In this book, Maurice Reidy meets with four people: two are believers and two are not and explores their experiences of religious belief and unbelief. He shows that to believe in God is a reasonable decision and one that can be sustained. He concludes with a personal account of his own belief.
200 pp, Columba Press, 2006.
To purchase this book online, go to www.columba.ie
Chapter One: The Faith of the Ordinary Person
Chapter Two: Faith is from God
Chapter Three: Faith and Conscience
Chapter Four: Discovering General Knowledge
Chapter Five: Reflection and Religious Knowledge
Chapter Six: Revelation: Knowledge of God
Chapter Seven: Who is this Jesus?
Chapter Eight: Faith, Motivation and Communication with God
Chapter Nine: An Invitation to the Gospel
Chapter Ten: Holiness
Chapter Eleven: The Believing Community
Chapter Twelve: The God I believe in and why
Chapter One: The Faith of the Ordinary Person
Religious faith is a willingness to trust in God, a willingness to trust that God exists and is near, whatever the appearances to the contrary may indicate. The words ‘faith’ and ‘trust’ stem from much the same idea, the one being almost a synonym for the other. Yet once the word ‘trust’ is introduced, the reality that is spoken of seems at once to become more personal, more a matter between two people who understand each other. This touches upon the essence of what is meant by religious faith.
The act of faith is an ordinary act of assent. This assent, saying ‘yes’, is to the presence of God and to the reality of our being in communication with him. It is like many other acts of saying ‘yes’ that are for the most part taken for granted by those who make them. It is an assent to what is perceived to be real. The act of faith is like the act of listening to a melody or a piece of music as opposed to analysing it closely or criticising it. Such acts of assent turn upon that which is understood to be real, that impresses with its sense of reality. The assent of faith links the believer directly to God: the principal reality that is at the heart of Christian faith is the reality of encountering God.
For the Christian, the term ‘ordinary believer’ is used in the sense of ‘everyman’ or of each person. It does not presuppose any special training or expertise. It presumes that God calls everybody to a life of faith, although not everybody actually subscribes to belief. There are many who believe in ordinary and unremarkable ways who are scarcely aware of this fact. The Christian religion provides a home for all ordinary believers.
Suzanne, although she no longer describes herself as a believer, gave this account of the faith of her mother:
My mother lost her own mother when she was born, and her life, all her life, she has looked forward to meeting her mother, and she firmly believes she will meet the person who is her mother when she dies. I envy that kind of faith. I don’t have that kind of faith, and yet I don’t know what … like everybody, I don’t know what happens. What happens when you die is the great question. . .
This idea of Suzanne’s mother looking forward to meeting her own mother, whom she had never actually met in this life, but of whom she had heard, is an example of how, for many believers, God is simply accepted and understood as being there. The act of believing is not primarily concerned with ideas about God, or with religious doctrines, but with God himself, as he is. H ends not in statements about God, but in God. (1) The act of faith turns upon direct contact with God.
Because the reality of God is something that is infinitely superior to the human mind, we ought not to be surprised that an act that reaches into God should be largely insensible on our part. We are not talking about sense knowledge, about what can be seen, touched, heard, observed. Faith is not about sense knowledge, it is about ‘things not seen and not heard’. (2) The interplay of trust and confidence that takes place between the person and God takes place without sight and without sound. We read in St Paul that ‘The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart (that is, the word of faith which we preach)’. (3) This ‘word’ is a largely silent word.
In faith, one person comes into real contact with another, yet that contact is one that is subject to a prior trust and belief in what has been told. The act of faith is not unlike a blind man running his hand over the face of his own child. The blind man knows his own child because he has always been given to understand that this child was his.
Faith in God comes before knowing very much about God. One begins to realise that there is ‘something’ or ‘someone’ there beyond the appearances of the world. An awareness that God is follows upon this realisation. The immediate experience is one of God simply being there. It is like the comparison with a melody, or the child.
