Why I left. Why I came back.
“The Catholic Church has always been my home.”
- Christopher Beha, leading US editor and writer
Christopher Beha rejected the Catholic Church. But he’s come back.
“There isn’t a short answer and in fact that’s the subject of the book that I’m working on right now. I sort of tried to give the answer in the form of an essay, and it turned into what’s probably going to be close to a 400-page book. I wish I could easily condense it. I think I’d say this: Very soon after leaving the church, I came to be extremely dissatisfied, both intellectually and emotionally, with the primary alternative to theism in our culture, which is what I would call scientific materialism—a sort of mainstream atheism in its contemporary form.
“I was in search of alternatives for a long time and it was an active search. I wasn’t just occasionally troubled with the thought, ‘Oh, I should really figure out answers to some of these ultimate questions.’ It felt very pressing for me. What I can say is that the Catholic Church had always been my home in very important ways. One of the things that I’m thinking about quite a bit in this book is the idea that faith—even if you believe that it can be rationally justified—is not something one can simply choose to do.
“You can decide ‘It’s going to be good for my children if I raise them within the church,’ or ‘It’s going to be good for me if I display the outer signs of belief,’ but those are obviously something very, very different. What needs to happen for one who has lost faith or did not ever have faith is a turning. A turning of the heart.
"One of the things (When he was young, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system) my illness] taught me is that there’s a kind of suffering that nothing can insulate you from, and that we’re all vulnerable.
“But you can’t choose [faith], I don’t think. That’s where I’ve come to. I think if I were going to choose, I would have chosen Unitarianism or some kind of rationalist structure that gives you a lot of what people consider the kind of social or psychological benefits of faith, without involving you on a metaphysical commitment. I tried that for a little while and it didn’t work for me. And at a certain point, I started going to Mass again by myself, not telling anybody except my wife. I didn’t know what my intentions really were except that it was something I felt called to do. And after some time of that, I felt like a restless soul who had found my home again.”
Christopher Beha is the editor of the hugely prestigious Harper’s Magazine, the second-oldest continuously published monthly magazine in the U.S. A monthly magazine covering literature, politics, culture, finance, and the arts, it was launched in New York City in June 1850. It has won no less than 22 National Magazine Awards. He has also published two novels The Index of Self-Destructive Acts and Arts & Entertainments as well as the memoir, The Whole Five Feet.
“Writing is a central part of the project of my life, and my Catholicism is an essential part of the project of my life, so they are inevitably bound up with each other.
“Some people are kind of tone deaf to [faith]. I think there are people who do not actually have faith in God, but for whom the religious context makes powerful sense. They see a lot of beauty in it, and they get what’s nourishing about it and all that.
“Now, that’s separate from having faith, but there are people that have that. And then there’s some people, among atheists, who think the whole thing is just completely absurd. Could something come along in their lives that changes that? Sure. Certainly I have to believe that everybody ultimately has that capacity, that God would not finally deny people the possibility of belief.
“I don’t think of my writing as a form of apologetics. I don’t think of it as a form of proselytizing. Writing is a central part of the project of my life, and my Catholicism is an essential part of the project of my life, so they are inevitably bound up with each other.
“There are things I am trying to figure out about the world, and my spiritual, religious life is a part of the effort to do that. The honest truth is that most of the time I’m writing, I’m writing to sort things out for myself. I’m not thinking that much about what effect the work will have on the reader.
“I work at a mainstream magazine. I write for mainstream magazines. I also publish much of my work in the mainstream press. I don’t think that atheist literary novelists have it any easier than Catholic ones. I do think there are things in my work that are important to me in what I’m doing, that get recognized in reviews by religious outlets, that don’t seem to get recognized in reviews by secular outlets. But that’s okay for me. I don’t feel like I’m misunderstood.
“There’s much in the culture at large that’s alienating.”
What advice would Beha offer to Catholic writers in 2022?
“It’s tough. I think truly my advice would be: Find a way to take pleasure and satisfaction in the doing of it. Because it is unlikely that the culture at large is going to give you external rewards for it. And the other thing is, even if they do give you external rewards for it, that’s not going to be worth how much work it is to do it well.
“You have to do it because there’s something in you that feels a need to do it. And because the doing of it meets that need in some ways. And the nice thing is, if you do feel that way, then you’ll never quit, because, unlike a lot of other arts, it doesn’t take anything. You don’t need funding from a studio or supplies.”