Where Sometimes Is Heard a Realistic Word

This is a conversion story that Bryan is not going to feature (I saw this REALLY before sdb commented):

I was raised as a secular Jew in New York City. (No religious education at all, no Bar Mitzvah, etc.) In my undergraduate and graduate education, I learned a lot about Christian theology and always found it impressive as a system of ideas, though I never entertained the thought of converting. That began to change when I taught at Brigham Young University for two years in the late 1990s. I found the Mormon students and faculty there to be extremely impressive — morally and intellectually serious. When I left the university (my non-tenured visiting position came to an end), I felt a loss, like something spiritual had been stirred up inside me that now lacked an outlet. I looked into my native Judaism, but by that point it seemed more foreign to me than Christianity, and especially Catholicism. (My wife is a cradle Catholic.) So I somewhat impulsively decided to convert. I was received into the church during the Easter Vigil Mass in 2001 at lovely St. Mary’s in New Haven, CT. (The long, involved homilies by the Dominicans at that parish spoiled me. I’ve never encountered anything remotely that engaging in the years since.)

To answer one of your questions, politics had nothing at all to do with my conversion — though it’s also true that I applied for and landed a job as associate editor of First Things magazine very soon after I began my RCIA classes, so for a time I wondered if there might be something providential going on there. That was especially tempting for the nine months or so after the September 11 attacks. It seemed like every aspect of my life and identity was related, connected, harmonized: Catholic convert, Richard John Neuhaus protege, ambitious intellectual, Republican, American — and Evil Doers to smite. What could be better?

That’s one of the great Catholic promises, isn’t it? Both/And? Unlike the either/or Protestants, let alone the neither/nor secular liberals, Catholics are supposed to pull it all together, show how it All Makes Sense — or at least how it once did make sense, during the Middle Ages, the high point of Christian civilization, a time of unity and synthesis. Until Occam’s nominalism shattered the great social-intellectual whole, that is. One guy denies the reality of universals and before you know it, you’ve got the Reformation and liberalism and pluralism and After Virtue.

I’m being glib, but I sometimes feel like working for First Things during the religious right’s moment of maximal influence in Washington might have been the worst possible thing I could have done to nurture my nascent faith. I never really had any, but I wanted it very much around the time of my conversion. It began to take tentative root in the months after 9/11. But then it pretty much died. Faith was always going to be fraught for me. I’m too skeptical, irreverent, too much in the habit of doubting authority, culturally too much of a secular New York Jew, to settle in easily to faith, let alone faith in a visible church. But add on priests endorsing military invasions and whispering in the ears of princes? Widespread child rape by priests and its active cover-up by the hierarchy? By the time I quit First Things in a huff in early 2005, I wanted nothing more to do with the church at all.

That proved too hasty. Unlike my friend Rod Dreher, who left Catholicism for Eastern Orthodoxy in aftermath of the sex-abuse scandal, I stayed put. I slowly returned to the church over the next few years, and we eventually resolved to raise our kids in the church as well — though it’s been a challenge at times. Neuhaus liked to say that the Catholic Church is “the Church of Jesus Christ most fully and rightly ordered through time.” That sounds nice, doesn’t it? I can’t even begin to imagine how someone could believe that.

Bursting this bubble hastens feasting on other sacred cows:

Clearly, we need to recognize that it took something like 1,700 years or so for Christian civilization to begin to develop norms and institutions that facilitated the transfer of the church’s theological-anthropological teaching about human dignity over to the political realm. And I’m inclined to give a lot of credit for that to the Protestant innovations that came about in the century or so before liberalism began to develop as a theory of government. So I guess you could say that even at this deep level, Protestantism has shaped my thinking more than Catholic political thought.

At a less fundamental level, I’d also say that I tend not to find Catholic political thinking especially helpful for guiding us through the most fundamental problems of our time. One of those problems is how to conceive of a society that no longer shares a common culture — that’s “centerless,” as I’ve sometimes put it in my writing. Catholic thought always seems to presume that political communities are unified moral wholes. Then when it looks at modern liberal cultures that clearly aren’t unified in this way — their wholeness is highly differentiated into a pluralism of sub-cultures that don’t agree with one another about the highest good — Catholic political thinkers kind of short-circuit. That’s why they’re fond of decline narratives and stories about the Great Fall from medieval Christendom. Brad Gregory’s big book about how all our problems can be laid at the feet of the Protestant Reformation (The Unintended Reformation) is just the latest in a very long line of such accounts. Let’s just say I don’t find arguments like that particularly useful.

5 thoughts on “Where Sometimes Is Heard a Realistic Word

  1. Darryl,

    Nothing that Damon Linker says can falsify Bryan’s paradigm. Plus, Linker should get a better hat.


  2. And the alleged “realistic word” in this case is, what…his questioning of Catholicism? At least Linker chose an appropriate name for his blog: “Comos the in Lost.” Out of grammatical order, containing the ramblings of a guy who is clearly adrift.


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