Sunday, September 16, 2007

Conversion From Critical to Post-Critical

Packing up the house. Going through boxes of old stuff.

I feel a little like an archaeologist exploring my own past. I make small discoveries- some things I can remember clearly, some things are vague echoes of a familiar past, and still others I have no recollection of. Artifacts, clothing, papers, and books. Lots of books.

I came across my small collection of books by Thomas Merton (1915-1968), a Catholic Trappist Monk, one of the twentieth century's most influential religious figures and a prolific writer. Of course, being Catholic, he is rather orthodox, even for a contemplative, and there was a long period in my life when I would have balked at the idea of my reading these books.

You see, these books belong to a searching time in my life, in my late-junior-high and early high school years. My field of vision was limited (?) to more traditional (orthodox, safe) Christian thinkers, and I thought myself very daring to be looking outside of my own denominational community for insight into God. And something about Merton's style, as well as his thoughts, provoked me. (Although Merton's most famous work is an auto-biographical confession, a la Augustine, I found his essays to be more compelling - a genre that still speaks to my heart today.)

Merton wrote of struggle, but it was always (to me) faithful struggle with theological issues, or with the nature or love or presence of God. Perhaps this was the beginning of my more skeptical years that would follow (and come to full blossom in college just four or five years thence), but what I yearned for was meaningful personal struggle. And what I imagined to be "meaningful" was reaching a preconceived end, a known result, to arrive where I wanted to be. (Looking back on Merton's writings now, I'm not so sure he would have approved of such a reading, but I was young, and Merton was forgiving.)

In those years I was beginning to doubt. I had doubts about the story I was told, the devotion I had seen around me, the certainty or truth of the things I was brought up to believe in. And though at the time I may have been adventurous in reading a Catholic, I would venture much further afield in the coming years.

My Merton books - underlined and annotated in the margins (I can still remember sitting alone under courtyard trees during lunch hours, poring over pages, meditating and wondering, yearning for insight and profundity, and feeling so out of place in the mundane and often punishing world of adolescence and high school) - represent the last and greatest genuine throes of my pre-critical years.

If personal religious development can be broken down into three stages or fields, perhaps pre-critical, critical and post-critical, might be good terms. (My thanks to Tony and Charmaine for this insight.) The "pre-critical" is a delightful naivete, a place of profound confidence in the symbols and language of religious expression. Belief in this "stage" is clear, and often literal, encountering power in the actual words or images. Someone in the "pre-critical" stage might consider those of the "critical" perspective as fallen from the faith, and even the "post-criticals" as suspect in their use of the same faithful language in strange ways.

The "critical" stage is one of rejection and vehement questioning. Nothing is sacred to the critical thinker. This perspective often expresses itself in an ardent materialism, seeing no other cause for religious feeling or fervor than psycho-physiological needs. The critical thinker considers both the pre-critical and post-critical as deluded (self-deluded?) and foolish, unable to see the natural causes for their so-called spirituality. Critical thinkers are also able to cut through the crap of theological flowery-ness and identify what is really at stake in religious discussions, and are therefore often less patient with religious expression that does not meet exacting standards for correctness, openness, ecumenism/interfaith/alternative interpretations, and admission of profound finitude. If there is subtle, underlying racism or sexism in a religious expression, criticals will find it, and point it out. If there is logical inconsistency, criticals will not let it slide. If there is fuzziness, criticals will keep pushing for clarification. Criticals are hyper-sensitive to the oppression latent in much religious language and devotion, and react allergically to it. Oftentimes, critical thinkers cannot long stand the religious company of pre-critical devotees; and just as often criticals do not see any difference in the language of pre- or post-critical thinkers. They feel they have identified the true meaning of words, and find those meanings unsatisfactory - and thus find no compulsion to explore the differences when others are using traditional language.

This "critical" stage was where I was at for the bulk of my religiously conscious life. As a young child I was clearly pre-critical. But as a youth and teenager, I was critical to the core. Even though I deeply felt a longing for connection, I found the old forms lacking and unsatisfactory, even hypocritical and false. I remembered that young boy under the trees with Merton, and longed for that ecstatic confidence and faith, but couldn't bring myself to descend into what I considered self-delusion. Criticals are, in many ways, just discovering a profound honesty with themselves, and exploring the terrifying implications of that. This exploration is tremendously important, and I wouldn't have denied myself the honest sojourn of critical thinking for the world. A key to the critical stage (perhaps both pre-critical and critical in turn) is that there is no expectation of going anywhere else - pre-critical naivete or critical rejection is the reality of one's life, so get used to it.

I long ago packed away my Merton books, and even left my philosophy books at home (though close to my heart), when I left for three years of Peace Corps service. I was spiritually "taking a break." I was tired of struggling, of resisting, of arguing inside myself or with others. I wanted a vacation from self-reflection. Honestly. So I told myself that for the two years (I thought then) of Peace Corps, I would focus on someone else, on something else, and put all the internal struggle aside. I'd let the silt settle, and see what patterns it makes in the riverbed. I figured leaving home, language and country would make such a departure easy, and it was, for the most part.

On about my third year in Peace Corps, I started to face the possibility of coming home, and picking up where I left off. Except that I wasn't where I had left off - or perhaps more accurately, I didn't want to pick up there. I didn't want to go back. It helped that when I did return to the States I didn't go to my hometown, or resume my old life in any way - I came to Seattle, new home, new friends, new job, new church group, new girlfriend - I could entirely recreate myself here. And I decided, for some reason, to go back to church.

Don't get me wrong - I didn't enjoy church those first couple times. It was terrible - all I remembered from my critical days. But something kept me coming back. There was something here that I wanted or needed to know. I entered a post-critical phase in my life.

(This is an on-going discussion in my life... so let me just post this too-long-already post and continue this discussion later.)

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  • I find that I move through the pre-critical-post stages rather cyclically in my life, it has not been a point a-b-c journey for me.

    I am touched by your honesty in this post, and really enjoyed it. It can be rather exhausting, I find, to spend all one's time being critical. I think our souls need time to just be, in awe of the world, in communion with our companions, quieting the internal critic.

    There is a Christian Century article, very short, that Charmaine read to K and I when we visited with them during world conference, and it talks about how the writer's experience of seminary was that he was so overwhelmed with new ideas and things to read that the critical voice in his head that attempted to judge and gauge and critically evaluate every new idea, simply drowned in the volume of it, leaving him humble, realizing he wouldn't be able to know everything, and that he himself could not actually make the judgement of what was "true" or "right" or not. I'll have to look it up for you, I think you might enjoy it.

    peace peace peace to you.

    By Blogger Shannon, at 9:17 AM  

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