The Tentativity of Not Knowing
It's easier to discover when you're lost; easier to fill an empty cup than a full one
I think often about how very nearly effortless it was for me to be prolific as a Catholic writer. I’m somewhat astonished at just how much content — over a thousand articles and 80 podcasts — I produced during my time at the helm of 1P5. I was, of course, well-practiced in my craft, having put in my 10,000 hours of writing, and then some. But there was an almost carefree confidence that came with representing positions derived from an authority that I considered absolute, and entirely external to my own fallibility.
It’s only in my present state of awareness of how little I really know for certain that the real reason for my previous prolificity became clear, namely, that I was using the unquestionable authority of the Catholic Church as a crutch. I wasn’t giving my own opinions on things; not really. I was giving a gloss on what I believed the Church’s opinions to be. I never had to say, “take my word for it.” Instead, I’d argue the opposite: “If you have a problem with what I’m saying, take it up with the Church.”
If it was an understandable thing to do, I think it engendered a certain kind of intellectual laziness. I was the loquacious middle man for ideas I never had to do the work of figuring out on my own. It’s not to say that it wasn’t work; I did a lot of checking and verifying and clarification-seeking to make sure nothing I was saying ran afoul of the approved narrative. But it was, at the end of the day, all in service of that narrative, which was not my own.
One of the great ironies of being a quasi-well-known writer about important topics is that I have the impression that people expect me to know things. To have some kind of wisdom. The truth is, I’m the least practical person you’re likely to meet. I spend most of my time caught up in ideas, while the real heroes of the world are out there acting on them. In my day to day life, I am infuriatingly indecisive, I overthink and worry about everything, and I very often believe I lack sufficient data to make an informed choice, which results in a kind of paralysis. Those who know me only through my work often think of me as arrogant and argumentative, but the truth is that I am hardly a paragon of self-confidence. I am a professional second-guesser.
And so, without the aforementioned crutch of the Church as the place where every buck comes to a stop, my writing now suffers from the same debilitating self-doubt as the rest of my life. In my waning days at 1P5, as I doubted more and more, I wrote less and less. In my nascent efforts at building this little Substack, I find myself even more bound up. “Why would anyone want to listen to me? Why does anyone care about what I think? Why would they want to hear about my experiences? Why can’t I stop being so self-referential?” The inability to write unselfconsciously has become like phantom pain of an amputated limb.
This Substack, though eponymous, was never supposed to be about me. It was (and still is) supposed to be about the big ideas I find most interesting, that I want to share with all of you, in the hopes that you might find them interesting, too. But I have been forced to concede that in this moment of ongoing sorting of the big existential questions, I can only really offer what amounts to a travel diary about my intellectual journey, not the confident, “advice for the audience from the guy who knows things” tone of an expert. I have not mastered the questions, let alone discovered their answers. And honestly, I think that’s a good thing. You can’t add water to a cup that’s already full. Admitting you don’t know is the first step toward discovery, and that’s an exciting journey to be on.
As most of you know, I have spent most of the past year just trying to survive my loss of faith, identity, and career, while living in an unfamiliar place. And just as I was starting to feel that I had begun to emerge from the heaviness of that loss, I was laid low again, as big chunks of the belonging that come from being part of a large family were also recently sheared away. I’ve been cut off from and also compelled to cut off certain people that I love. I’ve been forced to re-define relationships and confront aspects of my upbringing that have helped to lead me to my current inchoate state, and have had to realize that I have taken pains to protect those who have hurt me most, to my own detriment, in the hopes of maintaining relationships that have poisoned or impeded my own development into the man I wish to become. I am beginning to break down that reticence, though I’m still wary of openly describing the actions of those who have damaged me to an audience of strangers, even when it helps me to explain the rest of what I’m trying to figure out in these pages.
