Getting Beyond Your Head

Michael Metzger

Getting in touch with the world beyond your head is more difficult than you imagine.

I got an email a while back from a man (I’ll call him Dave—not his real name) who is considering converting to Catholicism. What I found unusual is that Dave is considering converting by asking his Protestant Evangelical friends for their best reasons not to convert. I give Dave credit for trying to get beyond his head, but this is not an effective way to do it.

What, then, is an effective way? Good question.

The answer lies in a correct view of human nature. What distinguishes humans from animals is that we are concerned with justification, writes Matthew Crawford in his 2015 book, The World Beyond Your Head. We want to know the legitimacy of what we believe and do. Are our beliefs and actions good… true? Animals are not concerned with justification. Deer eat my wife’s backyard plants and are not the least bit bothered.

My concern with justification usually arises when someone asks me, Where are you coming from? Or when I am challenged by another, or anticipate being challenged by another, or when I know that other person doesn’t agree with my beliefs. To rise to this challenge, I have to evaluate my own beliefs—are they true? In that moment, I have to step back and evaluate them, as Dave is doing. But the path he’s taking in stepping back is not effective.

Dave’s path is not effective because there are two ways we step back to justify what we believe. The first starts with skepticism: That can’t be! The second asks a question: How can this be? The first is ineffective, for it looks for reasons not to believe. But this overlooks Blaise Pascal’s observation of human nature: “The heart has its reasons that reason knows not.” The second way (How can this be?) recognizes that we have hidden reasons for what we believe. It begins with being open to reasons in my heart that I might not be aware of.

A good example is Saul of Tarsus (before he was known as the Apostle Paul). On the road to Damascus, a voice asks: “Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me?” Saul doesn’t say, This can’t be! He asks: Who are you, Lord? Another example is Jesus’ mother, Mary. The angel Gabriel tells the young virgin she’s going to get pregnant. Mary doesn’t say in horror: That can’t be! She asks: How can this be?

Louise Cowan says Mary is asking the angel to “widen her imagination.” That’s faith: stepping back to justify what we believe by opening ourselves in good faith to that which is unanticipated, unfamiliar, unknown, or what might initially strike us as wrong or incorrect. The Apostle Paul took this approach with the unfamiliar. I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view.

It doesn’t seem to me that Dave is taking this approach. A good-faith approach would be to enter the Catholic world (I didn’t say convert) to experience things from its point of view. This doesn’t start by looking for reasons not to believe. Instead, it’s open hands and heart, getting beyond your own head by asking: How can this be? I don’t know Dave’s Protestant Evangelical friends, but my hunch is that he won’t get good-faith reasons from them.

But I don’t fault Dave for what he’s doing. He’s unknowingly taking an Enlightenment approach to justification. Enlightenment thinkers assumed an individual’s thoughts and reasons are 100 percent transparent to him or her. Give me enough good reasons to convert, and I’ll convert. Give me enough reasons not to, and I won’t. I’ll figure it out. God says No you won’t. He reminds us that our “heart is hopelessly dark and deceitful, a puzzle that no one can figure out.” But God can. “I get to the heart of the human. I get to the root of things. I treat them as they really are, not as they pretend to be” (Jer.17:9-10). God also delights in using secondary causes, so he can use other people to reveal our hearts. When I am challenged by another, I can open my heart and head to what they believe.

This is effective for we’re predictably irrational, with hidden reasons often shaping our decisions. I’m not a mind-reader, so I cannot divine the reasons why Dave might—or might not—enter the Catholic Church. Nor can Dave. Nor can his friends. Nor can they divine whether their reasons are rational. Our hearts have their reasons that reason knows not.

Neuroimaging bears this out. The human brain processes about 11 million bits of information per second. But we can only consciously process forty bits per second (and that’s a high-end estimate). We live the vast majority of our lives in our nonconscious mind, with our hearts conjuring reasons that reason knows not. We are literally strangers to ourselves.

This is why Aquinas said we can’t reason our way to faith. There are never sufficient reasons to believe if you’re predisposed not to believe. On the other hand, many find sufficient reasons to believe when they ask: How can this be? They get beyond their own head, entering an unfamiliar tradition to understand the best rendition of it. They don’t begin by staying in their own head and asking others opposed to that tradition for reasons not to believe. All you get from that approach is the worst rendition of what a faith believes.

I close with a final thought regarding Dave’s approach to converting.

Dave and I have never spoken, and I don’t know that we ever will. If we do, I won’t give him reasons for or against converting. I’ll instead ask Dave a simple question: “When you were feeling drawn to your future spouse, did you ask your friends to give you their best reasons for not marrying her?” I doubt that he did.

