Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Under the Surface

It seems one of our most resilient intuitions that truth is under the surface of things, that the most immediate perceptions of our reality are true only in a limited way and that a deeper truth is hidden from our eyes. I don't mean this only in a philosophical sense. It seems to me to be true in every way.

We find the idea that truth is oblique, or even occult, to be irresistible. I don't know any way of looking at the world that doesn't make this assumption.

The scientific worldview, for instance, quite obviously sees reality as being something very, very different from the world presented to our senses. From the curvature of the Earth to the curvature of space/time-- whatever that might be-- you can't even dip your toe into science without being confronted with a strange and rather inhuman realm, where our ordinary concepts come under enormous strain.

You can't walk into an art gallery without having something of the same sensation. Isn't the whole appeal of a visit to the art gallery that we find ourselves seeing in a whole different way? Think of a good still life. Think of the rather ghostly phosphorescence on the grapes and the chalice and the fish's scales. (I've always found the very words "still life" haunting.) The stillness, the air of eternity, the air of preternatural solidity seems to take us into a different world-- a world that is the same and yet different to the world we inhabit most of the time, one that is somehow always there without us really seeing it.

The same applies to poetry. A poet usually sees the same things as we do, but in a radically different way. In the poetic worldview, everything is saturated with significance-- a cat cannot stretch on the floor without meaning something. An advertisement for a sun holiday is laden with poignancy. And again, this seems like an apprehension of something that is always there but that we don't always see-- and when we are truly moved by poetry, we want (like St. Peter on the Mount of the Transfiguration) to remain in that mental world always.

Marxists see past (or claim to see past) the welter of ideology and politics to the harsh economic power-plays underneath. Freudians (if they exist anymore) see all our conscious struggles and preoccupations as mere disguises of our deeper, more primitive urges. (And think of that famous misquotation, attributed to Freud: "Man requires two things for happiness, love and work". I don't think it's exactly true, but I think it shows a certain amount of insight. And like all the other viewpoints I'm considering here, its very appeal lies in its counter-intuitiveness, in its air of underlying the drama of life that strikes the eye, with all the infinite desires men seem to harbour.)

I think this deep-seated intuition that deep truths are oblique is also to be seen in the human tendency to create mythologies.

Something funny I've noticed about mythologies is that, even though we use them to make sense of our own experience and our own lives, it seems essential that they are set in a world and an atmosphere very different from our own. I think this is true in the case of both religious and secular mythologies.

It is obviously true of pagan mythologies. Mount Olympus and Asgard are not on any map. The Tuatha De Danaan were not your average folk.

But it seems just as true today, of secular mythologies. Take the rise and rise of the superhero genre. Or, even more, take phenomena such as Lord of the Rings or Star Trek or Star Wars. These are more than just books, TV shows or movies to many of their fans. They are a whole way of looking at the world. I recently served a student (a female student) who told me that "Star Trek: The Next Generation is my life and my friends." And fictional worlds that serve this purpose tend to be ones that are, as it were, fictional the whole way through-- where all of the trappings and terminology are very different from our own. You don't hear about Downtown Abbey nerds or Friends nerds the way you hear about Star Wars nerds.

I think the same is true when it comes to the "mythology" of Christianity. Of course, I don't mean "mythology" in the sense of being false. I mean "mythology" in the sense of a body of stories and images that make sense of our place in the universe, and give us a sense of values and priorities and meaning.

There is something extraordinary in the fact that so many people in the world of mobile phones and the Hubble telescope base their lives upon the words of a man who lived in a world of demoniacs, shepherds, tribes, elaborate Temple rituals and healing pools, and on a book steeped in a world so radically different from our own. What is even more extraordinary is how seldom this is remarked upon. Militant atheists do indeed make sneering claims about "Bronze age savages", but for the most part, the critics of Christianity attack it upon other grounds. They don't dwell on this incongruity.

You might ask why this should matter, since truth is timeless. And that's true in an abstract sort of way. But it still seems strange that the lives of twenty-first century man, who knows about open heart surgery and galaxy clouds and subatomic particles and cloud computing and financial conglomerates, should be illuminated by stories and sermons from a world that seems so much smaller and simpler than our own.

