I too wish to welcome our new blogger to the table, even if she may insist there is no table because this is not a dinner party. I also think that it is worth noting the personality difference between myself and Chinglican – faith is not woven out of a single personality type – because it helps explain what I am going to say here. Chinglican, I think, is fairly optimistic about things; I am fairly pessimistic. Where Chinglican looks at the gates of the city lifting their heads in joy, I notice how silent the streets of the city lie. Both perspectives are Biblical and reflect reality, and are a matter of emphasis within Christian tradition. But since we have had an appreciation of what has proven to be a very popular post, I would like to add, as irenically as possible, a number of caveats. But first I need to get kind of personal.
I am a stay-at-home father. One of my favorite classes in my undergraduate degree was my feminist literary theory class. And I do a good portion of the cooking in our house, if perhaps not always a good job. Iterating these things is not a matter of boasting – I mean, someone has to do them, and it is no more or less commendable just because it happens to be me. But I do say it because I am attracted to Catholicism, and I hope these instances are enough to demonstrate that some people want to become Catholic for reasons other than that they want their wife barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.
Are some people attracted to Catholicism for this reason? Certainly; I have no doubt about it, just as I have no doubt that some (both male and female) who embrace the kind of open-mindedness-sans-authority proposed in the “Two Sides of the Coin” post do so on account of a non-committal attitude, a desire to run away when it all falls apart rather than go down with the ship. Much can be said about this attitude: extremists will point to it as the attitude their extremism is addressing even while missing its remedy; and modern liberals nurse it in forgetting that it is not commitment in the mind, but commitment in the gut, that at the end of the day determines where our loyalties lie. But in any case, it is not my purpose here to accuse Not A Dinner Party of this attitude – only to note that, for every visceral reaction that can be raised against close-mindedness, I have one that can be raised against the lack of radical loyalty – commitment – in our society.
What I would like to suggest, though, is that neither certainty nor uncertainty has inherent worth; it really all depends what one is being (un)certain about and how this is practiced. Because we are well into postmodernity, the problem most evident to us – and therefore less dangerous than the other – is the problem of a certainty that curtails complexity. This, it seems to me, is the target of Not a Dinner Party’s post. But I think there is also a problem of uncertainty; let me explain, with the aid of G. K. Chesterton and my own experience.
As I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I have OCD, nicknamed the doubting disease. Basically this means that, whereas others can feel the difference between a reasonable and an unreasonable doubt, there are many areas in which I cannot, at least on the usual internal cognitive basis used by most people. To take a common example, imagine someone who repeatedly checks the door to see if it is locked. What is driving this person is the recurring doubt that, when he checked it last time, he may have missed something. So he doubts; some specialists would say it is because the person with OCD lacks a certain kind of kinetic memory – whereas in others, their body itself would remember performing the action of locking the door or checking or whatever, the person with OCD lacks this capacity. Moreover, the person with OCD cannot tell differences between the magnitude of the matters he is worrying about; whether you tell him the world is about to end or that he may not have locked the car door, it will feel to him much like the same thing, because in fact no one can prove to him with a hundred percent certainty that his failure to lock the door will not in fact lead to the end of the world, or whatever he happens to love most. You see, the person with OCD has a very open mind. He can imagine all sorts of things, and is in many ways the model of what the new atheists seem to think they want to be – a doubter unchecked by any unverifiable boundaries or assumptions. Give him a space of time long enough and he will deconstruct the universe.
What is interesting is that this experience corresponds exactly to what G. K. Chesterton describes in Orthodoxy when he talks about the connection between the rationalism and madness. I know what it is to experience both, and I know the terror involved. And I know the only way out is through trust – of other persons and other institutions, that may perhaps be sane – of course the tricky part is determining who to trust and why. Intriguingly enough, this process – a process involving navigating multiple ways of knowing (such as that of fairyland) – is in some ways quite postmodern, and it attempts to evaluate truth via multiple means beyond a simple modernity-driven reason. So we actually have a paradox here – a desire for certainty that in fact invites us to broaden our definitions of what certainty might look like, or at the very least our understanding of the horizons to which we might look.
