Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Reconciling Faith and Disbelief (I)

Shortly after I returned to Catholicism after many years of “lapse,” I had lunch with a young priest. In our conversation the subject of faith came up and the priest told me that when he was a teenager, he, like many other young people, was bored with church and did not share the strong faith of his parents. I asked him what had restored his faith so radically that he decided, before he reached the age of twenty, that he wanted to become a priest. He gave me a few reasons, but the first thing he said in answer to my question was, “Well, we all have to believe in something.”

As I had already begun the great struggle between faith and reason, I was stunned by this statement. Was that all that stood between agnosticism and faith—a conscious decision to “believe in something”? Do we just sit down one day and say, “Let’s see now. I have to believe in something, so I guess, since I was raised Catholic and I pretty much know all the doctrines and stuff, it might as well be Catholicism!” And once that belief decision is made we are somehow able to accept holus-bolus the body of Catholic teaching. No doubts, no going back, no questioning this belief or that doctrine. True peace of mind.

People like this young priest intrigue me. He appears to be completely comfortable with the something he has decided to believe in. He is always smiling or laughing, and he is warm, genuinely interested, full of energy, witty—the guy appears to be genuinely happy. I have spoken with him numerous times and listened to many of his homilies, so I know that he is also intelligent.

Despite his years of seminary indoctrination, his conservative cultural background, and the predominance of orthodox Catholicism among clergy and laypeople in the archdiocese, it is difficult to imagine that a state of cognitive dissonance does not at some point swamp this young man’s confident and comfortable belief. Can there be no conflict when you refuse Holy Communion to a couple you know is living together without the sacrament of matrimony yet offer it to a “legally” married couple you are 99 percent certain are using contraceptives? In your homily, when you tell us what God wants us to do, do you really believe you know what God wants? I am curious as to what happens to the orthodox believer when new information or problems of everyday life intrude upon the comfort zone of belief.

If we acknowledge God as our creator, we must also acknowledge that part of that creation is a brain and that the little creature is simply not content to accept whatever it is told. As modern, educated individuals, we also have to acknowledge the significant body of religious-historical research, biblical scholarship, and theological insight that has formed over the past one hundred years.

Let’s start with the concept of faith. If you asked any Christian the definition of faith, the reply would likely be that faith is belief; the more intellectually sophisticated Christian might say that faith was belief in something for which there is no evidence. When I was thinking of becoming a priest, I had a talk with a spiritual director (who was actually recommended to me by the young priest I just mentioned). This priest, who writes a weekly article on scripture in the archdiocesan newspaper, told me that he had no difficulty believing in God. After all, he said—with a straight face—he had never seen Australia but it is obvious to everyone that Australia exists. Well, Father, that’s because we all have to believe in something; it might as well be Oz.

How did it come to this?

It turns out that the concept of faith as belief is relatively new. Renowned New Testament scholar Marcus Borg tells us that “two developments account for its dominance in modern Western Christianity.” The first is the Protestant Reformation, which created a number of different Christian denominations, all of which distinguished themselves from other groups by emphasizing what they believed, “that is, by their distinctive doctrines or confessions.” In the subsequent Catholic Counter-Reformation, Catholics reasserted their version of Christian truth.

The second development was the Enlightenment, which “identified truth with factuality” and which “called into question the factuality of parts of the Bible and of many traditional Christian teachings.” So Christians had to defend their territory by declaring the literal-factual “truth” of the virgin birth, the miracles performed by Jesus, the Resurrection, and all the other biblical events; and if you didn’t believe these truths, you had no business calling yourself a Christian.

The spiritual director who believes in Australia told me he thought the main reason people leave the Church is that they are lazy. I think not. I rather suspect that one of the most important reasons is that thanks to modern science, modern education, modern information technology, they simply can no longer believe what their church tells them they must believe. Marcus Borg says that “we cannot easily give our heart to something that the mind rejects.”

So here’s the point: the post-Enlightenment church has defined faith for us as belief in the literal-factual interpretation of the Bible and agreement with/adherence to a set of doctrines stipulated by the institution. In the process, the institutional church, with its magisterium, its hierarchy, its rituals in all their sumptuousness, and in its desire to protect its power and authority, has in some ways cut itself adrift from the God of love and mercy; it has, to a degree, separated itself from the Jesus of the gospels. In so doing it has created an unending cycle of conflict with those who don’t accept the whole package but wish to remain in the church, and it has cast many others out to wander alone in the desert.

So what are the “faithful non-believers” supposed to do?

Photo Credit
"Thinking then having a doubt" by fabbio

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