Friday, August 13, 2021

Crises of Faith: Escaping our Subjectivity

The past year and a half has been a very challenging time for people. Sadly, I think I witnessed more religious acquaintances lose faith or at least suffer grave doubts (for example, see "Wokeness and Reasons People Leave the Church", USC, July, 2020). Undergoing a crisis of faith is a terribly jarring experience and I pray for the peace of anyone who has suffered through it.

In light of this, I am going to be doing a few posts on some thoughts I have been tossing around on the subject. These posts are not about any one person or person, but culled from the experiences of several persons I have seen struggle with faith over the past year and a half. Today, I want to explore the dynamic I see emerge when people suffering crises engage with others whose faith is intact on social media. 

When someone posts about their crisis of faith online, the back-and-forth than ensures in the comment thread is always of great interest to me. In these exchanges I have noticed that the conversation between the person whose faith is suffering and the person whose faith is intact seems to break down. Neither one seems capable or interested in hearing the other. And neither side seems aware of it. 

First, the people whose faith remains intact often seem to over-rationalize the experience of the doubter.
Faith, even if it is grounded intellectual affirmation, is not merely an intellectual act. It is a kind of assent, a "giving of ourselves" over to a proposition. It involves our will and passion. It is not only believing the truth, but orienting ones life towards it and—by extension—loving that towards which we orient ourselves. The theological virtues are integrated, not isolated. Josef Pieper writes in his treatise Faith, Hope, Love that the theological virtues are acquired in one order but lost in reverse order. We begin with faith, faith engenders hope, and hope gives birth to love. But the process is reversed in the case of one who loses faith: first, their love towards the object of their faith (God or the Church) grows cold. The coldness of love causes hope to wither. With hope and love dried up, there is nothing left to nourish faith, which is extinguished last of all.

This means that the process by which we came to faith from unbelief is not the same process that is needed when confronting doubt in one who already believes (or used to believe). Reading Chesterton might bring you to the faith, but it is less likely to save the faith of one who is wavering. A person who begins to doubt the Church is not unware of the arguments in the Church's favor. Indeed, this person may very well have been converted in the past through the very same arguments. Their issue is not that they don't grasp the reasoning, but that the Church, as an object of affection, is no longer desirable. This means the act of doubt is taking place outside of the realm of pure reason.

Now, if you are about to nod haughtily and say "Yeah that's right, people who doubt are being irrational", stop yourself right there. This act of doubt does not take place in the realm of reason, but it is no less understandable. A problem is no less real or valid just because it might not rational. I am an educator, and in education we have a dictum that "They don't care what you know until they know that you care." This means you cannot expect a student to learn if they do not believe you have their best interest in mind. I cannot habitually belittle, denigrate, and humiliate a student and expect him to master the algebra I am teaching him. He will have a visceral reaction against me and everything associated with me. Part of him will intentionally not want to learn just to spite me. He will feel helpless against me; the one, solitary way that remains for him to exercise autonomy is to simply close his mind off to whatever I tell him. It doesn't matter how logical the algebraic formulations are. By contrast, a student who feels affirmed and encouraged by their teacher yields their mind readily to instruction and the educational dynamic becomes fruitful and even pleasant. 

Dr. Peter Kwasniewski pointed out in a recent article in Crisis that people who lose faith often have focused too much on the Church's human element. This may be the case. They have accustomed themselves to focusing only on the failures of flesh and blood slobs who manage this shit-show. But it also needs to be understood that when a person has suffered extensively at the hands of that "human element", faith is no longer an issue of merely understanding the arguments or "taking the long view." The doubter has a visceral, guttural reaction against the Church that cannot be addressed by appeals to reason. A person who suffered war trauma from combat may duck when they hear any loud popping noise, and it is useless to try to reason with them that the war is over and there is nothing to fear. 

This is why Catholics who have lost faith are no longer swayed by "the arguments." They are familiar with them, but the arguments "no longer satisfy", or they "just don't cut it" anymore. They don't work because the person's crisis is not primarily intellectual; it is rather that they no longer experience Catholicism as something desirable. An argument in service of a truth that is undesirable will not produce assent. You may present me with rock-solid arguments grounded in reason and empirical data that the United States is going to eventually become subservient to China. But if that truth is not desirable to me, the strength of your argument will do nothing to make me embrace it. I may indeed fight against it even though I recognize the strength of the argument.

