Living By Faith, Dwelling In Doubt: A Conversation
This past month the Jesuit publisher Loyola Press published Living By Faith, Dwelling In Doubt, written by our own Kyle Cupp. To my knowledge, Living By Faith marked the first time an active contributor at Ordinary Times was published in book form. (It turns out that Kyle’s singular distinction was destined to be short-lived, as Mike Dwyer’s musings on Kentucky are also due out this month.)
The book is Kyle’s testament of his own personal history with doubt, and how that doubt has actually strengthened his relationship with God and the Church. Regular readers of Kyle on this site will by unsurprised to find the prose thoroughly accessible even as it delves into heavier and even difficult subject matter. Throughout, he weaves his own history, nerd culture, modern philosophy and theology into a bare, lean and honest tapestry. It is, in turns, delightful, funny, and wrenching.
Much of the book revolves around the death of Kyle’s newborn daughter, Vivian, and he and his wife’s decision to bring her into the world despite knowing that her life would be marked in days rather than years:
I admit that a part of me wanted this unwelcomed journey to be over sooner rather than later, but I also desired and hoped to hold my daughter, to listen to her newborn cries, to hold my wife as she nursed our hungry child, and to share as a family those few precious moments of her life before we would have to say good-bye. We kept the name we had planned on giving her: Vivian, which means “full of life.” When we announced the sad news, we were met with condolences and kindnesses from family, friends, parishioners, acquaintances, and even strangers. To our gratitude, [my wife’s] doctor treated Vivian like any other expectant child, gave us free sonograms so we could share what time we could, and consoled us with what guidance he could give.
The words of one friend stood out and have given me resolve since the moment I first read them. He said that love is not constrained by time.
I will be the first to admit that any review I might give of Living By Faith, Dwelling In Doubt would be quite biased. Kyle Cupp is both a colleague and a friend, and beyond that he’s just a really great human being. He’s so unflinchingly kind, in fact, that over the past three years I have been forced to forgive him the sins of being younger, better looking, and smarter than I. Biased though it might be, however, my praise and recommendation to read stands.
As part of a virtual book tour, Kyle agreed to talk with me about his book.
To start off, I’d like to touch briefly on one of the unnamed but ever-present characters in Living by Faith, Dwelling in Doubt: Nerd culture. One of the things I find most fascinating in the book is how you take the archetype myths in works such as Lord of the Rings, Firefly, or the video game Final Fantasy and incorporate them into your own testament. In a strange way, it reminded me very much of the play Book of Mormon because of this. (Out of curiosity, have you seen the play?)
That’s on the mark. Like you, I find truth in both literary myths and biblical stories. I would go so far as to say that both types of stories function in a very similar way: they bring the otherworldly into communion with the worldly. As long as I can remember, I’ve been drawn to otherworldly tales and to a mythical way of seeing the world. Call it nerd vision, maybe? After I read or hear these stories, my own world changes. It makes a new kind of sense. I see it differently. I’ve visited a foreign land and culture and returned home with a new perspective. This is true whether I’ve visited Hogwarts or ancient Jerusalem (alas, I haven’t seen Book of Mormon). In a way, each trip is preparation for the next. This may be why my time with non-biblical myths, especially those coming from non-biblical worldviews, inspires me to go further into the mysteries of my Catholic faith (and vice versa).
As a non-believer, I find myself intrigued by the idea of using one set of archetypes to find greater and deeper meaning in another. For me, finding capital “T” Truths in stories is an invitation to find truth in the Bible while rejecting its divinity. For you — I think, correct me if I’m off — the ability to find powerful truths in these non-Biblical myths seems to strengthen your faith in God and Jesus in general, and Catholicism in particular. What is it about the Biblical stories that ring (for lack of a better word) “truer” to you than the messages in other stories that offer such gifts?