Dave doesn’t seem to know the gospel is about God “wedding” his love with us. My question regarding how he approached marriage is the right frame. The gospel is God “marrying” us. Dave’s frame is a court of law. The so-called “best” arguments “win.” Reason “wins.” But winning a verdict doesn’t engender feelings of love. It fosters pride based on a false sense of justification: I’m right, they’re wrong. That wasn’t the Virgin Mary’s approach. It wasn’t the Apostle Paul’s approach. Nor is it the way of our bridegroom, Jesus.



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  1. Can’t we say that the heart and the mind “have their say” all the time, and I mean all the time. In the end I think we err in both, i.e., we don’t even respond from the heart as fully as we were made to, tho we do respond from the heart. Personally I tend to start from instinct or intuition or mind, and then my heart comes in time. If I now share my best apologetic for Jesus it’s my sharing my love relationship with him, but I share those thoughts with words which go to the person’s mind first – thus making my argument.

  2. Mike,
    My guess for this behavior is that we are now thoroughly saturated within a world that has adopted post-modern metaphysical subjectivity as an approach to truth-seeking. For instance, I don’t need to live or experiment with living a transgender lifestyle to recognize that this is not where I should be. Yet, we live in a world that insists that I be open to many lifestyles, religious cults, etc. which I know deep in my soul is not a lifestyle God would plan for me to embrace. So, I think a certain amount of shrewdness and vigilance is warranted for any Christ-follower.

    On the other hand, I am not equating Catholicism with the post-modern mindset. In fact, I cherish many Catholic authors who have played a decisive role in my spiritual formation. Still, I am hesitant to buy into the entire Catholic theological platform. I struggle with the deification of Mary, for instance. Still, I don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater and have found many of the authors you have mention (West, Nouwen, Assisi, Augustine, St. Ignatius, Thomas Merton, Rohr, etc.) have all contributed greatly to my living life with an ongoing recognition of Christ’s continual presence both spiritually and cognitively.

    I do recognize and empathize with the frustration you feel when “David” is merely pursuing what is wrong with Catholicism. In fact, I would encourage David to glisten the best of the best in some of the authors I listed above. On the other hand, I would encourage an intellectually as well as an intuitively honest approach in separating the wheat from the chaff.


  3. Not that Wikipedia is the judge in all things, but reading it on The Immaculate Conception leaves one wondering how Mary’s birth could be sinless and her not be deified by inference. Presumably Wiki is being “Catholic friendly” otherwise a lot of Catholic push-back would be present as alternative accounts. And when “they” don’t “say” deified or not, “they” are essentially avoiding the issue – which I’d say is a both a weakness and a strength that could be explored further by you Mike. One thing’s for sure, read all the entries about how Ptolemaic-ally Catholic scholars propose to defend all its related doctrines in order to get the concept to “stick” – if that’s not enlightenment discourse, discussion and debate – which I’d say is a good and proper response to “the issue” – then I don’t know what you’d call it, Mike. I don’t know if you “buy” or defend The Immaculate Conception, but telling us how it is a glory to Catholic scholarship – or a gray mark on it – that’d be interesting to hear what you’d like to say.

  4. Having just returned from Italy, I was shocked to see her prominence in all the art, and cathedrals. I witnessed Catholics praying to Mary in ways that they do not for other “saints” that are also venerated. It is clear that her “veneration” is distinctive from that of anyone else other than Christ. No, Catholics do not instruct their congregations to worship Mary. However, in practice, it sure appears to me that they are. Their elevation of Mary gives me pause for concern. It is prominent in much of their liturgy and for me dilutes the prominence of the Trinity that is central to Christianity. So my comment about deification of Mary is largely informed by what I witness as practices common throughout the RC church. Mariology has been a point of contention for many Protestants through the ages. It merits further investigation in my humble opinion.

  5. Dear Dave & Tim,

    Again, my point is simply to enter another’s world (in this case, Catholicism) to try to see things from their point of view. I doubt you’ll get that from Wikipedia or the poor practices of many Catholics. Rodney Stark (a Protestant by the way) has written a good book outlining how Protestants have, for hundreds of years, misrepresented Catholic teaching, thereby making the case that Protestantism is right, Catholicism is wrong. Stark – again a Protestant – says Protestants are breaking the ninth commandment: You shall not bear false witness. The title of his book is “Bearing False Witness.”

