I'm no slouch at theology.
As a kid it was my best subject. My mom taught CCD and so I had all the answers. We did religion every day in homeschooling and then I had CCD class on top of that, where I would be That Kid with her hand always raised with the answer.
In high school I learned about different mental skills. My best skill was memorization. My worst was analysis. I didn't like picking stuff apart and I was lousy and making connections, but I was great at memorizing and spitting back massive amounts of information. So no wonder religion was such an easy subject for me
But in high school, I learned how to analyze information and I slowly got better at doing it in my other subjects. You ask questions. You try to connect some of the information with other parts. You find out if there are conflicts between different parts of the data. You ask, "Is this true? How do I know it is true?"
That is what you do with facts. Facts are true or not true. You can be very sure they are true, or suspect they are true, or know they are not true, and you should always believe what the evidence suggests. Sometimes you don't have enough evidence to say for sure, and in that case you should withhold judgment. You shouldn't believe things just because you want them to be true. These are all things I learned to do in other subjects, like science or history.
The trouble with religion is that it wants things both ways. On the one hand, it claims to be fact. You should be as sure of it as you are of fact, and act on it the way you would act on a fact you were sure of. And it claims to be provable -- at least, my theology classes said so. You could prove it philosophically, by a number of proofs of the existence of God, or you could prove it historically, by examining the evidence for Jesus' resurrection and the accuracy of the Gospels. The Church claims (in Vatican I) that it is possible for human reason, unaided by the light of faith, to come to certain knowledge of God's existence. That's a bold claim, and so it seems that you should be able to easily test it. Try and see if you can come to certainty, and if you can't, well, the whole thing is false.
Except that the Church does not actually want you to do this. Catholics I know don't want me to do this. They say faith is not a matter of facts like any other facts, but a leap of faith, of trust in a person. If I can't prove it like I can prove that the square of a hypotenuse of a right triangle is the sum of the squares of the sides, that's fine, I should still believe. And if I look back and feel uncertain, like I am uncertain that George Washington chopped down a cherry tree, because the evidence is insufficient, I shouldn't suspend judgment the way I would about the apple tree. I should still believe. If I can't, I should at least try to.
But I am not sure I can believe in those circumstances; it's not like I can unlearn what I know about knowledge and how it's obtained. I can't be a rational, skeptical reader when I read Julius Caesar's Gallic Wars, understanding his biases and looking for independent verification of his claims, and then turn that off when I read the Gospel of Matthew. And even if I can, I can't quite believe that this is right to do. Isn't it irresponsible to let an assumption masquerade as a fact, when you haven't verified it like you have with all the other facts in your head?
Let me confess: at this point I have better evidence that vaccines cause autism than I have for the Catholic Faith. That is, I have some small evidence for it and a lot of reasons why not to accept that evidence, plus some apparent contradictions in the theory itself. It's plausible. But it's not even likely, as far as I can see.
Now if faith were a matter of plain fact, like whether vaccines cause autism, that would make me an unbeliever. But it isn't that simple.
I'm not the first Catholic ever to look at the data and say, "I just can't prove this, or even prove that it's likely." Lots of the ones who think this leave. But quite a few people think this and stay Catholic.
I'm trying to figure out why. And how.
Some people have told me it's just a leap. You just decide. But is it enough to decide "I will act as if this were true, even if I consider it the less likely option"? I am willing to do this. I like being Catholic. I like its moral teaching and I like singing hymns and I like quite a few Catholic people! Not to mention the dark sides: I do not want to upset my family and friends, I do not want to lose the respect of other Catholics, I do not want to run the risk (however small) of going to hell.
But it puts a crimp in my prayer life to try to talk to someone I strongly suspect isn't there or can't hear me. I am not sure it's okay to receive the sacraments when you don't think they actually work. I mean, according to the Church I'm a heretic on several counts, and heresy is a sin. It seems dishonest to tell people I'm Catholic when of course they will assume that means I believe, and I don't. And it's just plain bad decisionmaking to treat as fact something that you think is unlikely. If I said, "I think vaccines probably don't cause autism, but I choose to believe they do, so I won't get any," you'd call me crazy. Now most of what the Catholic Church requires is low-risk in the first place. It doesn't hurt me not to eat meat on Friday. But some things are high risk -- should I oppose gay marriage even though I have no real reason outside of Catholic doctrine to do so? Should I tell the kids God hears their prayers even though it might lead them to the same sort of crisis I'm in, when they start to suspect he doesn't? Should I give my life for it if the opportunity arises? Wouldn't that be foolish, to do so for a mere possibility?
Is there some other way to take the Faith besides as fact? How do you relate to something which you think might be true, or which you choose to accept as a framework for the way you see the world even though you know it may not be factual?
I read things about symbolic language, but then I think, is the symbol actually symbolizing something real? "I believe in one God" does not symbolize anything. Either you believe in one God, or you don't. "Jesus rose from the dead" is not understood by the Church as something symbolic either. I read something the other day about "day language" (the language of science) versus "night language" (the language of poetry and religion) and I just kept asking ... but is it factual? Does the image correspond to anything? "I have measured out my life with coffee spoons" is night language, but it speaks to something true. Perhaps something that can't clearly be said otherwise, but not something imaginary. Whereas God is real, or he is not. I can worship God as another name for my superego, as an avatar of the universe, as a creation of the world's group-mind, but the Catholic Church demands something different.
Perhaps I am too literal, too insistent that reality fit this paradigm of true/false. I suppose the whole Western Catholic Church suffers from this disease, unable to accept a mystery without picking at it. How can God be true God and true man? What are the relationships in the Trinity? In what way is Jesus present in the Eucharist? But all the talk of the theologians hasn't gotten us any closer; it's gotten us further, because the more carefully we define it, the less likely it seems to be true.
Unfortunately I don't know how to be any different.
However, last Friday I went to the library and grabbed a bunch of books from the shelves. Memoirs of ex-Catholics. Proofs of God from evolution. I wanted to bring home the whole theology section, but I couldn't carry that and a baby too so I sort of picked at random. There was one book that got me really excited, called In Search of Belief, by Sister Joan Chittister. I had heard of her -- some super liberal nun that made people on "my team" mad -- but, heck, I can hardly get less Catholic at this point, it won't hurt me to read this book.
Right in chapter one I ran into this paragraph:
"It is a dangerous time spiritually, solved by some only by dismissing
everything that once they accepted unquestioningly and now find
incompatible with present reality or, conversely, by others by
continuing to cling blindly to past explanations because present
situations are more than they can absorb or integrate into an older
worldview. Both responses are understandable by both are lacking
something of the breadth and depth of life. One shuts out the mystical
in favor of the obvious; the other shuts out reality and calls such
anemic retreat from creation the spiritual life. The rest of us, too
cautious, too judicious, to take either extreme, find ourselves adrift
and alone, trying to make a spiritual raft out the shards of shattered
reason. We flounder and we drift. We avoid questions and doubt
answers. We hope against hope that someday things will all get clear
again, even while we know down deep that if life continues on its
maddeningly fascinating scientific way, more than likely they will not.
For appearances sake, we try to look as if nothing has changed, knowing
that everything has changed. We simply go on going on."
Yes. Yes, I see myself in there very well. So I'm reading along, hoping she'll have something helpful for me in there. Maybe I can learn, as she seems to have done, a way of believing that doesn't require certainty.