They say you should not talk about religion or politics in polite conversation. I’m sorry but these are the two topics I just can’t seem to stop thinking, talking and reading about. And this isn’t a recent phenomenon; I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t doing this. Growing up in a conservative church with conservative parents got me started down a pretty conservative path. But for a variety of reasons, I made a leftward transition down the political spectrum while still maintaining faith in a conservative church.
But as soon as you become a liberal in a conservative church, you start to grapple with those issues where politics and church contradict. Because what happens when you join a political party? You start swimming in its ideology. And because I feel there’s goodness, depth and breadth in both conservatism and liberalism and the best ideas come when the two work in tension with each other, I start to see all of the good in liberalism – not just politically but religiously as well. And seeing the world with this perspective can, at times, put me in tension with church policy, theology, doctrine or I think most commonly the culture within a conservative church.
So how can one go about reconciling personal faith with theological disagreement?
Ross Douthat has this beautiful and far too short essay on this subject that I keep coming back to. There are liberal Catholic reformers who do want to reform Catholic doctrine. Surprisingly though there are some who just want the space to be Catholic without always living up to every belief.
Linker is putting his finger on a real tension within liberal Christianity today — or, if you prefer, a real fork in the road, with one path leading in the direction that he assumed dissenting Catholics wanted to take (which seeks to alter church teaching precisely because it still believes that teaching really matters), and the other leading toward a kind of Emersonian, therapeutic, basically post-ecclesiastical form of faith, in which “Roman Catholicism” just happens to be the name of the stage on which your purely individual spiritual drama is taking place. The Commonweal-reading wing of liberal Catholicism would certainly reject the latter idea, but the kind of “post-Catholic Catholicism” Linker describes is clearly more of a force in our culture today than it was during the early days of the American Church’s post-Vatican II civil war (it’s hard to understand the controversy over American nuns, for instance, without recognizing its impact), and the Trishes of the culture have a strong wind at their back in a way that would-be reformers of the old, 1960s-era school of liberal Catholicism arguably do not.
I went to a Sunstone conference a few weeks ago, my first one ever. It’s not an indulgence I can often partake in, but circumstances aligned exactly right to make it possible for me this year. There were two presentations that stood out for me above the rest, one of them was John Hamer‘s entitled, “Stepping Back from the Dead-End Belief/Disbelief Dichotomy and Recovering the Path to Meaningful Spirituality”. A simplistic summary of his point, as far as I understood it and with plenty of my own personal biases and interpretations mixed in, is that our relationships, with ourselves, with those around us and ultimately with God is more important than any specific belief system. His point was more sophisticated than that, I believe, and his argument for it was also fairly complex. He spent time showing the commonality between religions across sects throughout history; how our shared history is more complicated and nuanced than perhaps we realize; and that we should grant our ancestors access to more sophisticated thought, realizing how squarely upon their shoulders we currently stand.
But this thesis, that our individual spiritual journey should matter more than belief in specific theological claims is certainly one way to manage cognitive dissonance. Ross Douthat offers another:
But Gordis is actually making a more subtle point, which is that Modern Orthodoxy has held the line while also allowing space for the cognitive dissonance of the sabbath drivers and non-kosher-eating vacationers to persist — and that dissonance, that tension, has often been a spur toward spiritual growth and more serious practice, rather than curdling into either an outraged critique or a Trish-esque indifference.
Now for a variety of reasons this may be an easier wire for Judaism to walk than Catholicism. But Gordis is raising an issue that any tradition-minded religious body needs to think through: Namely, how to make its hardest rules seem like aspirations rather than just judgments, and how to deal with the many fine personal gradations that can exist between orthodoxy and apostasy, fidelity and dissent. And I suspect there are many Catholics who would be classified as “liberal” who want something like what he’s describing in Modern Orthodoxy from their church. That is, they want room to dissent from a teaching or fail to live up to it in practice, but they don’t necessarily want the church to change that teaching so that the dissonance or tension they feel simply goes away. Hence their positive reaction to Francis’s rhetorical shift and their lack of urgency about actual doctrinal change. They aren’t necessarily all Trishes who have decided that they don’t care about what the Catechism says. Some of them, at least, might be more like the Orthodox Jews who parked their cars around the corner without demanding that the rabbi be okay with it, and whose children turned out to be more observant, rather than less.
That cognitive dissonance, then, is the point of belonging to an institutional church. It’s through the practice of dealing with this tension that one finds spiritual growth. There’s a lot to like about this point of view. For one, if we fall in line with every single teaching we hear over the pulpit each and every Sunday, we probably aren’t thinking, feeling, praying and living our religion hard enough. Our lives should be a wrestle. Now I get that this isn’t for everyone. In the real world, each of us struggle with real-world difficulties: disease, poverty, addiction, abuse. At times, these struggles can take every ounce out of us that we simply have no mental energy to think through doctrinal minutia. It’s enough to go to church, find strength in the community and then return to your life to struggle through another day with as much grace that we can muster. I am sympathetic to that point of view, and feel it in my own life, really. I’m forever grateful for the strength of a community.
But at other times, a person has no choice but to face this reality square in the face. My last post talked about a specific example in fact, gay marriage. Mormonism is nearly impossible and getting more difficult to manage as a gay person, but I’m fascinated by the stories of those who have found a way to make it work. I don’t think there are many, but John Gustav Wrathall is a rather remarkable example. He left the church, embraced his identity as a gay man, married but then after several years of marriage and because of strong, spiritual urgings, returned to Mormonism as a happily gay, married man. Listening to his story, I can’t imagine someone navigating a spiritual journey with as much cognitive dissonance as that. His story is important.
I guess the claim I’m trying to make here is that for me one’s personal spiritual, individual journey is important. We should claim it with all of the sincerity and authenticity that we can muster. We should claim responsibility for and a willingness to work through our struggles, to wrestle with our doubts and to claim our faith as our own. But I also believe in the value and importance of doing so within the structure of an institutional church. We don’t need to nor should we even have complete and total agreement with every piece of doctrine or policy. We recognize our church leaders at times make mistakes. I still believe in modern day revelation and that doctrinal decisions are not final. We are still growing as a church.
But I also believe Joseph Smith did something significant, important and inspired. I believe in his prophetic mission. The institution is important, I sustain it. My own individual, spiritual journey is also important, and I sustain it as well. At times they come in conflict. I think that is by design. I think there’s room for it, I think there’s spiritual growth that can be gained by it and through it.