My friend Jeff McCurry recently recommended a grand narrative book called The Master and His Emissary, by Iain McGilchrist. The book is an extended reflection on Western culture by a literary-critic-turned-neuroscientist, suggesting the culture is in a perpetual struggle between the left and right brains, and that we suffer because we don’t understand the correct relation between the two. In short, we put the left brain in charge and make the right brain serve it, instead of the other way around. Like Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, this two-track, non-reductionistic explanation of our mental processes is appealing in a world where we are too often forced to take sides, or pit one side against the other.
My journey can be thought of in this way, with the right brain leading the way, even as (given my profession!) the left brain has played a significant role in clarifying and purifying. Thus, I can’t start with books – I have to start with experience. Above all, I am humbled by how much I have received from a series of faith communities, all of whom have contributed different things to my experience. Talking about “my” faith doesn’t make a lot of sense to me; rather, my impulse is to start talking about the St. Ferdinand contemporary choir, or Loyola-sponsored tutoring in the Chicago projects, or going on Kairos, or faith sharing in my college small group that we “named” Sine Nomine (we were Carls, we had to be clever…), or leading Duke CSC retreats, or discovering the Church of Saint Cecilia tucked away in west St. Paul. Or I could talk about countless friends in faith who have supported and challenged me along the way. And of course my wonderful parents!
But from fairly early on, these experiences have been infused with a sense of left-brained thoughtfulness. Probably the key event is joining my parish’s contemporary choir in junior high, and participating in mass planning teams. Every month, a different subgroup of the choir would read the readings together and sit down before rehearsal and pick out songs for the month. I realized for the first time that there was a logic to what went on at mass – there was a flow to the liturgy itself and its elements, a rhythm to the liturgical seasons, a sequencing of readings. I think it was through this experience that I first saw how faith was something that was intellectually interesting. Moreover, in light of that experience, I have found the anecdotes of liturgical traditionalists extremely unconvincing – or at least, I have wanted to differentiate between my experience and that of the (unfair?) stereotype of contemporary choirs, where maybe they did just pick out their favorite songs and throw in a little Bob Dylan. News flash: we didn’t all do that.
I mark this continuing left/right rhythm in college with my discovery of Thomas Merton. I returned home during my first, somewhat disorienting trimester at Carleton – I loved Carleton immediately, but it was a big transition for me. I’d lived in the same Italian/Polish Chicago neighborhood all my life, gone through the Catholic education system, and now I found myself experiencing… something completely different. I visited my AP English teacher from Loyola Academy, and talked with him about it. He handed me a book and said I should read it and learn from it. It was Thomas Merton’s No Man is an Island – the same, marked-up copy I keep by my bed to this day. That book – and Merton himself – gave me a new, much deeper way of looking at the life of faith. Is it any surprise I went on to discover Anne Patrick’s classes at Carleton and then write my senior comps thesis on Merton?
One of my best high school friends ended up at Duke, and found his way to Mike Baxter and Dorothy Day during these years, resulting in a rather passionate discussions about spirituality and social justice. I couldn’t (and still can’t) argue with the profound witness of my friend Paul’s life, but indirectly I did discover that I could have really interesting arguments with the books by this guy at Duke named Stanley Hauerwas. Perhaps like others (I’ve heard such stories!), discovering Hauerwas was a right-brained experience – here was this passionate social justice pacifist arguing against religious freedom and for doctrinal orthodoxy. Moreover, the arguments were intellectually exciting, livelier than anything I’d seen. Like my simultaneously discovery of von Balthasar through a Commonweal review of Ed Oakes’ brilliant Pattern of Redemption (one night, I was so blown away by Balthasar’s trinitarianism that I wandered out of the student center into the Northfield night and couldn’t find my car!), Hauerwas was a right-brained rush into a whole new universe of left-brain theological analysis. What I learned later were terms that helped me make sense of this experience: narrative theology, postliberal theology, nouvelle theologie. It might be safe to say that I am still working out the left and right brain connections of that entry into serious theological discourse. But at the time, and still, Christianity and Catholicism through these lenses appeared as new, strange, expansive, and overwhelmingly enticing. (Here again, I have to note that this path I’m describing tends to make a kind of legalistic Catholic traditionalism look narrow and unattractive by comparison.)
Ultimately, my faith is alive when it’s rooted in the living soil of good parish communities… and struggles, perhaps falling into intellectualism, when it does not. Through my employment years, the living faith I have witnessed and shared at St. Boniface, Cold Spring; St. John, Frederick; St. Thomas the Apostle, Washington (the STAY mass); and (above all), St. Cecilia, St. Paul has been more crucial to me than any book. Especially the latter two have been participatory, engaged communities of ordinary people (i.e. not theologians!) truly sharing a common faith through the struggles of the world and the Church. The book I use to introduce people to the Catholic intellectual tradition is Robert Barron’s The Strangest Way, which spend most of its length describing how Catholicism is a set of lived practices first and foremost, not a set of rules and propositions. The students and colleagues with whom I’ve bonded have above all been those with whom the left-brain theological conversation was contextualized within a right-brain passion and commitment to lived practices and the living Church.
My left brain knows that “experience” is a tricky theological category, but it also knows that there is no faith journey (and no theology) without my experiences. I think above all I have been fortunate and gifted to have encountered so many wonderful people and communities within Catholicism (as well as many beyond it!) that I cannot separate “my” journey from “our” journey. “My” experience is somehow inseparable from Catholicism, and in the end, centers it. Maybe this story sums it up: recently, I had the privilege of participating in a three-week NEH interdisciplinary seminar (at Duke, coincidentally) on the history of economics. We had a group of participants who really clicked, and one Saturday evening we stayed up super-late with heady conversations between, for example, a feminist Marxian and a strict, free-market Hayekan – conversations that reminded me how great and freeing the pluralist academy can be. But I was even more grateful to drag myself out of bed on Sunday morning and go over to Immaculate Conception, where a wonderful homily on widows, orphans, drone victims, and other casualties of the games of the powerful was coupled with a pitch-perfect Eucharistic banquet, one in which the presider (and/or the liturgist) knew well how to make the best use of the stark, modern space. The sacramental symbols were as vivid as they could be: the bubbling font audible constantly at the entrance, the huge stone altar visible from every corner and tastefully oversized, the setting of the Table by priest and servers, the convergence of the congregation to the center of the three-sided church. Here I heard the Word of life, and shared in the Body. I knew from the evening before there were a lot of intellectually interesting and exciting stories in our world. But I knew that morning – with both sides of my brain – that here I was privileged to be experiencing the story of the world.