Which Authority Do You Love?

The problem with old-school blogathons is that you have to summarize the eleven posts you’re responding to and by the time you’re done you’re too tired to write anything else.

How do we convert in and out of religions, and worldviews in general? What roles do experiences, reason and revelation play? Here’s Scene Alum David Sessions, describing his own conversion from fundamentalist evangelical Christianity to secular materialist liberalism. Here is Scene Alum Noah Millman, responding with a great (as usual) meditation on how we deal with authority, also riffing off a post by TAS Overlord Ross Douthat. Here’s Rod Dreher.

The point David makes (violently compressed) is that while experience is the primary means by which we determine our worldviews, reason can and should play a role, and that experience-driven conversions that cannot be buttressed by reason are, to use a word David would I’m sure dispute, suspect.

As a Jew, this is a question Noah has had to wrestle with, and obedience to the law (or disobedience) is a dominant theme in both the Hebrew scriptures and the Jewish experience generally. In Judaism, or at least in a significant strand of it, there is, I think it is fair to say, an insistence that following the law is valuable for its own sake.

This is a question that also has a special resonance for the Catholic, because Catholicism is the faith where the authority has the strongest institutional component. Catholicism demands submission not just to a book or a tradition, but to—in Henry Cardinal Newman’s phrase—a “living voice.” The Church is “Mother and Teacher.” To be sure, most other faiths have clerics who speak with authority, but there are always ways to finesse this: there are different schools of thought; while these sometimes anathematize each other, more often there is room for legitimate disagreement within the same communion. In Catholicism, when the Pope speaks ex cathedra, that’s it—it is as good as the Word of God handed down on Mount Sinai. Allegiance to the Catholic Church is not just allegiance to an abstract worldview, it is also allegiance to a specific institution which is declared to have the same authority as God.

And so I think these words from the Catholic Eve Tushnet, talking about her discussions with other gay Christians, are of relevance here:

We need not only models for respectful sharing of life experiences, but also models for respectful disagreement–since at the end of the day, we do in fact disagree. At times I felt as though my Catholic faith was a gaucherie or an obscenity which must be hidden from the eyes of those it might scandalize.

But notice that I said “my Catholic faith,” not “my beliefs about gay sex.” This is the other reason I think mere sharing-stories “dialogue” is insufficient on gay Christian questions: It tends to make us think that our disagreements are primarily about homosexuality. But in my experience the deepest source of disagreement is authority. Which sources are authoritative for you, and when they appear to conflict, how do you rank or reconcile them?

My own “conversion” story might be of interest here, and it is a fundamentally Catholic one. I was brought up Catholic, but clichédly enough as a teenager I moved away from the faith. Oh, not very far. You see, from when I was young I had basically two ambitions for when I grew up: I wanted to have lots of children, and I wanted to be involved in Christian ministry. Obviously, for a Catholic, there’s a tension there. (If only I’d known about Marcial Maciel then, things would’ve been much easier!) I always figured that the Holy Spirit would one day point me in the right direction.

But hey—there was a way to square that circle: I could become a Protestant minister, and have my cake and eat it too. The entrepreneurialism (and Americanism) of Evangelical ministry definitely appealed to my character, as those who know me can imagine. There was a vocation that could combine it all: Christian ministry, entrepreneurialism, and a large family (not only allowed, but encouraged!). For a while there, my role model was basically Rick Warren.

Much more seriously, as I began to study the issue of justification, I found myself drawn heavily to the Protestant doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone, which seemed to me to be much more in accord with what I knew of Jesus’ message, and I was repelled by what I took to be the Catholic doctrine of justification by works (it tells you something about the state of modern catechesis that a literate cradle Catholic could think the Church taught salvation by works!).

As you know, I did not, in fact, become a Protestant minister. So what kept me in the flock? Was I convinced by the Catechism’s view of justification? That only happened much later.

