A Crisis of Faith

We tend to stumble over notions of spiritual faith nowadays, as though its very expression is an embarrassment. It's understandable. The modern age has been defined by its marginalization and discrediting of religious faith.

Robert Sibley, The Ottawa Citizen

Published: Friday, December 22, 2006

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.

Polls consistently show that most people still claim a belief in God, in some divine reality that transcends the physical world. But the fact remains that Christianity no longer holds sway over western societies in the way it once did. As recently as 1960, Gabriel Vahanian, in his book The Death of God, was arguing that the West had entered a post-Christian era. There are numerous reasons for this, of course -- from the dominance of scientific rationalism as the prevailing mode of knowledge to the influx of immigrants from non-Christian countries that have reshaped the West into a multicultural mosaic.

But perhaps the most salient aspect of our waning sense of faith lies elsewhere. Faith, as Orthodox theologian John Garvey points out, is not something that can be reduced to moral or cultural issues, but it is influenced by the surrounding culture. Nowadays, he says, religious faith competes with other cultural alternatives, one of which is nihilistic indifference. This isn't principled atheism or agnosticism, but rather a kind of "who cares?" indifference to the question of God. "Principled agnosticism can be intellectually admirable, even sympathetic," Garvey says. "Indifference is not. It is the result of a culture that has placed distraction and gratification so firmly at the centre that they completely dominate the lives of millions." People might still attend churches, synagogues, mosques and temples, but for many these buildings are not central to the purposes or sense of meaning.

Part of the problem, Garvey argues, is that faith is based on our response to something that more often than not provides less than compelling evidence: "The old notion that one could be led logically, by argument, to faith is not only wrong but possibly a form of blasphemy," he writes. "If faith could be proven you would have the proof, and lose God. What you get, and all you get is a hint, a clue. ... It is the direction, not some form of claim or ownership, that is the sign of faith."

What does this mean? What is it to receive a "sign of faith?" Again, words are inadequate, but perhaps George Grant's description of his experience offers a clue: "If I try to put it into words, I would say it is the recognition that I am not my own."

This phrase, "not my own," is at the core of the experience of faith. If there is one sensibility shared by most every mystic or philosopher who has provided an account of their experience, it is that of transcendence, "an intense awareness of being connected to something beyond your self, "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen," as it is stated in Hebrews 11:1.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is experience of faith is with a few examples.

In her autobiographical writings, Jewish-born philosopher and mystic Simone Weil recounts a visitation in 1938 by Jesus Christ that converted her to Christianity. "Often, at the culminating point of a violent headache, I make myself say (George Herbert's poem Love) over, concentrating all my attention upon it and clinging with all my soul to the tenderness it enshrines. I used to think I was merely reciting it as a beautiful poem, but without my knowing it the recitation had the virtue of a prayer. It was during one of these recitations that, as I told you, Christ himself came down and took possession of me. In my arguments about the insolubility of the problem of God I had never foreseen the possibility of that, of a real contact, person to person, here below, between a human being and God."

Weil, who died in 1943 at the age of 34, left behind a large body of philosophic and mystical thought that has attracted admirers such as Albert Camus and Czeslaw Milosz. Like Grant, she, too, took from her experience of faith the certainty that "there is a reality outside of the world, that is to say, outside space and time, outside man's mental universe, outside any sphere of whatsoever that is accessible to human faculties."

A better known conversionary experience is that of C.S. Lewis, a professor of medieval literature at Oxford and Cambridge universities, and the author of books defending Christianity, as well as novels, including the Chronicles of Narnia. Before he died in 1963, Lewis was, in the words of one commentator, "the most popular Christian communicator" of the 20th century. However, Lewis was an avowed atheist as a young man and did not come to his faith in Jesus Christ until he was 32 years old. He recounts in Surprised by Joy how he experienced faith through the reading of both secular and Christian books. The first step occurred in 1929 when he was 31 years old. One day, in the midst of reading various Christian writers, he took a bus ride. In an experience similar to Grant's, Lewis got on the bus an atheist, and when he got off he was certain of God's existence. Back in his rooms, he wrote, he "gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England."

A year later, during an evening discussing mythology and Christianity with some intellectual friends, including J.R.R. Tolkien, he was urged to think critically about Jesus. Unable to sleep that night, Lewis tried to figure out what it meant to say Christ was God in the flesh. Over and over he asked himself, is Jesus God or is He simply what most people thought, "a great moral teacher?" Lewis eventually reached a conclusion that has occurred to many others: A mere man who said the things Christ said would not be a great moral teacher; he would either be a lunatic or the Devil. "You must take your choice," Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity. "Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else he was a madman or something worse."

It was 3 a.m., two weeks later, when Lewis wrote to Tolkien, "I have passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ - in Christianity."

Perhaps, though, the most influential conversionary experience -- besides St. Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus - is that of St. Augustine, the fourth-century philosopher and theologian who brought Christian revelation and Greek philosophy, faith and reason, together.

St. Augustine's conversion was much different from that of St. Paul's. He initially came to Christianity at the intellectual level, before any experience of faith. "What I now longed for," he wrote in his Confessions, "was not greater certainty about you, but a more steadfast abiding in you." The stumbling block to faith was not in his head, but in his heart. St. Augustine admits to being a slave to his self, a prisoner of his willful desires, particularly a fondness for sex. The ultimate obstacle was not so much the pleasures of the body, but the willfulness that enchained him to those pleasures. "It was no iron chain imposed by anyone else that fettered me, but the iron of my own will." St. Augustine wouldn't have accepted the current fashion for victim psychology that justifies our weaknesses with the excuse that they come from natural instincts. He insists that "disordered lust springs from a perverted will; when lust is pandered to, a habit is formed; when habit is not checked, it hardens into compulsion."

