Let’s Talk About It: Of Intellectual Restlessness

I am completely clueless why there is any discussion at all about whether believers and unbelievers should be talking to each other. Talking isn’t negotiation. It’s what, as Aristotle teaches, human beings do if they’re smart. Believers and unbelievers don’t form two groups with nothing to talk about. They represent options that relatively bright women and men have considered important for a very long time. They have everything to talk about.

It was bad enough when the term “atheism” could be used as a kind of patriotic lingo to get evangelical Christians and Roman Catholics to huddle together against the terrorist threat of yesterday, Nuclear Communism. Before that they regarded each other as cultural enemies, mingled in the marketplace unawares, socialized with suspicion, sought permission for “mixed marriages,” like hostile religious species forced to live on a planet where God saved some, but not others. Of course Presbyterians felt that way about Episcopalians, too, and Catholics thought it about everyone but Catholics.

But by 1960 John Kennedy had half-convinced an electorate still dominantly protestant, still fretting about what Paul Blanshard called “Catholic Power,” that they hated Communism more than they hated each other. Realpolitik required Protestants and Catholics to join hands. When they did, they promptly put scripture aside and worked ecumenically to create an agenda that included the antiabortion movement, abstinence-only education, opposition to stem cell and reproductive research, and assorted other sexual mysteries about which religion is officially ignorant. If she had had her wits about her in 2008, Sarah Palin (a Protestant) could have named Phyliss Schlafly (a Catholic) as her spiritual grandmother and favorite author.

Ms. Schlafly

What created the unlikely entente cordiale between backward-looking Catholics and navel-gazing Protestants was the Protestant discovery that “Every sperm in sacred,” not just the Irish, Italian, and Polish variety. This required some magnanimity on the part of the protestant faithful, whose favorite barbs and jokes (interchangeably used at the expense of those same Irish, Italian, and Polish immigrants) pivoted on papa’s inability to keep his trousers zipped. It is a point of mere historical interest that the inventor of the condom, who defended its use as protection against syphilis in the sixteenth century, was a priest named Gabriele Fallopio, one of the most distinguished anatomists of his day in Padua where he taught. (He also gave his name to the “fallopian tubes.”)

I admit, getting Catholics and Protestants to talk to each other, share ideas, form alliances, separate out the things that divide from the things that unite them, ought to be a comparatively easy task. But it isn’t. As a matter of fact current trends suggest that it might be easier to get liberal Christians and humanists to sit down to a turkey dinner together than to get Tea-Party Christians to talk to liberals.

In a fit of boredom I picked up a copy of John Neuhaus’s Catholic Matters (2007) at the local library a few days ago. I do not say that sarcastically. I may not agree with Neuhaus’s conservative thought-trend, but he was, before his death in January 2009, a sly and articulate observer of what he called in another book the “Catholic movement today.” As a traditionalist in essential matters, like the supremacy of Catholic teaching (the magisterium, so-called) he welcomed the election of Joseph Ratzinzger as successor to John Paul II: Benedict XVI would be not just a custodian, he claimed from his vantage point in Rome in 2005, but the guardian of the Faith. That has turned out to be true.

But Neuhaus’s best moments in this hastily written book are on the subject that had occupied his attention since the 1987 publication of The Naked Public Square: secularization and its effect on the Churches, especially the mainline, liberal protestant churches. He identifies these with the “establishment” denominations of nineteenth-century America: the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Episcopal Church (Anglicanism’s worst if not only headache), the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ (UCC, aka in some northerly parts as Congregationalists) and the Disciples of Christ, and Lutherans, excepting the Missouri Synod variety (Neuhaus’s mother church before his conversion). I will omit mentioning the Unitarians for reasons that will be clear and acceptable to all Unitarians.


The argument by now familiar, perhaps trite, is borne out by innumerable big and little surveys: the old mainline churches, in death-throes of membership decline and doctrinal indifference, are essentially secular clubs with aging parishioners, inadequately supplemented by members who expect to be talked to but not preached at about God’s love for all, regardless of race, class, age, sexual orientation or wardrobe choices. They assume the name “Christian,” but are really dedicated to progressive social and political causes–gay-rights, pro-choice and women’s issues, environmental ethics–and use religion more as a source of legitimation than as a system of belief. Their more traditional detractors usually (and somewhat tiresomely) say that they have traded the love of Christ for the love of self. Their conservative cousins summarize in a single self-explanatory phrase what the liberal churches don’t stand for, a phrase that has now been interpolated into conservative political discourse as well: Family Values. A core doctrinal difference between old and new mainline is the revised concept of sin: old style protestants believed in it. New style think it’s negotiable. A nineteenth century Methodist preacher offered God’s grace and forgiveness prior to judgment. But in the liberal churches, God is expected to dispense only grace and to accept people for what and who they are. It is a Christianity impregnated with the psychotheology of Carl Rogers: love is unconditional, so a perfect God really has no right to expect anything from us.