But, you will say, this is all well and good when you are talking about OCD, but what about “real life?” Not everyone (thank God) has OCD. True. But because I don’t think that anything evil can exist without being parasitic on something good, I would suggest this: mental illness is a parasitic totalization of a particular human trait removed from its proper context. Moreover, I would suggest that there is a delicate balance between biological determinism and free will. God help us if we ever forget the biological side, as so many Christians do when they tell their brothers and sisters to just “get over it.” Yet context, environment, and habit also have their place, and I do think it almost possible to diagnose entire societal aurae with these categories as well as single people. I wonder in fact if it is not possible that postmodern society itself has a bit of a case of OCD, with its stubborn insistence on an unachievable level of certainty that it must obtain before making any kind of commitment – which ends in apathy or anxious inaction.
If this is the case, it means that the desire for certainty so heavily critiqued in Not A Dinner Party’s piece is a pathology sprung from starvation. Always only offered the choice between a shiny liberal ideology and a basic human desire for trust fetishized as absolute certainty, people usually choose the former, but there is still an innate human hunger for trust and commitment that goes far beyond the Enlightenment fetishization, and when that part of the human is starved for too long, humans become ready to devour anything to get it, most prominently other humans. A starving person may raid a dumpster to try to fill his stomach. No, this is not the most sensible of behavior, and yes, it is reactionary and not the kind of thing one would contemplate in a comfortable middle class armchair. But simply calling the behavior reactionary seems to me to miss the point a bit. It would be better to offer a meal. But it is easier for us to live with our consciences if we reduce these people to mere “reactionaries” such that we don’t actually have to deal with them.
Of course, the analogue breaks down at various points, and I would suggest that the person stumbling upon Catholicism in this way is rather like the hungry person going off on his own, half crazed, and finding a feast in an abandoned warehouse that everyone mistakenly thought was inhabited by thieves. One hopes that, as he eats and drinks, his behavior might become somewhat less desperate and crazed, but this takes time – the day he found the feast that saved his life is kind of important, even if he sometimes gets carried away in being zealous about it, and maybe for a long time emphasizes the wrong parts of it. But calling him a reactionary is a sure way to kill any potential discussion.
You see, for all I have said about being unlike such reactionaries in my attraction to Catholicism, there is a part of me that wants to stand with them – not to condone categorically their perspectives, but because few other people will, and because I have to acknowledge Christian brothers and sisters even when they are still working things out. I know what it is to be on the other side of the “reactionary” charge. I am a fairly conservative Christian myself. I come from the Prairie provinces of Canada, and know what it is to have bishops come from Toronto to fix the non-progressive “backwardness” of prairie folk. When I first entered my Doctoral program at UBC, I think the leader of our cohort’s Intro to the Doctoral Program nearly fell out of his chair when I said that I had at one point wanted to be a medical missionary. And to put icing on the cake, I was home-schooled. From Kindergarten through Grade 12. The target I have painted on my back should be fairly clear by now.
And what I always wanted to say about these things – particularly about being home-schooled – is that there may be more to me than you think. But if there is, it is certainly a part of me you are not going to get to know (let alone advise) because your first step has been to provoke my defenses. If all I am to you is a backward, conservative, homeschooled Christian, that is how you have decided to see me, and I am not going to expend energy to disabuse you of that, because one has to pick one’s battles, and frankly, it is exhausting. So I know what it is to be thought of as the resident reactionary – what’s more, in some of the things I have said in this post, I have probably done little more than bolster these assumptions. But if you hear one thing, hear this: what the reactionary you so despise needs is not more arguments. What he or she needs is to see you love him or her as a Christian, as a human – such people need to see that your degree of love outweighs all your spite. A tall order, yes, and one which I myself don’t live up to. But I do think it is a Christian Thing. Something about loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you – even when they also happen to be fellow Christians.