With respect to the bible, I believe that the distant world it makes present is actually a divine being, but then I wouldn’t dare suggest that God is bound to the pages of this book. We Catholics believe that the bible is divinely inspired, but not that divine inspiration begins with Genesis 1:1 and ends with Revelation 22:21. We believe that the bible is a means by which God speaks, namely the means that was written down by human authors under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Being such a means of communication, it’s considered sacred and canonical. It has a special place and cannot be replaced. In this sense, you could say that it’s truer for me than the mythologies of The Lord of the Rings or Final Fantasy, but, then, on a given day—even a given Sunday—I might find myself moved spiritually more by a story written by Ursula K. Le Guin than by a letter of St. Paul.
I’d like to talk for a moment about your approach as a writer to what is surely the political elephant in the Living In Faith’s very personal room.
Other than yourself, Vivian is the largest presence in the book — arguably larger even than the Almighty. Her story — and the story of how you and your wife decided to approach her short time on Earth — is incredibly powerful. But it also silently puts front and center another “character” that is almost never mentioned by you: abortion.
One of the things I find compelling about Living By Faith, Dwelling In Doubt is that I can easily see it being embraced as either a pro-life book (for obvious reasons) or a pro-choice book (since much of the story is about the power of the choices you and your wife made). Without pushing you into potential flame-war territory, I’m curious to know how you decided to approach this subject as a writer, and how you will take the inevitable politicizing I think many people will read into a work that to me seems very apolitical.
I gave the subject of abortion only a brief mention, but it was on my mind as I wrote the book. For a couple of reasons. The diagnosis of a fatal birth defect is a reason why people choose to terminate a pregnancy. My wife and I knew this even though abortion wasn’t a choice we considered. In fact, not everyone was pleased with our plan to continue the pregnancy. One relative of mine admonished us on Facebook for not aborting. He didn’t think we were being fair to ourselves or to our son, putting ourselves through months of hell as we waited for the possibility that Vivian would be born alive.
I understand where my relative was coming from, and I understand why women opt for abortion in these (and other) circumstances. I imagine some readers will agree with our rationale, while others will think we chose poorly, maybe even immorally. Knowing the possibility of these reactions, I wanted to share our reasoning for doing all we could to keep Vivian alive in the womb even though our doing so brought us a great deal of suffering. I don’t expect that every reader will agree with us, but I hope that most of them will understand why we did what we did–why we chose to love and care for our daughter even though her life would be unbearably short.
In writing the book, I chose not to address the political question of abortion policy for the simple reason that it wasn’t pertinent to the story I wanted to tell. Nothing about our time with Vivian indicates whether abortion should be legal or illegal, regulated or unregulated, or anything in between. My wife and I both believe that Vivian’s life deserved our respect and support, but what we did and what we went through as her parents isn’t in itself an argument for outlawing abortion. Our experiences are not evidence for the inherent value of nascent human life or that the force of law should be used to discourage or prohibit women from getting abortions. It’s one thing to say what our beliefs and principles are; it’s quite another to make an argument that those beliefs and principles should be held by everyone or codified in the law. I shared the former because of the controversy and context of our decision. Doing the latter didn’t even occur to me as it had nothing to do with the purpose of the book.
Of course, readers come to a story from their own place. I’m sure that pro-life readers will see in Vivian’s story reasons against choosing abortion, and I wouldn’t be surprised if pro-choice readers emphasize the choice we made as an individual choice that was right for us but not one that should be forced on others. I remember this diversity of responses to the movie Juno, a movie made by pro-choice filmmakers that a lot of pro-lifers loved. When you tell a story, you can’t control the response or how your audience will interpret it. You try to tell the story you want to tell as best you can, and of course you want to consider your audience, but once your story is out there it becomes something autonomous, something that exists beyond your intentions. I wrote about Vivian in the context of my religious faith: how my faith informed my response to her condition and how her condition and death shattered my faith. Readers will do with that what they will.
Allow me to touch again on the subject my first question, but from a slightly different angle. You find truths in both the Bible and in mythical archetypes in what I am sure we would both call non-religious stories. You are also, I think you would agree, a strong and faithful Catholic — though not in the traditional Vatican I sense, and perhaps not even in the traditional Vatican II sense. At what point does belief in those other stories cross the line from “lesson learning” into heresy for you; for that matter, at what point does taking the Bible as a series of wise, archetypal stories become un-Catholic?