St. Augustine's epiphany of faith is described in Book 8 of the Confessions. In a nutshell, during a period of intense emotional crisis, the 33-year-old was in his garden in Milan in AD 386 when he heard a child's voice chanting, "Take and read, take and read." Without thinking, he picked up the Bible and randomly opened it to Romans 13:13-14, and read: "Not in dissipation and drunkenness, nor in debauchery and lewdness, nor in arguing and jealousy; but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh or the gratification of your desires." St. Augustine didn't read further because "the light of certainty flooded my heart and all dark shades of doubt fled away." It was, he says, the most important event in his life.

St. Augustine would go on to become a bishop of the Church, laying the intellectual foundations for Roman Catholicism, and, arguably, the future of western civilization. Such influence clearly demonstrates that faith can move civilizations, if not mountains. But what about the absence of faith; does a lack of faith have consequences?

The hedonism and worldly ambitions that retarded St. Augustine's faith exercise as great - if not greater -- a hold in our own day. He was living through the fall of the Roman Empire. We are witness to the decline of the modern West. Admittedly, it is hard to see our civilization in such a way, particularly given the prosperity and technological bounty that provides so many with a life of relative ease. Nonetheless, it would be intellectually dishonest to ignore the evidence of decadence.

Vaclav Havel, the playwright and former president of Czechoslovakia, argues that the modern West has witnessed the replacement of the traditional religious concept of a divine creator with an anthropocentric ethos devoted to the satisfaction of our desires. Such a condition, Havel argues, is spiritually demoralizing, and politically and socially destabilizing.

"We live in an age in which there is a general turning away from Being: our civilization, founded on a grand upsurge of science and technology, those great intellectual guides on how to conquer the world at the cost of losing touch with Being, transforms man its proud creator into a slave of his consumer needs," says Havel. "A person who has been seduced by the consumer value system, whose identity is dissolved in an amalgam of the accoutrements of mass civilization, and who has no roots in the wider order of Being, no sense of responsibility for any higher reality than his or her own personal survival, is a demoralized person and, by extension, a demoralized society."

In some ways our modern technological world shares similarities with the Roman world in the interval between the time of Christ and St. Augustine, argues philosopher Paul Brockelman. During that period the Roman world was undergoing immense changes. Cultural traditions were being absorbed into the larger political economy of the Hellenistic and Roman period. That meant not only the mixing of different religious views and practices through trade and the movement of people, but the shattering of those earlier traditions as too parochial to include all of the world that was coming to be.

"The breakdown of those earlier and more parochial spiritual visions of life brought with it a great sense of spiritual disorientation, if not utter meaninglessness and despair," says Brockelman. "New forms of philosophical and religious vision and practice arose to meet this situation, and ultimately, of course, it was the Christ cult that finally won the day by providing a more encompassing view of the world and the place of the various cultural, ethnic, and religious traditions within it."

The contemporary West faces many of the same situations as the Roman Empire, but on an even large scale -- the emergence of a global economic order, the collapse of nation states, and the breakdown of traditional ways of life. Such birth-times, as the philosopher Georg Hegel called them, are prone to disorder, physical and spiritual.

Havel thinks our lack of awareness of a "wider order of Being" constitutes our greatest disorder. As he said in a 1995 commencement address at Harvard University, "The main task in the coming era is ... a radical renewal of our sense of responsibility. Our conscience must catch up to our reason, otherwise we are lost."

Perhaps so, but part of the difficulty is not only the lack of awareness of a wider order of Being -- the "God question," if you will -- but that so many don't even consider the question worth asking. It is not only the fading influence of a particular religion that is worrisome, but the seeming indifference to faith itself.

This should worry even atheists. Not only has confidence in faith and been lost, but even confidence in reason. The Enlightenment thinkers might have wanted to get rid of Christianity, but they also wanted to replace it with the faith of reason. Nowadays, though, in the wake of the horrors of the 20th century, our faith in science and technology has also weakened. As Orthodox theologian David Hart says, "The only futures open to post-Christian culture are conscious nihilism ... (and) the mesmeric banality of consumer culture."

Most people, of course, still conduct themselves with reasonable morality, and the natural virtues of decency and fair-mindedness by and large hold sway in our daily lives. Acts of selflessness are common despite the self-centred obsessions of our culture -- think of the firefighters and other rescuers or the passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks. Just because the modern West no longer nourishes the Christianity on which it is founded doesn't mean everybody is going to turn into a self-serving thug.

Nonetheless, as someone once said, when people have nothing to believe in, they will believe in anything. "A person will worship something -- have no doubt about that," says Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay, On Nature. "That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming."

What we seem to worship nowadays is the opposite of faith. And the opposite of faith is not doubt, but nihilism; the perception that life is without meaning and purpose. And that is a dangerous situation.

Robert Sibley is a senior writer with the Citizen. He continues his three-part Christmas essay series tomorrow with a consideration of contemporary nihilism.

Faith, Nihilism and Wonder

In today's paper, senior writer Robert Sibley begins a three-part series of essays for the Christmas weekend. The essays explore the experience of faith, the consequences of the absence of faith and what experiences might be available to recover faith.

Today: Ours, it's been said, is an age without religious belief. Nonetheless, many still hold to a faith. What does it mean to experience faith?

Saturday: The opposite of faith is not doubt, say theorists. The opposite of faith is nihilism, a life without meaning or purpose, a life of boredom.

Sunday: Does the experience of wonder provide a response to nihilism, a possible route to the recovery of faith?

Matters of faith