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Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Where is God - the Right or the Left?

I converted to Catholicism just over 6 years ago. It's a long time; I know because my faith has changed. I'm just as Catholic as ever (which was "a lot" when I joined the Church, believe you me) but I view Catholicism and my place in it very differently.

I can't generalize my experience to all converts, let alone Christians, but I think I can speak with some authority based on my own experience and that of other converts I know. When you're converted, for many of us, you want to dive in completely. You want that full body, full spirit immersion as a way of breaking with your old life and feeling a more drastic change to a new one. This is normal! And it's good. Often converts, though they may miss some of the subculture, tend to learn more about and be more devoted to Catholicism than cradle Catholics precisely because they're so hungry for that immersion!

The point is that when you convert, you commit to it fully and you want to lose yourself in it. What a great feeling that God can use toward our good! But there is a danger as well, and I think most converts fall into it. They become, not just Catholic or Christian or whatever tradition you're addressing, but soldiers. They become good boys and girls who step in line and carry the flag: rule-following, legalistic, zealous, righteous, fully committed, and willing to take up arms against any and all threats. (Not literal weapons, mind you, though maybe in extreme cases.) They become ardent defenders and practitioners of their faith and honestly, largely fearful, and that's exactly what I did.

And I thought that's what Catholicism and Christianity were - yes, the message of the gospel, but a very traditional, conservative, solid, and orthodox system. I wanted to be a good, rule following, unquestioning, conservative Catholic because that's exactly the image of God I had. God was a religious conservative, even if not a political one.

And then I was introduced to views that undermine that religiously conservative God. These voices from the religious left (or "liberal" or "progressive" or whatever language you wish to use) were so appealing not because they cleverly spun lies but because they contained a lot of truth. They weren't so concerned with how often you attended mass or if you identified with all of the Church's teachings like a good Catholic. They were more concerned with the mystical, the level of spiritual awareness, the experiential informing your faith.

In France's parliament in previous times, on the right would sit the nobility and the clergy - those with power, and privelege. On the left sat representatives of the common people. The dynamic isn't extremely pertinent for my own story but it informs our notions still - the right wanting to maintain the status quo, the left wanting to throw it out altogether. By the way, Richard Rohr remarks, "What on earth were the clergy doing on the right!"

Most converts and religious conservatives really fear liberal beliefs and even the mere "liberal" language. I did for a long time but eventually I experienced a second, smaller conversion and swung my pendulum the other way, toward the far left. How many times do we do that, going between two extremes of desire or thought? I've "lived" in the left for a while in the past year, where I found a mystical and honestly much more loving and merciful God, only to realize that this liberal view is another face of God but it is not the totality of God.

The danger with the religious left, that I've found, is a casting out of revelation, rules, and law in favor of novelty and too often individual interpretations. The left wants a God who doesn't care about the rules but who also can be made anew and understood apart from tradition (lowercase "t"). But this is recreating God in human form just as much as the conservative image has. There are great dangers from these views and there are great necessities for them as well, which is why God gave them to us.

And I think God knows the different faces we'll see. If we look at the totality of right and left together, we can see that it's completely unimportant to judge where people are on this spectrum. It is important to note the strengths and shortcomings of each. So is God on the right or left? Is the historical, the real, or the mystical Christ on either side? He is on both. And neither. It's okay to live with paradox. God is paradox! It's okay to see that this group has a lot of truth here and this other one has really found something there and to praise the different aspects of God while guarding against those untrue characteristics that right and left ideologies impose on the Divine.

I think neither right nor left is perfect yet both recognize something of Perfection. And the Catholic Church is big enough for both. And so is Christianity. And it's no surprise that so is God. God overcomes our labels and exists on all planes.


  1. I think you are falling into a very common trap for thinkers in our generation.

    Yes, of course, God is neither left nor right, nor is he liberal or conservative, nor does he love conservatives more than liberals. God loves truth; He IS Truth. While truth is often paradoxical, it is of the essence of a paradox that the paradox is not actually contradictory; it just seems so.

    So, acknowledging that, we also have to understand that one is not 'liberal' or 'conservative' like one is gay or straight or black or white. These are self-identities that are tied to conscience and choice. They are evaluations of the world and are built on ideas. They must stand on their own merits, or fall by them. So when you say that "the Catholic Church is big enough for both", I would say, of course the Church is big enough for all sorts of people, but falsehood and heterodoxy are not forms of greatness, nor types of souls to be accommodated, but forms of smallness and pettiness that ultimately drive out all those committed to truth. The Church shrinks by those who fail to live up to its standards. Sin only destroys.

    I like your phrase, "it's completely unimportant to judge where people are on this spectrum". However, I would say it meaning something different from what you mean. I see no reason why someone who is devoted to orthodoxy, to traditional liturgy, to a restoration of the Church's old evangelistic spirit should not be committed to helping the poor and marginalized. I see no reason why helping the poor and marginalized means sacrificing correct doctrine and reverent worship. These ideas are merely separated in our minds because of ideologies imposed ON the Church from outside, not from any internal logic.

    So if someone says, "I am a progressive Catholic", and they mean that they have a particular devotion to carrying out the Church in the social sphere, fine. But if they mean that Church doctrines are to be interpreted as broadly as possible so that the social doctrine of the Church is all that remains (a la Sr. Joan Chittister) as a criterion for faithful Catholic practice, I see that as a distortion of truth. If a person says that they are a "traditionalist Catholic" because they are hard at work trying to repair the damage that the last several years have wrought on the Church's liturgy, morals, and customs, fine. But if they mean that they are reducing the range of moral choices that are available to all Catholics into a particular set mold of behavior, then I would say that they are disfiguring and obscuring the face of Christ. Everyone has a different task, but the thing that makes cooperation possible is that, through the Truth of the Gospel, we permeate each other. The true traditionalist aims to improve the liturgy for everybody; the social activist to motivate the Catholic politician and traditionalist to a greater love for the poor. If, however, orthodoxy gives way to relativism, it is precisely then that all camps cease to permeate one another and to accomplish their own goals.

