Monday, September 22, 2014

Religion for Agnostics

I started going to Mass a few years ago. I'm not good with dates, but I think it must have been some time in 2009. (I still have an email exchange from June of that year with David Quinn, of the Iona Institute, in which I was asking why Scandinavia-- a bastion of secularism-- seemed to have suffered no ill effects from its irreligion. I presume I wasn't attending Mass at that time, since I declare myself unconvinced by Catholicism in the email. It's a strange sensation, reconstructing your own recent history as though it's the records of some ancient civilization.)

At first, I attended Mass on Sundays only, and I think it took me a few years before I started attending more often. I've never quite become a daily Mass-goer, but I'm not too far off. (Having a daily Mass in UCD, during term, makes this pretty easy.) This despite the fact that I very often get bored at Mass and that I find prayer and adoration difficult. I genuinely wonder whether my Mass-going is simply some kind of compulsion, like an obsessive-compulsive's handwashing, a ritual that I have to fulfil at the risk of feeling guilty. I've even wondered if I derive any actual spiritual benefit from it. I hope I do.

But one interesting aspect of being a frequent Mass-goer-- or even a weekly Mass-goer-- is that you find yourself recognizing the Scripture readings from previous years, or from even more recently. I don't have much of a head for Scripture myself, and I often feel ashamed that unbelievers and nominal Catholics can quote chapter and verse of the Bible better than I can. (And as for Protestants-- let's not even go there, as they say.) All the same, it does begin to sink in, month after month. I find the next line of the responsorial Psalm coming into my head, without having to look at a misallette.

This kind of familiarity, when you think about it, is something very intriguing. When you hear a story for the hundredth time, you hear it in a very different way to when you hear it for the first time. Or the twentieth time, for that matter. You can't help going deeper into it-- not necessarily in the sense of finding new meanings or new dimensions to it, but simply in the sense of penetrating more deeply into its atmosphere, its essence. A story (or a saying, or a poem, or any other text) may seem duller to us after we've encountered it for the first few times, but if we keep on encountering it-- well, then, the process seems to reverse itself and all of a sudden it seems more vivid rather than duller. It's a phenomenon a little like that of getting a second wind.

In the case of the Bible, this phenomenon is intensified, because most of us grew up so familiar with sayings and parables of Jesus that we can't remember ever hearing them for the first time. They were always there-- in both a personal sense and a historical sense. Phrases like Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof are so ancient that they are older than the language in which we speak them and read them.

And the ancientness of Bible texts become even more striking when we compare them to other revered cultural icons. Take, for instance, the Beatles. The songs and story and images of the Beatles seem so foundational to popular culture, and to culture in general, that it's difficult for me to imagine a time without them. But my own father, who is by no means superannuated, can easily remember hearing the Beatles for the first time. (It was 'She Loves You' and he heard it outside a music shop. He thought it was a joke, he said, since the refrain was so simplistic.) I think about this with a kind of wonder. The cover of Abbey Road, the chorus of 'Yesterday', the acrimonious break-up-- these were not things that happened when the sun and the moon were forged, but belong to living memory.

But the Bible, and the words of Jesus-- these are what the story of the Beatles feels like, in terms of primordialness. Except more so than we can imagine. In a sense, the words of the Bible are older than anything else in the world. They are older than the pyramids of Egypt, because they have remained alive through all these centuries, while the pyramids belong to a dead religion and a dead culture. They are older than the mountains and the stars, because the age of the mountains and the stars are measured in inhuman tracts of time, while the life of Bible is measured in human experience-- the only duration that really means anything to us. (What is time, after all, if there is nobody to experience it as such?)

I think I'll break there for tonight. I started this as a post about the reasons that Christianity, and our Christian heritage, should matter even to an agnostic or an atheist. I bit off more than I could chew. I'll come back to it soon.

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