Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Arriving at Amen, by Leah Libresco

"Amen" means "So be it". It's a word of consent. And so it's fitting that Leah Libresco, who has written so much about the importance of consent, called her new book Arriving at Amen: Seven Catholic Prayers That Even I Can Offer. Instead of molding her conversion into a neatly packaged narrative, she's written about learning to pray, and specifically, learning to consent to the content and implications of seven Catholic styles of prayer in order to arrive at amen.

Leah's refreshingly unsentimental voice and spirit of inquiry is the foundation of Arriving at Amen. She never tries to manipulate the reader with sloppy emotional ploys or soft-focus fables. As a convert from a rigorously deontic atheism, she isn't looking for ways to make the spiritual life easier or more basic. She is looking to make it more intelligible, and to that end she mines all her scientific habits of inquiry and her wide set of interests to find reflections of all seven spiritual practices outside of traditionally religious spheres. She confronts the problem of evil from both rational basis and through an example drawn from Norse mythology, and concludes that a world designed to shield us from every bad consequence, whether natural or man-made, would be an ultimately opaque place, unknowable and unpredictable. "The problem of evil has always seemed to me to be the price we pay for having an intelligible world, one that we can investigate, understand, and love."

Fiction, and with its omniscient, complex approach to characters, leads her to a deeper understanding of praying for other people, which leads her to conclude of other people, "My ignorance of the full depth of their lives is not evidence that they are shallow." She draws on the science of cognitive bias, especially the sunk-cost fallacy and loss aversion, to understand and overcome her reluctance to go to Confession. Ballroom dancing's emphasis on one dancer maintaining basic step rhythms while cooperating with the leading partner helps her to follow the basic rhythm of the Rosary without worrying that she's not doing it well enough to get something out of it. (As someone who has poor habits both in following a lead in dancing and in praying the rosary, I found Leah's analogy so much more helpful and more instantly useful than any spiritual guide to the rosary I've ever read. Perhaps my swing dancing will improve too.) And so on. Chinese knots, unmatched parentheses, Shakespeare, coordinate planes, mellified men, sign language, musical theater, and double-chocolate-chip-espresso cookies: Leah translates the unfamiliar language of prayer through these diverse frames of reference, and in the process finds that she is able to observe patterns of grace in her rational world.

1 comment:

Jenny said...

I am in the middle of reading this book--yea even while driving--and I am enjoying it immensely. It is like she has pried into my mind and is explaining my own thought process to me.

The section on the sunk-cost fallacy is gold especially since I will reveal myself to be a total nerd and tell you I often think about sunk costs and marginal costs in the shower when trying to find the ambition to pick up the razor and shave.