“Not having a strong religious background freed me in a way,” writes journalist David Gregory, whose father was a cultural Jew and whose mother a non-practicing Irish Catholic. “It gave me a chance to build my own faith identity.” My interest in How’s Your Faith? An Unlikely Spiritual Journey (Simon & Schuster, 2015) is in Gregory as a spiritual seeker. How would a highly educated, well-known journalist –in his words—“build [his] own faith identity”?
Gregory traces the beginning of his spiritual yearning to age 11 when he was struggling with his mother’s alcoholism. His parents were divorced, and he and his sister lived with their mother. Through his childhood, he had endured her drinking, but her arrest for drunken driving when he was 15 led him to move in with his father, a Hollywood producer. Though his father offered him a safe haven, Gregory was angry at both parents—at his father for not removing sooner him from his mother’s home and at his mother for being an alcoholic. Powerless in his own family, he poured his energy into becoming a journalist, and his career success crowded out any kind of faith quest until after his marriage.
Gregory had met his wife, Beth Wilkinson, when he was a reporter for NBC covering the trial of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and she was one of four main prosecutors for the Justice Department. When they became parents, he wanted to raise their children in the Jewish faith. Wilkinson, a Christian with firm roots in the United Methodist Church, agreed on the condition that they “have a deep commitment to belief, not just culture.”
When the challenge came of providing a Jewish upbringing for his children, Gregory approached the project of his spiritual journey much as he would a journalistic assignment. He interviewed high-profile religious leaders such as Houston mega-church pastor Joel Osteen and Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York, as well as various rabbis. Gregory offers no real criteria for judging the theological depth and potential helpfulness of his interviewees.
His catalyst for real growth turned out not to be a high-profile person, but a biblical scholar and Orthodox Jew, Erica Brown, who served as both teacher and spiritual director. She asked him, “What would you be if you lost it all?” Her work with him prepared him for the day when he did lose it all. When NBC pressured him to leave his position as moderator of Meet the Press, the network wouldn’t let him have a “farewell” show, which he very much wanted. The news of NBC’s denial of his request came to him just before he and his wife boarded a plane to pick up their children at a camp in New Hampshire.
Gregory’s rise in TV journalism had seemed to be the result of his own planning and hard work, but the end of his highest achievement was totally out of his control. When he and Beth arrived at the camp, he realized that he couldn’t be in a better place to experience this “low moment” in his career. He writes, “Being so far from the Washington and New York media circus made it easier to start letting go. My world was about to explode all over social media, but I was free to enjoy my more serene surroundings.” Even as he faced public humiliation, he was able to claim his identity as a husband, father, and person of faith.
The title of Gregory’s memoir is a question that President George W. Bush had asked him on several occasions—“How’s your faith?” Although at first he was a bit intimidated by it, he came to see the question as invitation for self-examination. In the final chapter Gregory writes, “Even when I began delving into a religious life more seriously, I was cautious. I actually believe that my success was an obstacle to my spiritual growth. . . . Something about falling made me feel more grounded in my faith.” After leaving NBC, he recognized that this failure was an opportunity for learning and growth, and he took it.
He concludes, “What I have seen is that God is there when we pay attention to what is happening in our lives. . . . I believe God is working on me, helping me to stand in the flow of grace. But I am not done, by any means. The work doesn’t end.”
Gregory found something of the truth that Richard Rohr speaks about in Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. The second half of life is a “further journey” into spiritual maturity. It has little to do with chronological years and more to do with the willingness to let go of the self that we’ve worked hard to create in order to find our true selves. Rohr says, “The supposed achievements of the first half of life have to fall apart and show themselves to be wanting in some way, or we will not move further.” Gregory has begun that “further journey.”
 Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011) xix.
Thanks for the review. This looks well worth reading.