Our culture divides our minds in ways that prevent us seeing the totality of what is real and what is possible, and calls this reason, while blocking us off from the source of our lives and our hopes.
Shortly into the new millennium, somewhat re-immersed in the religion of my childhood and imagining that this might be of interest to the Irish public, I tried to write about what I was experiencing in a weekly column I was contributing at the time to a secular newspaper. It was a mistake, attracting nothing but misunderstanding and abuse, and culminating in a sorrowful encounter at a family function about five years ago, when an inebriated relative followed me around the room repeating: ‘They say you’re getting your orders from Rome!’
One of the blocks I encountered constantly was the idea — seemingly entrenched in modern culture — that acquiring a sense of the importance of religious understanding amounts to a kind of renewal of membership of some body or club — or, worse, a preoccupation with what is called the supernatural. I get these responses from Catholics and atheists equally: Catholics congratulating me on my return to ‘the faith’ and reclaiming me on that account; atheists condemning me for my abandonment of rationality.
Neither interpretation grasped the reality of my experience, which had really been one of rediscovering myself. To achieve our potential we must go to the depths of what impassions us, to allow reality to provoke us so that it releases all the energy of our desire and our reason.
Herein resides the failure of religion in our time. As Nietzsche said, the death of God arises from the incapacity of religion to move a person or open his mind. In these conditions, nobody dares to live his inner religious sense as an entire response to life. As we have been observing, the great ‘flowering of freedom’ in the West did not bring freedom, but conformism, and this, if I allow it to, conspires to squeeze out that central essence of myself.
I have never had what is conventionally known as a ‘supernatural’ experience. I don’t need to have one. Reality is spectacular enough for me. I don’t need wizardry or pyrotechnics and I become impatient with approaches to religion which appear to be rooted entirely in such phenomena — visions, apparitions, miracles — which can imply that there is no reasonable path to Christ. I don’t say that miracles do not happen or have not happened. My problem is that insisting upon miracles as the essential wherewithal of faith tends actually to reduce reality because it implies that there is an insufficiency of wonder to be found there already, which I dispute. When I filter that hunger for supernatural signs out of my consciousness I can look at reality and find that literally everything is incredible.
I agree with the geneticist and atheist Richard Dawkins who once reprimanded John Humphreys on BBC Radio 4's Today programme for treating clergymen differently to politicians. ‘When talking to a politician you would demand proof for what they say,’ he scolded his fellow atheist, ‘but suddenly when talking to a clergyman you don't have to provide evidence.’ Humphreys offered a rather limp answer, saying that religion was different, because you are dealing with people’s beliefs. Dawkins retorted: ‘There's absolutely no reason to take seriously someone who says, “I believe it because I believe it.” God either exists or he doesn't. It's a matter of the truth.’
Dawkins is right. It is not good enough for those who speak of and for religion to place themselves in a different ‘logic-zone’ to the non-believer, without explaining how the two zones relate or work together, if they do. Christianity is the working hypothesis that the Christian applies, moment-to-moment, to reality, verifying all the while. If, at any moment, it fails to cohere with reality, there is a problem that must be addressed and resolved before proceeding.
Science and religion, as Einstein said, both try in different ways to decipher the mind of God, to understand how the world works and why. Science seeks an understanding of reality; religion seeks both understanding and meaning. Theology frequently seems to be an exercise in faithlessness, because it seeks to burrow into language in the hope of finding answers there. But science, as we have seen, can create its own mists and shadows, by implying that the words it uses can carry more meaning than they do.
It is in the nature of mankind’s attempts to understand the world, and share the resulting harvests of understanding, that discovered ‘laws’ must be reduced to codes, in which intrinsically restricted words and symbols are employed to communicate both fact and meaning. It is all but unavoidable that this — in effect, a reductive trick — will create illusions concerning the possibility of absolute comprehensibility, and this device becomes, more and more, the dominant cultural code of our time. In science, psychology and logic, our public conversation has adopted approximate and inadequate codes and sought to use such implicitly limited schemas as instruments of total understanding, dismissing as ‘irrational’ anything that does not correspond to the patterns and hypotheses arising from what are often the most radical reductions.
