Thursday, March 25, 2010

Follow up on the Smith review of Return to Rome

I'll tell you what was going through my mind when I read Professor Smith's review: deep hurt. When he said there was no "love" in my book, he was attacking my family, which plays an integral part in my development as a person and what I learned about true charity. That's why I included all the quotes from my book in my response to Professor Smith. I was not writing a brief for the "common man." I was trying to show that Professor Smith did not count as "love" that which was not accompanied by the social movements, liturgical practices, and thinkers he finds interesting. That is as bizarre as it is insulting. 

It happens to be that in my story, love was not found exclusively in those entities that Professor Smith thinks I ought to have found them. Because my life did not fit his script, it does not count as authentic. I 
will not apologize for that. I am proud of my heritage and my family. I will not be intimidated by an academic bully who seems to think that every biography is a "narrative" for him to deconstruct.  Better to be a Thomist satisfied than a Derridian who does not know he is dissatisfied.

There is something else going on here as well. Smith represents yet another group of disappointed and disillusioned Evangelicals seeking to find the "real Christianity" behind the facades of modernism and Enlightenment rationality. I am not entirely unsympathetic to that quest.  What they do is appropriate the works and practices of important mystics and contemplative Christians (almost all Catholic and Orthodox), as well as the great liturgical traditions from which they arise, in order to integrate them into their spiritual and ecclesiastical life. That is, of course, wonderful. The problem is that some of these "cutting edge" Evangelicals, such as Professor Smith, see a particular personality type as paradigmatic of the ideal Christian. This individual is contemplative, liturgical, loves Continental philosophy, and shares Smith's views on social and cultural issues, a sort of Thomas Merton meets Heidegger meets Jim Wallis. Thus, someone like me, who has a different sort of personality, who does not share all of Smith's interests and concerns is thought to be inauthentic and not truly liberated from the modernist strictures that he finds so debilitating to the Christian life. Professor Smith, of course, is deeply mistaken about me and my journey. But in order to assess my book fairly and charitably he would have had to discard his epistemological template. So, he went into postmodern, emergent church, autopilot mode with template on full throttle.  

For Smith, my conversion was just another Evangelical neo-con becoming a Catholic neo-con. "Evangelical" and "Catholic" merely modify what Professor Smith "knows" is really important to me: conservative politics and the culture wars. The irony, of course, is that Smith is an embodiment of the very thing he thinks I am: he assesses my conversion by firm political and cultural categories that will not bend to fit the reality of my own lived experience. His grid is parochial and unilluminating. It is a spectacle that functions as a mirror, though he swears it is you, and not him, that sees through a glass darkly.

One of the grand discoveries since becoming Catholic is the wide diversity of personality types that one
finds in the Church. It is a place that includes both "the Catholic Worker" and Michael Novak; St. Francis and St. Thomas; Thomas Merton and Joseph Ratzinger; Ralph McInerny and Catherine of Siena. In other words, it is a body with many parts, all of which work in concert for the good of the whole. I don't worry that I am not Merton, though I do wish I had his patience and contemplative spirit. I long to know God more deeply. But I am who I am (to quote Popeye, not Jehovah). I have a place. It isn't the same place that Professor Smith would occupy if he were to become Catholic. But that's okay. It's a big Church, and not everyone can be the same thing, but nor should we want it that way. A body of Christ that consists just of feet or hands is one that cannot see or speak.

Return to Rome is about my life. It is not an academic treatise. It was never meant to be that.

Clearly, I knew that my book would get some people upset. Fair enough. And in that sense, they should wrestle with the reasoning I offer in the book (when in fact I try to explain why I changed my mind). There have been several critical, though fair, assessments of the book. In fact, several months ago I linked to a series of articles by the
Exiled Preacher that critiqued my work. I didn't agree with all of what he wrote, of course. But I thought the author was charitable and fair. (This is also true of the reviews by Chris Castaldo, Jan P. Dennis, Internet Monk, and Michael A. J. Haykin). So, I am far from criticism averse. In fact, I welcome it, since it forces me to better understand myself and those with whom I disagree.

But Professor Smith's review was different: it went for my heart. I confess that I probably was more forceful than I should have been.