Until recently, Jia Tolentino and Abigail Rine Favale had a lot in common. Both well-educated women identified as pro-choice. As progressives, they felt at ease in the political and cultural left. One is still immersed in that world: she writes for the New Yorker, and her recent book of cultural criticism is among President Obama’s 2019 favorites. The other, however, has undergone quite a transformation.
Both women have written books diagnosing similar cultural, economic, and psychological defects in our society, but they offer very different prescriptions for these troubles. For example, both Tolentino and Favale have scathing words for consumerism’s outsized influence on public life. Social media, Tolentino explains, transforms our very selves into commodities, exploiting our natural desire for attention by making explicit and quantifying our popularity levels (followers, likes, ratios). Those who spend a copious amount of time online subject themselves to the frivolous demands of popular culture. Lifestyle corporations sell products and services like barre and athleisure (think Outdoor Voices) that whisper to every woman that she must exude an Instagram-worthy, casually perfect, carefree aura. Favale also critiques capitalism’s messaging, observing that “Our entire economic engine runs on the fuel of unquenchable human desire. . . . Keeping us wanting, rather than content, is the goal. Humans are creatures of desire, so it goes, and to deny or suppress our desires cripples our True Self.”
Favale and Tolentino also share similar biographies. Both were raised as evangelicals, and both became committed progressives as adults. Tolentino abandoned her childhood Evangelical faith in high school. Favale bounced from a conservative, hymnal-filled Bible church in Utah to a charismatic fellowship church in Idaho. As a college student studying philosophy, Favale became a confessing feminist, but still clutched Christianity loosely. Both she and Tolentino claimed favorite Bad-A** Old Testament women (Jezebel and Delilah, respectively), but as they matured, both took issue with the many less-than-dignifying depictions of women in the Bible.
Here, their biographies and philosophies begin to diverge. Unlike Tolentino, Favale began to find contemporary feminism repetitive and glib. Gradually and painfully, after roughly ten years, she shed her progressive faith and stumbled into the Catholic Church. She is now a veil-wearing Catholic professor of English, holding all the counter-cultural beliefs that that entails. In Into the Deep: An Unlikely Catholic Conversion, Favale recounts her fascinating transition from academic feminism to traditional Catholicism, offering a richly theistic worldview. Favale portrays in captivating detail her newfound but ancient faith, which proclaims the divine origin and eternal significance of each person. Her story, especially considered alongside Tolentino’s, offers within the peculiar circumstances of modern life a vivid portrait of the timeless debate between theism and agnosticism–atheism.
Meaning and Delusion
Tolentino’s new essay collection, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, reveals that Tolentino is a skeptic whose basic beliefs point to nihilism.
Trick Mirror is a compilation of nine essays tackling some of the left’s most puzzling moral questions, especially those relating to feminism. For example, Tolentino points out that, despite impressive social progress, femaleness still faces vitriolic scrutiny and scorn. While some of her culprits are expected (alt-right internet trolls, etc.), she also finds some fellow feminists guilty of undermining the goals of feminism (i.e. corporate feminists).
The book is difficult to assess on the merits, because it braids political and cultural ideas with Tolentino’s autobiographical details. She refracts her cultural criticism through stories from her adolescence, her time as a student at the University of Virginia, and other memories. Evaluating her arguments can feel uncomfortably like evaluating her.
Nonetheless, the basic contours of her ideas are apparent. In “Ecstasy,” the essay dead center in the book, she suggests that the euphoria of silent prayer in a chapel pierced by stained glass—complete with filtered sunlight, which to her is the same bliss you might feel during a warm sunset after a day at the beach—is a type of high. She says: “You are depraved, insignificant; you are measureless, and you will never not be redeemed.” This euphoric feeling occurs as one dissolves into something wholly other, utterly higher.
In a recent interview, Tolentino elaborated on this rapturous state: “I think of sanity as unconsciousness. The type of unadulterated thinking that can only come from a type of oblivion. . . . I was drawn to it in religion; I’ve been drawn to it through drugs. . . .” In this life of infinite complexity and confusion, she seems to think, our best bet is to escape through narcosis, religious sublimation, and musical immersion. To her, we are most fully human when we experience ecstasy. And we can get there via not only rhapsodic religious devotion, but also hallucinogenic drugs. This is the summit of human understanding.
But this view implies that we must sedate ourselves from the world’s maddening paradoxes. If “nothing is static” and “renegotiation is perpetual,” as she claims, then there is no need to get our hands dirty and untangle those paradoxes. Even if humankind does have a common purpose or destiny, it’s not worth trying to pin it down. Our lives are, at bottom, just our attempts to craft individual veneers of meaning that overlay the vast emptiness and confusion. Yet Tolentino knows that vacuity constantly threatens to pierce through our self-made delusions. She wants it both ways: she thinks reality is intractable, that transcendent truth is likely a myth. But she cannot resist trying to make sense of experience.
This is perhaps what endears Tolentino to me most: despite refusing conclusions, she obviously cares deeply about knowing right from wrong. She, admirably, has stopped shopping at Amazon because of the company’s ethically dubious practices. So intense is her craving for integrity that she fantasizes about one day “ascend[ing] to an echelon where I won’t have to compromise anymore, [where] I can really behave thoughtfully.” She ascribes this desire to her Evangelical upbringing: “Years of auditing my own conduct in prayer gave me an obsession with everyday morality. And Christian theology convinced me that I had been born in a compromised situation. It made me want to investigate my own ideas about what it means to be good.”