The problem is that our culture no longer strives to look beyond that which has been constructed by man, to consider the implications of the mysteriousness that lies beyond. This ‘beyond’ also has implications for us — if not right now (or so we may imagine), then some day, unavoidably and absolutely. This is an essential part of conversion — I mean not the process of signing up to an institution, but the recognition of our essentially ‘religious;’ nature, in Christian terms that we are one in Christ — and all this because there is no other human enterprise — recognising that ‘I am You Who made me. I exist; this place exists, because You exist.’ Regardless of the superficial religious affiliation — if any — this amounts to an imaginative transformation of the person in outlook, word and action.
All relationships derive from this, or are generated like this. It is really a ‘falling in love.’ It is the meaning of the Christian sacrament of Confirmation: the moment when the child leaves the field of rote-learning and obedient observance and begins to see that this is all real, and that his life — and everything and everyone in it — is actually gifted and defined by it.
The existential dimension of memory resides in the question: ‘To whom do I belong right now?’ The moment of decision is always now. Everything else is nothing. If my relationship with others does not remind me of the ultimate relationship, I do not know them.
The word 'Christ' I would call a wordless word. It is a word that melts into the mystery it evokes. It takes us to that vanishing point where the limit of our earthbound being touches the possibility of accompaniment beyond. It names a man, but also defines the otherness we know we belong to but cannot describe, and therefore risk dismissing. It names the Host who inhabits us, but also the Other towards Whom we walk, ideally in confidence and anticipation. This, I believe, is the core meaning of the Eucharist and why Jesus insisted upon it.
The word 'Christ' dissolves on the tongue. We can comprehend it in a literal, historical way, but we can also use it as a kind of launcher, to take us elsewhere. It is a word capable of contradicting itself, as only a mystery can. But something strange has happened even to this word: For all that it has been defiled, abused, misused and appropriated, the name of Christ is capable still of animating our imaginations, of proposing a correspondence with our desires that has no better in reality, and yet the very power of this hope is what causes it to be undermined because it so often seems that our scepticism — arising from our fear of hoping — is stronger, capable of destroying that which we sense can make us whole.
It ought to be obvious, then, why the loss of Christ to ‘Christian’ culture, and to the human beings who inhabit that culture, is to be lamented. By virtue of our own given and irreducible structures, we cannot function to the fullest of our possibilities outside the divine relationship that the figure of Christ offers us. The problem is not that we forget Christ or do not take Him seriously. If it were merely a matter of giving offence to Christ by forgetting him, we might well be able to live with the risks. Perhaps we might on the Day of Judgment be able to persuade Him that we had a better solution to the question resolving the issue of our own destinies. Perhaps He would even take it in good part if we upbraided Him in the manner of Stephen Fry.
The true problem for our cultures is not that we have forgotten Christ, abandoned Christ, rejected Christ, but that, as Flannery O'Connor observed, we Christians have become ‘Christ-haunted.’ Something like this has become true of the followers of all religions in modernity — a mislaying of the central imaginative religious impulse — but, because of the Incarnation, we have a clearer sense of it in Christianity. Christ remains present and deep down within us, and we cannot avoid knowing it. Yet we cannot bear witness to it. We know that we do not make ourselves, that Charles Darwin or Stephen Fry or Richard Dawkins or Stephen Hawking did not make us, but we have no words to speak our sense of this truth, even to ourselves.
Christ is therefore present also in our sense of His absence from our cultures. The very enormity of the grief we feel — unconsciously or in a daze of misattribution — conveys that this is a grief that really arises from our sense of an absence, and is therefore a faithful measure of our desire for Him and what He represents. Our growing confusion, dissociation, alienation and loneliness provide us with a negative image of the fullness we long for.
If each of us can be persuaded to withdraw even briefly from the frenzy of searching in the wrong place, to focus quietly on the mystery of the self, then none of what we are told in the bunker-that-shuts-out-mystery can seem as plausible as it does. Returned to childhood, even in the last hours of a life, a human being can find harmony with the only true note within himself that is played on a string stretched taut between his origin and his destiny. And hearing this note render reality coherent in a new way — unchallengable, undeniable, impenetrable by the babble of the television talk show or the stockmarket floor or the public house — the human person experiences existence in a radically different way. This moment of hearing, of imagining, is the vanishing point of the profane, the pivot-point within earthly human existence where the earthly and infinite dimensions of human reality intersect.
