Dave Armstrong at Biblical Evidence for Catholicism has written a very genial open letter to me, which he seems to hope might serve as the first volley in an exchange of posts. To start out he’s written a reply to one of my emotionally hotter and polemically colorful posts entitled, “After My Deconversion: I Refuse To Let Christians Judge Me”. I’ll admit, with distance it’s a little hard for me to have the emotional rawness of the piece sort of read back to me. It’s not one of my more typical posts where I lay out copious detailed arguments, but more an expression of my defiance of Christians who would judge me for my apostasy. As for many ex-Christians, in the first few years after my deconversion it was very difficult for me upon deconverting to immediately get out of the habit of caring a great deal about what Christians thought of me and my leaving the faith. Ingrained habits of mind, especially ones reinforced by cultural hegemonies, are hard to unlearn, even when you think you have every reason to reject them.
This blog is named Camels With Hammers after the image of the camel that is in Nietzsche’s “Three Metamorphoses of the Spirit” from his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In that section Nietzsche’s Zarathustra describes spiritual progress in terms of first becoming a reverential, dutiful beast of burden, the camel. As I read the text, the camel significantly represents the devout religious believer who finds his spiritual greatness in his ability to obey, to be ascetic, and to constantly challenge himself to take on great burdens. The camel then must transform into a lion that says “No!” to the dragon of thou shalt, which represents the mythical idea that all true moral judgments are given to us from outside of ourselves, by fiat, and that they are unchangeably fixed. The camel needs to become the lion because as the reverent camel, he is incapable of the necessary defiance that he needs in order to affirm some of the truths that his literally religious dutifulness itself exposes.
Finally the lion must transform into a child and transition from being a “No-saying” creature to a “Yes-saying” one. This transition is the move from an emphasis on defiant resistance to what one is rejecting to the work of finding and embracing what is worth affirming. The lion’s nature is too reactionary for that. It’s too much bound up in standing up for itself against what is false that the lion cannot think constructively beyond what it is rejecting. But children are a fresh beginning. They’re clean slates. They have no memory of the past, no lingering grudges, and they don’t have prejudices whereby everything is bound to the connotations it had for the old systems before their birth. They can look at things with fresh eyes and affirm without all the baggage that the lions cope with.
On this blog, I try to capture all three stages of my religious journey. My time as camel, lion, and child. And since one’s spiritual life is never so neat and tidy as to be cleanly broken up into absolutely distinct phases, it’s about exploring the parts of me that today are still camel, still lion, and still child.
A big part of writing this blog has meant going back in time and channeling my former self for whom the lion experience was the dominant one. It’s a shift from my constructive, post-Christian, philosophical perspective that is basically indifferent to Christianity as a dead proposition long ago abandoned back to the part of me that needed to both work out as carefully as I could the justifying logic by which I left the faith while figuring out how to psychologically untangle myself from its hold on me.
My motive in doing so is primarily to give expression to the experience of deconverts whose journeys were like mine. They need resources they can identify with and which help them understand they are not alone. And their grateful e-mails to me are one of the most gratifying fruits of this blog for me. I also wrote the deconversion series because I think it’s valuable to show doubting Christians how it is possible to make it through to the other side. Finally, as an act of memoir and self-understanding, writing about my deconversion has proved very cathartic and clarifying and even has brought some closure.
So, looking back at a post that was written five years ago after an old friend from my Christian days brought a lot of defiant old lion feelings back up feels a little strange. But it feels like a fitting way to resume blogging after a long hiatus.
Now. About Dave’s reply to the post in question.
The basic gist of Dave’s reply is that the kind of Christianity I experienced, thought within, and rejected in my deconversion is fundamentally Calvinistic. Most of the major aspects of Christianity that I focused on in judging the religion morally perverse and harmful were due to the Calvinist kind of Christianity I had. Roman Catholicism does not have the same problems as Calvinism. So, I have not really given reasons for rejecting Christianity en toto, but instead I have just given a case for rejecting Calvinism. And Dave is totally cool with rejecting Calvinism.
And I largely agree with him!