“Heresy,” as I generally use the term, is the denial of something held by your community to be true. You have to be a member of the community and deny something of its orthodoxy in order to be a heretic. A baptized, practicing Christian who
denies any efficacy to baptism would be a heretic. A lifelong atheist who denies the same would not be. A Catholic who believes that Bible has no divine authorship would be being heretical (and in this case un-Catholic), but a Hindu with the same beliefs about the Bible hasn’t crossed the line out of orthodoxy.
Given this usage, I wouldn’t describe as heretical a story that makes claims about this or that in variance with a Catholic understanding of the world. I might not even call such a story untrue. As a rule, the art of storytelling isn’t about defining doctrine or representing reality exactly as it is. Often storytellers alter reality or fundamentally reconfigure it in an effort to change our perception of it. Where stories mostly go wrong, as far as truth is concerned, is presenting something as true that really isn’t. Here, though, I’d call such stories bad art or untrue, but probably not heretical.
On the subject of Catholicism, as an outsider I tend to view the Holy Church as being hierarchical in nature. Would you agree with this assessment? If so, then know I’m asking that question so that I might ask you this one: Where do you see Living In Faith, Dwelling In Doubt falling within that hierarchy? Is it, to any degree, heretical? Is so, how? If not, why not?
I’ve been called a heretic for espousing some of the ideas I write about in the book, but I deny the charges. I fit pretty nicely into the Christian apophatic tradition–a tradition within the field of orthodoxy that basically says that none of us know what we’re talking about when it comes to God. It’s a feature of being finite beings trying to make sense of the infinite. So no operatives from the Inquisition will be calling on me to explain myself. The pope himself has said that a faith not touched by uncertainty is not really an encounter with God.
Speaking of the pope, yes, the Catholic Church is hierarchical institution. You need some structure of authority if you’re going to entrust other people, both in the present and into the future, with the responsibility to teach and interpret a set of beliefs and practices, taking them to the ends of the world and to the end of time. In Catholicism, these beliefs and practices pertain to being in right relation to God and neighbor. Pretty important stuff, assuming it’s true, but it’s also demonstrably ambiguous. Hence you have the idea that the Catholic hierarchy is guided by God to keep it from defining any teaching that would, if taken correctly, lead people away from God. However, even with a divinely-guided hierarchy, we’re all still in the position of not really knowing what we or others mean when saying anything about God. None of us sees infinitely or from the place of infinite to be able to observe exactly how all the terms people use to describe God disclose the real thing. Kinda hard to assess the accuracy of a translation from the infinite to the finite when no one speaks the original language.
The description of you and your wife’s decision to bring Vivian into the world — for wanting her to know if only for the briefest of moments the degree to which she was loved — is astoundingly moving, and continues to haunt me well after my reading. As a doubter, however, I confess that the first part of the Bible I thought of when reading this was Job.
The starkest difference I see between your book and the book of Job (other than scale, obviously) is that I never get a sense of real anger and disappointment in God. In fact, I think I read an unspoken forgiveness being offered to God — and if so, it makes your book powerful in an altogether different way than Job’s. Can you describe for me the spiritual process you went through, that you chose faith and not rebellion after having to part with Vivian?
When we lost Vivian, I was already at a place, spiritually speaking, where I’d stopped thinking of God’s involvement with the world as one of power or control, as if God were a force behind events and happenings in the world, so my inclination was not to blame God as someone who had lost control or, worse, made this happen for inexplicable reasons. Now I don’t deny that God can or does work in this way. I really just don’t know. I don’t know what “all powerful” means when it’s said of God. If I did, I might cast blame, but as I don’t, I’m left with nothing to go on. I can’t assume a divine purpose to our loss and Vivian’s death. I can’t assume an ultimate meaning. So I do what I can to make her short life meaningful, for us if no one else. It’s the existentialist in me.
