Mike Schwager, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Enrichment.com, had the pleasure to recently interview television talk show host and author Dennis Wholey. Here is that conversation:
MS: Dennis – welcome to Enrichment.com. First, I want to say “thank you” for everything you’ve done to enrich people’s lives. First, for your terrific talk show, This Is America with Dennis Wholey, aired on many PBS stations; and for your wonderful six books, the most recent of which is Why Do I keep Doing That? And books like The Courage of Change, which has been a NY Times bestseller, and The Miracle Of Change – and of course the amazing 26 part television series on the religions of the world, I Believe, aired on many PBS and public television stations. So welcome.
[NOTE: Why Do I Keep Doing That? can be found at this Amazon.com link:
DW: Thank you so much Mike. Good to be with you, and thank you for the invitation to spend some time with you.
MS: Your books Dennis have to do with the lessons you’ve personally learned from your own struggles as an alcoholic. Is that right?
DW: I think that’s a fair statement, Mike. I think most non-fiction writers tend to follow the guidance and admonition of writing what you know about, and so I have ended up writing about lessons I’ve learned along the way. I think you’ve put your finger on it quite accurately. The jumping off point was my recovery, now more than a few years, from some heavy drinking and addiction to pills.
MS: Dennis, I have some friends who have been in AA a long while – and I know them to be wonderful spiritual people. I use the word “spiritual” in a more expansive sense – reflecting words like loving, kind, and often generous in nature. Do you see your own process ultimately as a spiritual one – and a path that has led you to be the inspiration you are to so many people?
DW: Thank you for that nice compliment. I’ve tried to just say this is what has been my experience and this is what works for me. I really can’t address the folks in AA. What I do believe, and my reading leads me along these lines, is to say that there are various paths to getting off an addiction track, whether it’s alcohol, drugs, gambling, overeating, sex or a relationship addiction. There are many many different programs, and I think the important thing is to make a commitment and jump into something where you have some support from other people; and it appears that the folks in the 12 Step programs have that additional support as well as making a commitment to trying to save their lives.
MS: Dennis – the I Believe series is, I think, and I mean this sincerely, a masterpiece. This is where you conduct interviews on-location within various churches and temples with the leading clergy of those places – individuals who are extremely erudite and wise on the tenets of their faiths. I really want to congratulate you on the series, and for your wonderful probing and sincerely curious questions as an interviewer. Your purpose I assume was to create a truly educational experience to help enlighten viewers about each of the world’s great religions, is that right?
DW: I think you’ve nailed it Mike. It happened…I can’t say quite by accident…I have this phrase where I say certain things are GMCs, which I call “God Made Coincidences”. They’re just kind of there at the right place at the right time. And I was actually driving to work on a Sunday to pick up a file. We had an interview on a Monday and I was going to the office to pick up a file that the producer had left me and I passed a Church – one of the Protestant denominations – and the parking lot was just jammed, just overflowing. I said to myself, I wonder what goes on in there? I wonder what those people believe? I wonder what the service looks like?
I’m born and raised a Catholic and practice as a Catholic today, so it was just three quick questions that went through my mind, and I said that could be a very powerful and as you aptly say, educational television series. And I went into the producer the next day, it was Monday, and I just said, “I want to do this program where each week we go into a different Church, Synagogue, Mosque, Temple, House of Worship to find out what these people believe.” It was that simple, and it’s amazing, Mike, how it caught on. I think anytime…and you may be doing a little bit of this yourself…anytime you try to plug a hole with something that’s not necessarily there, or present something in a different way, whether it’s a religion, a philosophy, where you’re using media in some way as an educational tool, and you can plug a hole – I think people are receptive, and that’s what happened with this series.
MS: So it was your honest curiosity that was your real motivation?
DW: Well I think that’s true, having been an interviewer my entire life. I had dinner with someone last night who had some, let’s say a step removed from security measures at airports, and there were certain things that could not be discussed, but then there were certain things that he was more than free to talk about. All of a sudden it was a new topics. I knew nothing about what happens to a bag when you check it, and it’s just the interviewer’s mind. It’s just the interviewer’s wanting to know. I said to one of my friends once, “Anything that’s brand new to me is going to trigger half a dozen or a dozen immediate questions.” It doesn’t make any difference whether it’s on baggage handling, or religion or bull fighting. They just happen.
