Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Doubt


I think I have the courage to doubt everything; I think I have the courage to fight everything. But I do not have the courage to know anything, nor to possess, to own anything. Most people complain that the world is so prosaic, that life isn't like a romantic novel where opportunities are always so favourable. What I complain of is that life is not like a novel where there are hard-hearted fathers, and goblins and trolls to fight with, enchanted princesses to free. What are all such enemies taken together compared to the pallid, bloodless, glutinous nocturnal shapes with which I fight and to which I myself give life and being.

Kierkegaard, in Either/Or

My spiritual malaise, far from being dispelled, has only begun to seem normal and sane rather than terrible. Good friends have offered their diagnoses (and I have added a few of my own):

*a passing phase of young adulthood
*a dearth of intellectual and spiritual reading
*displacement of academic and social anxieties onto religion
*an existential crisis of being
*a distrust of (all) external authority
*a (mild but protracted) depressive episode
*the effects of a too Protestant outlook- fear of a more visceral faith
*a lack of exposure to beauty
*the growing pains of a more mature faith
*the death throes of my faith

Now, I'm sure that many people think of that last prognosis as needlessly alarmist, and it should come as no surprise that I'm the only one (Catholic or otherwise) who takes it seriously. You seem to repose a great deal of trust in my faith, dear Reader, but I can't say I share that confidence. My reason has become too critical, my willpower too weak. If you'll pardon me, I'm going to do something awfully foolish and narcissistic (for extremis malis extrema remedia): make my crisis public.

Orthonormal Basis has been dying a slow death for two years now, but a good number of very smart Catholics still seem to read it now and then. So I ask of you two things: First, pray for me. There's no way I can manage something of this nature on my own. Secondly, help me with your thoughts and comments as I work through the foundations of my faith, which time has shown to be either crumbling or vanished. I may even play devil's advocate, but think of me as if I were Glaucon or Adeimantus, desiring to be convinced but fearing that I may not be.



Strange (and trite) as it may sound, my current intellectual obstacles center around the ideas of metaphor and pattern. By metaphor (for lack of a better word) I mean the identification of two apparently different things as one, including cases where they really are the same thing under two guises (e.g. electricity and magnetism). (If I were being mathematically pretentious, I would have called this "isomorphism" instead of metaphor. But I digress.)

The stakes are raised when a metaphor is used as evidence of a concept- as when New Testament texts take Old Testament passages as referring to Christ, or when the Church finds scriptural support for the Assumption by referring to Mary as the "ark of the covenant". If the metaphor fails, so does the argument.

Similar to this is the matter of finding patterns and connections within the Faith, and from it to other ideas. For a long time, I fed myself on such "epiphanies" every few weeks, some new theological or philosophical tidbit (about angelology, love, and death , for example) that let me reinterpret some significant part of my world. It didn't matter how much I took for granted in asserting such connections; in this blog and elsewhere, I was far more interested in tracing the consequences of my act of faith than tracing its foundations. Somehow, the self-consistency and correspondence with large swaths of human experience were enough for me then.

But not all connections are true glimpses of reality; some are just like the constellations, or the visual composition of a painted landscape (the actual landscape doesn't usually 'lead the eye' like a painting does). We human beings are very good at inventing, as well as discovering, patterns and metaphors, and it becomes a very difficult task to tell the two modes apart.

For whatever reason, in recent months my mind has stopped making so many connections (or perhaps simply stopped being entranced by them), and has started to cast doubt on the connections made by others (I had to return Gregory of Nyssa's The Life of Moses because I couldn't overcome my critical reaction to his zealous use of the symbolic). I've started to look again at the connections that I see between the Faith and the world I know, and I find them fewer and weaker than I'd hoped.

So I'm going to try and reexamine them, on my own and with your assistance. This will take a while, of course. I want to touch on all of the following reasons I've cited in the past:

*philosophical arguments for God (esp. the Uncaused Cause)
*the Judeo-Christian culture and its fruits
*the inescapable belief in Meaning
*my subjective religious experiences
*the example of the Saints
*the consistency of Catholic dogma
*my abhorrence of nihilism

I honestly don't know where I will finish. But I must do this.

P.S. I know that faith is a virtue and a grace, and not the result of evidence. But an act of faith has to be based on some foundation, or else it's an absurd existentialist act.

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