Coming Home to God: On Losing My Unbelief
Let us come home at last to you, O Lord, for fear that we be lost. ∼ St. Augustine
A VOICE OF THE FAITHFUL CATHOLIC LAITY
27 JULY 15
My recent conversion to Christianity (and although I was raised Catholic I f
eel the distance I’ve traveled in my spiritual journey warrants the name of conversion) has come about as the culmination of three different levels of consciousness raising, the first philosophical, the second theological, and the third religious. Underwriting and keeping pace with all of these has been a fourth level of political consciousness raising. I was formerly an atheist and a liberal. I am now most emphatically a Christian and a conservative.
At the level of philosophy, I have been mercifully disabused of the callow and dogmatic rationalism to which I was, for most of my adolescence, a credulous adherent. Without having the barest familiarity with sophisticated philosophy, and, like most children of liberal modernity, conditioned to adopt an attitude of scornful condescension or self-satisfied mockery towards anything under the banner of traditional culture, I was easy prey for the New Atheists and their gospel of uncomplicated repudiation. In the writings of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris I had found a beguiling case for overlooking the historical realities behind momentous events from the crusades to 9/11 and, with a pleasurable sense of outrage, blaming all iniquity on the faithful and their outmoded superstitions.
These writers have always painted themselves as defenders of “reason,” bothering little to understand for themselves what “reason” has really meant for the traditions of inquiry upon which Western civilization is founded, and remaining blithely ignorant of how the thinkers they emulate have disastrously perverted the course of reason in their scientistic philosophies. The cost of exalting “reason” in the place of God has been all of the most hellish atrocities of the modern era. The New Atheists would have you forget this in the name of a supposedly common-sensical skepticism, a fashionable intellectual affectation that will, like every other hip ideology on the market, give you a base from which to launch assaults on traditional morality. As a teenage Catholic struggling to reconcile my ill-informed grasp of Church doctrine with my precociousness and needy narcissism, I swallowed whole the New Atheists’ pabulum.
My salvation came through my encounter with moral philosophy. I was introduced to a set of thinkers who brilliantly challenged the rationalistic consensus in moral philosophy in favour of a truly humane and spiritually responsible vision of the moral life of mankind. Their writings were alive to the complexity, the difficulty, and the infinite variety of human experience. They put life into perspective for me, not as a progression towards the achievement of a set of abstractly reasoned goals but as an experience of being blessedly present to bear witness to the world. I learnt that morality is inescapable because humanity is inescapable. As a human being among other human beings, moral demands are made of you that permeate your entire existence. The world is suffused with moral meanings, and our decisions and actions only make sense in the light of those moral meanings. But our own sense of the moral contours of the world is what carves out the space for those meanings. The experience of living a human life is the experience of seeing morality by its own light.
This might sound preciously paradoxical, a flirtation with tautology, but it is only in such seemingly nonsensical utterances that the unknowable character of ethical experience can be made intelligible. So I gained from certain moral philosophers an appreciation for the poetry of the moral life, the myriad ways in which reality evades and eclipses the sterile jargon of the rationalist. From conservative moral philosophers (particularly Alasdair MacIntyre and, the man to whom I owe my greatest intellectual debt, Roger Scruton), I gained an appreciation for the role of narrative and community in the creation of the self. I learned that tradition is not something extraneous to the moral life, it is integral to it. In fact tradition is constitutive of our sense of ourselves as actors in a moral drama, it is the language which makes the stories of our lives possible.
Character is communal; it grows from the fertile loam that is membership within a culture. And culture is the experience, essential to our humanity, of affirming a shared belief in something beyond the brute facts of material existence. What my reading in moral philosophy impressed upon me was the utter inadequacy of instrumental reasoning to comprehend the most fundamental aspects of being human (of being a moral creature), the way that our moral obligations penetrate to the very core of us in defiance of any attempt to analyze them out of existence, and the fact that the unfathomable richness of human experience can only begin to be clearly discerned from the position of someone with reverence for the culture bequeathed to him.
It will be clear that being confronted with what it means to think seriously about morality opened up a world of meaning which had previously been closed to me, and that my former ardent atheism didn’t stand a chance. But even the profound force of these insights could only have given me the grounding for, at best, an attitude of reverence for the sacred and a belief in the possibility of extra-rational encounter. If I did believe in God, it was only as a conceptual space that encompassed the ideas that I was newly capable of appreciating. I did not so much believe in God as I was reconciled to the idea, the necessity even, of belief in God. It took an acquaintance with elementary theology, and the realization that what theologians have been saying for centuries fits perfectly with the ontology mapped out by anti-rationalist moral philosophy, to bring home to me the simple truth that there is a God.
