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Nights in the Darkness. Or Knights. Or Whatever.

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One of the peculiarities of living in a Protestant culture is the wway in whih concepts in Catholic theology morph into meanings often completely unconnected with the original idea, and then morph again in the popular media so that even Catholics begin to misuse them.

The most obvious instance of this is the  Immaculate Conception, which  Protestants persist in believing is an expression decribing the way in which Jesus was born without the use of ordinary human sexual intercourse.   It’s actually a term defining the conception of Mary, who in Catholicism is acknowledged to have been conceived by ordinary human sexual intercourse, but without the stain of original sin.

Madonna is a Catholic–or at least was born and brought up as one–but she managed to get it wrong in exactly the Protetan way and to put out and entire record album based on the misconception.

So to speak.  Okay, unintentional puns can be really bad.

One of the other common mistranslations of Catholic ideas has been the whole thing about the “dark night of the soul,” which arrives in Western thought by way of a much-persecuted Spanish Carmelite priest of the era of the Counterreformation named St. John of the Cross.

What St. John actually meant by the “dark night” is more complicated than  I want to go into here–and he wrote a book about it–but suffice it to say that he did not mean the loss of the sense of the presence of  God which Protestantism has assumed he meant.

And I must confess, I didn’t catch on to the reference in the title of the Batman movie until this morning. 

For my purposes today, the misunderstanding works better than the understanding, and it’s not a problem unknown in or denied by Catholicism.

Yesterday, I was asking why human beings find it so unsatisfactory to attempt to live, to find meaning and satisfaction, by way of deeply felt emotion, or by emotion of any kind.

Some of you repsonded by saying that emotion is ephemeral, and I agree with you–but it seems to me that what most people describe when they say they have faith is also an emotion.

I’ve pointed out before that there is a place in Catholicism for intellectual assent to Christian do tine even in absence of faith–but the fact that there is such a place is indication enough that “faith” means something, even to Catholics, that is not purely intellection.

For Protestants, as far as I can tell, faith seems to be entirely a emotional matter, an inner conviction that X, Y, and Z are true, and, far more importantly, an ability to feel the  presence of God in the world, or beyond it.

St. Teresa of Avila–St. John’s closest friend, and one of the first two women ever to be named doctors of the Church–promoted a spiritual exercise we now call the “practice of the presence of God,” and every traditional Catholic religious order strives to teach its members interior as well as exterior silence, so that they can listen to the voice of God speaking within them.

In spite of all this, however, it seems to be universally true that any human being who lives long enough will experience a “dark night of the soul” in the commonplace understanding of the phrase–that no matter how faithful a person begins, he comes to a point when he can no longer feel the presence of God, when God seems to have gone out of the world.

The people who do not experience this all seem–like St. Therese, the “Little Flower”–to have died very young.

I know I keep bringing up Catholic references to an audience I know is not generally Catholic, but when we come to talk about this sort of thing, Catholicism is what I know.  A friend of mine did send me a big book of writings about Lutheranism, and this past winter I read a book of essays by Martin Luther himself, but I don’t seem to have a Protestant sensibility.  

At any rate, none of hat Luther and company said chanes anything I’m saying here, so maybe I can get myself out of this knot and go back to my major question.

Isn’t faith, as spoken of in most Chritian traditions today–Catholic as well as Protestant–an emotion?  And don’t even the most devout and dedicated people go through periods where they lose that emotion, where, in order to go on being Christian believers, they have to sort of bull through their days on conviction and determination alone?

St. John went through such a period, as did St. Teresa.  Teresa called it a “period of spiritual dryness.”  Both of them held fast until they made their way through that to another period of being able to believe in the emtoinal sense, but they belonged to a Church that allowed for intellectual assent in the absence of felt belief.

I have no idea how much sense I’m making here.

I think that one reason why there are so many accidental atheists, though, is that in a world in which belief is always an emotion–in which intelectual assent is so far unknown as to be senseless to most people–the first sign o “spiritual dryness” is the death knell of belief.  There’s no going back, in the same way that we don’t uusually find a way to go back when we stop “loving” somebody, when love is, again, defined as an emotion.

Maybe I’m making a mess of it here, but there’s a phenomenon I’d really like to understand better. What is belief, to most people?  When you say you “believe in God,” what do you mean?

This is one of the reasons why I’ve always found the formula of sola fideii to be so unsatisfactory–if belief is more than that intellectual assent (“I acknowledge the existence of God as true”), if it is an experience of God in the world, then it comes and goes with most people,and in young adulthood or early middle age it can often go for good. 

