Sunday, January 23, 2011

I'm a Convert; Mind Your Own Business!

Guess I can't say that. It's part of the contract I signed in the Blood of Christ, Easter Vigil, 1992.

That one converted is a fact that will never lose its significance as time goes by. A decisive break in one's path of life, whether in childhood or old age or somewhere in between is practically an ontological moment.

For my part, it fundamentally informs what I do, for instance, in the classroom. I try to stay conscious of that, for few of my students have experienced that decisive moment of evaluation and judgement. To radically reject the teachings of your ancestors and to radically embrace them are nothing alike, psychologically nor intellectually, even if you are ending up in the 'same place' - i.e. the Church - in the end. Thomas embraced the teachings of his ancestors, and, no matter how radically he reconfigured that received tradition, such a thing is decidedly less than to leave the cave like Plato, or to truly convert like Justin Martyr. I tend to consider Augustine's conversion more along the lines of Justin Martyr's than Aquinas', even in light of the fidelity of his mother. Between Augustine's conception of the Faith and his mother's, no greater disparity could be conceived. And yet, warmly was he received by at least a part of his kinfolk. That is significant, and to that extent, Augustine and Thomas appear less opposed.

Many of my students have made, or are in the process of making, a radical commitment to the teaching of their ancestors, and sometimes that does not include coming closer to the belief system of their parents. But if the Faith was lived by a part of their family even nominally, or by a close grandparents, perhaps, it would not have been necessary for them to have come to the Faith after having objectified and scrutinized every aspect of Christianity exactingly. When Christianity is fed into the soul by one's family it need not be gained through the radical crucible of analysis.

Analysis is good, and cradle Catholics need to do it too, no matter who they are, if they are going to see Christianity as a radical vocation, spiritually and intellectually. Unfortunately most do not, and they experience their faith existentially no differently than it were any other cultural appendage. Here is where people make a mistake: they assume that because Catholicism is the true Faith they are well to be there regardless, and if they are there they are there fully and rightly. This mistake is produce by the whole baptism is necessary for salvation and extra ecclesiam non salus (outside of the Church there is no salvation). Now, these truths do not mean that with baptism and with the Church there is salvation and life lived fully. That is the mistake, as if Christian discipleship is a statistic. Christianity is about spiritual transformation, about spiritual illumination or awakening. Just because you are a serious Catholic doesn't mean you are a good one. Nor, of course, just because you are a big softy does it mean you are a good friend of Jesus. Spiritual illumination - intellectual illumination has always been the true mark of integration into Christ. Your whole consciousness must be transformed.

Everything short of that is idolatry. It is saying my meagre understanding of the mystery is a sufficient conception of it. I don't care if you think you are the most Catholic person in the world. You might still be a chauvinist. And there are lots of them in the fold. Yawn. We tend not to think that there are many Catholic bigots left in the world. But there are.

When you look at the Faith do you see it as a spiritual treasure or as something you own which makes you better than everyone else due to mere ownership? If you could put Catholicism in your wallet and sit it next to your diner's club card or your gym membership, would you? Catholicism is not a pedigree, it is something completely unmerited, undeserved, and I hope it is something that baffles you. Catholicism is per se a necessary cause of salvation, but it is not sufficient.

Is Intellectuality Hazardous or Beneficial to Faith?

A friend of mine - to paraphrase - says that how you answer this question depends on whether or not you are a convert.

A convert, raised as a Protestant, adoring a father who was an atheist.

I went to public high school, then converted to the Faith, then to public university, to seminary and finally to a liberal Catholic College. Along the way I took degrees in history, philosophy and theology. A 'good' Catholic man once warned me against studying philosophy. I truly believe that most Catholics (because most people) have no idea the value of philosophy - I mean love of wisdom in the broader sense of the word. I have a very positive relationship with learning. I have studied under the worst Marxists, feminists, liberals you could ever meet, and yet had a very happy education. I have seen people drop out from school less hostile to the Faith. Me, I've always had a very positive regard for the learning experience. I don't need others to agree with me and support my faith. Yes, people have lost their faith or have had their faith tried in such settings. But what does that mean? Mine was strengthened in it.

It would be easy, uncaring and frankly inaccurate to say that whoever does not experience education like I did has a weak faith. I have a weak faith, but it has never been jeopardized by contrariety.

But I want to figure out why some people are destroyed by this process, or deeply wounded by it, while my teaching vocation was shored up within it. Nor am I what one would define as a proselytizer. (It seems to me that one who was psychologically insecure in his faith might overdue it as a proselytizer. Kind of like someone who is always talking about how bad homosexuality is.) I am more a student and thinker than an evangelist, as I've said before. I love talking about the Faith, but not arguing about it; debating, not arguing.


I understand the whole psychology of the superego and all that, but thoughtful people need not be held psychologically hostage to the opinions of others.

What does knowledge do, what do you expect it to do? What is an hypothesis or a mental exercise?

If X were true what would that mean? How can you really know X if you don't know how it relates to Y and Z, or what it means for it not to exist at all?

What is important and what is not? What must be absolutely the case and what not necessarily so?

Everything in the Nicene Creed is important. 'I believe in...' means 'I know it is true that...' But take, for instance, 'I believe in the Communion of Saints.' What exactly does that mean? It must mean a lot of things, but there is a whole lot of imprecision that any individual person brings to it when they think about it, even the greatest theological mind. You have to be able to distinguish between what must absolutely be the case for this Article and what need not be. Theology is about figuring out what is most likely the case for the 'need not bes' based upon a sound understanding of what is 'absolutely the case.'

I have a feeling that only those who have experienced life without meaning can truly appreciate the whole process of discovery. Meaning is a wonderful gift that God gives. Most of us don't appreciate having it, just like we who are healthy don't appreciate our health, people with good parents their parents, people who live in good communities their communities, etc. I appreciate meaning because I know what it is like not to have it.

It is not a great thing to believe in the right things. It is a great thing to believe in the right things knowing full well what life is without them. It is a poor thing to go through life congratulating yourself that you have the best religion in the world. It is a great thing, though, to know that even as a Catholic you dwell in infinite emptiness, infinitely below God, who upholds You by His grace alone. True faith consists not in acknowledging the tenets that are true, it lies in recognizing the greatness of the things that God has done for you and still wants to do for you.

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