Continuing from my previous post…
I was telling a story about myself. I told of losing the reasons, the grounds, upon which I believed that my Christian belief rested. A troubling experience. And a strange one, because, despite this loss, I still found myself believing. So I went sniffing around, introspectively as it were, in search of the source of my continued Christian belief. Was this belief the product of wishful thinking or self-deception or a mental dysfunction? Or was this belief actually justified? And if the latter — well, what was justifying it?
I said that I eventually decided that my best route to finding the answers to these questions was the following: to pay attention to those situations in which I felt that distinct “ring of truth” regarding the rationality and/or truth of the Christian Way. So this is what I did. And I gradually (very gradually) realized that these felt experiences were not occurring in response to my observing and comprehending some apologetic argument. They occurred, most often, in situations in which I wasn’t making any conscious inferences at all.
I remember reading The Brothers Karamazov during this time – in particular the story of Father Zossima. I wish I could better recall the experience and the precise character of what I felt, but I remember both the “ring of truth” and the potency of this ring: I remember the tears (of joy, of sadness?… of both joy and sadness) I cried over my dog who was beside me. There are perhaps hundreds of other experiences I could point to where I have felt this ring. But I mention the Brothers Karamazov in particular for two reasons. One, because (and I don’t know why) this experience has stuck in my head better than most; and, two, because I have retroactively come to find the Brothers Karamazov full of interesting connections to what I now perceive as the main reasons for my Christian belief and commitment. The book, at times, has seemed to me a mirror. Let me simply quote some large and scattered portions of that book. I’ll draw from each of these quotes in a moment, but for now I just want to share. I want to share from passages that still dash me against the rocks. (Perhaps alone and out of context they will have that effect on no one, but I am not sharing them for the sake of trying to trigger this same response in others; I simply want to share.)
We stayed one night on the bank of a great navigable river with some fishermen. A good looking peasant lad, about eighteen, joined us; he had to hurry back next morning to pull a merchant’s barge along the bank. I noticed him looking straight before him with clear and tender eyes. It was a bright, warm, still, July night, a cool mist rose from the broad river, we could hear the plash of a fish, the birds were still, all was hushed and beautiful, everything praying to God. Only we two were not sleeping, the lad and I, and we talked of the beauty of this world of God’s and of the great mystery of it. Every blade of grass, every insect, ant, and golden bee, all so marvelously know their path, though they have not intelligence, they bear witness to the mystery of God and continually accomplish it themselves. I saw the dear lad’s heart was moved. He told me that he loved the forest and the forest birds. He was a bird-catcher, knew the note of each of them, could call each bird. ‘I know nothing better than to be in the forest,’ said he, ‘though all things are good.’
Brothers, have no fear of men’s sin. Love a man even in his sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love and is the highest love on earth. Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love. Love the animals: God has given them the rudiments of thought and joy untroubled. Do not trouble it, don’t harass them, don’t deprive them of their happiness, don’t work against God’s intent. Man, do not pride yourself on superiority to the animals; they are without sin, and you, with your greatness, defile the earth by your appearance on it, and leave the traces of your foulness after you–alas, it is true of almost every one of us! Love children especially, for they too are sinless like the angels; they live to soften and purify our hearts and as it were to guide us. Woe to him who offends a child! Father Anfim taught me to love children. The kind, silent man used often on our wanderings to spend the farthings given us on sweets and cakes for the children. He could not pass by a child without emotion. That’s the nature of the man.
But even before I learned to read, I remember first being moved to devotional feeling at eight years old. My mother took me alone to mass (I don’t remember where my brother was at the time) on the Monday before Easter. It was a fine day, and I remember to-day, as though I saw it now, how the incense rose from the censer and softly floated upwards and, overhead in the cupola, mingled in rising waves with the sunlight that streamed in at the little window. I was stirred by the sight, and for the first time in my life I consciously received the seed of God’s word in my heart. A youth came out into the middle of the church carrying a big book, so large that at the time I fancied he could scarcely carry it. He laid it on the reading desk, opened it, and began reading, and suddenly for the first time I understood something read in the church of God… Fathers and teachers, forgive my tears now, for all my childhood rises up again before me, and I breathe now as I breathed then, with the breast of a little child of eight, and I feel as I did then, awe and wonder and gladness.