Sola gracia, solafideii, sola scriptura, the Protestant formula goes–grace alone, faith alone, scripture alone.  The last one guarantees I could never be a Protestant, but the first two don’t make much sense to me either. 

Assuming God exists He could grant any individual he wanted to the grace to believe without interruption–but in point of practical fact, He never seems to do that.

I don’t know what people mean when they sa they “believe” in God.  And that’s interesting, because I know a lot of very sincere believers.

Written by janeh

August 17th, 2009 at 8:50 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Nights in the Darkness. Or Knights. Or Whatever.'

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  1. I don’t think faith can be solely emotion. Emotion shifts and changes from moment to moment, and while I do think there is an element of emotion, it may be more a *result* of faith rather than the foundation of it.

    For instance, I’d say that I have faith that my husband’s fidelity to me is unwavering. (I almost typed “faithful” but then we get into semantics). This faith is founded on everything I know about him, his behavior, his ability to make and keep promises, the way he communicates with me, and the place I occupy in his life. I know he appreciates other women for their looks or their intelligence, because he’ll express that to me, but even when I’m not around, I have that faith in him.

    The emotion of feeling secure and loved is a result of my reasoning on the issue, not the source of it. I also know that at various times, since he’s not a perfect human being, he’s going to annoy the heck out of me, make me crazy angry, or frustrate me. None of this shakes the faith in his fidelity.

    I know the Protestant idea of faith is not supposed to be founded on evidence of God in the world, it’s supposed to spring from itself, seemingly. For many people, faith is not a reasoned response, but it must be at least based on a (perhaps unconscious) consideration of “the universe without God” versus “the universe with God.” I can see at that point, emotion might be the deciding factor, as “the universe with God” seems somehow more reassuring, logical or necessary to them.

    Following from that, some people who cannot maintain faith in God must have a negative emotion when they consider the choice, or their need for proof overcomes their emotions if they’d like to choose for God.

    Is this making any sense? I don’t know. Feeling like there *must* be a God sounds like an emotional basis for faith, but to me, there also has to be a logical process, otherwise faith would waver with every whim.

    Or maybe all the logical reasons I’ve heard people put forth about why they believe are just covers for the basic emotion of their *wanting* there to be a God, so there must be.

    I don’t understand it any more than you do, Jane. No matter how young, even when my mother took me to church regularly (Presbyterian) I didn’t really believe. I always thought “It would be nice and life would be much simpler if it were true, but I just don’t think so.”


    17 Aug 09 at 11:53 am

  2. I also don’t experience faith as an emotion. I was christened in the Orthodox Church, raised in a white-bread Presbyterian Church, and am now considering re-joining the Orthodox Church. I’ve always believed in God, although for many years it seemed beside the point. The closest description of “faith in God” is “faith in my cellphone or wireless modem.” I’m sitting in a little country house outside Moscow, communicating through a wireless modem. Wherever you all are, you’re reading this. Weird, right? I have no idea how this works or why this works; I can’t see the words floating up into the air and making their way — at the speed of light — across Europe and the Atlantic, and then popping into your computers. But I “believe” it happens. That’s pretty much what my faith in God is like. There are other emotions connected with it, but faith itself is not an emotion.


    17 Aug 09 at 12:52 pm

  3. Oh, the tough questions. What does it mean to believe? To have faith? Greater thinkers than I by far have written books on the subject – not that I generally let that stop me from expressing my own opinion

    I don’t think I ever had the Protestant idea that faith was an emotion, although I eventually became aware of it. If that had been the criteria, I’d never have bothered with confirmation and would never have returned to belief after decades living outside religion.

    I often think I have a Catholic sensibility, but (for purposes of background and context) I was raised and am now Anglican, a denomination whose ‘broad church’ is now practically schizophrenic. But I wasn’t raised in a high church or Anglo-Catholic parish. It was a standard, middle-or-the road rural parish that shared a minister (not called a ‘priest’) with two or three other churches, and which offered Holy Communion when he was present, Matins when he wasn’t, and Sunday School (which I detested and quit as soon as I could) at 3:00 PM. So that’s where I’m coming from.

    I think Lymaree has something when she writes about being secure and loved as being both an emotion and something that derives from rational thought. I think that would describe my faith as an older child, and, on a good day, my faith now. I wrestled as an adult with the problems of not feeling like I had faith any more – and I read about others who had had that problem, and prayed, and I eventually came to a point at which I decided to live ‘as if’, as some people say. That is, I’ve decided live as if I am a Christian no matter what my mood-of-the-day makes me feel as though there is no God. It’s just a mood. It’ll disappear. Sometimes I do feel a lot of emotion – various emotions – about my faith. Sometimes I don’t, or I feel particularly angry about God not intervening in something or other or…well, different things. But I keep going anyway. I don’t think I’ve ever had anything as profound as a dark night of the soul, but I’ve certainly had periods of spiritual dryness and gotten through them.

