Catholic Nerdery and Catholic Faith
July 6, 2009
Darwin Catholic on the threat of nerdery overwhelming faith:
And yet for those of us who make reading, talking and writing about the Catholic Church a hobby of sorts, this presents a serious danger. Those of us who are “Catholic geeks” need always to recall that however much the more abstruse corners of Catholic history or theology may fascinate us, that Catholicism is not a hobby or field of study — the exclusive territory of those with sufficient levels of detailed knowledge and experience. Rather, the Church is the Body of Christ on earth, and the source of the sacraments which are channels of grace to those of us in the Church Militant.
The Church is no stranger to intellectualism and knowledge, and there is much benefit to knowing the Church’s teachings and history in detail. And yet, knowledge itself is not our end as Catholics. In the simple yet powerful words I was made to learn as a child, “God made us to know, love and serve Him, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.” The rest is all details. Important details, to be sure, to the extent that they help us to love and follow our faith. I’m sure that all of us know many people (often members of our own family) who were easily lead away from the Church because they never really knew and understood it.
This is something I’ve often had to remind myself as I wander around the edges of Catholicism, intellectual and otherwise. Mistaking the accidents of faith with its substance is a error that is shared just as much by those outside the faith as inside it, and to my mind its a particularly easy error in Catholicism’s case, thanks to its extremely rich history and practice. It would be untrue to say that there’s nothing to be gained from appreciating the vibrancy of the tradition, the beauty of the rituals, or the intellectual acomplishments of the Church’s founders. Clearly, there’s a great deal to be had by it, and indeed, that richness is much of what makes Catholicism preferable to, say, puritanism. But as inspiring as its depth may be, appreciation of Catholicism’s surface can’t be a substitute for faith in its depths. Good aesthetics does not salvation make.
And yet I keep showing up, doubts and all. I continue to find those images and songs inspiring, despite knowing them to be empty. I still get a huge kick out of Augustine and Chesterton, even though their arguments are so unsatisfying. And occasionally in all this exploration, I feel something I imagine approximates faith; that sense of being grasped, or being in the presence of the greater, or of being mortal in all the complexity that entails. But to think that the feeling is enough, I’d hazzard, would be just too modern. It would put Christianity’s existential burden on par with rock and roll or generalized anxiety disorder, a move at least as dumb as scientizing the Bible’s mythology or building creation science museums. Faith requires more, though exactly what I’m not really sure.
I recognize this is all rather self-indulgent. Apologies. It’s monday, Arvo Part is up in iTunes, and I’ve already mocked Sarah Palin. (And really, what else is there worth talking about?)