Monday, August 27, 2007

Apology/Apologia

Hello again, faithful Reader. It's been several months since I've posted anything of philosophical or theological substance here. Some of you may have guessed the reason; some of you have been told. Put briefly, in the past year I have abdicated my Catholic faith; I have come to the conclusion that I can no longer believe in a God at all. It hurts me to let so many of you down, and I am sorry for that; but I have to follow my best perception of the truth.

I've waited to discuss my apostasy here for two key reasons. First, I wanted to give this discernment the test of time and stability, to let my thoughts mature through my different moods, to separate this from all the anxieties of the summer (in particular, the qualifying exam). I know myself too well to suppose that my philosophizing occurs in a vacuum. Secondly, I've delayed the public revelation so that I could first discuss it in private with many of the important people in my life. It's been two months of painful conversations, but I've been awed and honored to find that most of my friends have remained with me nonetheless. (If I haven't spoken with you yet, I'd very much like to- and it's just random chance that I didn't find the opportune or inopportune moment to bring this up before.)

Why, then, should I bring this up in public at all? I have no desire to cause scandal or to undermine anyone else's faith (not that I even feel myself capable of arguing another out of religious faith). Do I want to justify myself to the many? Perhaps; I can be a bit self-absorbed, after all. But mostly, I know that news of this sort eventually gets around to many people, and I wanted to write something to publicly account for such a shocking turn.

How could I move from such obvious and sincere conviction of the truth of the Catholic faith to complete unbelief in God? And why should I have done so now, after ten years of devotion and study, after building my life around the Church? It is that history that led some to question the veracity of my doubts at first, led my father to worry that this was a sign of depression or mental illness (he's since assured himself that I'm well on that front), and led at least one atheist friend to state his complete confidence that I would soon revert. But that history is different in reality than it appeared to others.

There was always a maelstrom deep beneath the waves, whether it showed on the surface or not; my adamantine conviction in argument stemmed from an internal struggle against deep-seated doubt. I have long oscillated between two stages of mind: a manic one, in which I flit from epiphany to epiphany, convinced each time that I have finally found the key to the cosmos; and a despairing one, where my doubts joined with all my worldly fears to paralyze me. I don't ascribe this tendency to the Church, but the way in which I dealt with it was patently unhealthy. Unable to abide that doubt, I would push it back with acts of will- becoming the zealot you've known and (sometimes) loved.

Looking back through old journals, this pattern has been with me for as long as I've been serious about the Church. In my senior year of high school, I was vehemently denouncing my predisposition to "fashionable intellectual doubt"; at seventeen years old, I wrote that I knew enough of God (mostly from charismatic experiences) that I no longer had reason for any criticism of the Catholic faith. But my doubts recurred every few months, great and terrible, and none of my strategems of piety were of any lasting avail. I saw them as demonic, as a personal failure, as everything but honest doubt.

In the last three years, I grew increasingly afraid of confronting the other side of any argument, from sacramental theology to animal psychology, and so my two responses to a non-Catholic viewpoint had become nearly flight-or-flight: either a total battle with professed contempt for the other argument at every point, or a silent retreat with a prayer for the misguided soul on the other side. Fear of doubt had made me an intellectual coward. The last doubting periods had in fact verged on depression. At last, this spring, I asked myself whether these doubts were something other than just a sin- whether they might have perceptive content after all. Just so asking was terrifying for me, for the reason above; but I decided for once to confront them on open ground. And there began my apostasy.

Of course, the above isn't an argument at all- it shows rather that the way in which I practiced the Catholic faith was a bad one. I simply feel that I had to give an account of that history that shows why this rejection isn't the huge discontinuity in character that it appears. The reason itself that I can no longer believe in God is rather boring, to tell the truth. The key notion for me, as I wrote in prior posts, was the need for a sign or reason prior to an act of faith- because the reasons I had come to believe ten years ago had nothing to do with truth or falsity (rather, they stemmed from the ideal I wanted to emulate, the place where I wanted to belong, the meaning I wanted to ascribe to my actions and thoughts, etc), and my continued faith was really due to those acts of will. Neither should suffice as a reason.

