"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Thoughts on the role of emotion in faith

I got to thinking about this topic by reading two recently posted essays: David Mills' "Spirituality without Spirits" at First Things' "On the Square," and Dr. David Anders' account, over at Called to Communion, of his conversion to Catholicism from a rather free-church brand of Calvinism. With his usual crisp urbanity, Mills rightly criticizes spirituality without doctrinal specificity and moral seriousness. C.S. Lewis did it even better in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Often, spirituality without religion is just feel-good-ism, which manifests the natural human desire for God but empties its object of anything we don't already find congenial. Because that is so clearly self-serving, an emotionally satisfying relationship with the Ultimate shouldn't and needn't be that way. On the other hand, a proper binding of ourselves to the Ultimate--which, etymologically, is true "religion"--doesn't always have to be emotionally aversive or even emotionally irrelevant. In fact, if we're made for God, then there has got to be some happiness for us in it, in the here-and-now.

The self-designation "spiritual but not religious" first crept into the American vocabulary through Alcoholics Anonymous, where people are invited to cast themselves utterly on their "Higher Power," however they may conceive of that. And of course the 12-step program has spread to other problem areas. I once knew somebody who was convinced that her Higher Power communicated with her through her dog. She could not say just what her HP was like or what, if anything, it said. All she could say was that it wasn't the ogre she found preached by the world's major monotheistic religions, and was instead "unconditionally accepting." Kind of like one's dog, unless one blows it. She did take all the right steps though. And her sex addiction was broken. Sure, she got more addicted to coffee, but who am I to complain about the workings of grace? If they are humble, repentant, and determined to transcend themselves, people who know only a small sliver of the truth can be successfully "spiritual but not religious." But I should think it easier to be motivated toward humility, repentance, and self-transcendence if one has some of the right sort of doctrinal specifics and moral norms. To this day, that woman can't see what's wrong with fornication in principle. She's celibate simply because she can't have just one, and doesn't like the resulting loss of control and self-debasement. A deeper conversion would seem necessary.

Yet experience alone teaches that a person’s converting to some form of religion, or their reaffirming it after some "crisis of faith," is usually going to involve some emotional factors. Those factors influence thought. If they didn’t, then love or beauty could not attract people to the truth; and if they shouldn’t, then love or beauty ought not to attract people to the truth. But reason alone teaches that those factors by themselves do not suffice either to justify or to discredit their decision. Emotions can, in some cases, form part of the evidence for or against their decision, but by themselves they can never be decisive. They’re just one part of the picture.

All that may seem like humdrum common sense. Yet in both real life and online discussion, I've encountered many debaters who proceed as if it were anything but. Their love for truth is so single-minded that they insist that how anybody feels about any religious idea is simply irrelevant to assessing claims that it is true (or false). That's what I found in a couple of the reactions to Anders' essay. Their error is the opposite of that woman's. It is the cold pride of the (real or self-styled) scholar who thinks he's "above all that" and is concerned only with the truth.

It's easy for the well-educated lover of truth to get into that frame of mind. I see it in myself. But explaining why, as well as how I fight it, is an object lesson I presented to one such commenter over at C2C, who criticized Anders' conversion as too "emotional."

I’m a cradle Catholic who suffered a years-long crisis of faith in adolescence after being sexually molested by a Jesuit teacher of mine when I was 14. That is not a new revelation; I made it publicly here, in the context of discussing the sex-abuse-and-coverup scandal. Yet I “reverted” to Catholicism as a Columbia undergraduate after an intense period of intellectual inquiry in which everything, including theism itself, was an open question for me. I double-majored in philosophy and religion for that very reason, and eventually reached a conclusion I did not welcome: that Catholicism is the truth.

But even as a revert, I know all too well the knack the Catholic Church has for misusing people. Those who don't already know it should know that the Catholic Church is no more a meritocracy than a democracy.

Take my own case (please). I’ve always wanted to be a man of God, and am fully qualified for that in an academic sense. I have three years’ experience as director of adult education for a large urban parish, and have taught as an adjunct in three different Catholic seminaries. Yet, for different reasons at different stages of my life, the Catholic authorities have never seen fit to admit me to a seminary as a student. That has been a source of intense frustration for me. And there’s a lot more I could say about the experience of old Catholic friends of mine who actually did become priests. They adhere to their vocations not for the emotional or financial rewards, which in their cases are at best minimal. They adhere by grace alone.

Like them, I don’t remain a Catholic because I like being Catholic. Given my experiences in the Church, I’m emotionally ambivalent about the whole thing, to say the least. And I haven't even gotten into all the slovenly liturgy and woolly-minded preaching I've so often been forced to endure. They cause me to say to myself: "I could do a better job in my sleep. So why won't they let me?" I remain Catholic simply because I am utterly convinced that Catholicism is true. And because I am thus convinced, I've reasonably concluded that it's God who won't let me become a priest—probably because I'd get too pleased with myself if he did.

But it isn’t even in my worldly interest to remain Catholic. Fifteen years ago, an evangelical pastor with whom I was conducting an ecumenical bible study invited me to become an assistant pastor at his megachurch. It would have been a nice salary boost. But I couldn’t do it, for reasons that should be self-explanatory by now. Several months ago, an Orthodox bishop with whom I have several mutual friends offered to make me a priest in his rather small but canonical jurisdiction. I was strongly tempted. It wasn’t because of money–there was none involved, not even a stipend–but because I’m deeply committed to Catholic-Orthodox ecumenism and this bishop’s ecclesiology is very close to my own. But I couldn’t bring myself to break communion with Rome. So where does that leave me? I could become a clergyman, it seems, in virtually any church save my own; if I did, I’d have the status and security I’ve never managed as an adult Catholic. But I choose instead to pay the ongoing, very personal cost of being Catholic in these troubled times. And I've explained why.

Some people, like Anders, do become or remain Catholic partly because they feel good about it. And why shouldn't they? They aren't brains in a vat; and if Catholicism is true, then such a response is fitting. But some people, such as myself, become or remain Catholic partly in spite of how they feel about it. And in either case the same goes, mutatis mutandis, for certain other forms of religion. The question how feelings might constitute evidence for or against such a decision is not one that can be answered by easy, polemical generalizations.

All I can speak to on my own account is Catholicism. If one firmly believes Catholicism is true, one is going to come to see the central place of the Cross in one's life. I know I'm not a saint because I take no joy in that place. But all that means is that I am not yet what I am called to be. We should all know that about ourselves.

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