When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?
- Luke 18:8.
In mid-1940, as the German Luftwaffe tried to reduce London to ashes, George Grant, like most young men of his time, was trying to decide what he should do for the war effort. An Oxford University student, he volunteered for one of the more horrific jobs of the time, an air-raid warden.
For nearly a year, during the worst of the Blitz, the 22-year-old searched for unexploded bombs and pulled the remains of bodies out of the shattered rubble of Bermondsey, a working-class district of London. When the bombing abated in 1941, Grant decided to join the merchant marine, but was rejected after a medical examination discovered a tubercular lesion. Depressed, exhausted and haunted by his experiences of the Blitz, in need of a job, he found work on a farm. One early morning in mid-December, he was riding his bicycle on a narrow country lane between hedges and turned up a gated road to find his passage blocked. Thinking nothing in particular, Grant got off the bike, opened the gate, walked the bike through, closed the gate behind him and mounted his bike again. In that brief action, as William Christian writes in George Grant: A Biography, "it just came to him at once, in a moment and forever, that all was finally well, that God existed." Many years later, Grant summed up the experience in the most prosaic manner possible: "I got off the bicycle to open a gate and when I got back on I accepted God."
The words are inadequate, of course, as are any words that attempt to describe the ineffable. But words -- and labels -- are necessary to make sense of our chaotic experience. With that one laconic sentence, Grant, who would become one of Canada's pre-eminent political philosophers before his death in 1988, provided his only public account of an experience that saints and mystics regard as the peak of human aspiration. For one flashing moment, Grant knew with absolute certainty that beyond time and space there is eternal order and divine reason.
What are we to make of such an experience? Was it some hallucinogenic response to the strain of all the horrors he'd witnessed? It's doubtful that any rational or empirical account can provide the precise content of such an experience to those who have not had a similar experience. The temptation, then, is to regard it as a psychological aberration. But that is intellectually dishonest. Grant never doubted the truth of his experience -- which he regarded as the most important in his life -- even after years of reading and reflection. The onus, then, is on us, if we are honest (and unafraid), to at least try to understand, even if only at the intellectual level, what Grant experienced.
And what is it that we need to understand? Perhaps the best label -- or at least an adequate one -- is the experience of faith.
We tend to stumble over notions of religious or spiritual faith nowadays, as though its expression is an embarrassing faux pas. This is understandable. The cultural and intellectual elites that dominate the contemporary West generally subscribe to Bertrand Russell's judgment. Religion, he once said, is "a disease born of fear and a source of untold misery to the human race." This sentiment has certainly gained considerable currency over the last century or so. The modern age is defined most fundamentally by its marginalization and discrediting of religious faith, particularly Judeo-Christianity.