Paradox In Religious Belief And Practice

This meditation is inspired by an article from the NY Times a friend recently sent me that was written by an intellectual, “born again Catholic”, who eloquently described the paradoxical nature of her re-acceptance of her childhood faith. I have cut and pasted the article at the end of this piece. It is worth reading. I can’t say the same for the paragraphs that immediately follow.

I have not been a fan of those who revel in the “living on the cusp of paradox” paradigm that attracts many religious people who are intellectually oriented. That has always seemed a cop-out to me. It did while I was Mormon, and until recently still did. Things either make sense, or they don’t. Or perhaps better put, there is a continuum on which an item or belief’s sensibility, workability, functionality, etc. can be placed. If something is nonsensical or doesn’t work well enough, find something that does. That may be a pain in ass, but we can get over a lot more than we think we can once we get at it. So as I have told many of these folks, stop bitching about how paradoxical your life is, and find something that works for you. What I had missed is that for some people, whether they can admit this or not, the paradox works.

That is, in our world there is a basic conflict between the felt reality of the small group religious experience and the real reality disclosed by science. As a result, living with paradox is for some people is as good as it gets. The alternatives are to either ignore science, which the more conscious among us cannot, or to reject some of life’s deepest perceptions, which certain people cannot.

As William James put it (and I paraphrase), certain religious experiences bring with them a peculiar sense of having experienced the “more real than real”. Brain science has recently explained why this is. It has to do with how certain kinds of experience, including some religious experience, suppress the part of the brain that keeps track of our body’s separateness from all that is not us. When this happens, we feel like we have merged with some greater whole. The same thing happens during lovemaking, for the same neural reasons. This is a pretty compelling experience. Whatever we associate with it takes on a special significance – kind of like what happens when a baby goose automatically attaches to the first animate object it sees upon hatching, whether that is its mother or not. This experience can be induced by bombarding the brain with certain kinds of radio waves; by taking some drugs in certain kinds of safe, nurturing environments; by engaging in certain kinds of closely coordinated group activities(military style marching, for eg.); etc.

For folks like me, once the science is understood it is a relatively straightforward (if painful) matter to change how we believe and the way we live. For other personality types, this is not so straightforward. In fact, it may be practically speaking impossible. For them, embracing paradox may be the best way to go. No one has to tell them this. They don’t have to think it. In almost all cases, their subconscious will see to it that they perceive and believe what they need to in order to stay sane. And I am thinking particularly of highly group oriented people.

Recent personality type research has indicated that some people are highly exploration oriented while others are highly oriented toward stability, structure, and connection to kinds of conservative groups that tend to be stable in the long term. We will adopt Helen Fisher’s terminology and hence call these two types “Explorers” and “Builders”. Both personality types are crucially important to the continued functioning of human society. In some environments (scarce resource or military environments in particular), the Builders will be particularly important. The careful coordination of group effort is more important here than usual. Without this, survival is in jeopardy. In safer, more abundant settings (like what we now enjoy), more Explorer behaviour is not only tolerated, but will tend to produce innovation and hence abundance more quickly than could otherwise be possible. Yet, the Builders are still important. The most exploration oriented groups still need some Builders to contain and focus the creative force exerted by the Explorers who dominate the group.

Explorers and Builders react quite differently to the collision between the world of emotional experience that binds groups together and the science that often deconstructs that experience, as neurology has the perception than one has encountered Truth in the manner noted above. The Explorer trapped in what is for her an uncomfortably constraining social group says “Of course! These feelings don’t indicate that I must do a whole bunch of stuff that does not feel right to me. I can choose my own path!” She is hence set free, at least intellectually, and if she can navigate the treacherous hurdles her social group has set up to prevent defection (maybe she has to leave lifelong friends, family or a spouse behind), she will in fact be far more free than she has ever been.