I think whether it’s I like bull fighting or not, or baggage handling, or religion. They just come into my mind.
MS: Not everyone’s like you, Dennis. I think it’s the hallmark of the inquiring mind which is a gift of yours.
DW: Well that’s a very nice thing for you to say. I contend that everybody does three things better than everybody else they know; and it is just the way we are given certain gifts that separate us. The trick in life is to find out where those gifts are best used to everything from supporting yourself by making a living, to hopefully making a contribution to other people’s lives.
MS: Very well put.
DW: It’s kind of fun to be part of a team as well. You know, we are social animals. But the inquiring mind thing is just something that I would…now I’m also going to say this, and I think that this is true and this is a little bit of vulnerability on my part. Having grown up in an alcoholic home…I tend to be a guarded person. I think that comes appropriately out of that background.
MS: Yes for sure.
DW: It seems to me that by asking questions that’s also a good defense mechanism. Because if other people are doing the talking, you don’t have to reveal yourself at all.
So one of the things that I have to guard against in my interactions with new people especially, is to stop asking questions at a certain point in time and volunteer some of who I am – and what I’m doing.
MS: Very interesting Dennis. Now you just mentioned you’re a Catholic, a practicing Catholic. I did watch the interview with Cardinal Keeler of Baltimore, and it was interesting for me, and by the way I’m not Catholic, I happen to be Jewish, that you discovered that one of the key tenets of Catholicism was not the infallibility of the Pope but the teachings of the Church which he calls the Majesterium. I sensed that was a revelation to you. Is that correct?
DW: Well anything that’s…the Majesterium – the word itself would have probably thrown me up the wall. It’s kind of interesting. My new producer previously worked for Ben Wattenberg; and Ben does a wonderful program on PBS called Think Tank. And I kiddingly say to my producer Adam, quite frequently, “Now that’s a show that’s more for Ben. It’s a little too intellectual. It’s a little over my head (laughing). So in that interview when the Cardinal, God Bless him, put that out on the table, I’m sure that I heard it someplace along the way, but in that interview it kind of came to me as a surprise. I’d have to say that.
It’s interesting that you would know this, because it’s obvious in our conversation thus far that you’ve done your homework about me and what I’m all about. Most of the time when I go into an interview I know 85% of the answers before I’ve asked the questions. And I think good interviewing a lot of the time is that preparation – asking the questions that will open up the person to talk, and being willing to listen at the same time; and if it goes down a different track that you had planned, you’re loose enough and free enough to go in that direction. But when he threw that out it was something that was, oh, aha, I hadn’t planned on this.
MS: Right. Which leads to the next question. What would you say you learned about some of these religions that you didn’t know before you embarked on the series?
DW: Yes, that’s great. And I guess that’s the 64 thousand dollar question. Let’s say it’s the 60 thousand dollar question so we have some room to keep going. I was pleasantly surprised on a number of levels. First of all, I gather the figures are around 85 or 90% of people in America have some sense of faith. That there is something that’s bigger than they are, that’s either responsible for Creation or that may have a hand in their lives on a regular basis.
MS: The numbers are quite high, right.
DW: Yes. So about 10 percent would either be agnostic or atheist; and I certainly respect where they’re coming from as well. And it’s kind of interesting, just as a sidenote, people are always writing me a letter saying, “When are you going to include the atheists? When are you going to include the agnostics?” – and the only response I could make was, “This is a program about religion; if we’re going to do the atheism series or the agnostic series we can do that later on.”
MS: That’s right.
DW: But I think that all of the religions were so welcoming. They almost couldn’t believe that somebody wanted to sit down and in an open-ended way, wanted to learn what they believed. And it didn’t make any difference whether it was the Mormon Church, or the Church of Christ Scientist, or the Catholic Church, or the Baptist Church.
That somebody wanted to know, and wanted to come to them, to sit down and learn, they just rolled out the red carpet.
I think that…I have to go on a kind of side tangent…you notice that I do from time to time. I remember one time in my younger days, when I was a bit more flippant in interacting with my mother than I might have been or should have been at the time…I was trying to achieve some goal, and I said to her, “Pray to the God of your choice.” Which was a rather snarky thing to say because she was a good practicing Catholic. And one of the two or three people that I’ve ever met who were so convinced and so sure of an Afterlife. She was.