    I know – maybe they’d be called Christians with a more Protestant sensibility – lots of people who’d probably dismiss me as lacking in faith because I wrote the above, but that doesn’t bother me. I don’t answer to them. I suspect some people do lose their faith when the pink clouds of their conversion or some other spiritual highlight fade away. Others do so following tragedy – which strengthens some people’s faith. Perhaps that’s when some people discover that what they thought was faith was mere habit and some happy memories.


    17 Aug 09 at 1:21 pm

  4. Let’s see–Methodist, sometimes attend Catholic, currently attending Episcopal (long story) and for many years what we called GPA–General Protestant (Army).
    I never regarded faith as an emotion, but as a level of certainty. Lymaree mentioned her husband’s ficelity. From the nature of the service, I used to be gone for weeks or months at a time. I never thought “Sharon isn’t cheating on me because I’d probably have heard about it, and also she wouldn’t take the risk that I would hear about it.” I knew Sharon wasn’t running around because I knew Sharon. The logic chain had become irrelevant. You don’t stop to work out that the sun will come up tomorrow. You could work it out, but you know.
    For me, believing in God is a conviction on that level that the universe is about as honest as the roulette wheel in Rick’s Cafe. I don’t always understand why something happens, but I don’t doubt there is a reason.
    There is an experience of the presence of God which is different and may be emotional–or just have a powerful emotional aftershock. Andrew Greeley based PATIENCE OF A SAINT (recommended) on such an incident, and discusses some of the literature in the novel itself and in an afterward–but if Father Greeley is right, it hits Catholics at least as often as Protestants.
    As for the “dark night of the soul” (American version) yes, of course. The Hound of Despond, was it not? And Churchill called it the “black dog.” One persists. There is no surer road to failure at anything than giving up just because it seems futile. But then I come of VERY stubborn stock. I feel sure Van der Decker is some sort of cousin–and that he will make it around the Horn yet.
    And on the more familiar comic book level. Don’t give the film-makers overmuch credit. I’ve read BATMAN off and on since it was 10 cents an issue, and he was always known as the “Dark night (or Darknight) Detective.” References to DC’s trinity as the Man of Steel, the Amazon Princess and the Dark Knight go back at least 30 years, and might well go back to the time when the entire industry consisted of non-observant Jews. Not all references are intended–as in misconception.


    17 Aug 09 at 5:28 pm

  5. OK, so I was raised Catholic, know and understand the references, but apparently no one told me you could just intellectually assent. Oh well.

    That is what I have done in my marriage, though. I have made a commitment, so even during periods of fury or depression or apathy, I have stuck with it.

    Everything that everyone else is calling “faith,” I call “confidence.” Trusting someone or something based on knowledge and prior experience isn’t at all the same thing as faith.



    17 Aug 09 at 9:35 pm

  6. It’s astonished me what I’ve found out about my religion as an adult that no one thought to mention to me – or that the people around me when I was a child didn’t know. One of the big satisfactions to me of religion as an adult is the enormous depth and variety of material I can study and learn from!

    I see faith as encompassing confidence but going past it. Yes, there are times I feel confident that God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world. There are far more times when I feel that all’s not right and God appears to be totally absent – no confidence at all – but I keep on following the path anyway, in spite of knowledge and experience that God didn’t seem to answer prayers (at least not the way I thought He should) or was completely absent from some horrific tragedy or even is irrelevant to me in a busy modern life. That’s faith. Or part of it.

    In some of my recent reading, I’ve come across the idea of faith as something you do, as an action. My initial, Protestant, reaction was ‘ARRRGH! Salvation by Works! Buying salvation!’ but I read a bit more. That’s not what the author was getting at. It was the idea that an intellectual affirmation wasn’t enough, that an aspiring Christian has to actually *do* something to live a life in faith. If you have an intellectual assent to the principles and a nice warm fuzzy feeling about God, your faith is still lacking if you don’t act on it by treating your neighbour kindly and feeding the poor etc. Faith isn’t just an intellectual assent or just an emotional feeling or even both together. It’s the action of living-out the intellectual assent even when the emotions aren’t there, and of course when they are there as well.

    I always wanted a kind of Road to Damascus experience of faith, but I’ve decided I probably will never have one. Still, the idea of a rock-hard faith based on such an undeniable personal experience is tempting. I think I, like in the words of an old hymn, will be working on faith until ‘faith will be no more’.


    18 Aug 09 at 5:45 am

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