Reapplied to that reality, such understandings are transformative in an infinity of respects. They can, at the most basic level, provide the focus and impetus for the present, for the quotidian struggle of living in the here-and-now. How do we live? What do we live for? We all face such questions, moment to moment, but are barely aware of doing so, and may convince ourselves that such questions do not matter or have no answers. What is the significance of doing something? Why should I bother? What is the point of cooking a meal, or going for a walk? What is the point of anything? Such a question can be decided on the basis of narrow contingency, which rapidly wears thin, or by an intuition based on some kind of awareness of the vanishing point, which changes the entire meaning of everything.
This is the prize that awaits us if we combine method with intuition and go in search again of the heart within each of us. But this ‘heart’ is neither the beating valve nor the sentimental entity that is moved by soap opera or sporting glory. This heart exists beneath, deeper and further down through the dizzying darkness that has been unleashed in us by the culture of false freedom, to the true nature of ourselves.
The overwhelming sense on arriving there is familiarity: we remember. Here is the harmony we seek everywhere but cannot find. Here is the feeling usurped in manifold ways by the false promises of the marketplace and the ideologue and the loan-shark. The truth is already within us, but we have been persuaded to ‘forget,’ in what we are convinced is our own interest. The truth is called ‘Christ.’ Maybe you could call it something else, but no matter what the word, it amounts to the same. Shaken of all contaminants or prejudices, ‘Christ’ is a good word for it.
Post-Christian culture, the husk of Christendom, has reduced this word to a pietism. Inside the bunker, the thinking of Christians has moved from what appeared to be a prior unambiguous certainty in matters concerning Christianity to a mindset in which Christ has become a kind of fairytale figure, a sentimental idea and a moral policeman. The increasing divergence between religious belief and sociological reality is lazily deemed to be a function of increasing ‘progress,’ with populations becoming more and more knowing and ‘intelligent.’ But modern-day scepticism is not really a product of the forward march of time, having much more to do with processes whereby the receiver of information in mass-media society is given a little knowledge about everything but never enough in-depth understanding to strengthen the framework by which to perceive how everything is inter-connected. Thus, the individual feels ‘informed,’ can endlessly regurgitate isolated pieces of knowledge, can even speak assuredly about scientific progress with a general sense that this is somehow debunking the ‘old’ understandings of the world. What we lack is the over-arching hypothesis that might enable us to integrate this information into a functional understanding of our own situation as mysterious beings held in the mysterious embrace of a total reality beyond our knowing.
Inside the bunker, each element of the culture seems to reinforce the idea that reason has been remade — refined by increasing knowledge and sophistication — to exclude God, faith, religion and the relevance of the transcendent Beyond. And yet, the human being remains immobilised before the questions that confronted his ancestors in their piety and could be faced head-on. Their descendant’s head believes he is part of the great project of approaching human omniscience, but his heart feels excluded. At best, he feels that his doubts are his alone, and better kept to himself. We look condescendingly back upon the outlooks of our grandparents and smile knowingly at their innocence and naïvete. There are so many elements of the inter-connectedness that were obvious to them but are so lost to us, but we find it convenient to dismiss such possibilities as symptoms of their ‘simple faith’ or superstition. But what if their sense of reality was utterly more complex, more interesting, more real, because they took into account not just the three dimensions that we see but this other one that we have decided, or choose to pretend, does not exist? What if they had access to a far more functional form of reasoning — one centred on what was given, on not just ‘objective’ reality but also the desiring that moved them moment to moment, step after step — because they carried within themselves at all times a sense of this central essence? They are caricatured nowadays by the distortion that they were fixated on the ‘next life,’ naïvely ignoring the hardships and indignities inflicted on them in this one. But perhaps they lived their lives in an awareness of that intellectually elusive vanishing point beyond which another reality erupts in a radically different way?