Believing is not primarily concerned with a conceptual account of God then, with ideas about God or with religious doctrines as such. In this sense, believing is to be distinguished from study, even from studying the things that have to do with God, which is the province of theology. Theology, of its nature, tends to be notional, speculative and abstract in its approach, whereas faith is concrete, it is ‘now’. Faith is actual, it is alive and it is real; it is an experience that somehow or other engages the whole person. God cannot be understood by intellect alone. (4)
A few simple words, and the implications that follow from them, convey much that is to be known about God. ‘One’, ‘three’, ‘person’, ‘God’, ‘Father’, ‘Son’, ‘Spirit’: these few words lead us on eventually to all that we can know conceptually about the nature of God. They are not specialised or technical words, nor are they in any way ‘scientific’ words. They are common words. In the New Testament and the literature of the early church we are introduced to them. It is when we combine them and attempt to analyse their meaning, which is a most reasonable thing to do, that we run into what we call’mystery’. (5)
Christians believe that in Jesus Christ they possess the full revelation, insofar as the human person is capable of receiving it, of what God is. This ‘incarnation’ perspective of God allows all of those personal details of God to be sketched in, details that would not be known otherwise. In the New Testament we have, as it were, a perfect human image of what the personality of God is like, because Jesus is, in a very special sense, God.
Faith and prayer are closely linked. This is because the act of faith takes place at the core of our being, at a level where we recognise that the most important decisions of all are taken, the level we call our soul. Prayer is the speech of the soul. This immediacy of faith to prayer and to the core of our being emerges from my conversation with Martin:
Eventually it came to a stage when I couldn’t pray, I don’t know at what stage that occurred. I couldn’t say formal prayers so I gave them up completely, and I went in and I said my own prayers. I said ‘I’m here… You’re there. Will you just listen to me for a few minutes?’ And I came on my own terms. They say you shouldn’t be making your own terms, but I think that it’s necessary to make your own terms and to maintain your individuality. . .
We have here a certain maturity and a person taking responsibility for his own speech with God. He arrives at a place where learned forms of prayer are no longer possible for him, and so he enters on his own personal dialogue with his creator. And so, in responding to Jesus, it is much more natural and possible for us to respond to God in the way we would respond to a perfect and wonderful person. This is simply what happens by virtue of our belief in the incarnation of God. When we pray to Jesus, we are praying to God. These themes also emerge in a very characteristic way from my conversation with Paula. I asked her where was God in her life:
He’s there. I am a strong believer that he is there. And I pray; I get the kids to pray, I bring the kids to Mass. Anything happens, the first person I call on is ‘Himself’.
As the conversation continued, Paula’s impressions of God took on a more personal and intimate character:
Like a counsellor up there… I mean, better talking to someone than talking on your own and answering yourself back. .. Yes, as a counsellor… To be honest, I never actually thought… until you were actually speaking to me . . . I never thought I actually had these feelings. Somebody there that you could actually share everything with. Like having another husband as such, but a counsellor, a boss, that you can tell them absolutely everything, and no matter what happens, at the end of the day, well so they say in the Bible, he’ll forgive you. As long as you ask for forgiveness, he’ll forgive you.
I put it to her that she never felt that she was on her own…
Exactly, exactly, exactly… I mean I never actually thought I had these… I never thought so deep… I mean I would say I’m a Christian, I am a good Christian… do my bit. .. have my bad side as well, like everybody else… but I never actually thought, until you started talking, that I actually felt as deeply as I do. Its not until you are asked, I suppose, that you realise how deep your religion actually is. I feel really, really sad for people that don’t have anything. . .
Then the conversation took a sudden and strange turn. Paula said:
He has his moments… then so do most men (laughing) …
You think of God as a man?
Yes. Very much so … I keep saying… as in women, as in the things women have to go through… being a woman, having a baby, having a period, going through the menopause … I keep saying: ‘It’s easy knowing God was a man. ..’ I always say that, always. .. that’s one thing he’ll get me for when I get up there, because I always say that, ‘easy knowing he was a man.’ He didn’t make life easy for a woman, even though his mother was a woman, you know… definitely a man, definitely, definitely a man (laughing).