MS: Is that right?
DW: Oh my goodness. There was not a modium of doubt in her mind. But anyway, so I said to her, “Pray to the God of your choice,” and she turned around as only she could, with a look that would cut right through you, and she said, “It’s all the same God.” And I went, “Woo, woo.”
MS: There’s a real broad spiritual comment.
DW: Right. And I think as I gathered each religion and put it under my belt, there was kind of a Good News/Bad News. The Good News was a kind of a feeling on my part that there was some credence to her thought that it was all the same God. The Bad News was that most of them thought that their way was the only way.
MS: Right, the only way.
DW: And that presented me with a kind of a dilemma. But if you could step back having done all of these different religions… the main Protestant denominations, Islam, Judaism – you get all these…and then you get into the ones that are lesser known – the Bahai faith, the Spiritualism faith – and you say to yourself, they’re each so passionate in their belief, and they have a creed that seems to support it, then the only thing you can do is walk away and say, with human beings, nine tenths is below the surface, so you can say it’s ok for everybody to have these various creeds, yet at the same time believe that their way is the right way.
So there’s kind of a respect. And the reason I use nine tenths below the surface, I believe that human beings are so complicated and so much of what we do is driven by the subconscious…I think the concept of God, of even Creation and how life plays out on a day-to-day basis, is so mysterious, complex, deep…
MS: But also Universal…
DW: Yes, no doubt about that. That you just have to kind of let it be. So therefore an argument with an agnostic, an argument with an atheist is almost…it’s not going to go anywhere. And again I step back and say if that is their belief system… A very close friend of mine who says he’s a non-believer…I think he would say atheist…but what’s he done, which is very very interesting, has been to construct a set of morals and values that is his guiding principle.
MS: Yes, and unique for him?
DW: Unique for at least a person who is a non-believer in a God. And it seems to serve him well.
MS: You know, first to acknowledge your Mom. I think that was an extraordinary comment which obviously must have reflected her great depth of spiritual insight, and though she was a Catholic, recognizing that God may appear in different forms for different people.
Did you ever see, Dennis, a documentary on the treatment by Bulgarians towards the Jews during the Holocaust? They embraced the Jewish population and they hid many Jews. I’ll never forget a statement that an elderly Bulgarian Christian made, and he said, “We are not allowed to judge other people’s faiths. Religion is an intimate personal experience for the individual. It is private.” I just thought that was an amazing statement
DW: I came to define, and I could be taken to task for this, but it seemed to me that religions – plural – were some kind of organized way of trying to connect with a God. And very human in their constructs, and therefore subject to many errors and mistakes and missteps along the way. But I think that the idea of people needing some kind of guidance, assistance, to make that leap from their humanness to something that is so huge and transcendent…I do like that concept, that it is in many ways an incredibly private experience. You know there’s a big thing right now of saying that people are spiritual as opposed to being religious.
DW: You know “spirituality” seems to be the buzzword of the day, and people are defining it in all kinds of different ways, and I say well, you know, let them. Whatever seems to work.
Two things that I want to weave into our conversation, that really really were eye openers for me and I’m still wrestling with it, was the interview we did with the Imam at the Islamic Center of America out in Dearborn, Michigan…and then an interview we did in Pennsylvania with the Rabbi who headed up the Reform Congregation there…
MS: I liked him by the way.
DW: One of my favorite programs of the entire series.
MS: And I thought even though he was Reform, and I noticed you did not additionally choose an Orthodox or Conservative representative, I thought that he fairly represented the Jewish point-of-view. I thought that it was fair.
By the way, I was going to be a Rabbi. I went to Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. I was going to be a Reform Rabbi, but my entire ancestry is Orthodox. But I thought that was a good choice, Dennis.
DW: I’m not sure how we stumbled into him. Of course there were people who came afterwards who said will you do Orthodox? But we thought once people caught onto the series, they were always adding another dimension.
MS: He reminded me almost of Leo Beck. Do you know the name?
DW: I do know the name.
MS: He was a Reform German Jew. He wrote a great book called The Essence of Judaism, and I think your Rabbi captured that essence.
