Monday, June 18, 2012

Credo quia absurdum est

"I believe it because it is absurd."  I read the famous aphorism (falsely?) attributed to Tertullian somewhere as an undergraduate, and it stuck with me.  (Notice that what I am about to say follows equally well from the authentic quotation in De carne Christi 5.4: credibile prorsus est, quia ineptum est, i.e. "it is believable precisely because it is absurd" -- the point is that religion appears nonsensical.)  As an LDS missionary in northern Spain, I even cited the aphorism on occasion when explaining myself to nonmembers (and potential converts, rare as that species was).  My reasoning, which I still find apt today, was more or less as follows.

You don't belong to a church because its doctrine makes perfect sense. (No doctrine does.) You don't belong to a church because it never makes a mistake. (They all do.) You belong to a church because God put you there (in that family, in that community, in the nexus of events that got you through the door and into the baptismal font, or some other initiatory ritual).

Someone outside your group looks at what you do and says, "Dude, that is absurd." If you are honest, and empathetic, you see his point and acknowledge it: "Yes, that absurdity you see, that is real, and that is precisely what keeps me coming back. I am a part of this community, which means that I embrace the absurdity." A case in point.  What other people find obnoxious in me (as a person and a potential lifelong companion), my wife finds "cute" (or so she says -- that doesn't mean that she never pushes back or that she is an utterly passive doormat, the way some people seem to think it should: it's just the way things are!).

I certainly don't think we should ignore data that overthrow our ideas (no matter how we may feel about said ideas). As a Mormon missionary, I did not invite people to ignore data. I was all about trying to get them to look at it; for me, that was Mormonism (further light and knowledge, continuing revelation, an unfolding of exciting new ideas with no end in sight). Then, at some point, I realized that the institutional church was not behind me. Slowly, I became aware that this was not all: the church was actually opposed to me, was fighting against the gospel (as I understood it) -- actively denying the Holy Ghost (to use its own language) -- and I was pretty devastated. Today, I am mostly recovered. I think of myself as an atheist, or a Buddhist, or an uncorrelated Mormon, depending on the weather and the social circle I am moving in. I have not found absolute truth. I do not have "the" answer, but I have found much better questions, and my faith journey continues -- largely without the LDS church, since it appears to have no use for what I see as the purpose of life (asking tough questions, and respecting the fact that we don't all have to meet them with the same answers, that the game of life has more than one solution).

People come to religion, in my view, pretty much the same way that they come to music or cuisine. You listen, you taste, and something in the experience grabs you. You have to hear more, to get that flavor again. You have to play. You have to dance. You have to try that recipe again and again, and get it right yourself. You don't come to jazz or Italian because they are rationally superior to folk or Mexican. You might try to convince yourself that you do, after the fact, when somebody presses you for reasons why you suddenly went cuckoo (from their perspective) -- but such rationalization is specious (as rationalization often is when it is invoked to explain complex historical decisions involving more variables than we can separate easily). You come to jazz, and you don't know why: you just have to. Tertullian's statement captures that.

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