Saturday, February 09, 2013

Credo -- a Saturday reprise

(This post originally appeared on August 31, 2007.)

My last few posts took the institutional Roman Catholic Church to task for perceived failings. Lest I come across as too unforgiving, let me repeat here from previous posts what I value in my own Roman Catholic upbringing, education and life experience.

For all of my agnosticism, I am quite willing to call myself a Catholic. Not because I can recite the Creed (I can't), or because I practice that particular faith (I don't), but because the substance of Catholicism went into my system like mother's milk. None of us can be free entirely from the cultural influences that shaped our ways of thinking and experiencing the world. Nor would I want to if I could. I cosset in my heart an unquenchable affection for Catholic tradition.

I am repelled, of course, by the triumphalism, paternalism and authoritarianism of the Church, its Jansenism, supernaturalism, 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" need not imply "supernatural." I experience every aspect of the natural world as the "visible" manifestation of an "inscape" that is deep and mysterious beyond my knowing. A hundred years ago, who could have imagined the dervish dance of the DNA or the ripples in the energy of the big bang 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 that now and again flames out "like shining from shook foil." In Catholic tradition, one must be predisposed to grace to receive it. I wait, alert. Always. For the shining.

I love 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 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, 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 smote 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 and still eschew the shabby panoply of miracles and the supernatural? This is my Credo. I am an atheist, if by God one means a transcendent Person who acts willfully within the creation. I am an agnostic in that I believe our knowledge of "what is" is partial and tentative -- a tiny flickering flame in the overwhelming shadows of our ignorance. I am a pantheist in that I believe empirical knowledge of the sensate world is the surest revelation of whatever is worthy of being called divine. I am a Catholic by accident of birth.