Bede Explains His Road To Catholicism

In college, Bede was my best friend. Today he is a monk. As I explained in a post I wrote last week, I consider him my closest philosophical brother. In that post, I alluded to the fact that it was his influence that led me to Nietzsche (through a long and arduous process I will explain in detail in the future) and I characterized his movement from self-taught Calvinism to Roman Catholicism. He wanted to clarify his theological journey in his own terms. So here goes:

It is I again, Dan’s best friend from college, with (as promised) a few thoughts about the post above.

First, as to the “staunch, self-taught” Calvinism and rejection of my “nominal Catholic upbringing” during the period he describes: certainly I was at the time very enthusiastic about Reformed theology, but there was even then an undercurrent of what I might call Catholic yearning.

For one thing (perhaps not as ironically as it may sound) it was Calvin’s references to the Fathers of the Church that introduced me to the world of patristic thought (which remains decisively important for me): when I finished the Institutes in high school I decided I had read Calvin prematurely and after racing through the Apostolic Fathers labored over St. Augustine’s City of God. (Yes, while my contemporaries were doing things like dating and playing sports I spent my free time in the solitary perusal theology porn – but has anyone really had a psychologically balanced adolescence?)

For another thing – crucially, for the subsequent course of my ecclesial journey – I retained from my “nominal Catholic upbringing” what I’ll call a liturgical instinct: a sense, which I could not have articulated at the time, that the liturgical (thus sacramental) expression of the Christian faith is somehow essentially, constitutively important to it. Even at my most ardently Reformed moments I remained aware of this sense of need (I experienced it as a personal need) as a troubling lacuna. My migration into the Episcopal Church was motivated as much by the richness of its liturgical life at its best as by the tradition of the via media.

Next, as to the “strange peace about the rational indefensibility” of my faith that Dan noticed at the time: he may well remember this more accurately than I do, but I’m inclined to think I wouldn’t have put it quite that way. I’m not sure I was ever really a fideist. I think I regarded the rational defense of faith (in Christianity or anything else), the rational defense of one’s deepest convictions, as rendering an inadequate account of those convictions and the process by which they are actually reached, but I’m not sure I would have banished reason from the scene entirely. Perhaps I’m reading back into my undergraduate mind things I’d be inclined to say today?

Further, I think Dan’s account of my reasons for returning to Roman Catholicism may be open to ecumenically unfortunate construal. It is true that in (re-)crossing the Tiber I was on a quest for a kind of ecclesial “whole,” for a sense of organism-like continuity and development (with the Holy Spirit subtly, gradually, inscrutably, but reliably active in this partly institutional and always untidy process). I think I was also in quest of a church in which liturgy and sacramentality were functionally as well as theoretically essential to its sense of identity and its daily life. I came to believe (and still believe) that all this was to be found in the Roman Catholic milieu. However, I am all too aware that the vagaries of the Church’s history and the nature of the Church itself preclude any facile or mechanistic account of the contemporary reality of a divided Christian church. And I retain a deep respect for ecclesial communities other than my (rediscovered) native one, along with a special affection for the Anglican Communion.

As far as Eastern Orthodoxy goes, I revere it’s beauty, regard the issues that continue to separate it from Roman Catholicism as essentially trivial, and am just too damned Western in my outlook to be inclined in that direction!

Like Dan, I marvel at the intellectual synchronicity that has characterized our friendship despite substantial differences of intellectual commitment on the surface (dare I call it the surface?). I think he’s right that this is the result of having shared a journey along a crucially important portion of its route and with a certain depth of mutual engagement, a certain ruthlessness of self-disclosure. Any real friend is irreplaceable, but there is a peculiar irreplaceability to a friendship like this.

Finally, I’m surprised and humbled to discover that I “made” Dan a Nietzschean! I still have a chunk of Beyond Good and Evil more or less memorized (the bit about religious believers being “more honest and more doltish” than philosophers); I still think the putative madman of Sills-Maria is much misunderstood by Christians (to the Church’s detriment); and the end of Beyond Good and Evil still makes me want to cry: “it is only your afternoon, you, my written and painted thoughts, for which alone I have colors, many colors perhaps, many motley caresses and fifty yellows and browns and greens and reds: but nobody will guess from that how you looked in your morning, you sudden sparks and wonders of my solitude, you my old beloved – wicked thoughts!”

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Hazzard

    I think I regarded the rational defense of faith (in Christianity or anything else), the rational defense of one’s deepest convictions, as rendering an inadequate account of those convictions and the process by which they are actually reached, but I’m not sure I would have banished reason from the scene entirely.

    This interests me. It suggests that by making a defense of faith on rational terms we ignore what is intuitive and most deeply felt about faith. Faith, in other words, is more than just a series of allegedly factual declarations, and defending it in those terms will always be (and feel) inadequate.

    I think that’s probably true, but I think it’s also a challenge. Allowing the rationally indefensible to float on our deepest intuitions dishonors those impulses and impedes our best understanding of them. The impulses you experience as profound and good may in fact be profound and good; the intellectual apparatus you experience as armoring and protecting them might also be a barrier to their fulfillment, looked at from a different angle.

