Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Even more tedious continuation of intellectual conversion narrative


As I've already discussed, around the time I decided to convert to Catholicism I also convinced myself that my philosophical investigations were at an end and that, like Wittgenstein, it was time to throw away the ladder.  As a result, the development of my theological habitus parallels some of the later developments I have already described, but was independent of them.  Doing a genealogy of my theological leanings shouldn't be that difficult, but it's necessary to understand how things worked out.

There were several pre-existing influences which led me to recognize the structural integrity of Catholicism and feel the need for authority: doctrinal indeterminacy and fraying among all the protestant denominations, a recognition that my own intellectual stability could only be grounded on the stability of something else, faint memories of reflections on tradition and exegesis from high school.  The problem in converting to anything was the problem of judging the rightful claimant to the tradition.  I believed for a long time that this problem was insoluble, that primitive Christianity was lost behind the twofold veil of the Dark Ages and the Constantinian absorbtion of the Church into the imperial bureaucracy.  Newman smashed these ideas and introduced me to the Church Fathers, making a compelling case that continuity existed, and that continuity was with the Roman Church most of all.

I leapt into this.  Because of my sense that repetition was important (again, from Heidegger and Kierkegaard) I had considered converting for some time.  The mass meant something; its continuity made possible a richness and unity of human experience and understanding that, I began to see, stretched back to the first century.  The friend who introduced me to Newman had also been eyeing Rome for some time, but was feeling drawn to the East.  I resolved to read into the controversy with him.

My first introduction to dogmatic Theology was in researching the differences between East and West.  The causes of the schism, the filioque, ecclesiological differences, the roots of dogma, the Papacy: these were the main areas of interest.  I read most of Timothy Ware's book on Orthodoxy, discovered Denzinger and Ott, and became acquainted with Chalcedon, especially its Acts and Canons (though I ignored the Christological content).  I decided that the Ecclesiology put forward by Ware against the Roman model was disjointed and ultimately inconsistent, that the objections to the filioque were masks thrown up to cover the political roots of the controversy, that the eastern churches were excessively provincial and lacked the evangelical zeal which so characterized the early church.  I had never seriously considered Orthodoxy except out of a desire to remove my friend's doubts.  I was prepared to stick to Rome out of obedience and blind commitment, but the evidence seemed to remove the need for that sort of thing.

During RCIA I committed to the program and was religious about it.  We were assigned to read substantial portions of the Catechism each week, and I did so.  We were told to read Lumen Gentium, and I read it.  The Catechism reading was occasionally illuminating and occasionally problematic (I circled difficult passages), and the politics in Lumen Gentium seemed outdated and naive, but I wasn't in a questioning mood, so I didn't worry about such things.  However, my friend had doubts and I enthusiastically took to resolving them, developing a repertoire of doctrinal sources along the way (Denzinger, Ott, Tridentine Catechism, the acts of the councils, etc.)

Intellectually, I was increasingly geared toward writing my bachelor's thesis at this point, which I thought would be on free will or originality or something related.  Intellectual explorations tended less toward theology and more toward the working-out of philosophical themes I had already uncovered in previous reading.  For devotional reading I stuck to the Liturgy of the Hours, with a little Catherine of Siena, and some others.  I attended daily mass at St. Mary's parish, run by the Dominican Friars.  I felt lost, for the most part, because any project I was interested in was worthless, and I had a looming sense that the vacuity and indeterminacy of my life would sooner or later culminate in disaster.  

Summer 2010 I persisted in this funk while interning at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton.  I was not at my best, found it difficult to motivate myself, lacked confidence, etc.  I spent excessive hours in the gym and watching movies and limp with general anxiety.  During this period, while running OCR software on public domain books for work, I discovered a treasure trove of lectures given at the Dominican House of Studies.  My favorite of these were given by Fr. John Corbett, OP, and Fr. Romanus Cessario, OP.  One was on Charles Taylor's account of self-hood in A Secular Age, the other on the Image of God, Divine Sonship, and the Sacraments.  I listened to them and others repeatedly and found myself burning with excitement at the intelligence and newness of this mode of discourse.

Despite this discovery, my personal anxieties worsened over the next several months.  I continued going to mass frequently, assembled the materials for my thesis, but felt like I was slipping into a pit.  By Christmas 2010 I had reached a low and was experiencing mild but debilitating anxiety attacks.  These were related to a number of things, mainly that I had felt the need upon converting to flush away the greater part of my own identity, but we don't need to discuss that here.  I did not know what I wanted to do with my life, felt unprepared for the world, and therefore decided to apply to master's programs in theology.  The Dominican House of Studies was at the top of my list.  A good friend I had met since converting had taught me enough about theology to back away from Balthasar and respect Thomas, and my admiration for Thomas was confirmed by the brilliant moral theology I was hearing over the DHS podcast.  Next to DHS I tried to find schools that were respectable and orthodox.  In my mind my primary interest was in Patristics, so I applied to Notre Dame's History of Christianity M.T.S., and the M.A. in Historical Theology at Catholic University.  Notre Dame was attractive mainly because it was free and has a recognizable name; I did not realize at the time how good the patristics program there is, nor did I realize (blind as I was) that my character and interests tended more toward sysematics than patristics.  I knew, in any case, that I did not want to study Rahner or anyone whose project was so evidently bound up with the present age.

During this period I read a biography of St. Dominic, given to me by one of the (excellent) priests at St. Mary's, and was again filled with enthusiasm for the Order of Preachers.  I loved their theology, I loved their founder, and I loved their mission.  I contacted the vocations director and visited DHS, and was overwhelmed by the experience.  For much of my final semester at Yale, I would fall asleep listening to Fr. Fred Hinnebusch's lectures on the history of the order.  This sort of thing gave me consolation and a sense of stability that I had been lacking for the prior 18 months.  That semester I wrote my thesis (on the existentialist concept of anxiety as a form of moral nihilism, and its relation to the possible intelligibility of conversion), finished courses, and left Yale.  I had been admitted to Catholic and DHS, and obviously chose DHS (lower tuition, more cohesive faculty, and Dominicans).  My plan was to do my M.A. and then decide whether to enter the Order at the end of it.

The summer before I began at DHS, I tried to get ahead by reading Aquinas's Summa Contra Gentiles. I made it through book one, and suddenly found my old philosophical roots re-awakened.  Here was Aquinas, a man I was supposed to believe, making metaphysical claims of the sort that I had rejected for years.  How?  The Heideggerian hermeneutic structure I had used to reach Catholicism seemed to be swept aside as Aquinas bluntly confronted the enlightenment.  Was he right?  Does metaphysics work?

[there might be a third part...]

1 comment:

  1. I've just finished your "tedious intellectual conversion narrative" posts so far and if I haven't said so already I'd like to state that I enjoy your writing style. I can't pin it down, but it reads crisp and clear even when you're dealing with subject matter is complicated.

    I for one have enjoyed this intellectual conversion story, tedious or not and hope for a third part. Of course only write what you will.

    - Drew "KarmaKaiser" Summitt

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