    I also urge you to consider the neuroscience on this. 95% of those in the Western world bias their left hemisphere. The left brain is resistant to paradigm shifts. McGilchrist says it conjures reasons for what it feels are right, and then stubbornly clings to them. This doesn’t meant the left is always wrong. What it means is that “the right hemisphere is more capable of a frame shift,” writes Iain McGilchrist (I’d urge you to read The Master and His Emissary). The right hemisphere is oriented to “the other” – other people, other views, etc. It is open to entering other worlds (not to convert) to see things from another point of view (what the Apostle Paul did). It seems to me that if anyone feels an issue merits further investigation, I suggest opening yourself to the best rendition of that view. Reject it on its merits – not how it is misrepresented.

  6. As a Protestant and having read the other comments, I would like to agree that most Protestants (and even many Catholics) misrepresent the official teachings of that church. The benefit, however, of a highly centralized church is that their official beliefs are centralized and well-documented. There is an official catechism of the Catholic church in which anyone can look up the church’s official teachings on a matter, and I would also encourage Christians of all kinds to do so. Even if you never become a Catholic, is it not good to better understand our brothers and sisters? The issue of Mary is a good one. To Protestants, yes, it makes absolute sense to look at the veneration that Catholicism gives to Mary and the doctrine that she was born sinless and conclude that she is being deified because Protestants have a much shallower spiritual hierarchy – we focus strongly on honoring God and humbling man. But to say that Catholicism “deifies” Mary is to assume a Protestant perspective when interpreting Catholic practices; to understand another system, you should adopt the perspective of that system. In a Catholic hierarchy that pays much more attention to saints, angels, and even clergy in terms of levels of honor and authority, it is much easier to see a distinction between God and others who may be venerated because of their relationship to God. And there is special honor given in Scripture to some of these that Protestants de-emphasize. I understand why, but I’ve personally found it helpful to engage with both perspectives to gain a more full understanding of both sides of that coin.

    What I really came here to mention was that it doesn’t sound to me like what Dave is doing is all that far from what is being suggested. Obviously I’m not privy to his email or to how he’s been engaging with Catholicism, but if he is considering a move that direction it seems that he must be asking the question “How can this be?” If he is emailing a vociferous proponent of Catholicism to ask about the change, he seems to be seeking resources to address “How can this be?” But if we only look for reasons to convince ourselves that something is true, we’ll fall for anything. For instance, if I only ask myself “How can it be?” to the question of whether abortion is a moral good, I can easily find many reasons (even from professing Christians) to justify such a position. I think it wise to also ask “How can this not be?”, which it seems is what Dave is doing with his friends. While I would agree with the general argument to “widen our imagination,” I think that part of that widening is asking questions and being open in both directions, exploring broadly, and engaging in many perspectives. But also to that larger point, belief in the supernatural does not ultimately submit to our reason. God has been kind to provide us evidence to shore up our faith (as an engineer I am constantly grateful for this), but belief in a being so powerful that He spoke and reality itself responded accordingly is ultimately not a rational proposition (nor is the idea that one day nothing exploded into everything, for that matter). We don’t submit God to our reason and find that He meets our tests for truth; to do so makes us the authorities of truth. This is why it is so important to, as comes up so often here, engage the right hemisphere.

  7. Mike/Tim/All

    Please accept my comments as just one, possibly unique perspective regarding Catholicism.
    I was raised as a “Roman Catholic”, that is I attended elementary/parochial school, (taught by Nuns, whose order I can not remember), followed by Catholic High School (taught by Christian Brothers , of St. Francis De LaSalle). I believe and describe the latter’s teaching as being Augustinian/Jesuit Theology. (*by my definition and understanding).
    (Disclaimer….I did become a “true Jesus follower” at age 35, during my own Road to Damascus experience!)

    Comments will be in “bullet form” as I couldn’t figure out how to construct good prose to link each of these thoughts.

    1. The first thing the Brothers told us was ” forget everything the nuns have taught you because we are going to tell you the way it is”! i.e. the Truth.

    2. Read the bible…we had to read the bible during all four years of school and of course there was also a heavy dose of Church History, Dogma etc.

    3. The Brothers said Mary is NEVER to be adored or worshipped (venerated maybe) … only God (the Triune God) is worshipped. She was only the vessel that God chose for His purpose and reason.

    4. The Brothers said some of you may find later in life, assuming you have formed a “correct conscience”, that the Catholic Faith is not the “religion” you should be embracing.

    5. We were taught that Christ’s Death and Resurrection “paid the price” for ALL sin. However, the Church was given the responsibility to “distribute” the Super Abundant Grace of this ( Forgiveness/Eternal Life) through the Sacraments, Indulgences, Novenas, etc.

    As I said in my opening perhaps you have never heard such “uncatholic” like comments!

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