The Rope of Faith

“I’m you,” I told my father when I was a toddler, and then spent the rest of my childhood and early adulthood trying to figure out how he did everything. So it’s odd that I never discovered how he managed to hold on to his faith despite a life filled with doubt.

A Catholic philosopher, he wrote hundreds of articles about faith, but kept his work impersonal, safely sequestered in book reviews and academic journal pieces, and never considered revealing the personal side of his faith to the world. Still, I knew his faith was deeply personal, in part because the challenges to it were so painful: an alcoholic father, childhood bullying, a lifelong struggle with anxiety, and his end-of-life battle with leukemia. Everything about this journey could cause even the strongest faith to unravel. Yet my father seemed peaceful at the end of it all.

My father was prone to circumspection around his children, but when the doctors told him it was only “a matter of months” before the leukemia got him, he embarked on what he thought might be his final opus. Never one for euphemisms, he titled it “Death and a Philosopher.” He never got to finish the article. I found an unfinished draft on his computer.

My hope is that the passage below, and my father’s broader story, will carry readers through some of their own doubts, just as it has carried me.

As a teenager, it was the startling realization of my own mortality that led me to the enterprise of philosophy, some years before philosophy entered my vocabulary. Of course, every teenage crisis and every entry into philosophy has a context. I grew up in a largely Irish-Catholic row-house neighborhood in southwest Philadelphia in the 1940s and ’50s. It happens that our parish church had pamphlets in the vestibule with topics like “Is There a God?” “Can We Trust the Bible?” “Is Jesus God?” “Is There Life after Death?” I don’t know if other people ever read the pamphlets, but I devoured them, even when I didn’t have the change for the suggested contribution.

The answer to the questions above was invariably yes, but my young mind was rarely satisfied, especially since to me all the questions seemed connected, and each answer vulnerable if another answer failed. The hardest part was prayer, since for me it could never be pure: it always included questioning, even doubt. When I got to college, I saw that my concerns were those of philosophy, and I took every philosophy course I could. Theology seemed to rely too much on faith, something toward which I had to struggle. I needed to satisfy my reason in order to believe.

My youthful tendency was clearly toward rationalism, the belief that reason alone is the way to truth; and foundationalism, the belief that a person can grasp the truth from the bottom up through every link in the chain of thought. But I found a delightful antidote through a book I read on my own, without any connection to class, as a college junior.

It was John Henry Newman’s An Essay in Aid to a Grammar of Assent. What Newman showed me was that, outside of very formal contexts, people really don’t think using chain-like reasoning. Instead, their real beliefs emerge from countless influences, some intellectual, some not, that form something more like a rope than a chain. Individual threads could give way without the rope snapping. This antidote was to serve me for many years: I did not need to worry when arguments failed, even in the most important matters.

Nearly fifty years stood between this epiphany and my father’s death at age seventy-one. In between came other adventures: seventeen years of monastic life, four years chasing deeper faith in Europe, a wedding to a former nun, two master’s degrees, two doctorates, two children, and a grandson.

But like a scientist who makes his seminal breakthrough early in his career, my father carried this concept of faith as a many-fibered rope through his entire life—secure even in the midst of questions, doubt, suffering, and joy.

When the doctor told my father he was in his last couple of weeks, she said in her soothing bedside manner, “I’m sure you’re familiar with the five stages of death, Dr. Kerlin. What stage do you think you’re in?”

“Acceptance,” my father said calmly. Then he smiled a bit and said, “I’ve been there for a long time. When will I experience the anger stage?”

Published in the 2012-04-06 issue: 

Michael D. Kerlin is a Philadelphia-based management consultant and freelance writer. He is writing a family memoir about doubt and faith.

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