    • Bede Hazlet

      Your remarks, Hazzard, are eloquent and your “challenge” deserves more thought than I can give it at the moment (I’m very tired).

      I will say, in a preliminary sort of way and at the risk of fatigue-induced incoherence, that my own experience of returning to faith as an undergraduate was bound up with a sort of return to reason that had a similar flavor. It occurred to me then that if any sort of discourse was going to be possible quite a lot would need to be allowed (as you put it) to “float” on my “deepest intuitions.” I found I was just no longer very interested in the relationship between reason and sense perception and so forth with whatever world would be encountered if I could step out from behind my subjectivity. I began, I suppose, to think of this whole way of putting the question as more or less meaningless or mistakenly formulated.

      I am also more and more inclined to think that the avenue of aspiration to the strictly rational may not be the way toward the “best understanding” of these intuitions. I’m more and more inclined to accept that all language has an essentially poetic quality, including the most precise philosophical and scientific language; and relatedly to accept that privileging rational discourse in the way we generally do may be a mistake. If poetry is language’s native function, then the privileged, paradigmatic mode of discourse ought to be poetic.

      This may not make much sense but it will have to do for now! It’s almost time for vespers and we’ll be on silent retreat here until Thursday so I’ll not be writing more in the near future.

  • steveschulers

    Hey Bede!

    As this is the first time in my life that I have been in such close proximity (smile) to a real live monk there are a multitude of questions that come to mind, most dealing with how you came to pursue your occupation and what the life of a monk entails. When I was youger (I’m 56) I sometimes thought that the life of a monk might suit me quiate well. Of course I knew nothing about what monks actually do, but in my imagination it had a certain appeal. Without going into the details of my own spiritual journey, being a non-believer pretty much eliminated that career option from my list. I’m kind of surprised that no one has asked you any questions yet and I wonder why that is. In any event,after thinking about it for a while and distilling the multitude of things I am curious about, I think that I have come up with a couple of questions for you.

    With all due respect for your faith and with no desire to dislodge you from it, do you harbor any doubts as to the truth of your convictions? Related to that, do you see the rationality or sensibility of atheistic disbelief?

    • Bede Hazlet

      Hello, Steve. Proximity indeed! I’m not sure I can answer your first question in a way that will satisfy either of us. Given the overlapping intellectual, volitional, and passional dimensions of faith I find it difficult to say exactly where the line between faith and doubt is.

      Certainly I’m aware of (at least some of) the intellectual, ethical, and other problems that Christian faith involves, though some of these are more personally engaging for me than others. When Dan and I were in college (as I’m sure he’ll describe in subsequent installments of his de-conversion narrative) my crises of faith had at least on the surface a strongly epistemological quality: never mind the question of God, can reason itself, can our sense perceptions, be trusted?

      It has been years since doubts of that kind and quality have arisen in my mind; nowadays insofar as I struggle in my faith it tends to be on ethical grounds arising from the presence of innocent suffering in the world. But I’m not sure these periodic struggles and ongoing dissonances amount to doubts. Might Bl. John Henry Newman’s dictum be helpful here: “a thousand difficulties do not make one doubt”? From your point of view, perhaps not.

      In answer to your second question, I certainly can see the credibility of atheism and I’m not unsympathetic with it. I am aware that some Christians find it not only baffling but reprehensible, but nothing could be further from my own attitude.

  • steveschulers

    Thanks for your reply to my questions, Bede.

    Your responses to Hazzard, John (elsewhere), and myself, brief though they are, certainly hit upon some of the difficulties and complexities involved while considering our place in the universe and how best to make sense of it.

    In a conversation at a different blog here at FTB a while back another commenter informed me that I was a “faitheist”, a term idiosyncratic to the atheist scene, due to my opposition to mocking or belittling people of faith. Well, even as in the worlds of the religious there are all types of people with varying perspectives within the secular worlds as well. I suppose in the end that each of us is bound to our own sunjective experience, as you mentioned elsewhere.

    Well, have a nice vespers!

    Now I need to go look up just what vespers is…

    • John Morales


      In a conversation at a different blog here at FTB a while back another commenter informed me that I was a “faitheist”, a term idiosyncratic to the atheist scene, due to my opposition to mocking or belittling people of faith.

      I don’t recall such, but it could have been me, under certain circumstances, since granting automatic respect for faith in faith is pure faitheism.

      Mocking and belittling are not tactics I disdain, when used deservedly; that the conversation is about someone’s faith is not of relevance.

      (Faith ain’t a magic shield against mockery)

    • steveschulers

      Hey John!

      No, it wasn’t you, although you and I did have a series of exchanges on this topic at Christina’s blog. That was very shortly after I had discoverd (stumbled upon) FTB by following a link to Camels With Hammers. Actually it was Articulett that called me a faitheist in a later conversation at Christina’s blog on the same topic of confrontationism vs accomodationism. I was unfamiliar with the term and had to look it up.

      Which reminds me, of all the contributors to FTB your use of language has me consulting the dictionary Far More than anybody else!

      I get the sense that there are far more ‘Paper Tigers’ at FTB as pertains to confronting religious people (Christina for example) than those who actually ‘take it to the streets’, which I think is a good thing.

      Peace at Ya’, Bro!