A Catholic? Really?

The Chi-Rho symbol.
July 16, 2011

I received a comment through this website that read in part,

My query concerns something in your bio. You wrote, ‘At that time I also converted to Catholicism, and this too has lasted.’ I would like to know what parts of Christianity you believe and why you believe. I'm intrigued because you obviously are quite intelligent and thoughtful, and this seems to me incongruous with religious belief. I'm not seeking an argument or debate; but I'm genuinely interested to know your rationale for believing the Christian doctrines.

I’m not much of a Christian apologist (as literary defenders of the faith are called) but I was moved on this occasion to attempt some sort of answer.

Dear ___________,

Thanks for writing, and for your kind comments.

When I converted to Catholicism I was at the end, or so I deem it, of my magical-thinking phase of enquiry. Starting in my early teen years I took an interest in “the occult,” then in various other new-agey topics, then in traditional and non-traditional forms of mysticism, and finally yoga. For all of this there were perhaps many impetuses, but I’m sure a standard psychological analysis would emphasize my generally absent father and a concomitant need to feel some sense of personal empowerment.

A challenge we all face is bringing ourselves along, so to speak, on our own journey. We have many passages. To name a few common to most of us, there is the emergence of our rational self, our sexual awakening, our individuation from our family, our first negotiations with a baffling and even hostile civic society, our realization of the contingency of our life, our first honest self-sacrifice on behalf of a co-dependent, and the dawning conviction in middle age that we will inevitably die without realizing many—perhaps most—of our ambitions. In each of these passages we face a crisis of reconciliation, of bringing who we were along with the person we become.

So in the beginning this is something the Church did for me. It brought who I had been into who I was becoming. It took my yearning for personal empowerment, my need for a purpose or meaning my post-adolescent mind could encompass, and gave it a context so wide and an answer so resonant that I was stilled. I felt a profound sensation of having come home.

At the time, it was all completely intellectual as far as I was concerned. My favorite writers (Tolkein, Graham Greene, Dorothy Sayers, Charles Williams, and above all G.K. Chesterton) had been Catholic or the next thing to it, and their sensibilities, their perspicuity, their humor, all of these I admired and sought to emulate. So naturally their apologetics spoke to me too. Sayers’ The Mind of the Maker, Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, Williams’ surreal and exquisite spiritual thrillers; these made me downright lustful for the wild and revolutionary traditions of Christianity.

I still admire those writers, and I am not ashamed to aspire to their standards of intellectual or literary accomplishment. Even so, it sometimes happens that we come to our destination for one reason, and remain for a different reason.

Which brings us to your question. What parts of Christianity do I believe? I profess the Christian faith as spelled out in, for instance, the Nicene Creed. The Cliff Notes version is: There is one God, who made everything. God is one, but includes three "persons" that we call Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I believe the Son was incarnate in the actual, historical human being called Jesus of Nazareth, that this man was killed and died, that he rose from the dead, that he will “come again.” I believe that this event rescues us, rescues our very being, from an ultimate alienation. I believe in the communion of the whole body of the faithful, in the resurrection of the dead, and in eternal life.

And of course one slaps one’s head and says, “What the f—?” How, indeed, can any serious-minded person adhere to a medieval (to put it kindly) superstition such as this? You put it more diplomatically when you wrote that to be “intelligent and thoughtful” seems “incongruous with religious belief.” I am quite sympathetic with your point.

But I regret I can’t give you what I believe you are asking for. At least, I can’t give you a rationale in the common sense of a deductive chain of reasoning that begins with self-evident propositions and concludes with Christian faith. You pretty much already know this, and that is probably the real basis for your question. What place has faith (certainty of the undemonstrable) in the mind of the properly educated?

Our schooling conditions us to view “rationales” in this formal sense as the gold standard of belief. That is the theoretical paradigm that informs our contemporary sense of the very word “educated.” Within properly defined fields of empirical enquiry I endorse that standard, as you would expect from someone with a terminal degree in the sciences. Perhaps because reason itself was the focus of my study, buttressed by long exposure (starting in childhood with my father) to the philosophical traditions of skepticism and dialectic, I am less prone than most to misapply the standard, that is, to attempt to impose a rationality requirement didactically or contentiously on claims that are not empirical, or for that matter to treat only claims with an empirical basis as worthy of attention.

In other words, I am literally a Doctor of Rationality (got the sheepskin to prove it), but I am not a rationalist. I know Reason’s limitations too well to make that error. I don’t wish to turn this already lengthening note into a dissertation, so I will confine myself to observing that reason itself can only begin if there are propositions already in hand and believed for their own sake, and that conceptually reason can never lead us beyond what is mechanically derivable from the given propositions.

It’s a horse-and-rider issue: which belongs on top? Reason is a reliable servant, but a dismal master.

We are the story-telling animal. We co-create our reality. On the loom of language we weave our perceptions into the tapestry of comprehension. Science is a powerful kind of story that we have lately learned to tell very well indeed. Myth is a kind of story that we learned to tell long ago, and we are now perhaps too ready to dismiss its value. Drama is an affecting kind of story, History a normative one. Poetry and Song can move us like no other.

Religion is a story about the existential issues: life, death, meaning, and self. As practiced through faith and ritual, religion is also a relationship, literally a re-ligio, a re-tying or reconnection with the basis or prior condition of experience, with that which is too fundamental to be accessible to empirical analysis. To reject religion in toto is not obviously irrational (nor is it self-evidently rational) but it does rather limit the scope of the story we can tell, it disconnects us from the sweep and rhythms of most prior human experience, and it locks us within the narrow reach of our modest individual resources. Since even our interior lives are largely driven by effects outside our conscious control, that is a lot like walking alone and unarmed into a primeval wilderness.

In fact Christianity is not a medieval religion but an ancient one—the Nicene creed dates from 325 CE—and it is rooted in traditions as ancient as our first myths. We know that Christian faith is not inconsistent with intelligence or thoughtfulness (the army of Christian nitwits notwithstanding) because of the thousands of intelligent and thoughtful people of faith, contemporary and historical, who are known to us. Its least plausible tenets place no greater strain on modern credulity than they did on that of the hard-headed libertarians of the Roman empire. Likewise, the most fundamental questions we humans face have not changed with science, or the Enlightenment, or advances in human and civil rights.

So why have I remained a Catholic? I could write a book, I guess, but in lieu of that I am certain I cannot improve on Chesterton’s answer: “To get my sins forgiven.” Also very like Chesterton, I found that it (quite unexpectedly) seemed to endorse my most fundamental intuitions. It grounds my faith in many things besides God—freedom, justice, and truth, for instance.

None of what I write is meant as a demonstration of the objective truth (whatever that may be) of Christianity or any other religious faith. I have always found “proofs” for or against faith ultimately boring, usually boorish, and always unconvincing. I can say nothing with certainty, except, perhaps, a little bit about myself.

I would be pleased nonetheless, on the least provocation, to explore the matter further.