Confessions of an Unaffiliated Groper (1993)

Norman Lear on Business, Politics and Culture

Speech Excerpts, 1972 – 2011

Confessions of an Unaffiliated Groper (1993)

I am a Jew and I love my people and our culture.  I could not be prouder of what, in our long history, we have brought to the world.  But that is not what makes me religious.  What makes me religious is the way I experience all of creation; what makes me religious is the way I experience the Almighty, and, perhaps, the way I experience life and the way I try to live it.

There was a book called Edith the Good written about Edith Bunker of All in the Family.  The author’s thesis was that Edith’s every reflexive reaction to any situation was what the writer thought Jesus’ reaction might be.  He was right; that’s how Edith was conceived.  Now, I’m not in Edith’s league by any means – though I ache to be – because everything in me tells me the world would be an exquisite place to live, were everyone able to respond to life as Jesus did.

I am reconciled to the fact that not everyone who reads these words will agree that I qualify as a religious person, because I have not expressed myself in a manner they could accept.  My words lack scripture, theology, ecclesiastical authority.  Still, ever since my early twenties when I smoked my first good cigar, I have felt and said that if there was no other reason to believe in God, it would have to be Havana leaf.  I have said the same thing while biting into a ripe peach, a just-ready piece of Crenshaw melon, or a great ear of sweet summer corn.

I have sensed God’s presence sitting in the back of a dark theater when a comedy was playing, watching an audience of 600 strangers coming forward, rising in their seats and then falling back, as people do when they are laughing from the belly.  I have fallen in love with a total stranger several aisles and many rows away at the sound of his or her distinct laugh.  I have experienced God’s presence in the faces of my wife, my children, my grandson – and every time throughout my working life when I have gone to bed with a second-act problem and awakened in the morning with the solution.

There was a time when I wouldn’t have dared to write an essay like this.  I couldn’t because I didn’t have the vocabulary.  The language of religious expression seemed always to belong to the professionals – and I simply do not make the sounds that are heard in churches and synagogues and on television when these matters are being discussed by the pros.  Then my wife, and a good friend, a noted church historian, suggested I read William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience.  And there I was – between the lines, between the experiences.

So, now, I ask myself:  Why can’t I share my sense of all this – in any way I am able to express it – without being made to feel like a second-class “groper after meaning”?  Because that’s what I am – a groper, searching every step of the way for a better understanding.   And because I am not specifically attached to any synagogue, I suppose you can call me an “unaffiliated groper.”

From “The Search for E Pluribus Unum,” at the National Press Club,
Washington, D.C., December 9, 1993.