In the modern world of the bunker, we persuade ourselves that we have traded an irrational way of thinking for a fuller use of freedom and logic, but the opposite may be closer to the truth: that we are well advanced in supplanting the former belief in a supreme being with an altogether more naïve form of dependence — on a centralized human intelligence, which we trust to make decisions for us and hand us ready-made rationalisations for why we believe and behave as we do. In our thrusting forward to a more ‘modern,’ more mechanistic, more ‘rational’ age, we have surrendered something at both the level of the human person and the level of the collective which would be infinitely, so to speak, more useful to us in our lives than the technological and technocratic dependencies we currently embrace. The sense we might have had of this other dimension of ourselves is lost to us, on the one hand by a nihilistic secularism and on the other by a reductionist form of religiosity, by which it has been drilled into us that we have to ‘sign up’ for a set of beliefs and thereafter cling to them unto death, jumping on the way over any obstacles of reason or fact that lie in our path.
The modern condescension towards ‘religious’ ideas is in many respects understandable. Because a purely material explanation does not account for the enigma of man, and our cultures are constantly and entirely focused on materialism, the only way of achieving even a temporary peace seems to involve avoiding the larger questions altogether, so it is necessary to construct rationalisations for discounting the questions that nag at us without identifying themselves — or, if they do, suggest themselves as leftover misapprehensions from an irrational past. Sometimes still — though less often than a decade ago — when I have spoken in public about such matters, I encounter parents on the verge of heartbreak because, they tell me, their children have strayed away from ‘faith in Christ.’ Often, I find, they have attached overmuch importance to the words their children use to describe themselves, overlooking the force of desire that, when I remind them of it, they recognise as defining their children. I tell them to see past the self-descriptions of their children to the hungering that loiters beyond words.
I tell them also that doubt is good, that without doubt there can be no faith, because faith is simply the renewal of resolve to continue the hunt for knowing. As any decent scientist will tell you, a process of verification is always preceded by a doubt.
Often, it seems that even modern religious culture has become so assailed by scepticism that it shies away from the doubts and anxieties of those who, while describing themselves as believers, seek to bear witness to uncertainties and fears about the weakness or absence of a ‘rational’ basis for their faith. Saint Teresa of Calcutta, after her death, was revealed to have written many letters to priests and others in which she spoke about her faith wavering and weakening from time to time. ‘Please pray specially for me that I may not spoil His work and that Our Lord may show Himself — for there is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead,’ she wrote in 1953. ‘It has been like this more or less from the time I started “the work.”’
‘Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear,’ she wrote to a priest friend in September 1979.
Such misgivings are the inevitable consequence not of increasingly collective intelligence but precisely of a culture of reducing reason, and there is no basis for expecting that anyone will remain immune. Today, if we live even partially connected to the social world, a world under the sway of mass media and collective assumptions in which the general mentality is constructed and defined by politics, economics and the social sciences, we inevitably become seduced by forms of reasoning that are limited, superficial, reductive. Regardless of how ‘advanced’ we may consider our ‘spiritual’ development, it is scarcely possible to think about politics, or the daily diet of current affairs, without sliding into such forms of thinking, which offer a superficial verisimilitude that functions after a fashion for most of our everyday purposes. This is in part what Pope Benedict XVI had in mind when he spoke about ‘the bunker.’
These excursions into superficiality inevitably grate on any broader and deeper intuition of reality, but bunker culture teaches us to suppress such misgivings. There is something beguilingly ‘coherent’ about the reductions with which we are assailed, whereas the true engagements with reality requires the application of a method that experiences strong resistance when it seeks to penetrate or transcend the superficial layers of bunker culture.
For those who are blessed with access to such a method, it becomes clear that such doubts as we experience come from outside ourselves, that they are imposed on us by the culture, and that the first step in resisting them involves a restoration of wonder — at reality, at the strangeness of something-rather-than-nothing, but primarily at the phenomenon of our own existence. The doubter therefore needs to acquire an awareness that may alert him to the constructions of the culture that serves to make his doubts seem reasonable by closing him off from the phenomenon that is himself. And because the kind of ‘reason’ that the culture approves is not capable of assisting the person in dismantling this doubt — and indeed contributes to it — we also need tools for dealing with the doubts and taking us beyond them.
