Thursday, May 24, 2007

Doubt, Part II

First, a few disclaimers for this series (I hope) of posts:

1. I am not, as you know, the man of strongest willpower. My beliefs vacillate hourly as my mood swings. I'm not going to spell out where I'm leaning, though from my style you'll probably have some inkling each time I write. For I don't want to give you false hope or false despair caused by a momentary burst of feeling- I want to see this through as far as it goes. (But again, that's not guaranteed to happen; I may not have the fortitude to stay in tension like this. If I either sweep the crisis under the rug again, or give up on thinking about the question, I will have failed; so let's take this crisis a day at a time.)

2. It has been suggested that I'm causing scandal by making this public. I can see the argument for that, but I don't think that I'm doing great harm by being honest. It's not as if ONB is an inspiration to many Catholics- this blog has been a curiosity, at best. In any case, while I'm going through this, I want to make it clear that I won't be offended if you take me off of your blog rolls so as not to lead more people to confusion.

As I wrote in the comments below, far be it from me to take all of you for granted- and I know that's precisely what I've done in my last post, commanding you to talk me out of this. To read your comments, your thought and concern, is to be drawn inexorably back toward the Faith, but for the one dangerous counterweight that has weighed heavily on my mind:

Belief (not faith) is a social act even more than it is a rational act. Now, this statement has nothing to say about the truth or falsity of a belief's content (and this is the non sequitur certain public atheists are much too fond of making- that positing a motivation for a belief is the same as disproving the belief), nor even does it predict what beliefs a person will adopt (there is always some choice of social group involved in this day and age, and choosing a vision of the Good/True/Beautiful goes hand in hand with entering the community that holds it).

What does cause me angst is my religious history, seen with a dispassionate eye. I conformed myself, first to the 'charismatic' Catholicism of LifeTeen when the group at my parish accepted me (it wasn't the only group to which I sought to belong, and other social groups were mutually exclusive with this one), then to the 'Catholic Nerd' collective at Calvert House (by dint of which I repudiated my earlier liturgical preferences with scorn), becoming more and more traditionalist as I sought to impress this person or that.

Now, when I look at the foundations of my act of faith, I don't see any of the arguments that I put forward so ardently in Uchicago discussions, as I sought respect and approval from my counterpart even more than I sought Truth. I see the people whom I wanted to imitate, people who looked like they had real passion and understanding. (Some of these people are even still Catholic.)

So, in this time of crisis, I'm wary of all the social factors I can imagine- on the one hand, the desire not to disappoint friends and family- on the other hand, the desire to see myself as strong enough to escape their pull if I so choose- and many more, including the worry that I'm overcompensating for one or more of these factors. Once one feels that psychological and social factors are affecting one's reason, it becomes an entirely new task to try and think clearly. I'm shooting for "not going crazy".

If God not only exists, but came to us in human form, showed himself to human beings in the most direct and visceral way imaginable, a man crucified and yet alive, then I need to see in this world and in my experience something pointing to Christ, some great sign that He has left, something far stronger than the accidents of social life and an absurd (because unmotivated) faith.

You may say that the Visible Church is the sign, that She has been left standing for two millennia where any human institution would have collapsed, that She alone could be led by men as awful as the Borgias and regenerate Herself nonetheless, that She alone could teach for twenty centuries and not once contradict Herself.

Some of this is very strong indeed. How is it that the Church survived the fall of Rome- a fact which fails to amaze us precisely because we know it happened? Religions have survived the fall of civilizations, yes, but a priesthood and institution transcending nations? It is linked, of course, to the Church's hierarchical nature and the unity fostered by the Ecumenical Councils- but note that Christianity alone had these! Christianity alone had this faith in philosophy, in argument, as a means of reaching the Truth- for prose, where other religions would only dare use poetry.

So this at least is something. The Church is singular in some (overgeneralized) ways. But She also has made some very strong claims about Herself.

The non-contradiction of Catholic dogma, for one thing, I don't find as persuasive as I once did. The Popes are, after all, educated men surrounded by educated men; they would have known if they were inescapably contradicting prior dogma, and doing so would have given medieval monarchs cause to contravene the Church- so it is not surprising how generally careful Popes have been in making doctrinal statements.

Even so, in some cases it is hard not to see them as having painted themselves into the corner. I have tried, and in the past I thought I had succeeded, at reconciling Unam Sanctam with the more generous versions of extra ecclesiam nulla sallus held by the Church in the last century. In my junior-year attempt, I conveniently ignored the fact that the last line was not "subject to the Church" but "subject to the Roman Pontiff", which is much harder to explain away as a reference to the Church Invisible. Usury is another example wherein the response to an alleged contradiction is to stare at it until the words don't mean what they seemed to mean anymore.

And to say that it just fits with God's mysterious nature to allow us a simple and strict rule, then later allow us to reinterpret it in a more generous manner- well, OK, that's not too different after all from what the Church believes about the Old and New Testaments.

I seem to be making connections again, but I'm still suspicious. I'll sleep on it, and (of course) head to church in the morning. But it's hopeful, if not Balaam-esque, that my attempted criticism of the theology of the Church mostly fizzled so badly. (What, me write drafts- and spoil the surprise of how my argument turns out?)

Tuesday, May 22, 2007


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.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007


I'm feeling better now. Not coincidentally, I've turned in my take-home final (only a day late) and almost completed the grading ordeal (11+ hours just to score the final).

I suppose that I don't handle stress well; I'm tempted to nihilism of a sort. If life has no meaning, then my failure (or fear of failure) doesn't seem so bad, relatively speaking. Yes, I'm aware that's not a very wise coping mechanism.

There may also be a few other causes at play, but I'm not the most coherent in my thinking right now, so those hypotheses shall wait for another day.


I'd say I haven't posted because I've been busy, but that would be a lie. I have been very busy, but I would have found the time if I'd wanted.

I'm in the darkness again. Sorry.