“Believe” is a transitive verb, and other good points against me

Christian H at The Thinking Grounds makes an attempt to figure out why on earth I’m against critical thinking and what I even mean by saying that. We’re pretty clearly talking past each other to some extent, but he does give me an excuse to extend, qualify, and generally shake the kaleidoscope of my AmCon post to see how it rearranges itself. Here are some scattered shards.

I. Where I’m coming from: I wrote the post because I have talked with so many people who perceive themselves to be trapped in a kind of anteroom of trust–sometimes in an institution or even a philosophy, but typically in a person, or in the Person of God–who really want to get out of that anteroom and say either yes or no but feel like they can’t. They have endless, paralyzing objections, and they feel painfully unready.

This is an awful place to be. It’s humiliating; and I think there is an ideology, which I tried to attack at AmCon, which says that when you’re supposed to take the leap of faith you’ll “just know,” which makes people who don’t just know feel really helpless. They can then sometimes resent people who did marry or convert, because they believe those people were given some greater gift of certainty which overwhelmed their (our) doubt, and so trust itself becomes yet another gift of which the non-converts/singletons have been deprived. This is maybe especially a problem for Christians because the language of the gift of faith really is woven deeply into our religion, which can make it especially hard for people who feel like that gift has not been granted them. (I have nothing useful to say about this problem but wanted to flag it.)

To counteract this paralysis I wanted to say a few things: You’re never, ever ready. There will always be really good reasons not to act, to jump, to trust. Faith and doubt are not opposites; in a church pew on Sunday morning there is as much genuine and even anguished doubt as in all those four a.m. darkened bedroom arguments with Nobodaddy. You can still wrestle angels once you believe in them. You will mess up and convert badly, for bad reasons, and misplace your trust, but the alternative is isolation and an impossible, crippling autonomy.

People in this position aren’t all the same, obviously, and they aren’t holding still, which is one reason it is hard and maybe stupid to write a piece addressing them in general terms. It really depends whom or Whom you are maybe-ready-to-trust! That’s one thing I think Christian is obliquely pointing out.

And if I talk with Lisa on Monday and think, “Good grief, you are really just endlessly complicating things and piling up objection after objection so that you don’t have to change, so you can remain where you are, even though you hate where you are!”, I may talk with her on Wednesday and think, “Good grief, she’s working so hard to give God [or some guy!] a chance against incredible obstacles–that’s actually an extraordinarily humble, hopeful attitude. What looks like reflexive mistrust from the outside is actually immense courage.” I tend to think God knows the obstacles to our faith and is gentler with us than we would be with ourselves, and even gentler than we would be with our friends; some people who never end up getting past the church porch had, I think, the kind of faith which moves mountains. They needed that faith just to get up onto the porch.

(BTW, I’m not joking when I say I know or have known a lot of people in this position, so keep in mind that if you think I’m talking about you the odds are actually good that I’m not…. I always feel weird about writing these things bc people do ask me if I was talking about them, and so far, the person who asks has literally never been the person I was primarily thinking of.)

II. Anyway, that’s where I’m coming from. To speak more specifically to Christian’s points, I think he seriously underestimates the danger of paralysis or silence. I mean, maybe “all positive statements seem to do damage” to oppressed people, but your inaction is not actually helping them. I totally agree that privileged people typically talk when they/we should listen. But constantly raising objections and never reaching the point of action is one fantastic way to preserve the status quo. Critical thinking–when it becomes a knee-jerk reason to reject a weird worldview or a painful change–serves decadent late capitalism pretty well. That’s why they teach it, you know?

III. I got nothin’ re postmodernism, modernism etc, but I did want to comment on this bit: “Keeping that in mind, maybe the only thing that differentiates my belief-as-working-hypothesis from Tushnet’s belief-as-commitment is the attitude we have in picking up the beliefs; I hold mine lightly because I have it in mind that I might have to let go, and she holds hers tightly because she has it in mind that she might hold on for a long time. This doesn’t mean that I will let go before she does.”

I would frame this as: “Commitment” in the sense I’m using it is one of the actions of love. I’m not sure it makes sense to say I hold my beliefs “tightly,” but I do think if you hear a certain appassionata strain in my voice, it’s because I’m talking about when we should love; and once we let ourselves love then of course we should hang on, yes? Not always forever–we can be wrong, and damagingly wrong–but of course you hold the one you love tightly. And of course you picture a future together….

I know the tightly/lightly thing is a metaphor, but it struck me as a metaphor which might expose a place where I was too vague or equivocal in my initial post, thus causing (what I hope has been fruitful) confusion.

IV. Finally, after all these words, I should note that the very best comment on my AmCon piece was probably from “matt,” who just said, “One word I often use with students, instead of ‘critical,’ is ‘reflective.'” Also, if people can stand yet more from me on this subject, I think my old piece “Six Imperfect Metaphors for Conversion” is pretty relevant.

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About Eve Tushnet