So this is the first thing I would say: those whose faith is intact need to understand that one who doubts often does so outside the realm of pure reason. Persons whose faith is intact are accomplishing nothing by trying to present doubting Catholics with "the arguments." Stop being so rationalist. Do not treat this as if it is solely a problem with the doubter. 

Now, on the other hand...

The person who doubts tends to wrongly think their doubt constitutes an existential problem for the Catholic religion in general. Their anecdotal experiences become the standard of truth. Because the arguments "don't satisfy" them, they mistakenly think the arguments lack validity. Sometimes they are immune to the force of argument from over-exposure. The truth that once dazzled them and expanded their intellect is now a rote platitude devoid of power. They think this is because the maxim is not compelling, not because they have become numb to it. 

People have a regrettable tendency to universalize their own experiences. If they have a problem, then there is a problem. They have an issue or hang up with something, and suddenly the entire edifice is compromised—"crippled" or "broken" or whatever adjective they choose. They have a hard time imagining that their experience is not indicative of a more universal truth; and this only gets reinforced as others pour out of the woodwork with their own anecdotal stories that agree. The problem is not with them, it is with the "broken" institution or system of belief as a whole, whose brokenness seems so self-evident that those who do not see it appear as na├»ve. The think their crisis is due entirely to problems inherent to the Church or its philosophy.

This whole issue is really one of perspective. It is extremely difficult to escape the parameters of our own subjectivity. But this cuts both ways, as well: People who do not have a problem can errantly assume there is no problem just because they don't have one. They easily reconcile disparate poles that others cannot. Their peace is not disturbed, and so they have a hard time empathizing with those whose peace has been shattered. They often assume the person who is wavering in faith is "not being logical about it."

Both suffer from an inability to escape their own subjectivity. Just because you have a problem does not mean there is a problem. And just because you have no problem does not mean no problem exists. Ultimately, the problem is not just with the doubter, nor just with Church. The crux of the problem exists on a subjective plane, at the crossroads where the Church and the doubter intersect in an experience that precipitates the crisis of faith.

Both doubter and the faithful have a difficult time understanding this: the doubter does not want it to be his problem, he wants it to be a problem with the Church—that way his doubt is justified and he can be at peace with his conscience. The person of intact faith does not want to confront the doubter's experience; he would rather reduce the matter to a series of dry intellectual propositions that the doubter needs to affirm. He does this because he does not want to consider that the arguments that are sufficient for him are not sufficient for someone else.

We talk past each other because we cannot get away from making our subjective experiences the ground of our approach.


Marissa said...

What an excellent article about a very pertinent subject. While I understand the position of the "logically arguing" faithful, I also think some people don't know when to be publicly quiet, especially on social media, and simply contact the doubter directly and have a normal Christian conversation. "I read what you wrote, I'm praying for your faith and for the troubles in the Church. How is life going otherwise?" A phone cal or in-person conversation is even more preferable.

There can be a bit of pride involved in publicly arguing on social media though I'm not accusing everyone of that. Comunicating with the doubter on a personal level, with genuine care about their person and their life, would probably go a lot further than debating with them in text boxes.

Queen Treasure said...

It is ironic a lot of Catholic with faith intact cannot see this point and somehow when confronting peope who are losing faith, becoming uncharitable in reaction. Maybe because I have been in both position, when in condition of losing faith and I realize that I feel no affection to Jesus, God, Church, Our Lady, and it makes the faith itself useless. When I talked to Protestant, some faithful ones esp I met in country, I see the reaso they have faith at least is they feel real affection to Jesus, even not so for Church. Later on, when I reverted, I also feel the affection back, by intercession of Our Lady, then to Church and to God. In my country, one reason of people who are losing faith keeps losing is also because they're not in lease. Usually not every Catholic here is involved with Church, many have apparently no spiritual advisor at all. it is also damaging when they're searching truth to grasp, they found more accusation on Church and unfortunately rather than heard and welcomed, was debated online, it caused confusion and further, makes the Church, the religion and God not desirable as they don't feel the affection from and to God in religion

Karl said...

”I cannot habitually belittle, denigrate, and humiliate a student and expect him to master the algebra I am teaching him. He will have a visceral reaction against me and everything associated with me. Part of him will intentionally not want to learn just to spite me.”

I wish my mother and father had heard this when trying to teach me math. Ha!