Irish Catholicism has been especially weak in probing and dissecting culture in this way, thus leaving its faithful at the mercy of processes which they are not equipped even to identify as phenomena, never mind as problematic ones. In Irish culture, ‘faith’ has long been associated with an unquestioning, unquestionable certainty, an absolute ‘belief’ in certain factual propositions. This seems fine until it wavers, as it does, more and more, for many people faced with an entirely different logic assailing them every waking moment through the media and the common conversation of the streets, taverns and marketplaces. These conditions tend to take the person in one of two directions: towards a white-knuckle insistence on the integrity of what is believed, or an outright capitulation to the ‘logic’ driving this common conversation. Moreover, the avoidance of the issue of the natural tendency of human beings to doubt may actually be pushing many people over the line towards definitive scepticism because they do not know their doubts are an intrinsic element of a reasonable faith.
Reasonable scepticism is by no means a lamentable trait in an intelligent person. As Pope Benedict XVI persistently reminded us, intelligence of faith must become intelligence of reality if we are truly to understand what is at stake.
It is not as though we are lacking in evidence. We have the hard evidence of reality; the evidence of our own existence and its mysterious nature which ought to bedazzle us every instant of our lives. This is perhaps the most undervalued of the evidences available to us: wonder at ‘what is,’ at ‘be-ing,’ at the idea of life itself. We also have the evidence of the Gospels, and of their hundreds of witnesses, whose stories, whether consciously or not, we have weighed within our reason from childhood, considering the plausibility of everything on the basis of both reason and experience
It is not always easy. There is a whole industry of scepticism devoted to deconstructing the Gospels by way of ‘demonstrating’ their supposed inconsistencies and contradictions. The cultural problem confronting us concerning the Gospels is that they have quietly, by osmosis, come to be tacitly regarded as confabulations. The bunker requires that we reduce everything to what we can easily understand, measure and accept as proven, and this approach is not possible with the Gospels, so there has been a gradual re-categorising of them as something like quasi-fables, containing important moral parables but not necessarily true accounts of actual historical events.
Again we need to use reason to decide for ourselves. If a trial hears four different statements about the same incident, how do we decide which version is accurate, or even whether the incident happened at all? Do we check each detail against the other statements and decide that inconsistency of detail disqualifies every account equally?: ‘Ah this witness tells a different version — he says that the car was blue, whereas this other witness says it was green!’ In logical process, this creates a stalemate, one perspective cancelling the other out, but in life the two accounts are part of a tapestry of verification, in which we learn to discern and decipher beyond schematic forms. That two witnesses tell slightly different stories suggests that both are honest, because no two people could possibly remember everything in the same way. In a certain light, then, the inconsistency confirms the veracity of the event, though leaving some matters of detail unresolved. All the time, we are comparing things with our own experience, which is not a methodological process but an organic accumulation of encounters, events, actions and sentences. We verify the Gospels, as we verify everything: using our common sense and our own experience of reality, which tell us that people misremember details and get things slightly wrong.
In faith and in science, the method is the same. In both, it seems that the optimal path involves a balance between certainty of approach and a willingness to look squarely at whatever vagaries there may be. It is possible, under the pressure of doubts, to err in either of two directions: that of excessive scepticism and that of an affected certainty that is not open. Pure scepticism causes all certainty to unravel as it develops, but the wrong kind of ‘certainty’ — that which is forced as a way of shutting out doubts — becomes indistinguishable from superstition. Starting with a working fusion of intuition and scepticism, we look at reality and take account of every fact we encounter. Inevitably, if we persist, this process takes us beyond the doubts, but it is the doubts that keep faith honest, just as professional scepticism ensures that the scientist does not surrender to the first syllogism that suggests itself.
