Thursday, September 20, 2007

Once a Catholic...

Except for two years as a graduate student at UCLA, I have spent all my life in a Roman Catholic milieu. I was raised a Catholic, but since young aduthood I have not been able to recite the Creed. I cannot give intellectual assent to any presumed manifestation of the supernatural -- miracles, answered prayers, and certainly not the central claim of Christianity, that Jesus was God and rose from the dead. Why not? Because my years of study of science, and the history and philosophy of science, have taught me the difference between cautious evidential affirmation and blind faith. I opt for the former.

Yet I remain very much at home with Catholicism. It is rather like the accident of my birth in Chattanooga, Tennessee. As a young man, I chose not to return to the South to raise my own family, because I despised the redneck racism that characterized that part of the country in the 1950s and 1960s. But I never lost my affection for Chattanooga, enjoyed every return, and took pride in every step that my native city made away from its racist past.

The same for Catholicism. I can't change the circumstances of my birth, but neither do I reject them. Several times each year I am asked to talk to Unitarian Universalist congregations -- no doubt because they are in sympathy with the religious naturalism of my books -- and I am often asked why I don't become a UU. Because I am a Catholic, I say. Take me back to Chattanooga, and in a few hours I am tawkin' again in a Southern drawl; take me to a church and I am immediately nostalgic for bells, candles, incense, liturgical colors, vestments, diurnal and annual rituals -- the whole smoky, sensual apparatus of Catholic worship. As I have said here before, I have a special regard for the Catholic monastic tradition, with its emphasis on a balanced life of work, study and meditative attention to the world. I value the Catholic mystical tradition, with its heroic attempt to marry body and spirit. There is something visceral and sexy about Catholicism that I don't find in the cheerily cerebral celebrations of the UUs: a sense of mystery, and -- ironically for a church encrusted with dogma -- respect for doubt, for the dark night of the soul, for a geography of the spirit that includes the cloud of unknowing and slough of despond. These things may appeal to me because of the experiences of my youth; nothing wrong with that, as long as they do not compromise the evidence-based rigor I hope to obtain when I say "I believe..."

This too in defense of Catholicism: During my long association with Catholic institutions of higher learning, I have never experienced anything but supportive tolerance for my own agnosticism. My Catholic colleagues -- including professed men and women -- have been challenging, open-minded, and often inspiring. I have been fortunate to have friends and colleagues of faith who brought to the religious quest a sense of poetry, humility, and intellectual adventure.