But it's not just the archaic nature of the Bible that seems strange, when you think about it. It's the weirdness. The Bible is a very weird book. Things routinely happen in it that never happen in the experience of most people in the modern world-- angelic visitation, manna falling from the sky, the sun standing still, seas parting, asses speaking, lifespans that extend to centuries, townspeople demanding carnal knowledge of visitors, daughters sleeping with fathers, and so forth. And, even aside from the miraculous and uncanny elements, much of the Bible consists of very odd material-- endless genealogies, the apparently erotic poetry of the Song of Songs, very dry chronicles of kings and wars.

And the oddest thing is how fitting this all seems. Just imagine if the Bible was a book of helpful maxims, like The Little Book of Calm. (I haven't read The Little Book of Calm. It might be unfairly maligned for all I know.) Imagine if it was a book with no stories or no characters, nothing that tied it to a particular time or place, but simply a list of rules like: "Love your neighbour as yourself." Doesn't that seem awfully anti-climactic, awfully bland?

Or imagine if the Bible had none of the "difficult" parts-- Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac, the Deluge, the death of the firstborn of the Egyptians, God's deadly wrath upon Uzza for simply seeking to steady the Ark, the infamous line in the Psalms about "dashing little ones against the rock"-- what if everything in the Bible was so non-controversial that nobody could ever find it offence? Again, such a scripture would seem banal. We have an intuitive sense that the word of God should be, at least in parts, shocking and unsettling and mysterious. And knotty.

I am trying to express a very definite idea that has often occurred to me, but that is difficult to put into words.

One way I can try to explain it is by taking the phenomenon of death-bed conversions. Take, for instance, the reputed conversion of Oscar Wilde to Catholicism in his final moments. I don't know whether it really happened or not. I hope it did. But, whether it happened or not, why is the story so believable? The flippant, homosexual, hedonistic, anti-moralistic Oscar Wilde-- it seems only appropriate that he should have accepted the Faith in his last moments. It does not seem like a screaming contradiction to his life, but more like a fitting culmination. It's hard to imagine him becoming a Puritan or a Jehovah's Witness or a Muslim or a Mormon at his last extreme. But Catholicism seems to fit like a glove. Why?

Or, again, take the death-bed conversion of King Charles II. Here was a King who was famous for being a hedonist and for his many mistresses (and illegitimate children). He was also a keen patron of the newly-founded Royal Society, which marked the beginning of the Scientific Revolution in the West, and (in many ways) the beginning of the materialist worldview that destroyed Christendom. And yet, it doesn't seem at all unusual to hear that Charles II converted to Catholicism at the end. Again, it seems fitting.

Perhaps because both men were men who went down a particular road as far as any man could travel it, and found that it led them to Rome. Something about the Catholic faith seems like the end of every quest and the medicine to every ill. In this it is truly Catholic, that is, universal.

It may seem like I'm wandering from my topic, but I'm not. It is the fact that Catholicism has this under the surface quality about it that makes such deathbed conversions seem plausible and fitting. It doesn't seem ridiculous that someone like King Charles II or Oscar Wilde was seeking for God under all the apparent riotousness of their lives, under the surface.

In the same way, it doesn't seem ridiculous that converts to Catholicism don't nitpick at every doctrine and every implausibility in the Bible-- or even seem to worry about it very much. The essential mysteriousness of the creed seems to be both satisfying and easy to swallow to anybody but a pedant. It seems like the signs of sanctity and the evidences that are available are enough to convince most people-- with no great mental struggle. Often with no mental struggle at all.

And this "under the surface" characteristic of Catholicism seems to typify its relation to everyday life, too. I think the Catholic faith is like chips (or French fries, as Americans call them). It goes with everything. I never feel that the Faith relies on the power of suggestion, that it seems credible to the sound of hymns and the scent of incense, but that the spell fades away in the toiletries section of the supermarket or at the bus queue in a cold day. The peacefulness of an empty church seems to undercut all the crowds, all the parties, all the industrial estates, all the TV shows, all the rocket launches. It seems to comprehend them.

G.K. Chesterton may never have said: "The Catholic Church is like a thick steak, a glass of red wine, and a good cigar." But whoever said it was really on to something. Everything about Catholicism seems seasoned, stylish, insightful, dignified. Whether it is accepted or rejected, nobody really seems to find it ridiculous or banal or tawdry. Everybody seems to instinctually feel that it has depths. I contend it has deeper depths than anything else. Because it's true.

Of course, this is all subjective. If this doesn't strike a chord with you at all, my words are wasted. But I hope that it might-- not only with Catholics, but even with non-Catholics or potential Catholics.


  1. This is one of those things where I am unable to contribute to the conversation, but a nice post nonetheless.