Doubt, far from being a problem for believers, may be precisely the element that, in modern culture, prevents faith hardening into ideology. For anyone living in a modern society, doubting is an occupational hazard. Doubts are not of themselves a bad thing — indeed, they are the necessary starting point from which a genuine process of reasoning must proceed — like the grain of sand around which the pearl is formed: a flaw that becomes the basis of ineffable beauty. Thus, far from being the enemy of a healthy certainty, doubt may be an essential element of the method of seeking the truth. For this reason, I often think that Doubting Thomas gets an undeservedly bad press. If you had asked me when I was growing up and listening on more or less a daily basis to Gospel stories and their interpretations, I would have placed Thomas not too far behind Judas on the list of biblical baddies.
Doubting Thomas was one of the 12 apostles of Jesus. Thomas was also known as Didymus, which comes from the Hebrew and Greek words meaning ‘the twin.’ He was given the nickname ‘Doubting Thomas’ as a result of his initial refusal to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead. Only when he had seen Jesus’s wounds was he satisfied to believe.
In several other references to him in the Gospels, we learn that Thomas was in many ways one of the more steadfast of the apostles, displaying great courage and loyalty on a number of occasions. When the others tried to keep Jesus from going to Bethany to raise Lazarus from the dead because of the danger from those in the area who had earlier tried to stone Him (John 11:8), Thomas said, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with Him’ (John 11:16). Thomas also asked of Jesus one of the most famous questions in the Gospels. John 14:5-6 says: ‘Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”’
The Gospel of John tells us that, following the Resurrection, Jesus appeared to some of the disciples, but that Thomas was not with them. John 20:25 says, ‘So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he [Thomas] said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”’ Eight days later, Jesus appeared before His disciples again and this time Thomas was present: ‘Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed”.’(John 20:26-29).
These words of Jesus are conventionally interpreted as a form of condemnation of those who need evidence in order to believe. But I detect from the text that Jesus was not as dismissive of Thomas as we had been led to believe. In fact, it seems, Jesus was extremely gentle and patient with Thomas, allowing him to examine His wounds and then merely observing that it was good that he now believed and also good that those who had not seen would — perhaps hearing of this episode — be able to believe without seeing. He made a point of saying that such believers are ‘blessed’, but He did not say that Thomas was less so. Indeed, he seemed to be saying to Thomas that it was because of his scepticism that these people in the future would believe without seeing. Thomas has conducted the verification process on their — our — behalf. And, as in the instance of the two conflicting witnesses, this assists in our processes of verification.
The distinction Jesus is making seems not to be between those who seek evidence and those who do not, but between, as a matter of fact, those who have seen for themselves and those who have not. And, since almost nobody was present to ‘see for themselves,’ this latter category amounts to almost every Christian who ever lived, including all of us living now. Jesus was really matter-of-factly stating a distinction between different kinds of evidence: that of the eyes and that based on reliable witness.
If He was making any kind of implicit criticism, He was possibly warning against a pure empiricism that requires absolute demonstrability to justify acceptance of a proposition. But He also seemed to hint at something like this: that, by virtue of Thomas’s scepticism, the record has been clarified and solidified in a manner as to reassure future doubters — his insistence on verification had provided the public record with a degree of confirmation it would not otherwise have had. And he is saying that Thomas, by virtue of his reluctance to believe without seeing the evidence, has now become a witness whose credibility cannot be held in doubt. Because he voiced the deepest uncertainties of posterity, Thomas becomes for us a far more vital witness than many of the others.
Reasonable scepticism is by no means a lamentable trait in an intelligent person. Someone who believes something purely on the basis that it is considered ‘good’ to believe is hardly the best advertisement for faith. If faith is based on mere sentiment, or on a shallow concept of obedience, it is prone to instability and thereby more exposed to legitimate scepticism. Surely the best kind of faith is that which freely explores the full run of doubt, considering all the available evidence much as Thomas did?
In this present moment of unparalleled doubting, when a false form of reason has shut our culture off from the meaning of much of the evidence, Doubting Thomas might plausibly be elevated to the status of patron saint of our superficial culture of what is called secularism, with its relativism, its reduced concepts of reason and its tendency towards pessimism as a first response to reality. His refusal to believe without direct, physical, personal evidence might be said to encapsulate the entire demeanour of modern culture, making him the twin of the modern Christian. And this, far from being evidence of apostasy, might be the cornerstone of a renewed understanding of the totality of reality.
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