DW: The thing that I kind of remember, and I do say that of all of the shows that was in my top three. There’s no question.
MS: Do you know what my singular favorite interview was? It was with the Hindu lady.
DW: She was quite wonderful.
MS: She was fantastic.
DW: Because we don’t know much about Hinduism.
MS: If we are to use the word “spiritual” – I really felt she captured spirituality in a broader sense by sharing her view of Hinduism.
DW: Oh I’m so glad that you mentioned that Mike. I really want to go back to a point I wanted to make concerning the Islamic and Judaic faiths – the idea that when people are praying, that they don’t have a picture of God. That is so anti-Christian.
MS: Ah, necessarily so, of course.
DW: When a Christian prays I think that they just have that Christ image in their mind.
MS: Of course. And that’s totally understandable.
DW: Yes. It is understandable. But the fact that people are praying to some kind of power that’s even huger than that is fascinating. Because we’re looking at a Christ figure who is God-made man, or that’s his human manifestation…that I found, and I should also add, with the Native Americans, the imageless concept of God is just so far above, that it becomes tremendously exciting and intriguing.
MS: The Great Spirit.
DW: The Great Spirit. Right.
MS: In Judaism it is a sin to concretize an image of God.
MS: The rise of Judaism was in part a response to the idolatry of the time. So in Judaism there is no imagery or there isn’t supposed to be. Individuals may form images but there is none.
DW: I’ll tell you another thing that happened with the series, if I can.
DW: Coming from the Catholic point-of-view, I found that the Catholic Church is very vertical.
DW: And I’m sorry to say, and boy, I can be taken to task for this but I think it can be borne out. You go to Church alone, or you go to Church with your family, your husband, wife, girlfriend, boyfriend, whatever it is…you may look across the way and wave at somebody you recognize, but you go alone, you leave alone. It’s a very vertical experience.
DW: Almost all of the other religions are very horizontal. Very community. Very family oriented. And one of the things that I found among the Protestant religions, and I found it in Judaism, I found it with Islam – is that there is a sense of community. One of the things that appears to be true in the Protestant denominations is that they don’t mind if you shop around because the principles are going to be fairly much the same. And what they would like is for you to find a sense of community that you can participate in on many many different levels – both as a giver, and when the chips are down as a receiver.
So the sense of community that I was envious of in the Protestant denominations, but also in Judaism and in Islam, was a sense of community.
MS: Interesting. You know, in Judaism – you’re probably aware of this Dennis – there was another branch that came out of it called Reconstructionism. Founded by Mordecai Kaplan. And they basically eliminated the idea of God and made it all about community.
And of course that activated a tremendous sense of outrage within the rest of the Jewish world. Because Jews basically see the essence of Judaism as the belief in one God, first.
But it surprises me, too, that among Catholics, there wasn’t a sense of community.
DW: Boy, I’ve been around it all my life, and…
MS: Not so, huh?
DW: I’m one of millions, but my sense is that if they have a coffee after the 11 o’clock Mass, there’ll be 11 people there.
MS: Oh, I see…interesting.
DW: Where in the Church service, there might have been five hundred or six hundred people praying…
DW: I’m sure that there are parishes that are more community oriented, and a lot would have to depend on the Pastor, if there was a school associated with it and so on…but my
experience over a lifetime is that it is a very vertical experience.
MS: Very interesting. You have already alluded to the idea of self-righteousness within religions, that at least among some, their belief that they are the only way to God…and this has sometimes within history created tremendous persecution of other people in other religions…
MS: I wanted to ask you if you see this changing today, and I should add parenthetically, I guess one exception has been the intolerance of the extreme right-wing Muslim factions. For instance as practiced by the Taliban.
Do you see the intolerance of religions towards one another changing today? And how do you think that those of us who are religious or on a spiritual path, can deal with this kind of religious extremism?
DW: Well I think on the second question, my flip answer is, not much. There’s not a great deal you can do other than being a beacon of hope, a model of your own behavior as relates to other people – and if people say things that are offensive morally or spiritually, or have ethically have some sense of obligation, in a gentle way, to call people on that. But I think when people are so radical in their thinking, in their belief system, I don’t know that there’s much one can do to turn them around.