On the whole, I’ve been mending. But having taken a second round of heavy blows just last month, I admittedly found myself so depressed by all of this a few weeks ago that, when faced with an imminent decision on a significant life change that required some rather intense and urgent action on my part, I found myself sitting, nearly catatonic, unable to just move my body out of my chair to do what needed to be done. I have also found myself, at certain moments, so overwhelmed by the weight of all that has changed in the most fundamental aspects of my existence that I lose the facility of speech. I don’t know how to explain this, as I am almost never at a loss for words. Sometimes, in conversation with my wife about these heavy topics, I try to speak, and nothing comes out. My brain freezes. There is a lump in my throat, and a rising feeling of nausea. The stream of words trying to make it through my cerebellum is clogged by tar-thick emotions oozing from the amygdala, and the whole damn thing log-jams, leaving my mind blank, despite a feeling of the whole jumble groaning, just beyond consciousness, to burst forth. All I can manage to say is a quiet, “I can’t talk about this right now,” after which I usually beat a hasty retreat.
I’ve never experienced anything like it. Never in my life. It’s a little bit terrifying.
Last night, I came across a video that really struck me, in which the claim is made that significant emotional trauma can actually cause dramatic physiological damage at the cellular level:
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Based on what I’ve been going through, and what I’ve seen my wife (who is suffering through something parallel to my own crisis) enduring, I can believe this. I don’t know if this is what we are enduring, but it’s astonishing to me how much of a toll negative emotions can take on the body.
And this is why the only writing I can do right now is of the very personal, raw, sometimes even confessional sort. I can’t get out of my head long enough to write something truly objective and universal. So this post is, I suppose, both an explanation and apologia of sorts. I feel a bit guilty, for being the hot mess I often am, the disjointed and sometimes too self-focused thinker that I have become. But it’s also a sort of “caveat emptor,” because this is precisely what I need to do, and so, I am not going to stop. If the only way I can write is to do so very subjectively and through the lens of my own experiences, then that is what I’m going to do. Even if I use the word “I” far too often. And if you think you can glean glimpses of insight applicable to your own life therein, then we were meant to work together here in this oddly symbiotic space, and I really hope you’ll stay.
Which brings me back to tentativity.
I was once looked upon as an expert, but that ship has sailed. The Catholicism I spent most of three decades studying, defending, and living has become almost foreign to me; my reaction to the fragments of it that remain within me like an autoimmune condition. I am gutting the framework that I have relied upon for my entire life, right down to the foundation. And that means I take nothing for granted, outside, perhaps, of the conclusions that led me to do the renovation in the first place.
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I remain fixated, though, on understanding what was wrong with my previous framework, and on the questions of whether God is real and, if so, who he really is and what he really wants. And by jettisoning all the begged-questions a Catholic must keep in his apologetical quiver, it seems more possible to approach these things with honesty — another benefit of tentativity.
There are several themes that currently dominate my thought, and among other topics of interest, I will be devoting as much space to them as seems appropriate here in the coming months. I’d like to outline, a bit, what they are, and why I think they matter.
The thread I first started to pull that led to my loss of faith was that of papal infallibility. The precipitating event was the canonization of Paul VI. Now, I’m not interested in arguing with those of you who may be fans of his. From my perspective, as a former traditional Catholic, he did unfathomable damage to the Church, and so the idea that he could be canonized, and that canonizations themselves were deemed infallible, was the first really big wrench in my Catholic gears. As I began to dig more into infallibility in general, I found it increasingly preposterous as a dogma of the faith. As you may or may not know, Catholic dogmas are considered to be obligatory beliefs for the attainment of salvation. When I began to question infallibility openly, asking how it was supposed to work and whether it was merely tautological (ie., the pope is only infallible when he solemnly defines something already held by the faithful as true), I received a shot across the bow from a dogmatic theologian of my acquaintance:
“Maybe I'm misreading it, but … you seem to be flirting with outright rejection of Vatican I's teaching on papal infallibility. Please tell me that's not true. Even to doubt a dogma of the faith obstinately is heresy, which is a damnable sin.”
