The Other I

January 24, 2012

Addendum to Catholic thinking

Following my post yesterday, Leanna politely pointed out that, despite her Catholic socialization, she is what I think Jung would have called someone who put feelings or what I called experience, ahead of thinking.

It made me realize that I was so focused on analyzing my own thinking that I failed to make it clear that not all Catholics are thinking types, nor are all thinking types Catholics.  What I would also like to say is that neither thinking or feeling types are better or worse.  We need both, and as we mature, we need to learn to do both.  But I tend to agree with Jung that we are born with a disposition toward one or the other.  I have been a thinking type for as long as I can remember, which is about the age of two, and I was analyzing how being socialized as a Catholic thinker has shaped me.

In this context, thes issue of thought and feeling is closely related to the question of which comes first – religious teaching or personal experience.  The Roman Catholic Church has historically taken a pretty strong position on this issue in favor of thinking.  Dogma comes first.  Galileo looked through his telescope and concluded with Copernicus that the earth revolved around the sun, not vice versa.  Rome hauled him in and said that his observations contradicted dogma.   Under threat of the rack, Galileo publicly – if not privately – recanted.

This issue remains alive today.  Evangelicals, for instance, reject many of the findings of science on the grounds that it contradicts Biblical truth.  There is, for them, an over-riding idea that cannot be contradicted under any circumstances, whatever they experience, whatever conclusions may rationally be suggested by science, or whatever anybody else might think.

I suspect that Catholic theologians more often tend to be thinkers in a way that many Protestant theologians are not for two reasons.  The first is Rome’s doctrine of papal infallibility.  Under pain of excommunication, one cannot reject teachings which Rome has declared to be infallible.  The virgin birth, the immaculate conception, the assumption, the resurrection and ascension, original sin, the trinity of God, for instance, have all been declared to be literally (not just metaphorically) true.  Catholic theologians cannot not publicly take another position, whatever their conscience may require.  At this very time, a Catholic priest has been excommunicated by Rome because he publicly supports the ordination of women, a position that Rome has forbidden Catholics to defend.

I think that celibacy also contributes to a continuation of a one-sided emphasis on thought among Catholic thinkers.  Celibacy is defended on the grounds that it represents a higher calling than a sexual partnership and raising a family.   I was taught this and entered the convent with this conviction.

My experience no longer supports this view.  I think a close sexual partnership is one of the most demanding experiences of human life.  A committed, enduring partnership with another person with different preferences, different points of view, different strengths and weaknesses requires a diminution of ones own egocentrism in the way nothing else does.  I emphatically do not agree that a life of celibacy is more difficult.  In fact, I think celibacy often permits the celibate (or at least the uncommitted if not celibate) priest to blithely proceed on a path of self-diagnosed belief in the superior rightness of their personal beliefs.

This is not to say that Catholic doctrine in itself tends to produce this outcome.  I don’t believe that the teachings of Jesus tend to turn us into thinkers at the cost of feeling.  Nor is Catholic doctrine the only system of thought that can give us a sense of righteousness.  I have seen scientists as rigidly committed to their theories as any theologian in Rome.  Science, however, in the end is committed to the primacy of using experience to validate thought.  Rome, with its position of infallibility, emphatically is not.

This is an extremely complex question, and although I obviously have thought about it a great deal, my discussion began as one of self-exploration, and I don’t want it to suggest that I think all believers are rigidly bound to a single system of ideas.  They are not.

I would be particularly interested in comments on this topic.  If you agree, disagree, or think I’m missing something significant, I’d hugely appreciate your saying so.



January 23, 2012

Still thinking like a Catholic

I grew up in an intellectual family.  I learned around the dinner table how to question and to look at other points of view before drawing my own conclusions.  I learned how to doubt received wisdom and even to question Catholic dogma.  This didn’t happen in most families I knew, and most Catholics I knew did not debate theological issues with the kind of knife-edge precision I’d learned at home.

When shortly after leaving the convent I stopped believing in just about all the tenets of faith required by Roman Catholicism, I naively thought I no longer thought like a Catholic.  My graduate education and all my professional life were in secular universities with no overt Catholic influences at all.

When my English, Protestant, academic husband assured me that many of my thought processes were still Catholic, I didn’t know what he was talking about.

Over the years I have recognized bits and pieces of what he meant.  But I am still uncovering layers of undiscovered socialization that go back to those discussions around the dinner table.  There are several characteristics of my thought that I can still point to.

My thinking is organized, with a much greater emphasis on right answers than creative solutions.  It makes me good at figuring things out, but highly critical of “wrong” answers.   I’m good at explaining things if someone wants to understand.  I am, however, exasperated with people whose thinking seems based more on wishful thinking than on evidence or logic.  My patience all but runs out if they are nonetheless adamant about how right they are.

I have always used ideas rather than experience as the main criterion for judging the validity of a position.  I did it first with Catholic dogma, and later with scientific principles.  I didn’t ask myself what I was feeling.  Dogma or theories told me what I was supposed to be feeling, so I thought that’s what I felt.  The Church taught that we should forgive others as an all-loving God forgave us our sins.  I didn’t feel outrage that an all-loving  God was capable of the kind of vindictive unforgiveness required by someone who inflicts eternal hell fire on anyone who crosses him once too often and doesn’t manage to get access to absolution before dying.  It didn’t even bother me that this all-loving God wouldn’t let completely innocent babies into heaven if they died without being baptized.  Later in my life, Freud said I was repressing the knowledge of an Oedipus complex, so I went into psychoanalysis to uncover it.  I knew beforehand what I was looking for.  I knew beforehand what I was supposed to be feeling.

I look now with astonishment at those who from a very young age simply dismissed some of these ideas as so contradicting their own experience and common sense that they disregarded them without any guilt or confusion whatsoever.  They just never took them seriously.

It’s not that I am against not trusting our own experiences.  If science has taught us anything, it’s that we make mistakes, that we misinterpret, we draw the wrong conclusions.  The world is not flat, despite my experience that it is, the sun does not go around the earth despite the fact that I see it doing so in the sky every day.   But experience is what we all begin with, and to dismiss it as I have during so much of my life in favour of pre-ordained “right answers” is to be alienated from myself.

I think that on some level I have always sensed that my search for right answers, for a complete world view devoid of contradictions and paradoxes, was limiting.  It’s why I find modern art  so liberating.  It’s why what sounds so much like the illogical nonsense of quantum mechanics is so freeing.  I keep looking for the kind of right answers, the kind of complete coherent system Roman Catholicism offered me as a child, and then experience an almost mystical delight when the whole system falls apart and has to be put together again.

Learning to trust my own intuitions is probably what I now call my acts of faith.  My intuition is that my husband loves me.  I don’t have scientific proof.  But I do have experience.  My intuition is that despite all its travails, life is worth living.  I don’t have scientific proof.  But I do experience it.

I still like right answers.  I still like things to make sense, to be organized and coherent.

But at least I don’t trust my right answers anymore.  If Plato didn’t devise an infallible system, if Kant or Newton didn’t, if Einstein couldn’t, then I think I can rest assured that I’m not going to.  So I don’t know how to solve all the world’s problems.  I don’t have all the right answers.  And I’m not, after all,  responsible for running the world.

What a relief.

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