Lines of Flight
Moving away from the faith may not mean moving beyond it.
By John O’Carroll
I write of a line of flight that, with the benefit of hindsight, looks erratic.
Like, I presume, many other visitors to Online Catholics, I began within the “one true faith,” as it was known, and yet by the time my schooling at a Christian Brothers college was finished, thought myself also well and truly finished with it.
My father, raised by the brothers in a Catholic Boarding school in Ireland, automatically put his family through the Catholic system once he settled in Australia; my mother, Australian born, had herself converted, but was actually more attentive to matters of worship than my father. I went to a range of Catholic schools, starting in Brisbane (Corinda Convent, Gregory Terrace) and ending in Townsville (St John Fishers, Ignatius Park College).
Like many who attended, the line of flight looked like an arrow away from the faith. Initially, it was not a question of disbelief (that came later). It was rather a sense of being lost in a schoolboy’s calculus of accumulating sinfulness, triggering itself further calculus: a sin perhaps of despair.
By my early 20s, though, even belief seemed absurd. Perhaps it was the climate of the times – or perhaps it was more personal, a kind of disconnect that many of us feel when moving to make sense of the world as an adult. All that seemed to be left of religion for me was the millennial history of suffering saints and beautiful music.
But it has taken time to understand the suffering – and the beauty for that matter.
For a long time, until quite recently in fact, I thought of Catholicism as associated with oppression – the worst kinds of psychological abuse, patriarchy, ethnocentrism, expropriation of the pennies of the poorest of the world. The starkest sense of this is the contrast between the fabulous wealth of the Vatican and those who have over the centuries supported it. Stories of the weekly contribution made by poor parishioners seemed to me to be an inversion of needs, a reversal of roles. The society of priests and educational brothers and nuns seemed part and parcel of this apparatus, with their work of proselytizing the young.
But things have changed for me. It is not that I find myself in need of “extreme unction,” the strangest of rites, the one that the Irish people in and around the family would jeer as involving the deathbed recantation (but which ideally involves a making of peace, I should imagine).
No, the resentment I directed at Catholicism seems misplaced, and the Church itself now seems to occupy a different social place in the secular world from the one I remember as a child. Is this because I have changed, or because the Church itself has changed?
I suspect a little of both might be the case. Certainly, times in societies like Australia have changed. The Church is sometimes a progressive player, an often ethical voice in society in a world where the values of compassion and generosity have been foresworn and foregone by a society in which personal value overrides the social at every turn.
The questions have changed for me, for us all. But what does it mean to question? At the conclusion of that strangely haunting late essay ‘The Question Concerning Technology’ (delivered as a lecture in 1953), the philosopher, Martin Heidegger opens with the line that questioning “builds a way”, and concludes with the idea that questioning itself “is the piety of thought’.
The piety of thought? What can this mean? The personal journey is best conducted with intensity, self-confrontational honesty, trepidation.
Questioning is a piety of thought in the sense that it involves self-scrutiny, integrity, and a certain modesty in one’s approach to an always incomplete task. And much as we age, and times and even knowledge change, yet it seems the questions stay the same.
These are the questions I remember from my own schooldays:
Why are we here?
What sorts of things are we?
What and why is life?
What sort of world is this, and what sort of place am I to take in it?
What is the basis of right and wrong?
Why is there something rather than nothing at all?
The questions are few, but they haven’t changed much. Catholicism speaks to them in a way better than consumer society—and in this regard, we can say that at least it still asks. There is integrity in the direct approach to these questions, rather than those many approaches that would either smooth them over (counselling) or deny their force (social science).
In the field in which I work—communication arts and social sciences—the idea that Catholicism could offer useful responses to these questions seems perverse. In an interview published in 1995 with Bruno Latour, Michel Serres remarks that we are often invited to see the world in terms of before and after—‘reason later, unreason before’—of this, he remarks simply, “What can we call this, except prejudice?”
Put bluntly, we are told a foreshortened history that is wrong. We think of ourselves as beyond the call of faith, yet when we claim to know things, or when we take things for granted, much of what we assert has little in the way of evidence to support it.
Moreover, the notion that belief and knowledge are distinguishable is a complex one. Most strikingly, science has its origins in Christianity, not in opposition to it; so too does secular society with its accent on dialogue and plurality (witness the work of John Milbank). I arrived lately at the view that to be Catholic is not an absurdity, even if this didn’t make me one myself.
So: Why something rather than nothing? I don’t know. Why life at all? I don’t know. A universe created out of nothing? Who knows? Why shouldn’t we do just whatever we like? Beyond Christian – or at least religious – explanations, it is true I can see no reason whatsoever, even though there have been some admirable attempts over the years to pose responses (for instance, the idea that justice is worth doing because it has its own reward). As I have suggested, it is not absurd to believe in God or in the Catholic faith, (and certainly no more absurd than some secular ‘faiths’) – whether held as one true faith or otherwise.
It’s just that, so far at least, I don’t. There are inconsistencies in belief in moral rightness and non-belief in divine order of some kind. Yet I am not in the same nihilistic space I occupied in my twenties. That may change one day. It has changed before, and wherever I find myself with it, I seek not to forget the reasons I have held other views.
John O’Carroll teaches literature and communication at Charles Sturt University, Bathurst, NSW. He has written (with Chris Fleming) on anti-Americanism as well as on Romanticism and theology in the online journal Anthropoetics. He is also the author (with Professor Bob Hodge) of the upcoming book Borderwork and Multicultural Australia (with Allen & Unwin) which is scheduled to appear in March 2006).