Here we were stumbling on the real faith perspectives of one young Dublin woman, rooted very much in her own perceptions of herself and her experience. With Paula, it was not possible to discuss these matters in an abstract or distant tone; she was not familiar with arguments nor with the more exact definitions of theology. Her approach to the whole question of God was particular and it was concrete. When she thought of God she thought immediately of him as incarnate in Jesus, although it took me a moment to recognise this. Yet she was very certain that she had direct knowledge of God. And when she thought of Mary, the mother of Jesus, she identified spontaneously with her as a woman and as a mother. There is no suggestion on Paula’s part of a flight into some sacred myth regarding her.
When we are told that Mary the mother of Jesus prayed: ‘My soul glorifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my saviour’ , (6) we recognise an outpouring of gratitude to God that is deeply characteristic of faith. In Mary’s case, as we would expect, her faith was profoundly informed by her knowledge of God drawn from her own Jewish religion. The word ‘prayer’ is almost another synonym for the word ‘faith’.
Although the act of faith of each person ends in God, individual impressions of God can vary greatly. It is completely understandable that each of us would have a personal impression of the infinite God, especially when we realise that our impressions of finite things can be personal and individual. There is nothing at all unique to Paula in this. We see the same thing every day in people’s own impressions of their parents, and indeed in their impressions of their own place in society or of how they are held by their friends.
So religious faith is an understanding of God that is direct and immediate. The possession of faith puts people in touch with the reality of God, although it does not guarantee that a person’s impressions of God are always correctly expressed. By this I mean simply that the prayer of Jesus, for example, the ‘Our Father’, expresses perfectly what he knew of the Father. Our impressions, on the contrary, are tied in for better and for worse with our own understandings of fatherhood, including of course our understanding of the fatherhood of God. When we reflect on it, religious faith is very normal in the world. Ordinary people have faith and they exercise it all the time.
Faith can be a blank kind of knowledge. A quality of seeming emptiness sometimes permeates it. In other words, the light that accompanies certainty about God disappears, or never appears. It can happen that we are left with a vague sense of nothingness, a sense of ‘so what’. For many believers there can be a leavetaking of the ‘comfort’ knowledge of faith. This is a common experience. Yet the darkness that follows faith is very different from the darkness that occurs before faith is discovered. Something like this can happen when we have been exposed to great suffering.
Part of the problem of religious darkness is the enormity of the concept of God and the ordinary routine of day-to-day life, as we know it. Life in the ordinary world offers what seems a ‘mismatch’ to eternity, where there is life unending in another world. Inevitably, we are always close-wrapped in our own human culture and our own perception of that other world. It is difficult to sustain any kind of appreciative awareness over time of what is involved in having been created or redeemed by God. All believers speak of ebb and flow in their experience of faith. Frequently, after enthusiasm at the beginning, the consolation of God’s presence is caught more in a moment off guard, in a word of kindness shared with somebody, in the sunlight appearing after the rain.
The darkness of ordinary faith is illustrated very well in texts that come down to us from ancient times. Obvious examples are some of the psalms of the Old Testament. These songs in praise of God were written down many centuries before the coming of Christ. They reveal very well the personal territory of belief. Time and time again the psalmist cries out to God to show himself; yet he never cries out in disbelief.
In psalm 43 we read at the beginning:
We heard with our ears, 0 God,
our fathers have told us the story
of the things you did in their days,
you yourself, in days long ago.
Towards the middle we read:
Yet now you have rejected us, disgraced us:
you no longer go forth with our armies.
You make us retreat from the foe
and our enemies plunder us at will.
You make us like sheep for the slaughter,
and scatter us among the nations.
And in the last stanza we read:
Awake, O Lord, why do you sleep?
Arise, do not reject us for ever!
Why do you hide your face from us
And forget our oppression and misery?
For we are brought down low to the dust;
Our body lies prostrate on the earth.
Stand up and come to our help!
Redeem us because of your love!
It can happen that we can read these words and yet not hear or understand what is being said. It is as if the ‘religious language’ somehow goes over our heads. The words are a cry to a God who does not appear to be listening. They remind us powerfully that the reality of belief has not changed that greatly over the last three thousand years. They remind us also that this difficult and stubborn aspect of faith is the very faith that is endorsed in God’s revelation to us.