What was at last swept away by my theological reading was the central superstition of the New Atheists and Biblical literalists alike, the absurd notion, counter to the teachings of all of the dominant religious traditions on this planet, that God is a kind of superbeing, a massively superior intelligence who assembled the universe from its constituent parts at a finite point in the deep past and who resides somewhere beyond or behind the physical structure of reality. God is not an entity whose magnitude infinitely exceeds our own, or a causal force which actuated the formation of the universe in greater or lesser detail, or an inexhaustibly networked intelligence eternally and infallibly surveilling every event in the universe. God is, rather, what makes existence itself possible. And he is, by virtue of his presence in everything that is, the author of our existence as beings in time, the guarantor of truth and meaning themselves and the force of reality’s happening as well as the timeless creator of us as witnesses to and actors in that happening.
Despite having made another profound intellectual leap, I still felt a gap between myself and the experience of sincere and wholehearted faith. Without quite knowing it, certainly without being able to articulate it, I wanted to know the truth of God for myself, I wanted to be confronted with my own identity in a way that placed me personally in the spiritual picture that had formed in my mind. It was a seemingly simple event of tremendous moral complexity that did this for me. Suffice it to say that I was spectacularly embarrassed in the course of attempting to sincerely express myself to another. I assumed a candor that was in no way reciprocated but I nonetheless failed to appropriately attend to this other as a person deserving of respect. I was confronted, however obliquely, with the reality of my own selfishness and the depths of my resentment. I was forced to really attend to my thoughts and face up to how they were so routinely warped by resentment. My abject failure to live compassionately became startlingly clear to me. And the corollary struck me with the force of an epiphany.
Compassion, I finally realized, is the only way that truth can be made possible in this world. Realizing I had failed to live up to what the world demanded of me made me able to see the limitless power of compassion to illuminate my experience. Another way of saying all this is to say I finally understood that love is a perfect truth. The necessity of faith flows naturally from that, for lack of faith is a denial of love. What is this if not a Christian worldview? What are these beliefs if not the beliefs of a Christian? I know now that I am created by God, and to say that is to acknowledge that I am alive in this world and blessed and also in need of forgiveness and mercy and grace. God is the truth of who I really am and my utter need for love. What better realization is there of this truth than Christ?
I am of course, like all of us who aren’t saints, an imperfect practitioner of my faith, to say the least. I struggle to live in the knowledge of these truths, to redress my old ways and be the improved person that sincere belief should make me. And often I fail even to struggle, and surrender to my habitual anxiety and mistrust. But with Christianity I am never without hope. One encouragement is that I’m beginning to see a path towards an authentic Catholic identity. I was baptized a Catholic, and though I never had a very good grasp of the particular tenets of my faith, I have the memory of worship and of the community I could have been a part of if only I had the trust to seek out fellowship. In my philosophy reading I have encountered numerous formidable Catholic philosophers, men and women who have probed the deepest questions of existence whilst holding fast to their Catholicism. I survey the tradition of Catholic thought and I see a wealth of insight waiting to be tapped. But I also feel a duty to my upbringing, a need to pay due respect to the Catholic heritage into which my mother believed it necessary to induct me. And here, as in so much of what I have been describing, my politics is crucial.
My conservatism is inextricable from an attitude of reverence towards the cultural institutions in which the life of civilization is embodied. Culture is a gift, to be treated with care and devotion, and one cannot recognize that and fail also to recognize that it is through the practice of culture that the sacred enters into the world. If our families, our fellowships, our shared history, our conceptions of justice and dignity and honor, are really to matter in their own right and not simply as means to some end, if they are to have moral content for themselves and felt significance for us, then we must be conservatives, we must defend the life of diligent devotion to tradition. In this way conservatism offers the possibility of consolation, the possibility of living in peace with ourselves. Conservatism is the commitment to home, the hope that we must never abandon that we will look around and find ourselves where we belong.
It is this experience of home, or even the idea of it, that I was lacking in all the years I credulously followed the Godless liberal orthodoxy. And I couldn’t understand why I was so miserable. The answer lay completely beyond my conception, buried under the prejudices of skepticism and repudiation. Committed as I now am to striving to feel at home in the world, I can no longer write off my past, the place from which I come, as merely arbitrary. And I can no longer approach the world with the sense of intellectual entitlement that I had when I counted myself among the “enlightened.”
Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from a painting of St. Augustine by Antonio Rodriguez.