Unto everything there is a season. And, believe it or not, it seems to be the closed season for Church-bashing in Ireland right now. In the hallowed corridors of RTE and in the right-thinking offices of The Irish Times, attention seems to have momentarily shifted from abortion, same-sex marriage, funeral eulogies, dissenting priests, the Magdalene laundries, and Pope Francis, and to have migrated to the crisis in the Ukraine, whistle blowers, the disappeared Malaysian air plane, and Manchester United’s poor run of form. (Of course, by the time this article appears, this might all have changed.)
I hope my readers won’t mind if I take advantage of this unexpected lull to turn from the controversies and slogans of the day towards less topical (but more important) matters. After all, Lent is the time for retreats, isn’t it?
If you publicly profess religious faith in today’s Ireland, it seems to make other people eager to discuss their own religious views with you. It’s rare indeed that you are confronted with an attitude of outright hostility. I think the number of militant atheists in Ireland is very small, though the clamour they make can lead us to mistake them for a mighty host. The attitude of most Irish people towards God could best be described as complicated, or perhaps even troubled. I think there is a tremendous spiritual thirst in the Ireland of our time, a thirst that is rather shy of declaring itself. But just bring up God and it becomes very obvious.
I was recently walking through the city centre at night with a friend, both of us making our way to our respective bus stops from a get-together where the talk had turned to the subject of religion. This friend describes himself as a humanist, but is far from hostile to religion—in fact, he says he would like to be convinced. He says that the wonders of the universe make him think there is ‘something out there’, but he finds himself continually frustrated by the concept of faith. “It always comes down to faith”, he lamented.
As usual, I found myself lacking the right words at the right moment. But I’ve been turning the matter around in my mind ever since—as indeed, I had been even before that conversation.
Losing Faith in Faith
Faith seems to be problematic for a lot of people. That is, the very concept of faith seems problematic. A little after 9/11, the ‘New Atheist’ writer Sam Harris made waves with his book The End of Faith. I haven’t read it, though I browsed it in a bookshop once, and I’ve read several reviews and responses. But the very title is interesting. I think it’s fair to say that, ever since religion began to be openly challenged in Western society, its critics have been reluctant to let go of the concept of faith along with it. Faith in God has been replaced by faith in man, or in science, or in progress, or (formerly) in the nation. Only very recently, it seems to me, has faith itself been denied the status of a virtue.
The most usual argument of those who attack faith, and especially faith in religion, is that faith is a dead-end, a conversation-stopper, a brick wall. They argue that religious believers brandish faith like a trump card that wins the game—or that ends the game, at least. Faith, from this point of view, is something that can’t be queried, can’t be interrogated, doesn’t lead to anything. Faith is the death of thought.
The funny thing is that, although this argument is understandable, I think it’s absolutely the worst argument that could be made against faith. It is faith, and not the rejection of faith, that opens horizons.
Do we really want the ultimate truth about life and reality to be something that could be proven like a theorem? And what entitles us to expect that the universe would be like that, anyway?
Take the analogy of a movie, or a novel, or a poem. The things that can be said for sure about any such work of art are the least exciting things—for instance, the fact that the poem is a sonnet, or that the movie is two hours long, or that the novel is written in the first person singular. But the highest truths about the work of art—the meaning, the theme, the existential truths that it probes—are none of them on the surface, or easy to ‘show’. This is why great works of art provoke such impassioned debates and so many conflicting theories and schools of thought. Would Hamlet be a better play if its meaning could be settled scientifically, once and for all?
|What's it all about, eh?|
In the same way, it shouldn’t be surprising that the highest truths of all should be apprehended by faith rather than analysis, or by logic, or by observation.
But, you might object, there’s no reason to suppose that the universe is like a work of art. You might say that the deepest truth about our universe might well be something that can be established by science, or by pure reason. But isn’t it awfully prejudiced, isn’t it the sign of a narrow mind, to simply dismiss the possibility that ultimate truth might be something that can only be arrived at through faith?
Nor is it true to say that faith can’t be questioned, interrogated, or discussed. The first letter of Peter famously tells us to ‘always be prepared to make a defence to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you’. Does this mean that every Catholic should be able to launch into a disquisition on Thomas Aquinas and Church history? Of course not. Why should they be? If a man is asked what made him fall in love with his wife, would we expect his reply to outdo the poetry of W.B. Yeats in lyricism? And if it didn’t, would we assume that he married the lady on a whim?
I see no reason a man shouldn’t be allowed to defend his faith by saying something like this: “Well, I don’t believe the universe just popped out of nothing. It all seems too good to be an accident to me. Jesus seems like the wisest man who ever lived. Praying brings me comfort. Sometimes I think my prayers have been answered. I don’t think Christianity would have lasted as long as it has, and survived through all those persecutions, if it wasn’t true.” Is that a knockdown set of arguments that would pass muster in an academic debate? No. But is it the same as saying, ‘I believe Christianity is true because I have faith and that’s all there is to be said about it?’. Of course it’s not.
|Scott Hahn, Catholic apologist. Every Catholic doesn't have to be Scott Hahn.|
So faith doesn’t mean believing something in the absence of evidence, or contrary to evidence. It simply means that the evidence is not necessarily the type of evidence that the sceptic is demanding. And why should it be? What right has he to demand that it should be? Will he charge God with contempt of court for making use of miracles, apparitions, tradition, second-hand reports and mystical experiences?
Faith is not unreasonable, or lacking in reasons. But much more can be said for it than this.
The Adventure of Faith
Faith is truly an adventure. It is not simply an adventure in the sense that it opens up a universe more full of potential than mere scientific investigation ever could. It is a lived adventure. Faith rarely arrives in the soul like a light bulb being switched on. It is usually a gradual process, a story—and a unique story for every human being who comes to faith. The crucial moment might occur in the middle of a war zone, or it might occur in a deserted church on a winter morning. It is inherently dramatic, inherently poetic. Nor is the initial ‘yes’ the end of the road. Faith grows, and matures. It faces challenges.
Faith (to adopt a phrase of Pope Paul VI’s) concerns every man, and the whole man. It is the high privilege of every human being— whether that person be intellectually gifted or not, worldly wise or not, born into privilege or not—to say ‘yes’, freely, to the proposition that the universe is founded upon infinite love and wisdom. If we live in a godless universe, those who are smarter and who are born in the right time and place are almost certain to have the deeper grasp of reality. But if we live in a universe created by God, than we can rejoice in the truth of Christ’s words: “I praise you, Father, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.”
Faith concerns the whole man—faith speaks not only to the intellect, but also to the emotions and the aesthetic sense and every other aspect of our humanity.
Faith makes life interesting. Why else is the ‘crisis of faith’ theme so irresistible to writers, and so compelling for their audiences? (Signs, the 2002 science fiction film starring Mel Gibson as a no-longer-practicing Episcopalian priest, is probably the best recent example of this theme). Indeed, it could be argued that almost every story is a kind of ‘crisis-of-faith’ story. Most stories end with the triumph of good over evil, of affirmation over negation, of loyalty over discord. Our faith in the ultimate goodness of things is rewarded. And when a story refuses to pander to the audience in this way—by giving us a bleak and dismal climax, for instance—we tend to come away feeling, not only unsatisfied, but that it isn’t a proper story at all.
|Mel Gibson in Signs|
I don’t think religious believers should be embarrassed by the idea of faith. I think we should present it to the world for what it is—something human, something dramatic, something beautiful and life affirming and convincing. And just the sort of gift that a loving God would give to his children.