When we turn to psalm 76, this is what we read:
I cry aloud to God,
Cry aloud to God that he may hear me.
In the day of my distress I sought the Lord.
My hands were raised at night without ceasing;
My soul refused to be consoled.
I remembered my God and I groaned.
I pondered and my spirit fainted. . .
I said: ‘This is what causes my grief;
That the way of the Most High has changed.’
I remember the deeds of the Lord,
I remember your wonders of old. . .
The opening lines of Psalm 42 are frequently quoted for their
As the deer longs for running streams,
so longs my soul for thee, 0 God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
Yet the lines that follow that opening, still in the first stanza of the psalm, are less familiar to many:
When shall I come and behold the face of God?
My tears have been my food day and night,
While men say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?’
All of the prayer that is the remainder of psalm 42 takes place in an atmosphere of utter darkness. If the act of faith takes place frequently in darkness, it is no less true that the texts of revelation are framed in an atmosphere that is totally human and recognisable. The perception of the God of Christianity, and of Judaism, is a perception that resonates with us when the questioning of the heart is most genuine and most desperate. The evidence shows that some of our own deepest questions have been lived by many who have gone before us in faith.
These texts, and many more from throughout the psalms, and from other parts of the scriptures, communicate to us a basic truth about belief. It is that truth that we meet in the request spoken to Jesus in the gospel: ‘1 believe; help my unbelief!’ (7) Many believing people live out their lives, or large portions of their lives, in what can only be called religious darkness. To the outside observer looking in at such people, it appears more ‘as if’ there were a loving God rather than that ‘there is’ such. Pressed for a further explanation of this, they may put it in some way like Martin. I had begun by saying that we live at a time when religion is treated as if it were simply a quality of a former age without relevance to this one; that many of our friends are not religious in any sense that is obvious to them or to us.
I often wonder whether it is a passing phase… You see families where the father and the mother are deeply religious, regular attenders at Mass and prayers and so on, and where the children seem to lose all interest in matters of religion. There is so little to remind one of ‘the other world’. This is the trouble… God himself doesn’t help… in fact he makes it extremely difficult. I don’t know whether it is because of his sense of humour or what, but he seems to enjoy … I won’t say he seems to enjoy it but he certainly doesn’t do anything to stop an immense aridity in people who do believe and who would like to have a stronger faith, but who go through years of total dryness. . .
Here we find an absolute confidence in God accompanied by bewilderment at the experience of a life that has been led largely with a sense of God’s absence. I asked whether Martin ever questioned the existence of God:
That is my constant; I don’t say occasionally, it is constant. I mean for the last ten, twenty, years now, I’ve gone through total aridity. I feel like the prior in Brian Moore’s lovely novel in a remote monastery somewhere in West Cork. He’s lost totally his belief in God, and he leads his monks into prayers, into various ceremonies, and the only prayer that remains to him is the Our Father, and he begins the Our Father, or at least he leads his confreres into the Our Father, but he can’t finish it. Now the only prayer that I have been able to say for years is the Our Father. Except the prayer to the Holy Spirit, ‘Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and enkindle in them the fire of your divine love…’ I constantly say that, why I don’t know, but I feel the need to say it.
What keeps you going in all this aridity?
Because I know, you see. Even when I don’t believe I know, it’s one of those strange things; I know that I know. It’s like the disciples said to Christ, when he said to them: ‘Are you also going to go away?’ And they said to him ‘Where will we go?’ Not because they didn’t want to go, but because they had nowhere else to go. I’m in the same boat: I’ve nowhere else to go. And if I were to throw all that I have lived by over the past seventy years aside, I’d certainly have nowhere to go. So I’m not just hanging on because of that, but because, as I say, I have to believe that what he said is true and that he does fulfil his promises.
Once again, as was the case with Paula, we are in deeply subjective, that is, personal, territory, although here it is not anything like the consolation that she experienced. ‘Aridity’, which is so familiar to Martin, can present itself in different forms. People can experience something like this in their own awareness of themselves, a sense of deep unease, a sense of depression. Those who have been unfortunate in their lives or in their life choices can also experience a sense of having been forgotten by God. This in turn leads them to question whether God really exists. The important point to bear in mind is that faith can coexist with any of these mental states. Faith does not promise happiness now, although very often it does bring with it happiness and peace.
