Catholicism: Day 2 – Faith, Stoicism, and Confirmation Bias

I went to my second Mass today. Well, I tried to, but it was canceled due to President’s Day. The four of us who were at the chapel felt we should get credit for trying.

Because Mass was canceled today, I did the next best thing, I read the liturgical reading for today and Googled a Catholic homily for today.

It overlaps very nicely with the second day of the spiritual exercises.

The topic for the Mass and for the spiritual exercise is faith.

According to the readings, we should maintain our faith in God regardless of our circumstances, especially difficult circumstances.

Consider it all joy, my brothers and sisters,
when you encounter various trials,
for you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.
And let perseverance be perfect,
so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

–       James 1:1

I can see how important this is when you are going through difficult times. If you don’t think there is an end to your suffering, that there is no God or that God has abandoned you, your capacity to endure your suffering will be severely diminished.

The Stoics had a different take on it. Instead of putting faith in God, they would acknowledge that you don’t control your circumstances, but that you can control your perception of your circumstances. Whatever fate throws at you, it’s only bad if you perceive it’s bad. You have the innate ability to endure suffering, without faith in a higher power.

Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things. Death, for instance, is not terrible, else it would have appeared so to Socrates. But the terror consists in our notion of death that it is terrible. When therefore we are hindered, or disturbed, or grieved, let us never attribute it to others, but to ourselves; that is, to our own principles. 

 An uninstructed person will lay the fault of his own bad condition upon others. Someone just starting instruction will lay the fault on himself. Some who is perfectly instructed will place blame neither on others nor on himself.  – Epictetus

Catholicism wants you to place you faith in God, while the Stoics want you to put your faith in yourself.

I’m a bit partial to the Stoic prescription, but I can see how both ways would work.

The passage for today’s spiritual exercise, however, forced me to think about faith in a different way.

In Luke 12:22-34, Jesus tells his disciples to place their faith in God and to not worry about “trivial” things like food and clothing.

But you must not set your hears on things to eat and things to drink; nor must you worry. It is the gentiles of this world who set their hearts on all these things. Your Father well knows you need them. No; set your hearts on his kingdom, and these other things will be given you as well. 

There is no need to be afraid, little flock, for it has pleased your Father to give you the kingdom.

He then tells them to sell their possessions or give them to the poor.

During my prayer, I tried to place myself in this situation. A very charismatic man tells you to give away all possessions and to not worry about how you’re going to feed yourself. Some mystical deity will provide everything you need not only survive, but thrive.

It sounds crazy; it sounds like something a cult leader would say.

It makes sense to me to place your faith in God when things are going terribly due to circumstances beyond your control.  When times are difficult, placing your hope in something greater than yourself can be a great comfort.

But to actively give up everything you have to follow a path you’re uncertain about? That is an entirely different situation. Though the Stoics advocated frequent fasting and mimicking certain symptoms of poverty, they never said you should give everything away. They wanted you to be prepared in case those things were taken away from you, not purposely put yourself in that situation.

If it were me, I’d want some sort of proof or sign that the path this Jesus guy is asking me to go down is the correct one.

But here’s what today’s reading said about asking for signs:

The Pharisees came forward and began to argue with Jesus,
seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him.
He sighed from the depth of his spirit and said,
“Why does this generation seek a sign?
Amen, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.”
Then he left them, got into the boat again,
and went off to the other shore.

–       Mark 8:11-13

So, if I ask for some sort of sign, Jesus will ditch me because it shows a lack of faith.


Discernment of Spirits and Confirmation Bias

The Ignatian Spiritual Exercises emphasizes the practice of discernment of spirits, which calls for you to pay very close attention to your reaction to the exercises.

In discernment of spirits, we notice the interior movements of our hearts, which include our thoughts, feelings, desires, attractions, and resistances. We determine where they are coming from and where they are leading us; and then we propose to act in a way that leads to greater faith, hope, and love. A regular practice of discernment helps us make good decisions. 

This sounds like “trust your gut” with a bit more analysis about where that gut feeling is coming from and what it is and where it’s leading you.

My “gut” has led me on a wild ride so far.

The exercise asked us to reflect on the question, “What worries or fears do I want to let go of as I begin the retreat?”

I had to force myself to think about what I was afraid of; I couldn’t think of anything. Then I thought about Jesus asking his disciples to give up all their worldly possessions to follow him, and I realized that is exactly what I’m afraid of!

I’m not really afraid of losing my worldly possession, but I am very nervous about being “called” to pursue a path that requires me to give things up and  which may end up, in fact, being the wrong path.

My post-college path has been very random.  Every choice I made always felt like the right choice. Become a Navy SEAL? Sure! That feels right. I’m in good shape and I generally fit the description of a successful SEAL. Go to Egypt and then travel the world? Of course! That’s the key! I love travelling! Move to Portland, Oregon and start a business? I have the classic personality type of an entrepreneur, of course my company will be successful!

This is confirmation bias in action.  Confirmation bias is the tendency for you to only seek information or evidence that confirms your point of view or desire.  You ignore contradictory evidence or rationalize it away.

I’m glad I had all those experiences, but those experiences make me a bit skeptical about the “discernment of spirits.” If I “feel” like it’s a good idea to move to Africa and help staving children, does that automatically mean it’s the correct path?

How we can figure out the difference between random gut feelings and your true calling? How can we build faith without concrete signs or evidence or hints we’re on the right path?

Final thoughts for the day 

I’m honestly not sure where my month of Catholicism will lead me. Perhaps nowhere. But I’m encouraged that the Church, and especially the Jesuits, has acknowledged that people are confused about what they should be doing with their lives and force people to reflect on the issue.  It shows how timeless many of the Church’s teachings are and so far, it seems just as good as any modern advice I’ve come across.

If I have an epiphany tomorrow, I’ll let you know.