catholics, they see that that we are good people and they respect what we are doing in our lives. We did some kind of Q & A with my publisher and that was one of the questions they asked my parents and I wasn’t there when they answered. It was a surprise to see that it was kind of hurtful to them and saddened them that we don’t take the faith as seriously as they do. But, I think they see that we live in very different times and have different choices, so the world in which they became so thoroughly Catholic doesn’t really exist as much anymore.

BH: After college you sort of flirted with becoming a Trappist monk briefly. Can you give me a sense of how you went from that to founding the website Killing the Buddha?

PM: In college I became oddly kind of pious in a lot of ways. Not in the traditional Catholic way but in my own religiosity. I was going to all kinds of religious services and I also really enjoyed religious expression. So, I went to the Hillel center on campus a lot, the synagogue a lot. I went with other friends to other Catholic churches and sort of snuck off by myself to go to mass and not really telling anyone I was going. So, it was from those experiences and also my reading of people like Merton and monastic history that I got it in my head that it would be a good idea to explore monastic vocation. It was real tension for a while in college and I loved the time I spent with the Trappists, but eventually it just didn’t feel right. It felt a bit like role-playing. I could play the role and enjoy it but it didn’t really feel true to me. So as I left college, I ended up working at a secular Jewish organization called the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst. I was really working there devoted to saving Yiddish literature, the literature of eastern European Jews who were raised in a very serious religious tradition and couldn’t really get away from it. They were obsessed with the language of it and the imagery but didn’t fully embody it. And I started to see a lot of myself in these Yiddish writers and my own relationship to the church. It was at that time that I really started to see myself as a secular Catholic, who was raised in this tradition and really appreciated the largeness of the tradition but didn’t quite fit in the way previous generations had. It was eventually that combination of things, my traditional upbringing and this iconoclastic literature that I was encountering in the Yiddish literature that really led to the Killing the Buddha enterprise.

BH: When did you start it?

I am much less involved in abstraction about religion now than when I was younger. But I do think that, in a way, writing about faith has become a practice for me … It isn’t just indulging in abstractions, it’s learning other people’s stories
and writing about practice in a way that allows people to understand it.

PM: It was about 2000. After the Yiddish book center I was just trying to write a novel and some short stories. They all had religious themes and it became very obvious to me that this is what I was obsessed with and trying to do in my writing. I started to think about writing non-fiction as well. Jeff Sharlet [co-founder of the website] was working as a journalist and we had met at the Yiddish Book Center. We both quit about the same time and went our separate ways. But we stayed in touch and started talking about what we thought was missing in religious discussion in the culture and the media and we felt something that was missing was something that discussed it and took it seriously without believing it. So there was religious media that was pretty much party line and there was secular media was pretty skeptical about everything. And we wondered if there was a way to take it seriously without believing it. And we would talk about this idea that if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. This idea of challenging your assumptions–challenging them in either direction–not just in belief but anti-belief as well. Wondering why it was that the secular media automatically assumed that because someone was a preacher that he was a charlatan as well.

We were looking for this new way to talk about religion. It sounds kind of ambitious but we were young and it seemed best. So we thought the best way to do it would be to have this open conversation about it, gather as many voices together as we could. So we started five years ago. By that point I was working at Boston University as an administrator and I was also a full-time graduate student. And Jeff was working at Chronicle of Higher Education doing research. We both stole a lot of time from our organizations and worked on the web site while we were there. Within a year or so it led to the possibility of a book and we both quit our jobs to work on the Killing the Buddha book.

BH: There seems to be an interesting sort of tension in your life. You majored in religion in college and there’s this intellectual interest in reading about religion and dealing with ideas and abstractions. And yet there’s this other end of the spectrum where you were really devoted to the Church as a child and, as a young man, you were interested in the Trappist life. How have you reconciled these elements in your life?

PM: That’s a good question. I am much less involved in abstraction about religion now than when I was younger. College and shortly after are times for abstraction it seems. Yet my practice now is virtually nonexistent, in terms of monastic prayer and even just getting up and going to church. I just don’t do it. But I do think that writing about faith has become a practice for me in a way. I realized that writing about faith is not just indulging in abstractions it’s really kind of fully inhabited and learning other people’s stories and writing about practice in a way that allows people to understand it. I guess as someone who writes about others beliefs it’s become of way combining both of those things, maybe. I’m not really sure. I do spend a good deal of time writing about belief now. More than I do practicing it or thinking about it.