He offered to help answer my questions, then promptly ignored me when I sent them to him, none of which put me in a state of mind conducive to sitting down and shutting up. But I think it also got me thinking more about hell, since I was being threatened with it, and about my longstanding sense of the injustice of sending people there for things like, well, not being able to believe in a dogma they find absurd.
That developed quickly into a deeper sense of the injustice of hell, and of Original Sin, and the narrative of The Fall in general, which to me feels like a giant set-up. (Evidently, there is a strain in Calvinist thought that sees The Fall itself as predestined, which doesn’t surprise me, since it’s a rather obvious and logical conclusion based on the story we have. I think only Catholic obsession with the idea — not the reality — of free will, keeps Catholics from believing the same.)
And all of that led me to begin considering seriously, for the first time in my life, the idea of Universalism — that rather optimistic strain of quasi-Christian belief that proposes the possibility that eventually, all men will be saved, and none will be consigned to hell for eternity.
It’s hard for me to tell you, as a guy who was only a couple of years ago out there gleefully criticizing certain high clerics in the Church for similar ideas, how weird it is to be gravitating towards them myself. But in my previous life, I felt obligated to believe in and defend things I found harsh and unmerciful. In my present life, I’m more inclined not to believe in any of it at all rather than to accept the harsh and unmerciful version of things.
To this end, I’ve been reading David Bentley Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved, and I regret that I listened to the people who warned me off reading him for so long, because the book is just excellent. It’s clear and logical and really helps to cut through the fog of what we are told we must and mustn’t believe, instead forcing us to examine the implications of those beliefs. As Hart says in one passage:
I am quite sure, for instance, that a certain kind of soberly orthodox Christian thinker with which I am very familiar—say, a Catholic philosopher at a fine university, a devoted husband and father of five children—fervently believes that he believes the dominant doctrine of hell, and can provide very forceful and seemingly cogent arguments in its defense; I simply think he is deceiving himself. Then again, I may be the one who is deceived. My own, probably shameful prejudice—at least, most of the time—is that the whole question of hell is one whose answer should be immediately obvious to a properly functioning moral intelligence, and that a person either grasps the truth of the matter without much need to be persuaded by arguments (whether dialectically solvent or merely intuitive) or does not: in the former case, that person will probably find the way toward the correct view of the matter sooner or later, even if he or she never fully formulates it, not even to himself or herself; in the latter, that person probably lacks a certain capacity for seeing or acknowledging the obvious, and so will remain immune to even the most powerful case to the contrary. But, putting the issue of my prejudice aside, I cannot take the claims of this Catholic philosopher entirely seriously from any angle, for the simple reason that his actions so resplendently belie what he professes to believe. If he truly thought that our situation in this world were as horribly perilous as he claims, and that every mortal soul labored under the shadow of so dreadful a doom, and that the stakes were so high and the odds so poor for everyone—a mere three score and ten years to get it right if we are fortunate, and then an eternity of agony in which to rue the consequences if we get it wrong—he would never dare to bring a child into this world, let alone five children; nor would he be able to rest even for a moment, because he would be driven ceaselessly around the world in a desperate frenzy of evangelism, seeking to save as many souls from the eternal fire as possible. I think of him as a remarkably compassionate person, you see, and so his more or less sedentary and distractedly scholarly style of life to my mind speaks volumes, even libraries. If he were really absolutely convinced of the things he thinks he is convinced of, but still continued to go his merry recreant’s way along the path of happy fatherhood and professional contentment, he would have to be a moral monster. But I do not think that he is a monster. So I have to think instead that, in his heart of hearts, at a level of calm conviction so deeply hidden beneath veils of childhood indoctrination that he is all but unaware of its existence, he keeps and treasures the certainty that in the end—in the words of Dame Julian of Norwich (1342–1416)—“All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” And I believe that at that same level he also knows that nothing can be ultimately well if the happy final state of things for any of us has been purchased at the cost—or even only at the risk—of anyone else’s eternal misery. [emphasis added]
Hart, David Bentley. That All Shall Be Saved (pp. 29-31). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
I’m currently a little more than a third of the way through, so I hope to offer more considerations from the book in a separate piece (or two) as I feel that I have a fuller grasp of the material.
