Good post from Noah Millman, reflecting briefly on the nature of religion. He speculates — correctly, I think — that for the overwhelming majority of people of any religion, they don’t want to think about, or with, their faith, but rather want to live it out in community. This poses particular challenges to religious believers in modernity. There is no trouble-free way to work it out. Says Noah:
The trouble for the minority who actually care about thinking is that they may also care about that experience of living within a religious tradition and community. Then they have a choice: of learning to “think with” that tradition, and turn the mind away from doubt (which has, I would argue, deleterious consequences for the health of one’s mind); or of becoming the kind of theological liberal who isn’t terribly committed to a particular truth (which has, I would argue, deleterious consequences for one’s ability to truly feel religious experience); or of becoming a secret dissenter (which has, I would argue, deleterious consequences for one’s relationships with one’s fellow communicants); or of becoming a public dissenter (which makes one a trouble-maker with all kinds of deleterious consequences).
What a useful insight. I think all of us who are religious believers can see ourselves in one of those categories, or perhaps more than one. The first two in Noah’s list involve the individual’s relationship to faith; the second two involve the individual’s relationship to his religious community. They are all tied in together, though.
I’ve said in this space on many occasions that the faith I had as a Roman Catholic was highly intellectualized. This is not the fault of the Catholic Church, but it has to do with my own approach to the faith. Though I regret having come at it that way, I can’t regret the fact that I really did believe what the Catholic Church teaches, which included the duty to suspend one’s own skepticism before the authoritative teachings of the Church. I don’t apologize for that, or regret that, because that is what Catholics are supposed to do.
For example, I never really understood the Catholic teaching on contraception, but I accepted it and lived by it because whether I understood the reasoning behind it or not, there was no denying that the Catholic Church proclaimed that teaching authoritatively, and I was not at liberty to decide I was not bound by it. To have carved out for myself an exception on contraception — as apparently most American Catholics do — would have been negating the foundation upon which Catholic Christianity (as distinct from other forms of Christianity) is built: the teaching authority of the See of Peter. It would have meant becoming a de facto Protestant.
I recognize, though, that relatively few Catholics live with this kind of relationship to their Church. I confess that it always made me feel like something of an alien within the Church. I believed what the Church taught, and though I failed, as we all do, to live by it consistently, I went to confession when I fell short, and really did work to correct my behavior, and to allow my faith in the Church’s authority shape my thinking. That so very many people I would be with in church didn’t do this was alienating to me. To put a fine point on it, it’s not that I was bothered by being in Church with sinners; after all, I was and remain a sinner. What bothered me was that so few people — including, I must say, pastors — seemed to take the Church’s role as a teacher seriously. It was hard to be part of a community in which some core beliefs of the religion were considered more or less beside the point.
And yet, there is something dessicated and unreal about someone like me, whose head was filled with theology and logic, looking at someone who was raised in the Catholic faith, and whose families have been Catholic since forever, and seeing them as somehow less Catholic than I because they dissent from Church teaching openly. Catholicism, like Orthodoxy, is not a religion of the head alone, but a religion of the heart, and a religion of what you do: liturgy, sacraments, etc. It is the people at prayer. Mind you, if the liturgy and the sacraments and all of it doesn’t lead to an authentic change of heart — a change that is proven by a change in behavior — then it’s in vain. Still, I have no doubt that there are Catholics who are far less orthodox than I was as a Catholic, but who have delighted God more because however flawed their understanding was, they lived lives marked by sacrificial, Christ-like love of the sort that I, with my purer orthodoxy, did not have.
It’s complicated. And it’s especially complicated, I think, for Christians of all kinds, for a reason I’ve written about here before, and which I heard yesterday in the Catholic priest’s eulogy for my friend Stephanie Lemoine. It’s this: for Christians, ultimate Truth is not a set of propositions, but a person, Jesus Christ. This does not mean that one is free to believe anything one wants to believe, as long as one enjoys the subjective feeling of having a relationship with Jesus. But it does mean that knowing Jesus Christ is not the same thing as affirming a set of propositions about him.
Further complicating the matter is an offshoot of the tension between the first and second of Noah’s list: the importance of a baseline orthodoxy for holding together a religious community. If a religious community stands for nothing but itself, it won’t last. That is, if it doesn’t really matter what members of that community believe, then there is no real cohesion there. True, a congregation is like a family, and a family is not defined by what its members believe, but by their biological relationship to each other, and their affinity for each other. A congregation of any religion is at least built around a set of shared ideas. Noah is right that having no strong belief in anything prevents the individual from having an authentic religious experience, but it’s also true that to abide in a community in which few have a strong belief in the core ideas of the religion prevents one from having an authentic religious experience, at least corporately — and could, in time, erode the individual’s commitment to the faith.
And yet, if a religious community is so strongly committed to orthodoxy that it severely polices the margins to send away dissenters, it risks becoming an airless, rigid, joyless fundamentalist cell that badly distorts the faith. A religious community that requires you to entirely deny your mind is, as Noah says, a bad thing. A religious community that puts everything in doubt is bad for different reasons.
These are some very difficult tensions to manage, but all of us involved in religious life have to do it. I’d like to hear how you do it. Please do not take my sharing my Catholic experience as an invitation to engage in pro- or anti-Catholic apologetics. I’m happy for you to comment on the story I’ve told, but do so in a spirit of charity. I’m actually more interested in hearing how you, as a believer, manage these tensions within your own mind, and within your own religious community. Let’s please go about this with charity towards each other, and not in a spirit of tearing down faiths and communities not our own, e.g., “Lord, I thank you that you have not made me like those others.” Let’s also be tolerant of people who may criticize a community in which we are a part, as long as they don’t write insultingly about it. I’ll monitor the comments closely to watch for tone and content. If you post on this thread, please do so thoughtfully.