These are the churches that H. Richard Niebuhr worried about when he prophesied from the Battell Chapel at Yale in 1935 (published as The Kingdom of God in America, 1937) that religious tolerance and pluralism was implicit in the teaching of Jesus, but that the “social gospel” (a key idea of the formation of American secularism before there was a humanist secular movement) in its raw form preached, “A God without wrath [who brings] men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” Niebuhr would have derived no satisfaction from knowing that his prophecy was right on the mark in sociological effect.

Neuhaus knew his Niebuhr, and he believed until his dying day that the fortress of Catholicism was the only protection against creeping secularity. Others have thought it too: G. K. Chesterton thought it. Graham Greene thought it. Simone Weil (Alsatian, Jewish, agnostic) and Thomas Merton (New Zealand-American, Quaker Anglican, spiritually confused) thought it, and then stopped thinking it.

Simone Weil

But Crossing the Tiber, or “Poping” as intellectual conversion is known in Britain, is not for everyone. And there are at least as many who take the ferry in the other direction and become ex- or “lapsed” Catholics as who join the True Church.

What I think we miss and need to get is that whichever direction you travel, there are thousands who have taken the ride. Conversion is a fancy word for changing your mind. The twentieth century biblical scholar Arthur Darby Nock, in a famous study of religious conversion, defined it as “a radical emotional experience or a quick turning to a new way of life and a complete reorientation in attitude, thought, and practice.” It comes, simply enough, from a sense that something is wrong with the way things are in our life and that we need to do something about it. Nock thought that the early Roman empire was rife with the conditions for such an experience, and he attributes the growth of the Christian movement in the first century to those conditions. The job he did not do was to trace the same restlessness, the same sense of “present wrongness” in the reforms of the Catholic Church of the sixteenth century and the averse reaction to the Church and religion (“supernaturalism”) in the Enlightenment and, at least in Europe, later. The conditions for conversion will always be located in the individual’s refusal to assent to the status quo –which may be emotionally, intellectually, or spiritually unendurable.

Atheists, it seems to me, stand in precisely the same relation to conditions prescribed by religion as religious persons do in relation to the loss (or perceived loss) of metaphysics. For that reason–while I don’t deny the existence of “cradle atheists” anymore than I deny the existence of cradle Catholics, the kind of atheist I think would want to talk to intellectually restless religious persons is one who has undergone a conversion.

“Conversion” to atheism (a term atheists deplore because of its religious associations) is a form of intellectual restlessness. Except for a very few people who say they realized they were atheists on the same day they lost their pacifier down the toilet, shattering forever their belief in an all-good providence, people become atheists because they can no longer accept what Elizabeth Barrett Browning poetically described as her “childhood faith…and lost saints.” Many of these feel they were lied to; some feel they are victims of a cultural conspiracy; others think that religion itself should be held accountable for the evils its has perpetrated on the species. All of these reasons have to be taken seriously because they point to the chasm between what is taught or acquired by tradition and the world as we come to know it. The question is, What are we prepared to accept as true? An atheist claims to answer this question on the basis of reason alone, or more precisely rational argument and inquiry. But there may be other factors involved, including (heaven help us!) emotional and maturational ones.

Religious conversion is also real, paradigmatically real, and ought to be regarded as a form of intellectual restlessness. Of course most people who travel toward religion don’t begin the journey as atheists. Some begin with nothing. Most are not ashamed to assign a role to emotion in the process, though they might want to insist that head and heart work together in a kind of harmony. A slim minority begin as intellectuals who have a sober and sometimes critical view of religion, church and tradition. These are the ones who interest me the most for purposes of a Great Conversation–the ones who know what role doubt, skepticism, and even cynicism play in the intellectual life.

The British writer Malcolm Muggerdige, later in his life a figure of ridicule for his view of Britain’s “sexual revolution,” moved from a fashionable, youthful Cambridge atheism to Catholicism around the same time the Church was moving in the direction of tone-deaf folk-masses and accommodation to the swinging sixties. It was a cruel juxtaposition for someone whose most-quoted aphorism is “Never forget that only dead fish swim with the stream.” His more stalwart New England contemporary and friend, William F. Buckley remained a Catholic, but just barely, because he believed his Church’s dogmatic stand on social and political issues was just about right, while he deplored its loss of “aesthetic rectitude.”