    Now, we have talked before about Christian legalism. There is a lot of danger in the various ministries of the Church developing their own internal orthodoxy, which is Pharisaical. There is however an important distinction to be made between this and Christian orthodoxy merely seeming Pharisaical and legalistic to a world which utterly rejects rules and limits on individual freedom. After all, when Christians were being put to death, as Pliny the Younger (a persecutor of Christians) put it, it was more because of their inflexibility rather than their odd beliefs. If they had just got along better, been willing to stretch a point here or there, surely God would have forgiven them and they could have gone on without dying for their faith, right? Here is where modern "liberal" (as if freedom could be divorced from truth) Christianity fails to give an account of the early Church, a Church whose members were willing to die rather than be "flexible".

  2. Thanks for the comment. You really do make a lot of great points but it's perhaps impossible to address all of them via comments. But I especially loved your last sentence. The modern Church really could take a lesson from the "obstinate" charges leveled against the early Church. That's a great point.

    I don't think we actually disagree that much. I use the terms "conservative" and "liberal" broadly, and I must say that if all of a preacher's sermons are to himself/herself, then that is exactly what I'm doing. I'm not a preacher but my posts are, more often than not, really my way of formally directing my own convictions on all of these issues and warning myself. So this was about my experience of conversion, feeling I should and wanted to be an ultra-conservative, "true" Catholic. Then finding more freedom (in the holy sense of the word) in a more "liberal" view but finding that the sources I was listening to on the left ultimately were rejecting some doctrine and revelation. So this is a post really to myself about balancing within my perceptions of the two.

    I agree about the different uses of "left" and "right" and how the substance is much more important than the label. I will say that if what I deem "the left" were finding truth but missing out by favoring novelty over revelation, then what I deem "the right" is often acting from a very unhealthy place. In my experience, a lot of the orthodox, tradition-loving Catholics in the Church do it, not from a place of trust, but from a place of fear. This is why they're always barking at the liberals, at those who don't follow the precepts of the Church or nuns on the bus or boy scouts or Vatican II, or those people in the pew in tennis shoes, or whatever they don't like. They're insecure (as I was) and afraid, and the absolutism and fundamentalism that is available in some Catholic circles is exactly the security they need to not feel so vulnerable. They feel the world is a scary place and that's totally against them, and they've found their shield in Catholicism. It's not that this is totally wrong but it's a problem when fear is your primary motivation. It's not the game of all "conservatives" by any means but unfortunately I think it's the game of a lot I've encountered.

    Last I'll say we may disagree on the nuances of sin. I've seen in my own life how God uses everything - even my sin - for my good. That doesn't mean I should sin or that it's without consequences (both theological and practical) but I'm not sure I agree in emphasis with your statement that sin only destroys. And I think I just disagree that unorthodox souls aren't to be accommodated in the Church.

    1. *The nature of sin is decidedly destructive. But if we take that to mean that nothing good or redemptive can possibly come from that experience, then that's when I say, "it's more nuanced than that."

  3. No, I didn't think we actually disagreed that much. I just wanted to look at the question from a different angle. I don't disagree, of course, that there is a redemptive aspect of recovering from sin. I know that well enough in my own life. God's allowance of sin is proof enough that redemption from sin is even, perhaps, more beautiful than for sin to have never been in the first place, as the Exultet reads, "O felix culpa, quae talem et tantum meruit habere Redemptorem!" (O happy fault, which merited to have such and so great a Redeemer!). Yet we also have the situation of Judas, who brought about the redemption of everyone else in the world except himself....That's what I mean when I say that sin only destroys. It lacks in itself the character to re-built; it is only by overcoming it, or at least, allowing God to overcome it that it becomes redemptive.

    Another thing to consider is that there are different types of sin, and each of them has a different effect on the soul. Sins against faith are particularly harmful, for two reasons. First, they harm the person who believes them because they obscure the actual path to forgiveness, and therefore redemption, that they require. Second, they harm others who might be confused by them into following a path that will not be redemptive, but even more harmful. This is why, historically speaking, the church has been harder on doctrinal errors than moral failings. It is one thing to know what is right and do what is wrong while trying to correct it. That is redemptive. It is another thing to deceive others or yourself into thinking that what is wrong is right and that what is right is wrong. Sorry for being so long-winded.

    1. I see your point, and it's a fair one. I'll have to think more about doctrinal error in that respect but, as always, I appreciate your insight.

  4. BTW, I have a blog too:; I am trying to be faithful to it, which will be much easier if I can get a few people reading and commenting on it!

    1. Sounds good, Clayton. I'll subscribe!

  5. Maybe it's worth considering that the inclusive attitude you endorse here—one of a paradoxical, mystical God—is actually pretty leftist. While I think you're right that these evaluations shouldn't/don't matter, I think I agree with you because I'm also a religious liberal.

    I think you'll find a lot of liberals will support your assertions, and most conservatives will reject them. I appreciate that you're trying to reconcile the differences, but I'm not sure you've really done that. The two sides are sometimes mutually exclusive.

    1. That's fair. Some my rel. conservative friends have expressed some form of support but this could be agreement, kindness, or something in between. I'll have to think more about if the "right" and "left" here can be reconciled.