At the end of the day, the idea of an omnibenevolent, omniscient, and all-loving God creating souls with the full knowledge that, per the Church’s long tradition in believing in the fewness of the saved, that most will go to a place of eternal torment, also makes such a God impossible to believe in. He can either be all good and loving or he can knowingly send billions of souls to hell. It can’t be both. And when we add in the Church’s traditional teaching that even infants of devout parents go to hell if they die before baptism — a teaching found at several ecumenical councils and in the thought of doctors like Augustine and Liguori — well, don’t get me started.
These questions — the incomprehensibility of the fall of the angels, the similar implausibility of The Fall narrative of our first parents, the injustice of an inherited guilt that merits damnation without the commission of actual sin, the curse of concupiscence for the same, the obvious proportional injustice of infinite punishment for finite crimes, the naked power grab that seems to be present in certain dogmas, and the difficulties presented to us by the hiddenness of God, all haunt me as I try to evaluate the truth of Christianity as a whole. And I will touch on some of these questions, if not all, in future posts.
But I am also trying, a year since I found myself unexpectedly torn from the cocoon of my cradle faith, to set aside some of the relentless and often bitter need to disentangle myself from its vestigial threads. It can be a very difficult thing indeed to root out the hold that a lifelong faith which threatens such severe consequences for leaving can have over you. It still controls much of my quality of life, even though I am on the outside looking in. One of the ways I want to deal with some of these themes is through fiction, which was always my first love as a writer. For me, the publication of a novel is my personal Mount Everest, and I’ve begun working on my second attempt (the first ran aground at 60,000 words) to do so, incorporating both the themes of religion and those of one of my other big mystery interests, the growing world of UFO disclosure and research. I’m trying to spend time working on that as well, and if anyone is interested I may post the prologue of the work-in-progress to see if it’s the sort of thing anyone might be interested in reading when it’s finished.
I’ve got other topics brewing, too — more on psychedelics as an effective mechanism for treating mental illness (and maybe something on endogenous DMT and Near Death Experiences), the fascinating experiences I’ve been having with Midjourney, the AI-art generator I’ve used to make the featured images here on my last few posts, and more. I hope that my rather eclectic set of interests is as fun for all of you as it is for me. It’s nice to be able to move back and forth between several engaging topics, resting each as necessary like a muscle group on alternating workout days. (I don’t work out - yet, though I’m starting to realize how much I need to after a recent avoidable injury. This is a reference I only theoretically understand.)
One final thing - I’ve gotten very little feedback on the audio versions of posts that I’ve been trying to include as often as possible. I’ve recently had to move my office and don’t currently have my microphone set up, so I won’t be doing one today. But those recordings are proving time consuming, adding several hours of work to each post, so I’d really like to know if they’re beneficial enough to warrant the effort.
Until next time!
It’s funny. I don’t know if you remember but I kept telling you about a letter I was writing you. It started a couple of years ago and I would noodle away at it sometimes. In the end I deleted it because the man I was writing to didn’t exist anymore.
I’m really proud of you brother. I really am. I hope you don’t read that as insensitivity to your pain, not at all. It’s more a recognition of the beauty that’s going to come to full bloom in you in a short amount of time.
As always, I hold you and your family in my heart and prayers.
@$£# you and God bless
One of the reasons I eagerly dive into every new post here is that you *don't* act like you've got it all figured out. You're humble, honest, and unafraid to ask questions you don't know the answers to. I can only speak for myself, but I'm all in on riding shotgun for whatever parts of this journey you care to share with us. It's practically an adventure story—and who doesn't love one of those?
As for your novel, please share the prologue with us! Religion meets UFOs? Sign me up.