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The Revert and the Convert: Why We're Catholic, Part 3
Surprise! Unbeknownst to me when I began this series, we have a third story to enjoy: my brother's return to the Church after a 25-year hiatus.
Another revert: Dave DuBay
It took me decades to figure out that everyone has faith in something. Or to put it differently, that faith is unavoidable. But a more important question is: What do I have faith in?
You can read my sister Jenny’s prodigal story in part one of this series. But while we share many of the same childhood experiences, our stories of departing from and then returning to the Catholic faith are unique.
Looking back over 30 years, I realize now that as a high school student, without even realizing it I started buying into the view that scientific testability is the measure of all things, and anything that isn’t testable is just your opinion. It’s no surprise, in retrospect, that I would lose my Christian faith in less than a decade.
Besides, atheism is easier to defend in many ways because you only have to cast doubt on other people’s beliefs. Or so I thought.
The 18th century Enlightenment gave us many good things, like modern science, modern democracy, and human rights. But Enlightenment thinkers also claimed that faith conflicts with reason, resulting in the claim that something is true to the degree that it can be verified through direct observation or logical proofs. And that led to the claim that belief in God is irrational.
But as well, neither meaning nor moral principles can be scientifically tested. So modern society came to see these as opinions: I make my own meaning, and different cultures have different views about right and wrong. Besides, many atheists claim that it’s emotionally weak to want life to have inherent meaning.
Yet, the assumption that beliefs are subjective or even irrational without empirical evidence is something that itself can’t be empirically verified. It’s a belief, a presupposition. But for so long I was oblivious to the reality that everyone’s worldview begins with assumptions they believe but can’t prove through science. And while reason helps clarify our thinking, it doesn’t definitively settle as many complex questions as we might like to suppose.
For example, St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out that unless there is an infinite regress of causation, there must be a starting point—something that is self-existent, the uncaused cause. That this is God is a matter of faith. Materialism, however, implies that physical matter is self-existent. But this is not scientifically testable. It took decades, but it finally dawned on me that materialism too is a metaphysical belief taken on faith. Even as an atheist, faith was unavoidable.
The issue, I realized, is not reason versus faith, but faith and reason together. Science can’t test the claim that life has inherent, objective meaning; that some things are objectively right or wrong; or that qualities like Goodness exist independently while particular things or situations reflect these qualities. These are basic assumptions we take on faith.
But while belief in God is not scientifically testable, God is either real or He is not. In other words, both God and materialism are factual (real or not) but neither is a scientific question. So, faith in God is no more irrational than materialism is. Of course, atheists will disagree. But neither can science test the belief that scientifically untestable beliefs are irrational.
A bigger criticism, however, is that Christianity is immoral. This goes beyond the question of why a perfectly good and all-powerful God allows suffering. Or for progressives, the fact that many Christians are socially conservative. It even goes beyond some Christians being judgmental, or money grubbing TV preachers, or pedophile priests.
Almost everyone wants to believe that they’re a good person, and most of us think we’re morally better than most other people. The belief that there are the good guys (me, and like-minded people) and the bad guys (people with opposing beliefs) is appealing. It’s a staple of movies, novels, and TV shows.
Even many Christians believe this. But this is not what Jesus taught. He said that God alone is good. Everyone else is a sinner. We’re all the bad guys, and we can’t become good through our own efforts, but only through the grace of God. Atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, however, famously criticized this as “slave morality”—a belief for weaklings.
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Self-determination is the modern ideal. But I slowly learned what is obvious to many of you: if you decide what is right for you then you can’t object to other people deciding what is right for them, even if their beliefs offend you. Yet, just about everyone believes that some things are morally right or wrong no matter what other people might say.
Being stubborn, though, I didn’t want to return to Christianity or the Catholic Church. So I looked for nontheistic alternatives. Buddhism is both a philosophy and a religion that goes beyond cold scientism and the denial of other people’s beliefs. In Buddhism, you can achieve enlightenment through your own efforts. That’s appealing in 21st century America. But I seriously doubt that I can do that on my own.
Modern Stoicism is also an ethical worldview. And while ancient Stoics were pantheists, belief in deities is optional for modern Stoics. Most seem to opt for de facto nontheism. Without theism, modern Stoicism retains only the psychological insight that worrying about things that are beyond your control—which is everything except your deliberate choices—causes unnecessary stress; and that your deliberate choices should be made with virtue as the primary goal.
The Stoics argue that for virtue to truly be virtue, it cannot be sullied by anything that is not virtuous. In other words, virtue is a perfect ideal. But this makes Stoicism an impossible ideal. Like a man underwater, you can swim closer to the surface, but you’ll never reach open air. One criticism of Stoicism is that you can drown in six feet or six inches of water, so what’s the point? At least Buddhists do claim that enlightenment is possible, albeit rare. But you may have to be reborn a few thousand times before you get it right.
I began to wonder what the Stoic source of virtue is if Stoicism is now nontheistic. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis writes that everyone has an innate sense that some things are right and other things are wrong, even if our flawed individual perspectives don’t agree on all the details.
Importantly, Lewis is clear that objective morality is a presupposition. Of course, that morality—which involves intentional, conscious action—has a conscious, intention source, is a matter of faith. Christians, however, can’t claim to decide right and wrong for themselves. They can’t even claim to have a complete understanding of right and wrong.
To remain true to Christ’s teachings, Christians can only claim to be flawed, and to do their best to do God’s will knowing that they don’t understand it perfectly. That’s why Jesus warned against judging others, saying instead that we will be judged with the same measure that we judge others. This is the same passage where he says to worry about the beam in your own eye, not the speck in your neighbor’s.
And this perhaps puts the biggest moral objection into focus: why would a good God send people to hell? Maybe the biggest thing I thought I knew, but didn’t really understand, is that heaven and hell are about being in relationship with or alienated from God, and that’s a choice each individual makes since God extends His grace to everyone. As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain, “the doors of hell are locked on the inside.”
But still, a problem remained. When I look back on my life, I am painfully aware of bad things I’ve done. But while I am always trying to do better, the standard for true goodness is too high.
Having come to believe that goodness, virtue, and morality are objective and intentional, but also that they are impossible standards, I faced a dilemma that neither Stoicism nor Buddhism satisfied: What do I do with an impossible standard?
The rock band U2 has a song called “Grace” with the line, “She travels outside of karma.” If we only reap what we sow, then we’re stuck in an endless loop. The Genesis story is about Adam and Eve trying to enact their own plans and making a mess of it. We can’t build a Tower of Babel to heaven. They tried that too, and it also failed. There’s only one solution to the impossibility of perfect goodness: we don’t build a tower to heaven; instead, God builds a bridge to us.
I felt like Israel, having been given so much by God and yet being so unfaithful—even to the point of denying Him. But grace steps outside of the feedback loop—it brings us back from exile, as flawed as we are. But He won’t force us. We must surrender and submit to God.
And that’s what, for the longest time, I was too arrogant to do.
After all, faith is more than just believing in things that can’t be scientifically proven. Its Latin origin, fides (from the root fidere), means “to trust.” “Fidelity” is a related word. Faith, then, primarily is trust in and fidelity to God, and the specifics of Christian belief follow from that. Nor is belief about suppressing doubt. Instead, the tension between faith (trust) and doubt (lack of trust) engages belief by reminding us that truth is not our possession to wield as we choose.
And so I finally had to face the desire for self-determination and how it ties in with trust. Here, at last, I had to confront an essential but difficult part of being a Catholic Christian: trying to live by the principle of “not my will but God’s will be done.”