BH: It’s almost like there’s an anthropological interest or involvement with it.

PM: Oh sure there is. But I’m never going out to poke the natives with a stick. I try to take the belief seriously when I’m writing, which is a big step forward for me in my own family, honestly, because when I was growing up I reached a certain adolescent stage where I thought my parents’ beliefs weren’t worth a damn. It hasn’t been hard work but it’s been really instructive to go back and take seriously what their faith has been.

BH: How does the study of other people’s belief affect your own faith? Now that you’re married and have a child I’d imagine it becomes increasingly difficult to deal in abstractions.

PM: Yeah, that’s true. The interesting thing to me in the way that I encounter fatherhood and marriage compared to how I lived it when I was small part of someone else’s marriage, by that I mean when I was small the way my parents and my siblings though about faith had a lot to do with abstractions. Mine, not so much now. As much as my parents were social activists about the faith, my father was also very intellectual about the faith. It was important for us to pay attention to the homily at church. Some of it may have been a matter of wanting us to respect authority. But I cannot imagine myself as a father being like that. I guess I’m setting myself up to becoming my father in saying that. But I’m not moved by the things my father was moved by and I’m not ruled by them in the way he was when he was my age. So, I’m expecting family life to be very different than my experience and the experience of my children to be very different than the experience of my brother and my sister and myself.

BH: Have you thought about what you want to pass onto your kids as far as these questions go?

PM: I think about it a lot and in the same way I don’t have a good answer as to where I am in my faith journey. I question it a lot the time so you’d think I would come up with a good answer.

My problem with answering the question is I want to be honest. I recognize that faith is a work in progress for everyone. No matter where you are in your orthodoxy, it’s going to change through life. And that’s something I’ve learned by writing about my parents. That someone can be so fully a part of the faith but the particulars about the belief and what is important to them as members of the faith changes over time. So, I think I’m too well aware of that to know where we stand now. I don’t think that it is beyond the realm of possibility that as we grow older as a family we will want to belong to some sort of community that may look like a church. I think we will be happy with that. When we’re at home with my in-laws, we’ll sometimes go to the Presbyterian Church that they go to and they’re not real serious Presbyterians. They like the people and like to be involved. And I have a feeling that we might be somewhat similar types of people. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. It’s unfortunate when people engage in the faith at a community level that they are made to feel they are somehow lacking something. I don’t think they are. I think that’s an essential part of that.

BH: What do you see when you look at the American landscape of faith, especially among a younger generation. What are some of the main concerns?

PM: Most young people I know who are religiously observant in any way are Jews. And I think that’s really instructive or could be to Catholics, especially to Catholics, but also to other Christian denominations. There is a sense in the larger Jewish community that the culture is as important as the belief system. That’s certainly what I feel in my own Catholic life but I don’t feel that a lot of my peers who were raised Catholic see the same thing. And the problem is that the church doesn’t do a very good job of passing down its culture. I think of my own experience in college of discovering mid-[twentieth] century intellectual Catholicism and feeling like Columbus discovering America. When I was growing up I had never heard of this. When I was in high school trying to become a young intellectual, I had no idea there was a model I could relate to. Maybe the church is doing a better job now. I certainly hear a lot more about Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor now than I did in college. Maybe there’s a reclamation going on. So that is the one thing I see lacking in the culture I come from.

BH: In our culture today, my impression is that people are interested in being spiritual but not religious. What’s your sense of those things?

PM: Yeah. I’ve always had a problem with the term spiritual but not religious. It seems willfully ignorant of history. Denying whatever strains of spirituality you want to have and where they’ve come from. And it’s denying the fact that you can’t have a communal spirituality without the brick and mortar. Not really a building itself but the infrastructure that is religion. So I don’t know. I agree with you that that’s what a lot of people want. A lot of people are getting it through yoga classes, honestly and more power to them. But I think it’s a shame that there isn’t a really compelling religious culture that isn’t connecting with a lot of people. I have no real prescription for it.