And I say to myself, ‘What if I’ve been believing all my life, and when I come to die there’s nothing but the burdocks growing on my grave?’ as I read in some author. It’s awful! How–how can I get back my faith? But I only believed when I was a little child, mechanically, without thinking of anything. How, how is one to prove it? I have come now to lay my soul before you and to ask you about it. If I let this chance slip, no one all my life will answer me. How can I prove it? How can I convince myself? Oh, how unhappy I am! I stand and look about me and see that scarcely any one else cares; no one troubles his head about it, and I’m the only one who can’t stand it. It’s deadly–deadly!’
‘No doubt. But there’s no proving it, though you can be convinced of it.’
‘By the experience of active love. Strive to love your neighbor actively and indefatigably. In as far as you advance in love you will grow surer of the reality of God and of the immortality of your soul. If you attain to perfect self-forgetfulness in the love of your neighbor, then you will believe without doubt, and no doubt can possibly enter your soul. This has been tried. This is certain.’
I am not interested in analyzing these passages per se. I am more interested in using them as illustrations, as helpful ways of pointing at the various reasons I have come to discover lay behind my own Christian belief and commitment.
Here I will simply go ahead and compile a (very incomplete) list. This is a list of various phenomena which I have found to produce in me the experience of confidence in the truth and/or rationality of the Christian Way. The experiences – and the responses – have been very different. I’d like to go into depth on each one, but this would then become a monograph, not an essay. Perhaps I can devote later posts to some of these particular phenomena and their accompanying response.
But for now, a list:
- Nostalgia. “Fathers and teachers, forgive my tears now, for all my childhood rises up again before me, and I breathe now as I breathed then, with the breast of a little child of eight, and I feel as I did then, awe and wonder and gladness.”
- Encountering a quality akin to the quality of Jesus (as described in the gospels) in particular people (to include even fictional characters — Father Zossima, Jean Valjean).
- Encountering beauty. For some reason, it is almost always ecological beauty that has this effect on me — “He told me that he loved the forest and the forest birds… ‘I know nothing better than to be in the forest,’ said he.” But the beauty encountered in good story often has this effect on me as well. The Brothers Karamazov, for instance, produced in me the “ring of truth”, not just in the quality of particular characters, but also in the quality of the narrative as a whole.
- Active love. “By the experience of active love. Strive to love your neighbor actively and indefatigably. In as far as you advance in love you will grow surer of the reality of God and of the immortality of your soul.” This passage describes the experience of the practice of regular, self-giving benevolence as providing a vision of God. I would add to the practice of such benevolence, the reception of such benevolence. Even the mere observation of such benevolence can provide a vision of God. I think especially of certain acts of compassion and forgiveness that I have seen/received that have evoked in me the “ring of truth”. Or even just watching my wife hold my baby daughter — “He could not pass by a child without emotion…” — or feeling the tidal wave of compassion (which is always intermixed with hope) in the sight of great suffering. This may sound paradoxical, but very often when I am with the mentally handicapped, I am convinced there is the Christian God.
- Sports. This is perhaps the one I understand the least. In athletic competition, from time to time, (and usually in moments of high adrenaline and intense physical exertion) I have been overcome with an intensity of emotion that is hard to describe. So hard that I won’t even try. But among this intensity of emotion have been senses, not of God directly, but of some human longing and some human home which supersedes the present state of affairs.
- Good work. Especially work that involves a mix of physical exertion, creativity, problem solving, and camaraderie; and the product of which is a meaningful and valuable and beautiful artifact.