What, in fact, kept me in the Catholic faith was the Eucharist. I might conceivably be sold on the idea that the Church was wrong about justification, or priestly celibacy, or sexual ethics, or anything else. What I found myself absolutely, utterly unable to renounce was the belief that the Eucharist is the Real Presence of Christ. As much as I wanted to, I absolutely could not stop believing in the Eucharist.

And if the Eucharist is the body of Christ, then the Church that “performs” this sacrament has to be the body of Christ as well, and if the Church is the body of Christ, then I have to be joined to it and obey it. So I put aside my qualms about justification (it would only be many years later that I would investigate the issue deeper and actually be convinced by the Catholic doctrine of justification) and let go of my dream of evangelical ministry.

Now, as far as reasons for joining a faith, this is inexplicable. In fact, I can’t explain it. At that point, I had never had any sort of mystical experience relating to the Eucharist. I have no idea whence the strength of this belief—which polls indicate is lacking in many Massgoing Catholics—originated. All I know is that I believe it, and I believe it with all my heart.

I think that for many Catholics who believe in the Eucharist, they believe in it because they believe in the Church and/or the Gospel. For me, it is exactly the other way around. It is because I believe in the Eucharist that I believe in the Church, and it is because I believe in the Church that I believe what it says about the Bible and the person of Jesus Christ.

I recognize how absurd this seems, or is. There is actually a fair amount of empirical evidence for the proposition that the man Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead. The empirical evidence for the proposition that bread and wine are transubstantiated into the body, soul and divinity of Christ is—the Church cheerfully admits—zilch.

I say all this because I am not sure how this all fits in the categories of “experience” and “reason” and “revelation” that David and Noah and Rod have been talking about. As I said, when I decided that the Eucharist was the one belief I could not part with, I had no specific mystical or religious “experience” to point to as justification for my belief (or my belief in my belief, so to speak). And the doctrine of the Eucharist is, by “design”, quite impervious to rational explanation. The doctrine of the Eucharist says that it is an incomprehensible mystery, so that if you claim to understand it (which I certainly do not) you are in fact in error. (In the small-t traditional phrase, the concept of transubstantiation explains the “what”, but not the “how”, which is incomprehensible.) I do not have any reason to believe in the Eucharist. I can certainly defend it. I can certainly explain (in inadequate words) why the Eucharist fits most sublimely into everything we know about the arc of the Bible and Christian revelation. But that is not ultimately why I believe.

Which is why, circling back, I found myself nodding along with Eve Tushnet’s words about authority:

authority is primarily an aesthetic movement of love rather than a rational movement of adducing evidence. (Adducing evidence can be a part of how we come to trust an authority–that was a part of Leah Libresco’s conversion, for example–and reasoned argument aimed at clearing away misconceptions was a big part of my own conversion. But overall, authority is what we love, not what we understand.)

I think this might be the missing piece of what we’ve been talking about. Experience, reason, yes, they are parts of it. But as Eve puts it, assenting to authority is “primarily an aesthetic movement of love.” I love the Eucharist—I crave it, I cherish it, I need it. I don’t know whether this belief is fully described as “primarily an aesthetic movement of love” but that does seem to me to be a better descriptor than the ones I’ve seen heretofore.

This notion of authority is also, I believe, important, because it is ultimately what this is about. When you are adopting a “world picture,” you are assenting to an authority. You are putting yourself under an authority. And while the various things that this authority says about the world might be defendable on their own terms, ultimately you assent because you assent to the authority they flow from. And it does sound right that choosing/being chosen by this authority is, yes, primarily an aesthetic movement (and experiential and/or rational second) and, certainly in the case of Catholicism but arguably for any authority, a movement of love. I would even go as far as to use this as an apologia for the Catholic faith, because Catholicism is the faith that makes this movement most explicit. As DFW immortally put it, in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there are no atheists. We all worship something. All we can do is choose what we worship. And Catholicism is most explicit about not only the choice but its implications.

I don’t know if this meditation is useful. But it might be.