I don't mean a proof; at this point, I'm convinced that all the arguments for and against the existence of the Catholic God are not actually proofs- first, because I'm acquainted quite well with all the ones bandied about today, and find them greatly wanting at certain points, and secondly, because one quality of a valid proof is that anyone capable of understanding it will be forced to accept its validity, and the existence of intelligent and well-read believers and nonbelievers therefore shows that we lack an understandable proof. Rather, the arguments and counterarguments make more sense (and are in fact primarily used) to assuage the doubts of those who already hold the conclusions- to provide a rationalization for existing belief or unbelief, rather than a reason for it.

I searched, rather, for a sign of or reason for believing the Catholic faith among all the possible explanations of the cosmos. I'm greatly sympathetic to the notion of a 'leap of faith', but if there are no true criteria for making one such leap rather than another, then we are speaking of an absurd act of will rather than any real hope to discover truth. I sought something- in the world, in my experience, in culture- for which the Catholic explanation really did make more sense than any atheist account. In times before, I'd claimed such signs, but now I find each of them to be readily explicable in other terms, to fit within the worldview of an atheist with some knowledge of history and psychology.

I'd claimed, for example, that the virtues of the saints were so far out of the realm of human possibility that it made more sense to believe in supernatural assistance. But my understanding of the realm of human possibility in the service of an idea has widened greatly- see Gandhi, for one notable counterexample whose life is better documented than most others. I'd asserted that the very real beauty of Catholic art and of the Mass was such a sign- but then, had another cosmology have been universally held in the West at the time of the Renaissance (or the High Middle Ages, for music and architecture), why could it not have produced the treasures of beauty instead? (The methods of history simply don't allow for such a demonstration.) Friends have argued from the compelling power of the Gospels- but I find there only what I wish were true about the cosmic order of the world. I long ago left behind my argument from private religious experience: those feelings can be socially inspired (and within the charismatic Catholic community there is every sign of their being so), and have no intrinsic connection to the Catholic faith (one finds spiritual ecstasies in other faiths as well). I have argued at times from the unique history of the Catholic Church, but there the picture of it as the Bride of Christ has as many complexities as the picture of it as a combination of historical factors (with one factor being the singular character of its Deposit of Faith, fertile for both devotion and philosophical inquiry). And I had argued, finally, from the human experience of Beauty which seems to point to a reality greater than itself- except that it leaves no specific clues as to the nature or existence of that reality, prior to interpretations. Again, the desire to believe in a certain overall order to human life doesn't imply that there is such a one; pace C.S. Lewis, Nature has no guarantee that every natural need is satisfiable.

Again and again, the acceptance of the Catholic framework was logically prior to my recognition of any signs; were I raised a Jew, Buddhist, Mormon or animist, I would have my own collection of such signs. They were not, then, what they professed to be; and holding the Catholic faith to be true would no longer be intellectually honest.

There were, of course, reasons of a fundamentally different sort to remain Catholic: the life and relationships I have formed within the Church, the thought that religion makes one a better human being, Pascal's Wager and the like. These all have one thing in common, though: they appeal to my desire for the Good, rather than argue for Truth. And their appeals have merit; I do not feel that I will be happier outside the Church than I was within, and I have no guarantee that following my perceptions of the truth will meet with any sort of success whatsoever. Here, for the first time, my best conception of the True and my best conception of the Good diverged. But it should come as no surprise to you, knowing my radical and perhaps ascetic nature, that I would choose the merest hope of the Truth over any amount of the Good. Perhaps this too is absurd, but I could do no other.

Soon, I will tell you more about my present framework (hint: quite skeptical, but dissatisfied with skepticism), what I'm doing to move forward (hint: reading pretentious authors), and where I will wind up (hint: I don't know). But that will wait for another day.

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