- Liturgical practice. Sometimes in the private of setting of prayer, but more often in communal, liturgical worship. Very rarely is the sense, in liturgical situations, a sense of the presence of God. I wish it were, but it’s not. More often the sense is one that what we are doing in the liturgy is a symbolic partaking and a symbolic proclamation of great significance. But this is still a sense which testifies to the truth and/or rationality of the Christian Way. “My mother took me alone to mass on the Monday before Easter. It was a fine day, and I remember to-day, as though I saw it now, how the incense rose from the censer and softly floated upwards and, overhead in the cupola, mingled in rising waves with the sunlight that streamed in at the little window. I was stirred by the sight, and for the first time in my life I consciously received the seed of God’s word in my heart.”
- Longing. Space doesn’t permit me to say anything that wouldn’t sound silly here. I’ll save a fuller discussion for another time. At this time, let me just quote C.S. Lewis who touches on the profoundness of the experience of longing (a discussion of the epistemic significance of this profound experience for Christian belief must wait):
In speaking of this desire for our own faroff country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.
I have offered this list merely to illustrate the sort of experiences that I have come to think are functioning as reasons for my own Christian belief and commitment. It is experiences like these, moreover, that I believe function as the primary reasons for my Christian belief and commitment. Apologetic arguments can probably be formed from many of these experiences and their accompanying responses – and these arguments very well might provide me with some additional reason for belief – but it is not arguments which are providing me with these reasons for following Jesus; it is the experiences themselves. They are experiences which are analogical to perceptual experiences: the very experience of “seeing” a tree is sufficient to form and warrant my belief that ‘There is a tree’. I don’t hold this belief because I run through some argument about the reliability of my senses, and then infer that ‘There is a tree’. I just find myself believing it. So too with most of the experiences I have described. Little or no inference involved (and certainly no conscious inference).
Actually that last statement needs some qualification. Only some of these experiences are, strictly speaking, experiences which provide immediate reason for Christian belief; some are, rather, experiences which only provide mediate reason for Christian belief by way of immediate reason for some sort of vague theistic belief, or supernatural belief, or teleological belief. But even in these latter cases, it is rarely inference that is making the leap for me from theistic/supernatural/teleological belief to Christian belief: more often it is simply the fact that these experiences are interpreted by me “Christianly”. What I mean is that, although I can sit in this armchair and acknowledge that, in some sense, the “content” of the experience of athletic competition does not contain anything explicitly Christian, I cannot deny that, in the moment, the experience feels like a Christian experience. This is, no doubt, because any experiential reason for something theistic is immediately construed by me as something Christian. I simply move throughout the world with a Christian lens. And this doesn’t seem to me weird or irrational. It seems quite natural. A tree analogy might help to make my point again. Suppose I had never seen or heard of the sea, but I was very, very well acquainted with trees (perhaps I had lived as an isolated, landlocked woodsman my entire life). And then you come along one sunny day and present me with an underwater picture of seaweed or a tall, living coral reef without telling me what I am looking at. The image would, in some objective, “strictly speaking” sense, not contain a tree in it. But because I have experienced trees all my life, it is perfectly natural that I would construe the image as a tree. Again, it is not an inference or an argument I am making; it is simply that, while the image (in itself) contains no tree, my experience is one in which I experience the seaweed “treely”.
That is really all I have to tell of my story. Nothing terribly exciting. No prophetic experiences, or dreams of Jesus, or voices on the wind. No “religious experience” in the usual sense, the extraordinary sense. In fact, my experiences are all pretty ordinary. Which is why I think that, although these reasons are “private” (see the earliest parts of this series for what I mean by that term), they are not all that unique to me. And the fact that these reasons are not all that unique is the reason I still think there are prospects for the project of positive apologetics — and this despite my downplaying the importance of natural theology proper. But, again, I must postpone my discussion. I’ve already gone far too long in this post, and if you made it to read this sentence, you are probably in a very small minority…