The very faithfulness of such people to what they believe, their goodness in every respect and their disinterestedness, in that there is no immediate reward for them, make them perfect witnesses to the presence of the invisible God.
Walking away from it all
It is not unusual that believers experience the temptation to walk away from their belief in God. For some, there is hardly a waking moment that is not badgered by the appeal of unbelief. They say that there is no peace from voices, internal or external to themselves, that mock at every choice in faith that they make and that challenge every genuine manifestation of their religion. There are those who have experienced God only in terms of a life-long struggle of this kind.
Yet, we should also be aware that the tendency to doubt, including doubting matters that have to do with faith, is part of the operation of a healthy mind. It would be a mistake to characterise all doubt as some kind of temptation. Doubt might equally be an opportunity. All development and growth has an intellectual accompaniment that is shaped by questioning and by sincere doubt.
The challenges to religious belief in a person can frequently present themselves as a kind of ‘growing up’ or ‘coming of age experience. It could be that someone in quite a mature way realises that some of the stage-props of religious truth have simply fallen away. For example, a child may believe unquestioningly in the goodness and holiness of his or her parents, or have an absolute confidence in the goodness and holiness of the priest. In adulthood, such a person may have to cope with the loss of some of these impressions. Or it could be that a person has become disenchanted with views of the world in general that dominated his or her childhood, and now he or she is flooded with doubt as to what is really the case.
Suzanne has vivid memories of her teenage years, where the emphasis in her peer group was on how you would distance yourself from your parents and acquire a sense of your own individuality. For her and her companions, religion was an obvious area where difference could be experienced and tested:
… when I was about thirteen or fourteen, I suppose; the age when one starts to ask questions, and rebel, the usual things. When I was a teenager, you would have still lied to your parents that you were going to Mass. .. you would have gone to a friend’s house, hung around the freezing cold school sheds, rather than go into a nice warm church, because it wasn’t cool to go into the church. And it was the age when you’d have amazingly wonderful conversations about God and Jesus and religion… only sixteen year olds can be that confident about life really. But I would still see my parents as a source of… what’s the word… guidance, or minding, or parenting in the church.
When she went to university, Suzanne’s distance from the religion of her parents became more fixed and more stable:
Going through college I studied social science, so obviously we’d have done a fair bit of sociology and philosophy. I suppose I’m always saying that when I find the time I’ll read again, but I never could. Some friends of mine would reject Catholicism, as in the Mass on Sundays, ‘apple pie’ Catholicism, but they might be very spiritual people or they’d claim that they are very spiritual. I used to feel I am not very spiritual at all, actually.
It was at about this time that she encountered an important spiritual crisis:
My grandfather died, and he had lived with us and we were very close. My mother drew great comfort from his death. For our mother, he was re-united with his wife and they would all be together. Whereas I just felt a huge anger… I was about nineteen at the time
… and I remember one night in the dark saying: ‘Right, right, if there’s a heaven, if you are out there, let me know… now… I want a sign. . .’ and of course, you don’t get a sign. And I remember feeling very frustrated. .. where does the life go? And not being happy with the answers that were available. .. and I suppose that would sum up where I am, because I don’t go out of my way to find out alternative answers. Where does the life go? Logically, you would say, the life is reborn into other life. If you look at plant life, plants die, they rot, and they feed other plants. You move up the line, you say: ‘So what happens when animals die, when humans die…’ And who knows? But life stops and life starts; and the intelligence, the emotions and all of those pieces that are more than the physical roots… where is all that. .. that is the great mystery.
The phenomenon of personal developmental growth, however, whereby cherished views are challenged, altered or rejected, do not always cause serious problems for our understanding of religious faith. It is important that false or childish impressions of God be discarded. Many things alter as we grow up. It is natural to feel some distance from parents, family and home. The very process of taking to the world as an adult means having to discover anew who and what one is, and who and what one wants to be. We would naturally expect as much to happen with our religious views; it certainly happens with much else.