She admits that she abandoned the Christian faith largely because she found it incompatible with leftist politics. She says, “I lost interest in trying to reconcile big-tent Southern evangelicalism with my burgeoning political beliefs.” She has found radical feminism more persuasive, even forswearing marriage because of the sacrifices it demands of women. To be fair, her Christian school attached to her church seems rather intellectually emaciated. There, students sang a song called “I Pledge Allegiance to the Lamb,” and her notebook with a peace sign was confiscated for being too pagan. However, settling on a political vision as a moral center seems a poor substitute. Fleeting political ideologies are incompetent to answer the profound questions that seem to fascinate Tolentino most.
Favale’s “Decade of Doubt”
During college, Abigail Rine Favale also grappled with her Christian upbringing, marking the start of what she calls her “decade of doubt.” She was understandably troubled by traumatic memories of churches where well-intentioned congregants failed to reconcile Old Testament severity with human dignity. Her journaling from this period is startlingly frank, listing her myriad dissents from Christianity (“I do not believe in any of the creeds,” “I find the history of the church to be tainted with misogyny, mass murder, theft, oppression, greed, deception,” and so on). Obviously annoyed, she asks herself, “Why, then, is it so f***ing hard to let go?” Why, indeed?
Unwilling to give up on Christianity altogether, Favale attempted to tweak it to accommodate progressive ideals. She invented a semi-divine figure, “St. Iona,” who represented her core self-deception. Favale recalls, “When I asked for her wisdom, she replied: ‘You have within you all that you need.’ This is the lie—the beautiful lie—that defined my life for the better part of a decade.” Favale aspired to “purify tradition” by eliding “all the uncomfortable bits (sin, hell, self-sacrifice), all the offensive bits (masculine language, hierarchy), and all the improbable bits (virgin birth, resurrection).”
Favale paints a disturbing image to describe the vacancy of her self-created reality: she floats, isolated, in a vast sea, clinging to a small raft, which signifies her misshapen faith. She says:
This [raft] is my faith, what’s left of it. It is a fragment of something far bigger, far older, some distant tree that is still alive and growing. I’ve refashioned it to suit my needs, my whims, only to discover that what once seemed secure is now hopelessly fragile against the sea.
Every person in modernity, believer or not, has to face and contend with this ocean. It is the specter of life without God, a universe in which our existence is an absurd accident, and the only meaning that exists is what we carve out for ourselves. . . .
Such is the modern human condition: none of us is spared, at least no one with a penchant for asking why. We all must reckon with the truth and its absence; we must all reckon with doubt.
While Tolentino chose to abandon herself to the swells of the sea, Favale clings to her raft.
The Clarity of Faith
Despite her grievances with Christianity, Favale eventually found a home in the Catholic Church. She reflects:
Christ shows up, invades your small, ordinary world. You somehow choose to trust him, rather than your own assumptions. . . . And then: abundance. Abundance beyond expectation that unmasks the presence of the divine in your midst, and at once you yourself are unmasked, and you fall to your knees, cowered by awe, overcome with dismay, and you are changed.
Even amid the world’s tumult and injustice, Favale’s faith brings clarity. Her gradual turn to Catholicism began with the birth of her first son. This event laid bare to her the inconsistencies of secular feminism and led to an intellectual and spiritual upheaval. She began to feel disorienting dissonance between her mind, which had accepted abortion rights as a pillar of female dignity, and her body, which had nourished a person she loved with her entire being. Single threads were pulled, and the fabric of her entire progressive worldview unraveled. She found in Catholicism an explanation of the world completely indifferent to fleeting political debates.
Maybe Tolentino would classify Favale’s conversion as an especially sophisticated type of blissful ecstasy. But Favale’s gradual conversion was deeply uncomfortable. She chose Catholicism in spite of its tension with her (since abandoned) far-leftist sensibility. So it doesn’t quite work to categorize her turn to Catholicism under Tolentino’s idea of religion, euphoric and escapist. Rather, sometimes frustrated and bored, at other times blissfully content, she trusted the teachings of an ancient institution that has long pondered the question: “Who is God?”
This institution, as Favale likes to say, is defined by both–ands. It embraces both faith and reason—it asks you to trust that a man who died two thousand years ago really did rise from the dead and that he really is the Son of God. But it doesn’t ask for blind trust. It enthusiastically accepts what natural reason says about the order inherent in the world; it gives compelling historical evidence for its claims; it experiences ongoing miracles, and the witness of impossibly holy men and women (living and dead). It has generated centuries of artistic grandeur and literary genius, the sheer profundity and splendor of which continues to persuade curious souls that God really does dwell in our world.
Thus, we see in sharp relief the divergence of Tolentino’s and Favale’s paths. The effects of mass technology, digitized living, and a suffocating consumerist ethos make the contrast between theism and nihilism ever clearer. Tolentino and Favale have written books that capture the unrest of our culture’s existentially insecure mood. Some, like Tolentino, delude themselves into thinking that various forms of inebriation contain the secrets of the cosmos. In deceiving themselves thus, they manage to avoid confronting the dismal possibility that all meaning is a futile attempt to mask the banal absurdity pervading everything. But Favale and others see divine purpose radiating from every fiber of existence—even our dilapidated selves.