Irish Papist

Irish Papist
Statute of the Blessed Virgin in Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Church, UCD Belfield

Friday, May 17, 2013

Dialogue of Faith and Doubt Part One

FAITH: Sometimes I am filled with delight at the very existence of Christianity.

Let me put it this way. I can't imagine a situation where the universe didn't exist; I can conceptualize it, but I can't imagine it. But given that something does exist-- that the universe exists, along with the world, and life itself-- it seems to me all-too-imaginable that ultimate reality-- the bottom layer of existence, as it were-- would have been something deadly dull. In fact, it is something deadly dull for scientific materialists, for all their vapid rhetoric about wonder and awe. (Any wonder and awe a scientific materialist feels towards the universe must, by his own logic, simply be a quirk of brain chemistry; boredom and disgust would be equally legitimate reactions. It seems to me to be strangely inconsistent to accept the existence of the universe as a simple fact, requiring no further explanation, and yet to feel "wonder" towards it.)

But Christians believe that Christianity is the ultimate truth about everything. And Christianity is wildly exciting and romantic and beautiful. I honestly can't imagine a better way for Providence to have arranged matters. The history of Christianity is the ultimate ripping yarn! The apostles, filled with the fire of Pentecost, going forth into the world as lambs amongst wolves; the courage in persecution of the early Christians; the stories of missionaries, martyrs and saints, of miracles and visions and conversions; all are utterly brimming over with drama and incident and passion and colour.

I realize you could say the same thing about any other narrative thread in human history. The history of socialism, the history of feminism, the saga of the British Empire, even the development of science and technology all have their own human interest, their own saints and martyrs and Scripture (if you will). For instance, the story of the mathematician Sir William Rowan Hamilton carving the formula for quaternions (whatever they are) on the side of Broom Bridge in Cabra, Dublin, is rather similiar (insofar as it features a sudden flash of inspiration) to the story of the St. Paul's experience on the road to Damascus, or the moment where St. Augustine heard a child's voice say "Take and read", and, opening the Bible at random, came on a verse that made his vocation clear to him.

However, there seems to me a qualitative difference between the story of the mathematician and the two other stories. The detail of the formula carved on the bridge is incidental to the mathematical breakthrough-- it is mere window-dressing. It wouldn't need to be mentioned in a history of mathematical thought. In the same way, the trial of Socrates have to be mentioned in a history of philosophy. And I think this point applies in general. Most of the ways of looking at the world and at human society-- economic, evolutionary, Marxist, anthropological, and so forth-- are, when it comes down to it, impersonal. But the Christian way of looking at the world is irreducibly personal. Christ was not simply a man or a prophet who was vouchsafed the definitive truth about reality. He himself is the way, the truth and the life. The saints were not just a sort of moral or spiritual Nobel Prize winners. We are encouraged to have a personal devotion to them, too.

This essentially personal nature of Christianity-- which, to a believing Christian, means that reality itself is essentially personal-- is only one of the reasons why Christianity seems such a gift to me. Along with that there is the profound sense of rootedness, of historical continuity. There is a sense of communion with Christians throughout the world. There is the refeshment and exultation we can take, especially in this utilitarian modern age, in the ritual and symbolism and poetry of the Church's life. And so on.

All of this-- this almost incredulous delight in the gift of our Christian faith-- makes the act of faith itself a kind of grateful tribute. We are happy to face the derision and hostility and challenges of the non-Christian world. Faith gives us something to do. We are like the young man who is desperately in love and dreams about saving his beloved from a fire, or fighting a duel for her honour. We are like the patriot who burns to stand true to his country in its hour of greatest trial. We accept that "we walk by faith, and not by sight", but we take pleasure in this, because it gives us the honour and joy of saying "Yes" to God. We feel that the most precious gift God could give us was leaving room for faith, by refusing to coerce our intellect into belief.

DOUBT: Very well said, and very moving. This is indeed the kind of thought to lift the heart on a bright summer's day, or a moonlit night, when you are well-fed and in good health and you have no very pressing anxieties.

It is easy to feel like this when you are kneeling in church, surrounded by reverential whispers and earnest faces. It is easy to feel like this in conversation with fellow Christians, or even with respectful agnostics, when the very name "Christ" is spoken with such halting earnestness. It is even easy to feel this when you are arguing with atheists, or enemies of Christianity. Christianity seems on the agenda at moments like that. It is like the silent question that hovers over everything.

But-- do you remember that depressing night you spent in that ugly, budget hotel? Do you remember when you settled down to your prayers, and decided to switch the light out, since the room was so ugly it would be difficult to pray while looking at it? Do you remember how utterly dark, how utterly silent it seemed? How your own mind seemed like a disembodied consciousness floating in the depths of space, and all of the life and laughter and controversy and discussion of the human race seemed to have simply flickered out of existence?

Do you remember how your prayers seemed to drop into an abyss, mere words and ideas, like the piteous toys of centuries-dead children dug up by some archaeologist?

Does your faith not shrivel in places where nobody is even thinking or talking about God or Christ or Christianity, for good or ill? Standing beside a motorway and looking at car after car after car hurtling by? Walking through an industrial estate and shuddering at the sheer size of those enormous factories and warehouses? Navigating the city centre on a Saturday night, looking at all the revellers and lost souls and drunkards wandering past the shuttered shop fronts, the remorseless and unflickering light of the street lamps making the scene all too solid and real? Or face to face with the vastness of nature, perhaps staring out into the sea and feeling a vague dread at the thought of all those miles upon miles upon miles of water? In moments like that, can you really believe that Christ is the answer to the riddle of life? Can you even feel that life is a riddle, and not just a....state?

Doesn't it all boil down to atmospherics, this matter of belief and unbelief? The expression on a face, the timbre of a voice, the mood of a gathering? Isn't religious faith simply like those high spirits that pep talks used to inspire in you, or that a rousing climax to a movie can still inspire in you? Think of all the times in your teens that you felt absolutely sure that you were suffering from some deadly disease, or that all you cared for in the whole world were the smiles of that girl who never noticed you and who you never think about today, or that the meaning of your life depended upon some particular achievement. Isn't religious faith just a case of-- getting worked into a tizzy?

FAITH: That's a good question. Let me think about my answer.

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