For the Builder, the scientific explanation for the experiences that may hold his community together is a completely different proposition. This threatens to dissolve a good part of the glue that holds the community together. It threatens his ability to continue to believe, and if he loses belief he will spin out of control into the chaos that he (usually) perceives to lie beyond the border of his little group. In short, he needs the connection to his group (not any group will do – remember the gooses imprinting) or at least a similar group. This need is deep and strong enough that for most Builders that it will bulldoze any evidence or reasoning that gets in its way. However, if a Builder has a strong intellectual orientation, the emotional bullbozer may hit the mental equivalent of another bulldozer. Here, paradox and ambiguity become the Builder’s allies. This allows the emotion and reason bulldozers to eye each other with suspicion, but for the most part to employ their prodigious energies in productive ways that have little to do with each other instead of engaging in a fight to the death, with clinical depression or other form of insanity being a likely outcome.

This is the kind of thing I think about while reading about religious paradox in the lives of people like Michele Somerville (see below). Something else I think about is how far Mormonism has to be before it will allow a place for people like her. Had she been raised Mormon and really needed a connection to group of the kind she described, she would probably have remained Mormon and suffered with depression and other dysfunctions as so many Mormons do. Had she been able to get out of the Mormon social trap, her path would likely have been to become Evangelical Christian since many aspects of that system resonate with the Mormon. It is not likely that she would have become Catholic since the Mormon imprinting leaves one with distaste for pageantry, crosses and many other Catholic acoutrements. Builders are far more constrained by where they come from than Explorers.

I finally note that the division between Explorers and Builders may also explain the conflict on post-Mormon and other similar internet bulletin boards between those who have left all belief in deity behind and those who have maintained it in some form.

In any event, the understanding science is slowly giving me of how our brains and social groups work causes me to accepting paradox as a legitimate tool in other lives. I hope you enjoy Michele’s description of her paradoxical relationship to the religious cards she was dealt.

best, bob

Born Again in Brooklyn



About a decade ago, moved by a convergence of my longstanding fascination with religion and a time of great personal loss, I embarked on a search for a church and wound up a born-again Catholic. It was not a straight or untroubled path, guided as it was by both my attraction to and enmity for the Roman Catholic Church into which I was born and baptized.

Growing up Irish Catholic in New York City put me in a good position to experience the best and worst of the Church. Most of the Sisters of Charity who taught at my grade school were tyrants. In 1971 I knocked on the door of my parish rectory to inquire about becoming an altar server; I was advised that only boys could serve. Brides, said the priest, were the only females allowed on the altar. When my mother became critically ill at age 30, a Catholic priest administering last rites, refused to offer absolution when she, who had given birth to four children by age 25, refused to express contrition for taking birth control pills. People for whom I care deeply have been molested by priests.

In 1985, while working as a high school English teacher in a parochial school, I watched a 19-year student of mine weep in homeroom in response to that morning’s “pro-life” announcement, which included references to “mothers who killed their own babies.” I learned later that this young man’s mother had terminated a pregnancy two days earlier. My gay brother, at the time of his death at 45, felt despised by the Church he had always loved.

But a radical nun was the first person to teach me anything sophisticated about poetry. The Catholic Church in New York has fed, educated and clothed more poor people than any other agency in the city. On most days a logic-defying confidence in the potential of the sacraments to deliver grace persists in me. The beauty of even ordinary churches has never failed to astonish me. While I consider the brutality of the papacy, now and throughout history, a source of shame, Roman Catholic art, often commissioned by those very same bad popes is a source of pride, and comprises a tradition in which I, as a poet, often work.

Roman Catholic, as it turned out, was the language my spirit already knew. Burning hyssop and frankincense, the stark and heart-charging splendor of Gregorian chant, Marian devotion; the iconography, the Latin Agnus Dei and Litany of the Saints, the Angelus bells, the rapture at the crux of Catholic worship have always held fierce sway with me.

As I started to experiment with religious observance, I quickly developed a sense of what I did and did not want. My aims were practical and ethereal, metaphysical and physical. I wanted to transcend, but as the mother of three toddlers, I wanted convenience, too. I craved beauty, musica sacra, social justice work, and maybe a whisper of ancient tongues in my ear, but I also needed a church that would embrace the realities of motherhood. If the celebrant of the mass glowered or gawked when I jammed the baby up my shirt to nurse at mass, he failed the audition and I never went back.