Belief in God is something that has to be looked at again in adulthood, and embraced or indeed rejected. It could be that a person simply walks free of those impressions that dominated his or her earlier life. It does happen that people walk away from faith in adulthood. The whole concept of human freedom that is central to Christian doctrine ensures that this possibility be recognised and accepted. Declan describes very well that moment when he chose to walk away from the faith world in which, by his own account, he had quite happily grown up. I had asked him about his childhood understanding of the origins of the universe:
Well, like every Irish boy born in the thirties, in the first part of my life that question would never have arisen, would certainly never have occurred to me, never did occur to me. So, up to the age of my early twenties, this was all very clear … and, of course, ‘who made the world?’ … ‘God made the world’ … end of story.
However, other ways of looking at things only became evident when he left home:
Then in my early twenties, when I was taken outside of the Irish environment … then this question did occur to me. I had never been able to get answers to it … but certainly the explanation I had up to that point, seemed to me … suspiciously simple … and the more I thought about it, in fact, very quickly, it began to appear almost absurd. This was in my early twenties, and I am now in my sixties and my views on the basic question haven’t changed very much since then. This, this ‘pat’ explanation wasn’t only a little bit suspicious, but really quite absurd, quite frankly, and I have never changed in my views about that particular issue since then.
Suzanne and Declan speak above of their experiences of belief and unbelief in growing up and in adulthood. The ‘temptation to walk away from it all’ is not confined to the process of becoming an adult. There are many times in a person’s life when holding on to faith in God challenges the believer to the utmost. For Martin, as we have seen, this is an ongoing experience.
The history of salvation is predicated on the free will of every participant in that salvation. In fact, the world of ‘unbelief’ that is everywhere around us, whether it is formally announced as such or not, is precisely the context in which genuine faith in God has always been pitched.
The example of ordinary people
The learning of the truths of religion for any individual depends directly on the existence and co-operation of other people. In a matter that seems to relate us primarily to God, this dependence on the ways of others like us may come as a surprise. Yet so it is. Without the word of somebody else, I would know nothing about God or about Jesus Christ. This role of others in the more important aspects of our own lives can easily be overlooked. Whether it is my parents, or role models chosen by me, or somebody that just came to my notice because of what he or she really believed and practised, their influence in my own coming to believe can hardly be overestimated.
Each of us, moreover, learns about the world in a deeply personal fashion. This is such an obvious truism that it is very possible to overlook it also. Yet the passing on of the faith that we have received is a common task that depends totally, humanly speaking, on each one of us co-operating in our own way with the work of God. We cannot either begin to believe or make progress in faith without the assistance of our brothers and sisters.
All of this draws attention particularly to the sense of ‘witness’ that attends each person. We have to grasp the idea that the influence of each one plays a primary role in understanding the nature of Christian faith. The actual dynamic is not simply one of God revealing himself to men and women, although it is frequently assumed that this is the case. What takes place, when we look at it more closely, is that we are influenced by this or that person to look upon God in a particular way, whether it is in the compassion of another person, or his or her happiness, or peace, or hope, or in his or her perseverance in darkness or aridity. We begin to realise that there is no reason why that quality that speaks to us of God in another person could not also be our own. Hence a link is made between human example and the call of God.
In our conversation, Martin traced his faith quite simply to his own home and childhood:
It (my faith) probably comes from the family background. Even as a child I was very conscious of the importance of the local church in my education, in my growing up, and I would regularly visit the church.
When Paula spoke to me of her parents and of her grandmother, it was clear that she knew well how much she owed to each of these for her present understanding of God. A seemingly strict upbringing, humorously recollected, has convinced her of this:
My Dad and my Mam. Sunday mornings if you missed Mass in our house there’d be murder. I lived with my Granny, and my Granny would have been from the old stock, which was, if you missed the first reading, you had to stay for that Mass and stay all for the next Mass, and I hated going to Mass… and they always made sure.
