Charting Faith's Geography in Rough-and-Tumble History

By Jones, Arthur | National Catholic Reporter, June 29, 2001 | Go to article overview

Charting Faith's Geography in Rough-and-Tumble History


Jones, Arthur, National Catholic Reporter


Georgetown dropout James T. Fisher found Christian mysticism in a taxicab.

In the winter of 1976-77, Fisher was living alone in Hoboken, N.J., and driving a cab in New York City. "In the isolation of my taxi seat," he said, sending his phrases forth in clusters, "I began to be very drawn toward the Christian mystical tradition" and particularly one of its contemporary, exponents, Trappist Fr. Thomas Merton.

Twenty years later his seat was the Danforth Chair in Humanities at St. Louis University, a joint appointment in history, and theological studies. He'd circled back to his Jesuit academic roots. Now he's on the move again back east to St. Peter's College, Jersey City, N.J., as the Will and Ariel Durant Professor of Humanities.

What drives Fisher is a fascination with how religion itself works in the culture. The movie screen has become a prime textbook as he tries to focus on religious history that is "not consumed" simply by religion.

Currently that means the film, "On the Waterfront," as he delves into labor priests and Irish longshoremen, Port of New York, 1920s to '40s. He is completing his trilogy on American Catholicism, following on from The Catholic Counterculture in America, 1933-1962 (1989), and Doctor America: The Lives of Thomas A. Dooley (1997).

"As the long generation of the post-Vatican II era yields to a new dispensation," Fisher said, "we need to gather a lot more stories to fill the spaces between the church's dueling factions."

During seven years at St. Louis University, Fisher's students have charted the geography of faith in the region, examining popular shrines and devotional sites, rural parish apostolates and urban ethnic parishes.

"This is what American Catholic studies is all about," he said, "uncovering a kind of `found theology' of everyday life that might offer material for the reflection of professional theologians. And there is plenty of room for the area of Catholic consciousness to grow wider still."

Historians look hack. But Fisher also looks forward with his students, young Catholics unconnected to, unaware of, the rough-and-tumble American Catholicism he wallows in as he does his research. Here's what he sees.

His students, he said, "are waiting for a saint from their own generation. This current generation of Catholic students, cut off from much of American Catholic history," nonetheless reflects, he said, "an extraordinary devotional revival coupled with a social justice commitment, certainly in the Jesuit context, that has canonized Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement."

Fisher as a young Catholic did not need to wait for a saint. He grew up with plenty of them in an "extraordinarily devout" Irish Catholic family. Its dose-focused devotion, he said, excluded what was happening on the immediate Catholic periphery. "They would not have known who Dorothy Day or Merton were." But they could shake funeral home rafters with the rosary at a wake.

In the '70s, in search of a monastic mystical experience, Fisher traded in the cab steering wheel for that of a battered old car inherited from his grandfather and headed for Appalachia. He turned around once he reached Virginia.

"Go to Rutgers," he told himself, "get a college degree" (so he couldn't blame future failure on not having one). Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., Fisher discovered, was secular in name only. The majority of the student body was Catholic, though the majority of the faculty was not.

As he needed only three semesters to graduate, Fisher decided to see if he could do a bachelor's in history that combined his interests in mystical experience, religious experience and history. Rutgers accommodated him.

Appetite whetted, and with social historian James Reed advising him, Fisher pushed ahead into the social/historical context of American religious experience.

On he went, his Catholic counterculture dissertation was published, he taught Rutgers' first-ever course on American Catholicism (and then broke Yale's 300-year-long oversight by teaching the same course there). …

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