MS: Right. You know, Dennis, I’ve represented some NGOs that are Christian; and I’ve noticed that they’ve done some extraordinary work, let’s say in Africa. Most of them are Evangelicals. And I guess it’s at least a partial truth, would you say Dennis, that extremism is fomented in places where there is great poverty. And in Africa, I think that extremism is deflected in part because Evangelicals and other Churches are engaged in poverty-fighting programs. Africa has become very Christian. And so with the tenets of the faith, and with taking care of deep-rooted poverty as for example with microfinance programs, perhaps that’s one way to counter the infestation of terrorism and extremist right-wing religious ideologies that foster terrorism. Perhaps that one way.
DW: I do think when you talk about Christianity having an opportunity in Africa, say, and this is a little over my head, but I think when people have a sense of mission…and they feel that part of their belief system is to quote unquote “spread the message”…and you find yourself in a situation where people need a sense of hope – those two things can connect in many many ways to have whatever message the person is trying to spread – it can find its roots; and I think that that part is true. It doesn’t necessarily make it bad, when people are living on a dollar a day and someone comes along and offers a sense of hope.
Now one of the things that I think is true is…and this is a very philosophical question…how do you say to a group of people who are making a dollar a day, that the best case scenario for them is to make two dollars a day, and they’re still going to be in poverty, then a strong message can be that the reward will come in an afterlife.
MS: Yes, I see that.
DW: And that presents a whole other series of problems. But I think I’m perhaps wandering into a territory that I might not be able to contribute to in an important way.
But I did want to go back to two things. I don’t like the word “tolerance.” I think tolerance implies a superiority. It’s hidden into the definition. So it’s not for the Christians to be tolerant of Islam. It’s not for the Jews to be tolerant of whoever. It’s acceptance of other people having a belief system which is different than theirs, and
that’s okay. As long as nobody’s getting hurt. As long as the people themselves are not getting hurt.
The Pew folks just came out with a report that says that half of the people who are practicing a religion in the United States right now have converted from another religion.
That’s a fascinating fact.
MS: Wow. That’s something I was unaware of.
MS: Do you think that may refer primarily to Christians moving around denominations?
DW: Everything. It’s across the board. That people who are practicing now have converted from someplace else.
The reason that the I Believe series became so successful, I think, in small part, was because in America we were so far away from everybody else, because we were pretty much other than oil, self-sufficient, and because we have this lovely American bit of arrogance that we carry around – that we are better than everyone else and therefore we don’t have to know about other people – all of a sudden it started to lock in. 9/11 may have played a role in a horrifically negative way, but people all of a sudden got the feeling that America wasn’t just all by itself anymore; and all of a sudden the air was being taken out of our tires and we were being leveled and made much more one of the gang. As opposed to the only supreme power in the world.
My favorite question to the Arab world is, in part, when the economy of the United States collapses, does that confirm to the Arab world that we are just greedy and self-centered and only care about ourselves? So is that piece of evidence that they can use.
MS: Well some of them may use it that way.
DW: Yes, but I’m saying that’s kind of…you look around for things that kind of confirm
what you have in your mind already.
MS: Yes I see.
DW: We did our 26 shows, 24 different religions and faiths, and a couple of Roundtable
Interfaith discussions, and we played them out 26 weeks…we had a terrific reception…and then a lot of stations came to us and said “Well we really didn’t start it then…are you going to repeat the series?” We repeated the whole series again. And a whole new group of stations came on. And then the third requests came along, and I said, “You know it’s a public service. Let’s put it up again.” So we put it up three times. All 26 shows.
MS: And it’s available via the Internet.
DW: Yes. Thank you very much. And we’re going to go off to the American Library Association Convention in Chicago in which we’ll be trying to get libraries, universities, colleges, public libraries, seminaries and such to purchase the set as a research tool for folks who want to come and learn about religions.
MS: Wonderful Dennis. You mentioned the two Interfaith programs you had on the series. How important do you think it is for the religions of the world to talk to each other? To dialogue with each other?
DW: Well I think that anytime you’re learning about something that you don’t know about…I think we started off by talking about an inquiring mind…I think that it’s important to accept and respect, and if part of accepting and respecting another point-of-view is knowledge, then I think it is important that we know about other faiths – even if we say that all paths are leading in the same direction. And I believe that to be true. That
all of these religions are venues to bring Man and God closer together.
