Monday, October 09, 2006

On being a Catholic agnostic

The Catholic Church may soon reject the concept of limbo, the supposed place where unbaptized babies spend eternity. Not even the most hard-nosed theologian of yore was apparently willing to send those innocent darlings to hell, though tainted as they were with original sin. But without the water of salvation they couldn't see God. So there they reside, for time without end, in an exurb of heaven devoid of the Beatific Vision.

Clearly, limbo is an embarrassment. But if you are going to rid theology of every concept that stands in contradiction to the modern empirical way of knowing, why stop with limbo? Surely limbo is no more farfetched than Dante's paradisio and inferno, no matter how you gussy up the latter concepts in vaguely modern garb. Is theology a parsing of improbabilities?

And yet, as readers of yesterday's postings know, I will call myself a Catholic -- adjectivally speaking. Not because I can recite the Creed (I can't), or because I practice that faith (I don't), but because the nitty-gritty of Catholicism went into my system like mother's milk. No one of us can free ourself entirely from the cultural influences that shaped our ways of thinking and experiencing the world. And, besides, I cosset in my heart a heap of affection for the Catholic tradition. I have been happily associated with Catholic educational institutions for most of my life.

I am repelled, of course, by the triumphalism, paternalism and authoritarianism of the institutional Church, its Jansenism, miracle-mongering, and misogyny. But the sacramental tradition is a treasured part of my being. A sacrament is a "visible sign of invisible grace," according to the Church, and "invisible," as I understand it, need not mean "supernatural." I experience every aspect of the natural world as the "visible" surface of a reality that is deep and mysterious beyond my knowing. A hundred years ago, who could have imagined the dervish dance of the DNA or the big bang ripples that gave rise to galaxies. Who today can imagine what we will know a hundred years hence? The world is shot through with a grandeur and mystery that now and again flames out "like shining from shook foil." And so I wait, alert, for the angel, that rare random descent.

I love the Catholic liturgical tradition -- the wax, water, fire, chrism, candlelight, bread, wine, palm fronds, colors, chants, bells -- the whole sensual celebration of the material world. I love the Campbellesque, sun-centered cycle of the liturgical year, and the canonical hours of the day. I love the monastic tradition of a life lived with a balance of physical labor, intellectual study, and prayer, the last of which I would define -- with Thomas Merton -- as a quiet listening of the heart, or, more simply, attention. I love the tradition of creation spirituality that I have elsewhere called "the parallel Church," heretical to be sure, but in love with the world and suspicious of dualities -- Columbanus, John Scotus Eriugena, Meister Eckhart, Mechthild of Magdeburg, Julian of Norwich, Nicholas of Cusa, Giordano Bruno, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Teilhard de Chardin, and all the rest. I love the whole smoky, sexy physicality of Catholicism that inspired the art of Gislebertus, Bernini, and Undset, that sent Heloise and Abelard careening into mad abandon and bedeviled Clare and Francis. I love the quintessentially Catholic dark night of the soul as much as I love the luminous Easter symbolism that goes with a planet tipped cockeyed on its axis.

Can I have all of that without embracing the tottering panoply of miracles and the supernatural?