The Tree of Life, Epistemology, My NFP Book, and Prayer Request

The Tree of Life, Epistemology, My NFP Book, and Prayer Request May 6, 2017


It’s come to my attention that I have a deep-seated, possibly but not necessarily disordered, inclination that I need y’all to pray for me about. Basically, I’m doing research for my NFP book and I feel more or less constantly swamped by the sheer magnitude of my own ignorance. Which means that when I go to work on it, what happens is that instead of drafting I try to fill the huge, gaping gaps in my knowledge by getting a hold of more documents.

It starts with most of the studies being methodologically problematic, and me not knowing how to explain the seeming discrepancy that I see between the published data and the actual experience of people that I encounter in NFP circles. I start worrying that maybe my problem is that I’m suffering from confirmation bias and unconsciously over-privileging the experiences of other couples who, like me, have had little to no success in avoiding pregnancy using NFP. Only then people show up in my combox and confirm that their experience is exactly the same: that they know many people using NFP, and that these people are overwhelmingly having unexpected pregnancies. And then I think, “Okay, but maybe my blog disproportionately attracts people whose experience is confirmed by the kind of things that I write, and therefore I’m drawing data from an echo chamber.”

At this point, my brain starts meandering off into gloomy thoughts about the fundamental epistemic limitations placed upon human beings by the nature of personal subjectivity. How do you navigate the divide between, on the one hand, the kinds of truth that develop as a result of personal experience and, on the other hand, the desire for a truth that is rooted in a genuine objective source – in the mind of God?

Back when I was a recent convert, I would have navigated this simply through an appeal to authorities who are supposed to have a direct line to the Holy Spirit. The problem is that now I’m deeply aware that a) the Holy Spirit operates in complex ways that interact with and respect human freedom, working through historical processes rather than through clunky, direct interventions in Vatican councils. Just as God did not say “Let there be a dog with four legs, and let it bark,” but rather, “Let there be amino acids and let them, over the course of millions of years, combine in a complex evolutionary process to produce canine-kind,” God does not say “Here is the truth” but rather “I will lead you into all truth.”

And b) any two people reading through the same Vatican document, passage or Scripture, or Papal writing will have a fundamentally different experience of the text because their understanding of it will be mediated by their own conscious subjectivity. We do not receive a direct transmission of another person’s truth from their mind through the medium of the written word. Rather we receive a slightly garbled copy of their experience, because nobody writing their thoughts down actually transcribes those thoughts directly as they appear in the mind. Conventions of grammar, language, usage and style converge to modify the raw thought into a more digestible (but less pure) form. This, then, is received by the reader, who understands everything that is written analogically, filtered through their own associations and their own pre-existing beliefs, which might be quite different from those of the original writer. For this reason, two people can read the same document and come to nearly opposite conclusions about what it is trying to say.

Now, let me clear, at this point I do not bang my head into the wall and despair. Rather, I become more or less enraptured by the question of what truth is, and how it is generated, and how it relates to reality. Pictures arise in my head: the whole human race as a Tree of Life and truth springing out in a billion variegated blossoms, opening, some boldly, some shyly before the sunlight which all receive and interpret in order to bring fresh life to the living forest of existence. Or truth as a cosmic web generated from innumerable points across a landscape more complex and multidimensional than any galaxy, a countless multitude of twinkling stars bearing an original light, visible, readable, interpretable only from some impossible distance, and I think that maybe each of us staring into the face of God maybe sees some small glimmer of that totality of truth reflected in His eyes.

And at this point, the question of how effective NFP is in actual use by normal human couples has completely gone out the window because I’m all giddy about the vast, incomprehensible beauty of the unknown and the unknowable. But the part of my brain that is responsible for actually putting words on paper says, “This is a book about NFP. Not a wild musing about the exciting possibilities of deconstruction as a pathway to mysticism. A Q&A book with, you know, questions…and also, ideally, answers.” At which point I go back to the hundreds of Vatican documents, studies, books, blogs, forums, etc. painfully limited in their explanatory power –  thinking that maybe the thing that would help is if I just did a little more research.

So, um, that’s where I’m at. I’m at the point where the bibliography for this thing will need to be published as a separate volume, and yet I still feel unqualified to finish writing the book. If you guys can pray for me to just sit down and be okay with writing something that is full of glaring (and insurmountable) lacunae; to let go a little bit and allow myself to be just one of those blossoms on the tree of truth, releasing whatever perfume I’m capable of releasing rather than worrying that I am not able to produce a perfect and synthetic whole, that would be great.


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