A friend of mine who’s a Catholic priest who has since died, I said to him one day…this is a little back on our non-image kind of thing…I asked him if it’s okay to say He, She or It? He said, “God transcends gender.” Well, that’s something that to get across to a Catholic, or even a Christian, is a tough sell. Because the image is so indelible. But when you go into another religion…I thought it was nice when I brought up Native American, and you said “Great Spirit” – boy…and I notice in the Mormon Church they say “Heavenly Father” – they don’t say “The Heavenly Father” – they say “Heavenly Father”. As if His name is Bob, you know?
MS: Dennis, in the first of the two Interfaith segments I noted that the word “religion” was defined in various ways by your panelists – and for instance a Protestant referred to it as “sharing glimpses of God. I was very interested to note that the Muslim called it “a personal experience” – the Hindu called it “facets of God” – the Buddhist called it “Path to Freedom”- and the Rabbi called it “Search For Meaning.” It seemed to me that they had achieved a certain common ground even though they were using the language with some variance.
DW: Yes, it’s kind of what I call “turning off the sound on the television set.” And then everybody’s kind of interpreting what’s going on on the screen at the same time? And the words…We’re so limited as human beings in…even communications skills. Here you and I are sitting down having this wonderful conversation, thank you very much. And there will be people who will be exposed to our conversation who can at any point in time come up with their own questions and their own interpretation of things that either you’ve asked, or I’ve answered, or comments that you’ve made to support something or that you pulled out of the series – so I think that we muddle through and do the best we can.
And I think that most people are doing a pretty good job of running their lives, and the opportunity is always…you know, the unexamined life is a pretty boring one, and you and I seem to be on the same page there. But you know I think most people are doing a pretty good job, and I say, if people interpret things slightly differently than the way you see it…I just look at my own life and say “Boy, people have cut me a lot of slack, and I’d better do the same for them. Especially when it comes to very delicate and sensitive issues such as their religions.”
MS: You remember George Burns, the comedian? I don’t know if you heard this story.
It’s said that when he died there was only one book at his bedside. Did you hear that one?
DW: I don’t think so.
MS: And the book was called “The Power of Believing”.
MS: And so the last question I have for you, Dennis, is the power in believing, irrespective of the form that the belief system is housed in, the ticket to personal happiness and manifesting a more creative, meaningful life?
DW: I think it, yes, I think it transcends the form…in the Spirit of it all. It’s kind of like
conscience, it’s a little bit like our sense of values and ethics and morals that we hopefully shape as we go along. The walls we bang our heads against teach us the lessons as we truck along. And I think that people in their hearts know probably what’s right and what’s wrong. And I think as long as they’re following that, that the religions themselves can offer some direction, some guidance.
MS: And Dennis, do you think that irrespective of a religion’s theology, which varies from religion to religion, that if we said that religion beyond its theology had a responsibility to the world, it would be to simply promote kindness towards one another?
DW: Oh yes. Go back to the two great commandments. And there’s a reason they’re the two great commandments. Because they’ve served the test of time, and they basically offer how you treat other people, how you treat yourself, how you respect the fact that there is something bigger than ourselves, you know?
You know again I go back to the point that most people are doing a pretty darn good job and the fact that we’re upright on a given day, and making our way through the world and trying to help somebody else out along the way…and live according to some kind of a code with religions as our guides…
MS: Sounds like you’re an optimist.
DW: Oh yeah…you know, do I fall back? Yes. I’m trying to plan a trip to Egypt and Jordan to do some television programming, and it’s not coming together. And I’m learning a number of things on how things work in other cultures. But will it happen at some point? Yes. Will it happen on my timetable? Not necessarily so. But that’s okay too. So it’s kind of like having clenched fists and then just kind of opening your hands saying, “It’ll be just fine.”
MS: That’s great to hear, Dennis. Listen, this has just been wonderful. I really want to thank you so much for your time.
DW: I enjoyed the very very uplifting and spiritual conversation. I’m really appreciative of the work that you’ve done in preparing for the conversation. Great conversation. Thank you so much.
MS: God bless.