Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Beginning to See the Light

At fifty-three, an English professor and atheist since the age of seventeen, demonstrates that it’s never too late to find the way home:

For too long I converted that arrogance into a virtue, and I compensated for the lack of understanding with dismissal and annoyance. Contempt, I thought, was the right response to stupid belief. For all my claims to intellectual growth, though, I had to stand before the faithful and admit my ignorance. But even to say “I don’t understand you” is a difficult position for the intellectually prideful to hold, and my ready defense was to denigrate the thing I didn’t understand, both God himself and others’ apprehension of him. I reacted wrongly to assertions of what I didn’t discern, even though all of us are asked all the time to believe in things we don’t perceive.

That was an intellectual break, and it pressed me to reflect upon thirty years of adulthood and to realize to my disgust that without a spiritual anchor in my personal life I had careened from one reckless and cowardly act to another. My contempt for believers faded, and when I ended up in the midst of believing souls I felt embarrassment and regret, not superiority. Middle age brought about a different conclusion: “Atheism happened to me not because it is the truth but because of who I was and what was happening to me back then.” I don’t think that all beliefs are socially or historically constructed, but in this case I know that my epiphany at seventeen was not an insight into the nature of things. It was a psychological adjustment to a mentally ill, domineering father and an erratic, promiscuous mother.

After the authority of nihilism slipped, it was time to learn about the other side. In late 2010, I began weekly study of the Catechism of the Catholic Church with a man from Opus Dei who has become a treasured friend. After a long personal and professional life spent reading philosophy and literature that pointed inevitably, it seemed to me, toward a secular vision, I was skeptical that forthright expressions of religious belief could compete in logic or intellect with Derrida, Foucault, Rorty, and other academic idols of the eighties and nineties.

But our first session on the opening sections of the Catechism revealed a discourse just as sophisticated and learned as the most scholastic paragraphs of deconstruction and cultural studies. My friend’s explanation of the sacraments as signs and presences was just as semiotically advanced as the theories I remember from graduate seminars on structural linguistics.

When I read “The desire for God is written in the human heart,” I wanted more. I found too that the Catechism does something deconstruction, cultural studies, and the rest don’t. It takes seriously the other side. It doesn’t shy away from atheism but explains it sympathetically, with love, not spite.

The Catechism introduced to me “ways of coming to know God” that involve study and discipline, not a sudden revelation. The idea that faith might not be an instantaneous perception, that God’s presence or absence rests upon more than a blunt apprehension, struck me as a dilating prospect. God is out there, and the Church is the way to him. If I haven’t apprehended him directly and overwhelmingly, as I did the Nothing of that not-burning bush when I was a bright and confused teenager, that’s the fault of my limited powers of perception, not because there is nothing there to perceive. I entered the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults last fall.