With all the various discussion of finding wisdom in symbols throughout your book, it was fitting to see that you refer to yourself as a Paul Ricouer “diehard groupie.” Can you talk briefly about Ricouer’s appeal to you? I’m also curious; to what extent did your own hermeneutic approach come from his lead? Or was it more a case that he was saying clearly what you were already thinking?
I first read Ricoeur at a time when I was beginning to realize that the postmodernist writers I’d been instructed to abhor were not the haters of truth they were supposed to be. Ricoeur wasn’t a postmodern philosopher, strictly-speaking, but he addressed a lot of their questions and themes from a similar if somewhat less radical place. For those unfamiliar with Ricoeur, he’s a major figure in the school of thought called hermeneutics. He followed Heidegger and Gadamer in developing a general theory of interpretation. Like them, he emphasized the relativity of all thought and explored what it means that all thought is situated in traditions, presuppositions, and pre-judgments. Although he never wrote a magnum opus, he brought hermeneutics into dialogue with other fields such as psychoanalysis, ethics, and religion. Reading him did not leave me unchanged. The more I studied his work, the more I began to rethink the meaning of my own religious tradition. I was deep into even more radical thinkers (Derrida, Caputo) as well, only hastening my fall to the Dark Side. Basically, I stopping thinking of the tenets my Catholicism–the doctrines and dogmas and so forth–as expressions of Absolute Truth and began to see them as contingent and interpretive formulas, inseparable from the particular historical and personal situations in which they were produced because their meaning owes everything to these situations. I still believe that the formulas of faith refer to realities beyond them, that they disclose something of these realities, but at the end of the day I can’t separate the human from the divine, the changeable from the unchangeable. I agree with Nietzsche: “Everything has become: there are no eternal facts, just as there are no absolute truths. Consequently what is needed from now on is historical philosophizing, and with it the virtue of modesty.” I suppose you could call me an advocate for modest, historical dogmatism. And, for that, you can thank you Paul Ricoeur, among others. Figures he wasn’t Catholic, right?
You say at one point that having certainty in God’s existence “spells the death of faith.” It might simply be that I am not part of the Church, but this idea seems quite subversive. Is it? To what degree, for your point of view?
I would not call it subversive to say that certainty spells the death of faith, at least not in orthodox Catholic circles. In Catholic theology, for example, neither faith nor hope remain in Heaven. There’s no need for them because there you actually have certainty. You’re no longer in the dark.
Living By Faith, Dwelling In Doubt is a testament directed to the faithful. (Or at least marketed directly to them.) Imagine for a moment that you had been approached not by Loyola Press, but instead by a publishing firm that marketed to agnostics and atheists, and that you had been asked to write directly to their own readership. Would you have approached the book differently? Would the messages have stayed largely the same? What message would you offer to those that don’t believe at all? And finally, can one achieve wisdom or some kind enlightenment dwelling entirely in doubt, or is it faith in God that must necessarily drive everything else?
I tried to write the book in a way that would make sense to people whether or not they shared my faith. The readership here at Ordinary Times was very much in my mind. Had I written the book for a secular publisher, I probably wouldn’t have taken such pains to explain why my rejection of religious certainty doesn’t contradict my Catholicism, but I can’t think of any other major changes I would have made. I’m a Catholic writing about religious faith; it’s the place from which I speak. I see no reason to hide that. At the same time, I was not writing specifically for a Catholic or otherwise theistic audience.
Is faith in God necessary for wisdom or enlightenment? Not explicitly, no. I don’t know what I mean by “God,” exactly, but having to start somewhere, I associate this pronoun with things like love and justice. Beauty. Goodness. The Avett Brothers singing. Things you can believe in without giving assent to explicitly religious stories and truth-claims. Now, if you want enlightenment, you probably need to believe that there is a light and it’s worth seeking. If you want wisdom, you probably have to believe that it’s good to live according to the truth about reality. So I’d say that some foundational beliefs are necessary, but that’s not so controversial. We all have our presuppositions. Unproven assumptions that motivate our thinking and behavior. Mine happen to include some fantastical stories about God becoming human.
You can order your own copy of Living By Faith, Dwelling in Doubt at Amazon, here.