Reader Andrew S. put me on to Damon Linker’s excellent, excellent column about the critic (and sometime TAC contributor) George Scialabba, and his lifelong struggle with depression (which Scialabba chronicles in a current Baffler essay, which is really not an essay, but excerpts from decades of medical records).
The only time in his life (until very recently) when Scialabba was depression-free was when he was an undergraduate at Harvard in the 1960s, and deeply involved in Opus Dei, the conservative Catholic religious organization for clerics and laymen. After he graduated from Harvard, his religious faith collapsed. He left Opus Dei, and told his doctors over the years that after losing his religion, he never really recovered.
What Damon finds most interesting about the Scialabba story is the role Opus Dei played in his life, and in his mental outlook. Excerpt:
Catholicism is a remarkably totalistic religion. In addition to the Bible and the creeds and the liturgy, there are papal encyclicals and other authoritative pronouncements of the magisterium, not to mention the Catechism, which in its Pope John Paul II–approved second edition contains 2,865 heavily footnoted paragraphs cross-referencing each other and covering every conceivable aspect of human life. For a person who craves an answer to the question, “How should I live?”, the Catholic Church provides an astonishingly comprehensive answer. (As do, in certain strands of their respective traditions, Judaism and Islam.)
Opus Dei then takes this imposing edifice of dogmas and doctrines and transforms it into a holistic way of life that for many members of the order includes communal living arrangements, daily prayer and mass attendance, celibacy, and even “corporal mortification,” or the deliberate infliction of pain on oneself in order to allow the believer to take some small part in the passion and suffering of Jesus Christ.
When secularists look at an organization like Opus Dei, many of them see a cult actively engaged in brainwashing its members, enslaving them to superstitions that seem designed to make them miserable. Much better is a life of freedom from dogma and doctrine, breathing the bracing air of reason and science.
The experience of devout faith is naturally very different from the inside. Relieved of the lonely burden of individual choice and decision, shielded from anxiety and ambivalence, released from the need to reflect from scratch on every moral quandary, confidently oriented in all aspects of life toward steadfast, clearly enumerated metaphysical truths — living and thinking and acting from such a standpoint can feel like its own form of liberation.
But what about a third group — the one in which George Scialabba is an unhappy member?
Read the whole thing — I promise it’s worth it, as Damon’s pieces almost always are.
The “third group” is people who deeply, restlessly want to believe, but cannot. Damon says that the Scialabba case raises questions: Are unbelievers better off than tortured seekers because they do not suffer from the internal torment of the failed seeker, or are they worse off because their satisfaction comes at the cost of cutting themselves off from something Real?
It’s interesting to consider that Opus Dei was a great fit for someone like Scialabba, and was the only place in which he could be psychologically healthy. I looked into Opus Dei once upon a time, and decided its spirituality was very much not for me. But I can understand why it would work for some. I have friends in Opus Dei, and it has deepened their spirituality considerably.
Leaving aside questions of metaphysical truth, I think it is a psychological truth that nobody can tolerate staring at the abyss for long. People either turn away from it and force themselves not to think about questions of ultimate meaning, or they decide to affirm certain worldviews — religious, political, philosophical, etc. — as a buffer against the abyss. One thing that profoundly annoys people like me is the illusion so many secularists and materialists have that their point of view is neutral, shorn of all illusion; in fact, it is a worldview like any other, and one that is based on accepting certain maxims on faith.
My guess is that Scialabba’s miserable case probably says more about Scialabba’s personal psychology than it does about the philosophical dilemmas we all face. But we can’t easily wall Scialabba’s dilemma off from our own experiences. Do we long for God as a way to protect ourselves against dread of the abyss, or do we long for God because He is really there? Put another way, is the tumult many of us seeker-types feel a result of responding to something Real but hard to grasp with our finite capacities, or is it the result of not being able to convince ourselves of a tranquilizing lie?
Random thoughts for the room:
Is it better to have never believed at all than to believed and to have lost that belief?
The thing many people don’t realize is that secular materialism can be as much of a tranquilizing lie as religious faith.
The thing many seekers don’t understand is that questions are meant to be answered. Many of them claim to be seeking, and maybe even really believe it, but there are no answers, not even true ones, that will satisfy.
The thing many finders don’t understand is that answering certain fundamental questions does not obviate restlessness. New questions may arise. As long as we live in this life, there will be tension between our desires and their ultimate fulfillment, which can only happen in the next life. The important thing is to be on the straight path, drawn forward by our desire for God, knowing, however, that we will always have some anxiety within our hearts until we are united with Him in the next life.