Brought to my attention by Kay Goodnow.
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Rod Dreher: A change in belief
More essays inside, from T. BOONE PICKENS, STEVE WOLENS and others, 5P
12:00 AM CDT on Sunday, March 16, 2008
Truth is subjectivity
There was a time when I thought nothing could change my mind about the Roman Catholic Church, of which I was a staunch and intellectually convinced communicant.
And then, in 2001, Father Tom Doyle, the Catholic priest who has crusaded for clerical sex-abuse victims, told me that I’d better be careful if I pursued the abuse story further. “It will take you places darker than you can imagine,” he warned.
He was right, but as a journalist and a Catholic, I believed I had a moral obligation to go there. Four years later, I came out the other end of the dark cave he’d warned me about. My faith in Catholicism had been shattered. I left the Catholic Church but remained a Christian.
Changing my mind about Catholicism, as it happens, isn’t the most interesting or even unsettling thing. What more fundamentally changed for me was my faith in man’s ability to say he will never change his mind about anything.
See, I believed in the truth of Catholicism as firmly as I believed there’s a sun in the sky. And was I ever proud of my religion! I had the arguments worked out in my mind. I hadn’t understood until I was put to the test that real faith is not a syllogism. Nor had I understood how much the will affects one’s ability to hold onto truth, or what you think is truth.
The drip-drip-drip of information from the sex-abuse scandal, and the anger and mistrust it provoked in response, worked on my once-ironclad faith like acid. Toward the end, it was more the case that I couldn’t believe.
That experience taught me an agonizing lesson about the nature of belief. You cannot be made to believe something you know is false. Yet, you cannot imagine until you live through it how knowledge and experience (especially the experience of suffering) can affect your ability to hold on tightly to what you believe is the truth.
“Truth is subjectivity,” said Soren Kierkegaard, the Christian existentialist philosopher. His point was not that truth is relative but that the kinds of truths for which a man is willing to live and die can only be known personally. Reason can never be discarded, but its role in decision-making is more brittle than I once believed. A truth held only, or primarily, by the mind is not a truth on which the individual has a firm grip.
We live in a culture that exalts choice as an ultimate value, and so we’re reluctant to criticize others’ choices. But if truth has any meaning, we must recognize that people can and do choose wrongly. Sincerity does not guarantee verity, nor does it mitigate our responsibility for our choices.
The people who share their mind-changing stories with Points readers today mostly testify about their conversions taking them to a happier, wiser place. I’m with them, almost. Of course, it’s always preferable to live in truth, whatever the cost. And now I can see that the pain and humiliation of losing my religion broke my intellectual pride, and led me to a deeper, truer faith.
And yet, having discovered the fragility of certainty and the finitude of reason, I see the freedom to change one’s mind as an ambiguous blessing. You may change your mind – but you may also have your mind changed, whether you want it to be or not. Forced exile from a land of dreams is not an easy passage, or a journey for which anyone can be prepared. And once you’ve arrived, how do you know you haven’t traded reality for a lie, or one illusion for another?
Maybe that’s why “Judge not, lest ye be judged” is not just a wise maxim, but perhaps the summit of moral wisdom.
Rod Dreher is a Dallas Morning News editorial columnist. E-mail him at rdreher@ dallasnews.com.