instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Can you hear me now?

Part of the Forming Intentional Disciples mission Sherry Weddell conducted at my parish over the past several days involved watching a video interview with Daniel, a man whose own story is quite dramatic. There's a poor childhood relationship with his parents, an attraction to a neighboring family and to their faith (such as it was) in order to be close to them, there's time in juvenile lock-up, mistreatment of a girlfriend, there's booze and drugs and a decade-plus up-and-down addiction to meth, there's a final, almost cinematic surrender to God and an almost immediate answer from Him, there's a thin gold thread tying him (in a fashion) to God through all of this.

The video interview is broken into parts, so that after each part we can discuss at which threshold -- Trust, Curiosity, Openness, Seeking, and Intentional Discipleship -- Daniel had arrived by that point in his life.

What fascinated me is how bad the Catholic attendees of the mission were at applying the Five Thresholds model to a complicated story.

At the end of the first part, Daniel is a teenager who occasionally goes to Mass with his best friend's family. The father had told him on a car trip that Jesus died to save him and it's not too much to ask to give Him one hour a week. He had prayed once for Jesus to come into his heart, because he was afraid that his friend would go to heaven and he wouldn't.

To the pious Catholic ear, this can sound like the boy had crossed the threshold into Seeking, which is the stage in which a person is actively trying to work out whether to answer Jesus' call to follow Him. My own, less pious ear heard a kid mimicking the actions he saw other people doing, in the hope of getting what he thought they had, which seems to me to be pretty much the workshop definition of Trust.

The point is -- and this shouldn't be news, but we aren't always as wise in practice as in theory -- what we can observe happening is not necessarily what the person we observe is doing. If I see someone kneeling in church, they aren't necessarily praying. If I see someone staring out the window in church, they aren't necessarily not praying. Even when people say exactly what they're doing and why, other people tend to override that information with their own pre-existing interpretive biases.

It's not a Catholic problem as such; I think conflicting information tends to get filtered out of the human brain before reaching the pre-frontal cortex. But the pre-post-modern Catholic interpretive bias is remarkably mismatched with the post-modern religious experience. We have to work to understand what people are going through, even (especially?) if they tell us. The canonical example Sherry uses of this is the assurance with which Catholics tell Catholics that Catholics are leaving the Church for Evangelicalism in order to be entertained. Catholics who leave the Church for Evangelicalism are happy to tell you why, and the reason is never "to be entertained," but since the reason doesn't sound sufficient to Catholics who don't leave, they look elsewhere for the real reason.

In defense of pious Catholics, I'll admit that my own interpretive bias was such that there was little or no chance I'd perceive anything other than "Trust" at the end of the first part of the video interview. (C'mon, there are five thresholds, there are five parts to the interview. The math solves itself.)

At the same time, as Daniel's story went on, with all the inconsistencies and false starts and tangents that an ordinary life tends to have -- and considering the fact that we were watching the interview for the express purpose of applying the Five Thresholds model -- I came to see that the Catherine of Siena Institute is, after all, proposing the Five Thresholds model as itself an interpretive bias that doesn't necessarily match neatly with the post-modern religious experience. It doesn't always sound like that when the model is being explained -- I've had some on-line conversations with FIDites who treated the thresholds as objective realities; we don't merely think  and speak of someone as crossing the threshold into openness, they objectively do cross the threshold that actually does exist.

But even an empirically derived model of human behavior is going to be damaged when brought into contact with human behavior. The question to ask about a model isn't whether it's true, but whether it's useful, and as long as it's proving useful it makes sense to use it.