Muggeridge, urbane, caustic, clever, Catholic

Buckley’s son, Christopher, crossed over to an “unbelieving” posture of the most discreet and unassuming literary kind–where he joined a distinguished retinue of former Catholics-turned-Infidel including Theodore Dreiser, George Carlin, Steve Allen, Joyce Carol Oates, and Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy). Travelling the other direction on the Rome ferry were social activist Dorothy Day, writer Ford Maddox Ford, actor Alec Guinness, Robert Lowell, Gustav Mahler, and Siegfried Sassoon–a positive wave of spiritual malcontents that wanted more than cheaper goods and early retirement. Neuhaus comments in his last book that whilst a Lutheran who becomes a Presbyterian will almost never begin a sentence with “I used to be Lutheran, ” a lapsed, ex- or former Catholic will almost always say with some pride, “I used to be a Catholic.” It’s as though making the journey counts for something, or it may be only that irreverence is the flip side of reverence.

The point is, people who believe radically different things need to talk to each other because what people think and why they change their minds is inherently interesting in a way that mere “positions” are not. Settled positions, like Emerson’s foolish consistency, are the hobgoblin of little minds. Judges talk about “settled law” as a way of forfending discussion of hypothetical cases. They are really talking about dogmas promulgated by courts. The Church has used the term dogma in the same way, to refer to beliefs that have been settled by papal dictate. I do not know what “settled belief” is, but any settled belief becomes, if not fundamentalism, a kind of scholasticism. People should always be slightly uncomfortable about what they believe, whether they are atheists or (a dreadful non-word) “theists.”

Atheism can never be anything but a belief. In William Jamesian terms, it can be a strong belief, but it can never be certainty. Most atheists know this; many react to it with disdain and change the topic from God to Gravity–the law, not the theory–as a case of what is damned obvious. Even the idea (James’s) that many of our beliefs are based on “faith in someone else’s faith” isn’t a proof that all such beliefs are irrational.

James: Boston's greatest gift to Harvard

In the same way, “Religion,” never mind the religion, can never be anything but a belief or concatenation of beliefs. The claim that religion is a belief or “truth” of a higher order is completely specious and is rarely used by anyone with a reputable education. (Which truths, of whose religion, qualify for this status?) Whether religious belief is ever warranted by evidence or logic is uncertain to me, but the greater warrants for religion are customary morality, emotion, and authority, and the systematization of any faith as theology does not increase the likelihood of its propositions or truth value. I consider the reasons for holding such beliefs comparatively weak, but they are reasons that need to be assessed. And not every belief reaches the level of absurdity displayed by W.K. Clifford’s ship-master in his famous parable in The Ethics of Belief.

For intelligent believers and unbelievers to discuss what James called a “momentous option” is sensible, however. There is an eloquence of belief and an eloquence of unbelief. To treat contrary ways of expressing a commitment as private pastures divided between sheep and goats (laying aside which is which in this analogy) is intellectually indefensible. It is a page torn from modern geopolitical theory where irreconcilable differences have to do with national interests, not with intelligent discourse.

Of course, there is a difference between the fundamentalist Christian who says “I know that my Redeemer liveth” and the agnostic who says, “Show me,” or the atheist who says “No he doesn’t because there is no God.” But there is a vast middle ground (or pasture) where sheep and goats may safely graze. Conversation between those who hold to the existence of God not as a settled belief but as a living option, and those who hold a contrary view keeps both sides unsettled. That is a good outcome for both sides.

There are exceptions to this encounter between belief of an intellectual and restless kind, and unbelief of the unsettled kind. Let’s call them the four forms of modern scholasticism. Given the starting premises of these groups, I regard dialogue between the modern “scholastics” as improbable and potentially unproductive as dialogue between Dominicans and Jews in the Middle Ages.

Religious Secularism. For those who are happy with the social gospel of welcoming congregations and the agendas of the depleted liberal churches, what would be the point of conversation? Whether these churches are “right” or “wrong” in practice, the question they will have to answer is why they need the gospel at all. Liberal theology, liberation theology, feminist theology and even (yes) post-Christian theology are now historical theology. They belong, like guitar masses, to the seventies along with prayers to “Jesus, Our Brother” and “Our Mother-Father God, who art in every slum and every earthly visage.”

Dogmatic Catholicism. Catholics who are Catholics because they have never questioned the authority or reasonableness of the Church’s teaching, especially its pronouncements concerning sexual and social ethics. In a recent survey, 45% of Catholics surveyed did not know that their Church taught the “real presence” of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, the traditional center of Catholic devotion and piety and a key factor in the Protestant Reformation. 95% knew the Church’s position on abortion. The implication of this result is that contemporary Catholics are badly educated about their own faith (it’s called in theological circles the “crisis of catechetics,” or training) but are willing to accept what they are told is true. At this level, religion means being a team player, knowing the rules, knowing the consequences of breaking them, knowing the score. But there is a caveat here: most of the Catholics who went on to become satirists, authors, comedians, novelists and social critics as well as most of those who traveled intellectually towards Rome knew their Church far better than the ones whose journey to atheism was one from not knowing very much to not believing very much.

