On conversion: I’m against it

4 04 2019

I am flighty in my ideas, I admit. Since my mid-20’s, I’ve basically had a live and let live approach. “If it works for you, that’s okay I guess.” Maybe this is caused by my (very) liberal education, my West Coast upbringing, and my coming of age in the era of multiculturalism. There was one instance (I can’t give details of course) when I was drinking wine with a Catholic friend who was thinking of converting to Islam (he did). I volunteered to drive him to the mosque and witness it (that didn’t pan out for reasons I don’t remember). It was surreal, but it takes all kinds to make a world.

I’ve had no problems picking and choosing (read: stealing) from any faith or ideology I deem useful, or at least admiring them. There have been times where I have played the fundamentalist, but since about the mid-2000’s, I am mainly just pretending. My reasoning is that I would rather people be a better (fill in the blank) and not necessarily come over to my side. Just make better arguments, be better at whatever you seem to adhere to, and then you might be interesting at least. Stuck with having been born into a Catholic family, and with a heightened sense of consistency, this has put me in some difficult spots of cognitive dissonance. How does one be a pluralist in their thinking in the bosom of one of the most successful proselytizing movements in history? The reason Catholicism and Islam have historically had such dramatic tensions between them is that they are competitors in bringing their message to the ends of the earth, by word preferably, or by the sword if necessary.

Of course, that type of Catholicism is sort of a thing of the past. I recently quipped that speaking of Catholic fundamentalism in most contexts now is akin to preaching Methodist fundamentalism. (“As proclaimed by the Prophet John Wesley – Peace Be Upon Him. “*”Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” plays ominously in the background.*) But I can’t really reconcile myself to the Catholicism-Lite that has become the prevalent faith within the institutional church in the modern context – in spite of the keyboard warrior apologists’ best efforts. I was told once (though I didn’t verify it) that the Jesus of the Gospels, and the Gospels themselves, speak more of the Church / Kingdom of God than they do of the person of Jesus. Indeed, whereas Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the Church is the Pillar and Ground of Truth. Jesus is the spark, and the Church is the fire that sets the world ablaze: his Corpus Verum (thank you, Cardinal de Lubac).

So in my mind anyway, you can’t separate the state or nature of the Church from the content of Faith, or really from the nature of God himself. Above is the video of a lecture on the idea of conversion in Hinduism. The main argument for my purposes is that there is no real idea of faith in Hinduism. You don’t believe as a Hindu, you practice as a Hindu. It’s not what you think, it’s what you do and how you worship. Under the influence of the British, some adherents to Vedic religion in India started to initiate things akin to baptism and formal adherence to a body of doctrine, but these were unknown in ancient times. A Vaishnava, a Saivite, a Smarta etc. were mainly known for which deities they worshiped, how they put on their tilak, etc. The idea that they were all “Hindus” (also a term invented by the British) would have been alien to them.

I am tempted to think this is an “Eastern” thing. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a prominent contemporary thinker born in Lebanon, says the following about his Greek Orthodox religion:

Religion has very little to do with “belief”; it is an indivisible package of aesthetics, ethics, social-emotional commitments, and transmission of κηρύγμα, a set of customs and rituals inherited from the elders. Indeed the complication of “belief” is mostly a Western Christianity type of constructed problems, and a modern one at that: ask an Eastern Orthodox monk “what he believes”, and he will be puzzled: he would tell you what he practices. [I discussed the “amin” in an earlier note]. Orthodoxy is principally liturgy, fasting, practices, and tradition; it is an ornate religion that focuses on aesthetics and requires a very strong commitment. “Belief” is meaningless; practice is real. What we now translate by “veneration”, προσκυνει is literally bowing down to the ground a very physical act

Perhaps in the Peace of Westphalia or before, there began an idea of confessional identity in the West. That is, if one was born within certain lines on a map, one was to be considered a member of a certain brand of Christianity,in spite of what one actually did or believed. Perhaps you may have shared some basic tenants or practices, such as the near-universal practice of Hindus from abstaining from beef or believing in certain gods (even if you disagree who is the supreme god). But in the end it didn’t matter: you were a Methodist, a Lutheran, a Catholic, etc. because you were born into this family, whether you like it or not. And getting out of it would have been very, very hard.

Here then we are able to assess the state of the Catholic Church in this age, my religion of birth. I have been friends with traditionalist Catholics who were unapologetic clerical fascists, and I have worked side by side feeding the homeless with Call to Action adherents. I have worshiped in Eastern Catholic monasteries and at the liberal suburban parish down the road. Priests who have been most influential in my life range from liberation theologians who worked with street gangs to the most anti-communist Russian Orthodox monk you could imagine. I like both Catholic charismatics and sedevacantists (I am probably the only person in the world who can admit that.) I have my own preferences on how to worship and how to articulate things, but these are not deal breakers when push comes to shove, especially when speaking of others. Maybe I have just not been particularly careful in my associations, but as I said, that was sort of the nature of my upbringing. In the end, I can’t find it in myself to condemn any of these people, or to assert that any of them are right. Maybe they are all wrong. Their intentions were good, and they did the best they could. They all had a sense of devotion that robs words from my mouth. I am just thankful I knew them.

So when someone says things like, “You can’t do / think that, you’re Catholic.” I have to admit, I have no idea what that means. I have known many Catholics who were assholes. The worst ones hide behind religion. These are the company men, the ones who think the institution can do no wrong. Lord, keep these people far from me! Catholicism as an identity has been reduced to a legal fiction in my opinion, and this has been the case for a long time. Granted during the reign of the last two popes, and more so with now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, that trend seemed to be slowing a bit. But now it’s pretty evident that there will be no going back to the fabled Church of the Past. There is no immaculate Deposit of Faith that has to be passed down as received: that’s just a marketing ploy.

Catholicism tries to roll the hard six in favor of History, but History is Change in its very nature. And Change always brings surprises. And it goes on, and on, and on… One way to formulate this point is to ask: What is more important: that Jesus rose from the dead or that St. Peter died in Rome? The former is given as the foundation of Christianity in the Scriptures, the latter is the foundation of the Papacy, the ultimate source of infallible truth in Catholic thinking (ubi Petrus, ibi ecclesia). There is now a tension between those aspects of the Truth: the supposed Eternal Doctrine vs. an ever-shifting Authority responding to the exigencies of changing times. Here again, we push up against eschatology. It was never supposed to go on this long, like holding in a sneeze or posing perfectly still for a painting that is never done. When you have that many balls of Salvation History in the air, some of them have to fall. Maybe all of them.

Once more I recall the sermon of a priest who said that the one thing that compelled him in his ministry was the idea of Hell and how people go there. That’s the problem, isn’t it? In our system, we only have one life to live, so we have to choose wisely. Caritas Christi urget nos: so was written above the door of a Redemptorist monastery. Love should compel us, but at this point, I don’t have the stomach to bring down hellfire on anyone, especially since that would mean joining one’s vituperative voice to a shrinking and shaky chorus of reactionaries. The modern Church has lost its nerve, and even those who aim to be stalwarts of Tradition aren’t very consistent about it. I will then continue to look to what people do, not what they believe. (Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?) Mostly, I think we should all admit that we are working with flawed tools, so maybe it is best to look towards the Eternal and stop doubling down on the cruel goddess of History. And maybe admit that, yes, we are all Hindus now.









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