Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Probing the depths

I have previously identified myself here as a Catholic agnostic. As a naturalist, I cannot recite a supernaturalist creed, so I no longer identify myself as a Catholic (noun), but the adjective is part of who I am. I have been associated with Roman Catholicism since the day I was born.

Certainly, eight of the most formative years of my life were spent as an undergraduate and graduate at the University of Notre Dame. Oh yes, we took -- were required to take -- courses in theology and apologetics, all of which were pretty conventional. They rolled off my consciousness like water off a duck's back.

But outside of the classroom, the fifties and early sixties were a thrilling time to be a young Catholic intellectual. We devoured Bernanos, Greene, Mauriac, Bloy, Peguy, Undset. We tried on Gilson, Maritain, de Lubac, Danielou, and, most lastingly, Thomas Merton. We were stirred by classic films like Dreyer's Passion of Saint Joan and Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest. We weren't so much interested in theology as in a life lived in passionate contact with the invisible world. What sort of invisible world? Not, surely, a world of pure spirit. We had no taste, as I recall, for the Beatific Vision. Rather, we were seeking immersion in the murky waters of a pond of which the visible world was the dark and mysterious surface.

I don't see any of that among students at Catholic colleges and universities today. They are more committed than we were to the social gospel of the Church, more ready to volunteer to help the poor and needy. Theirs is a faith of service, more Christian than uniquely Catholic.

Our 1950's Catholicism was visceral, sexual, sensual, and as I grew into a robust scientific skepticism some of that stayed with me. I do not see any reason to shed it now. I'm still ready to poke with a stick at the dark and terrible beauty that lies beneath the surface of the pond. Grace, said Bernanos' country priest, is everywhere.

Tomorrow, the book.