George Carlin

Biblicism. Fundamentalism is defined as a belief in text without context. To religious fundamentalists who have a personal relationship with Jesus underwritten by divine revelation: there is probably nothing between the two sides worth exploring. Unbelief is a refusal of God’s gift of love and grace, though it is not necessarily considered the most heinous refusal. That belongs to those who have “heard” the message and not responded–the nominally Christian. The Islamic equivalent is described in a saying of Muhammad from the Sahih Bukhari, and is generally considered good practical advice for Muslims: “God hates for you…to ask too many questions in religious matters” (Vol. 3, Book 41, Number 591).

Dogmatic Unbelief: Those Atheists who regard their position as unassailable, the religious option as ridiculous, and the ridicule of religion and religious institutions as a social duty or a form of overdue payback may well be right about what they do not believe (phrased negatively) but quite unclear about what they do believe. What makes them “scholastic” is that like the medieval scholars, whose knowledge could be reduced to a set of stereotyped proofs or demonstrations, they have lost interest in the questions that made their rejection of God interesting, provocative and viable. In a phrase, they no longer think the question of God is intrinsically interesting and would have no reason to second-guess their position or entertain anyone else’s.

Thomas Merton

Let me conclude with an example of the kind of intellectual restlessness that could result in interesting conversation between believers and unbelievers: Thomas Merton, mentioned above.

While I detest conspiracy theories about the death of Merton, there is good reason to think he had left orthodox Catholicism behind at the end of his life in 1968. He had fallen in love with a nursing student two years earlier, and as part of his “recovery”
turned to Buddhism, which had intrigued him since his student days at Oxford and Columbia. He had met with the Dalai Lama, and was reading the works of D.T. Suzuki, with whom he had developed a literary friendship.

I do not believe the church arranged for his murder. I do not know whether he committed suicide. But I do know that he was intellectually unsettled and that vows of silence, perpetual contemplation (he was a Trappist monk, then an enclosed order), and finally Zen and poetry weren’t enough to resettle him. It seems, at the end, that he looked more to poetry as a cure for his despair than to anything else. As a student he had been sexually adventurous, a vagabond between America and England, and finally (in his own words), even when surrounded by devout Anglicans and Catholics from two sides of his family, “someone who did not believe anything.”

Merton died before journey’s end. Who knows how he would have ended up? A priest? An apostate? A husband? An agnostic? He was only 53 when he died. The “affair” with the girl he calls “M” lasted until a year before he died, and in his “Midsummer Diary for M” he writes,

Is she thinking of me? Loving me? Is her heart calling to mine in the dark? I don’t know. I can’t honestly say that I know. I can’t honestly say I know anything except that it is late, that I can’t sleep, that there are fireflies all over the place, and that there is not the remotest possibility of making any poetic statement on this. You don’t write poems about nothing.

And yet somehow this nothing seems to be everything. I look at the south sky, and for some ungodly reason, for which there is no reason, everything is complete. I think of going back to bed in peace without knowing why, a peace that cannot be justified by anything, by any reason, any proof, any argument, by any supposition. There are no suppositions left. Only fireflies.

–As complete a statement of affirmative disbelief and as far from Roman Catholic Christianity as one could imagine.

But the vision is scarcely unique:

….Between the cold
and barren peaks of two eternities
we strive in vain to look beyond the heights,
we cry aloud: the only answer
is the echo of our wailing cry….
Hope sees a star, and listening love can hear
the rustle of a wing.
These myths were born of hopes, and fears and tears
and smiles, and they were touched and colored
by all there is of joy and grief between
the rosy dawn of birth and death’s sad night;
they clothed even the stars with passion
and gave to the gods the faults and frailties
of the sons of men. In them the winds
and waves were music, and all the lakes and streams,
springs, mountains, woods, and perfumed dells
were haunted by a thousand fairy forms. (Robert G. Ingersoll)

Ingersoll: Oratorical agnosticism?

Just to repeat: Atheists and their believing others have no moral obligation to negotiate their beliefs, not even to respect each other’s opinions. Why should they? The conversation I am advocating is not for everyone–not for the modern scholastics, of all stripes, who are stuck within the boundaries of private certitude.

This is an elitist position, I realize, but why should smart and interesting people waste their time talking to people who can only repeat slogans? Isn’t that what politics is for?

But at a particular level–where many born-again atheists and many true believers will never venture–the conversation goes on anyway, where the sons of men contemplate love and fireflies and find their peace. There is something worth talking about at that level.