I liked parishes that were racially and socio-economically diverse, houses of worship that were beautiful, the presence of women priests when I was lucky enough to encounter it. I had zero tolerance for folk masses, anti-abortion diatribes, ecclesiastical greed, rote reciters of scripture and congregants who refused to sing. (After all, as St. Augustine said, “singing is twice praying.”) When people in the pews were unkind to my generally well-mannered children, I crossed their church off my list. I preferred my homilists witty, lyrical and learned. A brilliant theologian and Dante maven who used to celebrate mass a few mornings a week in my neighborhood helped hook and reel me in. Most of all it was another — a lyrical priest I successfully hectored and charmed into serving as my de facto guru — who presided over my rebirth a s Catholic. And so I began to regularly attend Roman Catholic mass.


You might wonder how someone like me — a feminist-progressive living in 21st-century Brooklyn — can abide the Vatican’s positions. Well, I don’t. I am Catholic under protest and I’m in good company. The long tradition of radical thinking is alive and well in my Church.

I recently attended an interfaith Gay Pride Celebration in held in a Roman Catholic Church. One of the speakers was a former Catholic nun who left her order many years ago and is currently an Interfaith minister. She spoke of her work as a person of the cloth, her life as a lesbian, her 25 years with her beloved. The honorific “Reverend” precedes her name. She wears a Roman collar. That night, her address was filled with surprises, but only one aspect of her speech shocked me: her fervent recommendation that progressive Catholics remain in the Church — so as to be in a position to create change. She still worships in a Roman Catholic Church.

I love the radical Catholic Church. I love that there are Roman Catholic bishops sticking their necks out to ordain women. That Catholic doctrine places mighty emphasis on the role of conscience in worship and creates fertile ground for conscientious dissent. I support dramatic change as energetically as I can. I withhold my cash from the bishops and hand my diocesan appeal tender to the Woman’s Ordination Conference and to SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests). I devote much time and talent to working in the Gay Ministry at my church. I recognize it is my obligation as a conscious, conscientious Catholic to discern — to know that the church no more belongs to the Vatican than it does to me. The power of the Church may rest with the College of Cardinals, but its glory rests with people like me.

Once I accepted that being Roman Catholic did not require that I be a papist — once I understood that it was possible to be simultaneously outraged by and in love with the Church — I saw the obstacles to being a practicing Catholic in a new way.


I certainly do not see religion as essential to an ethical, spiritually rich life. I am married to an agnostic Jew and I educate our three children in two faiths, teaching them to pray, modeling what practicing a religion authentically looks like. “Getting religion” has rendered me neither righteous, nor saved. In April, as I read a Times report about the efforts of Atheist Humanists to organize in South Carolina, I uttered sotto voce, “God bless them,”so inspired was I by the nobility of their cause.

Religion has expanded not only how I relate to “the Divine” — by which I mean the infinite creative force beyond space and time which moves and is moved by love — but also it has expanded the way I think and feel about other faiths. The deeper in I go into my own faith, the greater my appreciation for that of others. The more confidence I gain in my own path, the more certain I am that there are many true paths.

My practice of Catholicism inspired me to step up my efforts to educate my children about Jewish Sabbath observance and Torah, for example. When I light the candles on Friday nights, I do not do so as Jew, but I don’t exactly do so as a Christian either. I do it as the mother of children of the tribe, and when I do so, I enter this ritual fully, as a soul rising to the occasion of something more infinite that the sum of all our ritualistic parts — I stretch — a soul reaching to touch the hem of the garment of the Divine.

It is through practice that I have come to believe that if there is indeed a God presiding over the End of Days, the particulars, the language and myth, various sects employ as means for understanding and revering God will wash away moot in the flood of some unified, unifying light. Practicing provides pockets of peace, soothes me when I am terrified, enhances my appreciation of the created world, helps me to shape who I am into the woman I wish to become. When I’m lucky, practice ushers me toward glints of transcendence.

God is not verifiable, worship can never be wholly rational and men and women can never properly parse the mind of an infinite God. Devotion is built like love; it opens, and it opens up – this, in its own time. For many, religion is a fairy tale. For others, it’s the most real and true thing imaginable. For me, it’s usually both.

Michele Madigan Somerville is the author of “Wisegal” (Ten Pell Books) and “Black Irish,” forthcoming from Plain View Press. Her verse has appeared in Mudfish, Puerto del Sol, Hanging Loose and other publications. Her Web site is Fresh Poetry Daily.

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