First, the doubt and fear I have felt recently is something I haven’t felt quite so strongly since high-school, when I went through a very severe period of OCD, severely doubting simultaneously (it will sound odd) whether Christianity was true and whether I had in fact done the right things (e. g. prayed the proper prayer, been devoted enough etc.) to be a Christian. As with most OCD fears, my experience was based on fears that are in some situations valid, but that were amplified and made ubiquitous by OCD. It is, for instance, not an unusual thing for those who grow up in a Christian context to have doubts about their faith at some point, and about whether they are in fact Christian because they believe it or are just going along with their family. Usual, yes, but as I pointed out to a psychiatrist once when he asked how I knew it was OCD, it is not usual to be so caught up in one’s mind that one can’t even participate in regular conversation. It is not usual to hole oneself up in one’s room to replay a loop – an unanswerable loop that will in fact find chinks in any and every potential answer to all questions, no matter how absurd. It is to be afflicted with doubting for its own sake (it is not for no reason they call it the doubting disease), rather than in fact looking for something. They say that at the root of OCD is an inability to live with uncertainty, that is, to proceed (as most people do without realizing it) taking a certain amount of things for granted and being okay going what seems most plausible rather than waiting for 100% certainty to act (compulsions are attempts to neutralize and gain control over the uncertainty). People don’t realize how much trust and faith they exercise daily in living their everyday lives, how much they take for granted. And it is right that they should. But when you have OCD, you can’t. Every moment and every site is an instance whereupon the world hangs. And theologically speaking it may be so. But those without OCD are able to blessedly let God or fate or whatever they believe in worry about that for them. With OCD, the fate of everything rests on one’s shoulders. And that is presumably why, in the prior posts, the question has emerged so urgently, and why it has been the thing I obsess about day and night, often to the detriment of things I ought to pay attention to. This, I want to be clear, is not a function of the validity of the question or the matters I am dealing with (I have written an entire doctoral dissertation haunted by the OC mentality, and it does not I think invalidate what I have argued – just makes it much harder to know the difference between real, valid criticisms and that of my fiercest and most false critic, my mind). For those staunch supporters of the Reformation who want to simply explain away what I have said on grounds of madness, I will here note that Luther, an instrumental figure in the Reformation, very probably had OCD. So it cuts both ways. I will not explain the Reformation away as merely a function of OCD if you will do me the favor of not explaining me away.
The OCD amplifying factor is perhaps most relevant in understanding my first post on these matters. OCD makes it hard for me to tell the difference between the Evangelical church as it exists and the Evangelical theology my OCD latched onto and warped into tyrannical torture. Was I so very attacked, or was my brain attacking me? And if my brain was attacking me, was it doing so on its own, or simply amplifying a real fear or danger in Evangelical culture? To make the converse of the Luther parallel again, the number of hits on that post do suggest that writing it was a little like climbing a blind staircase and reaching out to a rope for support, and finding that the rope rang a bell that everyone recognized. OCD or not, I seem to have hit on something.
But there are also other factors of OCD involved, and this is where I do think one can identify more of a problem in Evangelical theology. It has taken a long while for me to be able to articulate this, but part of my brand of OCD involves a fear of emotional/spiritual contamination. One knows the horrors in one’s own head – particularly when one suffers from intrusive thoughts – and one knows the potential for perverted intentions and manipulation – and one knows that even the best of us may fall prey to these. And so, from childhood onward, one of the deepest things I have wrestled with is how to relate to others. More typical contamination fear in OCD involves fear of spreading germs and diseases to others – the compulsion that follows the obsession usually involves a ridiculous standard of cleanliness and an avoidance of others (if you avoid others you cannot make them sick – at least until OCD dissolves even this certainty). This is me, but on an emotional and spiritual level. As a human being I have, like all others, an innate desire to connect with people, in friendship and in love. And in my worst OCD moments I refrain as far as possible because I do not want to ruin it. I do not want to ruin the people I love around me. I do not want to manipulate or use them. I do not want to think of them in improper ways. And so I avoid. There is a sense in which I can in fact be physically present with people and emotionally/spiritually absent, or as absent as is possible, my mind clenched in a tight little ball of control.
And this, I suppose, is where I will take Evangelicalism to task, and this for its individualism. From what I can tell in my experience of it, community is allowed and encouraged for those who have a taste for it, those who are extroverted or make friends easily. But it is not enough of a tenet of faith to be enforced. That is, there is not a spiritual duty to seek out those on the sidelines, who are isolated, and ensure they are participating in the community of the church. Faith, for Evangelicals, at the end of the day depends on one’s personal – where personal is understood as individual – relationship with God, and, at the end of the day, community is not part of salvation economy – we are left alone with God on our knees, and expected to do anything – whether the community agrees or not – that we feel God wants us to do (and if you protest that we are not left quite alone – we have the Bible – well, OCD unguided by tradition can do very funny things with that as well). And very often these things we feel God wants us to do – crazy from all normal perspectives – belong in fact to the voice of OCD in our heads. The person with OCD is left alone before a God he or she can’t see clearly, and out of respect for personal piety, no one will pry into them and help them to be real Christians, to experience real grace.
And this is where I see, at least in its ideal form (practical may be a different matter), the Catholic church being an improvement. Christ’s grace is mediated through the Church, and this, far from being a dilution of faith, is a way of supplanting that other mediator – our personal spirituality, our minds, our OCD – and making sure we are actually Christian. You will understand how desperate I am for such salvation if you consider my position; take whatever passion, reason, and imagination you may find in my writing, amp it up about ten times, and then imagine it fueled by a boundless ferocity and viciousness toward a particularly unfortunate target. Now imagine that you are that target, and how that might feel. And now realize that I, in fact, become such a target daily, a target of my own most deadly weaponry. Let me introduce my traveling companion, OCD. Please to meet him; can you guess his name?
There are two relevant Chesterton quotes that I have been particularly thinking about lately. One is from the biography of Thomas, where he suggests that the beauty of Thomas’s incarnational theology is that it saves people from their own spirituality. I understand this, and it is in fact a very important aspect of the Church even before Aquinas – part of the Church’s uneasiness about eremitic monasticism emerged from this very problem – crazy people like me going off into the desert for reasons only masquerading as God-inspired, and unguided by the tempering factor of community.
The other Chesterton quote I am reminded of is his observation that the Church is like a detective that hunts down people and finds out their sins, not to condemn them, but to forgive them. This is what I need. I need a church that is a hunter, relentless as a hound, that will pursue me to the utter reaches of hell and batter my heart till the fortress falls. And I’m not sure how many ecclesiologies are strong enough to do this. Certainly, a church is weakened in this regard just to degree that it is not bound to the heavy and ponderous battering ram of tradition with Scripture glowing at its core. And though I am still having trouble explaining to others this next matter on anything other than grounds of desperate hunger, I want a church with the full package. Seven sacraments. A Mary blessed among women and called blessed by all generations (an assertion strangely not accepted by most alleged Biblical “literalists”). A full set of the communion of saints. And a real presence in the Eucharist (this IS my body) that I can not only appreciate in the experience of communion, but that I can also adore. Because the gates of hell are strong gates indeed, and they are very deeply embedded in me, and salvation can be nothing less than a full assault on these gates with all the forces available – material, spiritual, and otherwise – in heaven and on earth. Indeed, I even imagine that many Evangelicals and Protestants reading this are right now agreeing with me and wondering why I would have to be Catholic to think this. I may not, but I am not sure that it can come out of any other imaginative matrix than Catholic tradition infused to saturation with Scripture.