Even though I was only briefly (and very unorthodoxly) an explicit Calvinist, Calvinistic themes permeate enough of evangelical Christianity that its influence was part and parcel even in the kind of theology that I grew up with that never explicitly mentioned Calvinism.
In thinking about blogging in the future, for some time I have been thinking that it would be best to start breaking up my posts on Christianity along theological lines more and address different kinds of Christians for precisely this reason. The denominations within Christianity exist for a reason. There are real differences in their conceptions of the religion. And it is true that I have defaulted to primarily criticizing the American Evangelical Protestantism that was my tradition and which was true Christianity to me when I was a Christian. And even though I often make criticisms of Christianity more broadly, one of the concepts I have the most venom for is original sin as interpreted in the Calvinist way, as total depravity. This is a major crux of my moral hostility towards Christianity.
So, I find it serendipitous that I find a Catholic apologist on my door step. While I am by no means well versed in Catholic theology, I did my PhD in Philosophy at Fordham University and, this might surprise and encourage Dave, uncoincidentally Thomas Aquinas had a truly decisive influence on my theory of goodness and evil and helped solidify my essentially Aristotelian approach to moral philosophy. My constructive metaphysics of value and ethics in many ways aims to reconcile Nietzsche, Aristotle, and great work in contemporary moral philosophy and psychology. And the Thomistic element that I worked out in writing on Thomas’s answer to the problem of evil plays a hinge role in the theory. Years later I wrote a post inspired by that paper called “On God As The Source of Being But Not Of Evil” that explores what I find insightful, but also limited, about Aquinas’s view of God, goodness, and evil.
So that’s a nice shared starting point. Most of what I think is good about Catholicism I see it as owing to Aristotle.
Dave responded to one other central issue in his post: my rejection of Christianity for the ways my gay best friend in college suffered deeply due to the idea that his homosexuality was sinful. Dave’s reply amounted to an appeal that you can hate the sin without hating the sinner.
The friend that I described whose struggles with mental illness and suicidal ideation were exacerbated by his Christian faith really took the Catholic messaging to heart that there was room for him in the Holy Roman Church. He went so far as to become a Benedictine monk. He came onto a Google Hangout with me to defend the Church and explain all about how it was possible to be happily Catholic and gay. You can watch it and read the transcript here. The video reached a pretty small audience (just a few hundred I think) before it managed to find a Catholic viewer irate enough about my friend’s existence that he campaigned to have my friend denied entry into the priesthood.
Eventually my friend finally just left the monastery and married a man he had fallen in love with.
Would you blame him?
Below are three key posts I hope Dave will read so that he can tailor some more specific responses to me. The first is a systematic overview of my moral philosophy that should make clear both its affinities and divergences with Catholic natural law theory. Then there are two more specific posts about Christianity and gays.
Finally, here’s a little more of my take on Original Sin: Why Sin is a False and Morally and Biologically Backward Concept. Even though my view of original sin is predominantly colored by the excesses of Augustine and Calvin, I still think some of these criticisms apply to the concept in general.
While I grant, and have known since college, that in theory Christianity technically takes the view that our bodies are inherently good because God makes only good things and nothing evil (since evil is not even really a thing), I simply don’t think that in reality Catholicism means affirmation of the body in practice. Catholic guilt is a notorious reality and it’s largely rooted in the ways that Manicheanism operates on the practical level of Christianity despite the Church’s theoretical attempts to deny it.
If we are to assess what Catholicism is, it’s difficult to disentangle the way it’s actually experienced at the folk religion level from what it might be in theory. I think that if a religion purports to be God’s conduit for guiding His people on Earth it is more telling how that religion actually manifests than what theologians say about it. Since I don’t think it makes much sense to imagine an omnipotent God who can only manage to make his scholars really understand we don’t live in a dualistic world where the spirit is good and the flesh is evil while He leaves the majority of His flock defaults to more primitive, dualistic folk religious beliefs. It’s hard for me to posit a morally perfect and omnipotent being behind such a systemic miscommunication.
So, I thank Dave for his gracious offer to exchange views and I hope to hear back.