My Dad brought us up .., my Dad’s a devout Catholic… he would be the one that on Sunday would say to us: ‘Did you go to Mass?’ If you missed Mass, or if you got dolled up even going to Mass, he used to give out to us because he used to say: ‘You’re not going to Mass for a fashion parade. . . you go to Mass to pray. . .’ He would be the one that had brought me up to believe the way I believe. (8)
Yet Declan is equally sure that he thinks differently from other members of his family and differently from many of his friends. I asked him whether, in his own experience of growing up, there had been anything like role models, people to whom he felt drawn because of what they had been, what they had done. I wondered whether the idea of independence of mind, of a person who questions things, of one that takes a road not chosen by many, had any special appeal to him:
Certainly not in my family… to this day there are members of my family with whom I wouldn’t discuss these issues. I don’t know what they think I believe in. I have a brother who is a priest … a person with whom you might say I should discuss these things … I never would. For a long time I did admire people who would be seen as the intellectuals of the church … but … when I threw away the system, of course, I threw away the bearers at the same time. The people I admire are the people who would be radical… in retrospect, I admire Martin Luther, although I don’t believe his belief … I like people like Darwin. While I was nurtured a Catholic, I am by instinct a Protestant, and by conviction an atheist … in that I like being given to question things in a very gentle, civilised manner … and I don’t go and beat other people around the head when they come back with different answers. That I admire … so if you were to ask me is there anyone to whom I am … a disciple, certainly not …
Notice that while Declan says he is not a disciple of anyone, yet he also acknowledges some of the people whom he admires, like Martin Luther and Charles Darwin. All I want to show here is the way in which those whom we admire can influence each of us. This influence is always an important factor in matters of belief, whether religious or secular. Although he is a non-believer in the religious sense, Declan is no exception to this very ordinary rule.
Notice also what he calls his ‘very gentle, civilised manner’. There is something important here. Atheists are not the only people who can be criticised on occasion for intolerance. The church has suffered much from a time when religious teaching was characterised by phrases like ‘he had the faith beaten into him’.
Life is a school in which we advance with the knocks and reversals that come our way as well as with the rewards. As we progress through life, our intellectual grasp of things matures. As more things are seen and learned, those things that we thought we understood well enough are seen in a new light. The reflective person is constantly ‘tuning in’ to new levels both of questions and of answers. He or she is picking things up for the first time, expanding his or her knowledge and understanding, recognising things not perceived in the same way before. With increasing familiarity and subtlety, the listening mind gradually builds up impressions of religious belief that help to unravel somewhat the mystery that surrounds it.
Martin provides an interesting example of this kind of progress or maturation in thinking. We were talking about a lifetime much of which was spent with books. By the age of eight, for example, on his own reckoning, he had already read most of Dickens and, as an adult, had read very widely in modern English, French, American, Russian and Irish literature. Early on in our conversation, he had mentioned that he had always been attracted by the faith and holiness of St Therese of Lisieux, a young French Carmelite nun. Towards the end, however, he mentioned that he now found it impossible to re-read the autobiography of Therese:
But I was just thinking… how your tastes change, for example… I was talking a lot earlier on about Therese, the Little Flower, and her book ‘The Story of a Soul’ impressed me so much when I first read it. Then, some years ago, I went back to reading it again… a thing you should never do. I couldn’t finish it, in fact I couldn’t even get half way through it, I gave it up because I found it so naive and so childlike almost. .. I’d say almost childish. .. in its approach to so many things. And I felt that this is so much out of character with the woman whom I know to be such an extraordinarily courageous and strong woman that it’s presenting a false picture. .. so I gave it up rather than to lose my hold on the essential Therese.
It seemed Martin was touching on something quite significant here. Once you feel you have seized something important in a person, then you subsequently hold on to that importance rather than allowing even the person’s own writing, or their public persona, to take it from you…
I mean at fifteen years of age to go into a convent is one thing and to be obsessed with the notion of serving God. .. but to spend the following nine years in darkness… that’s an extraordinarily heroic thing… and she kept saying: ‘even if he should kill me, I would still believe in him…’ and that about sums up my feelings, many times during my life… ‘even if you kill me, I’ll still hang on’.
Martin’s reflection shows the profound significance of the influence of others on our personal development, including our faith development. Examples of ordinary people having such influence are widespread in the New Testament. The gospel of St John tells us the story of the Samaritan woman and the role she played in bringing others to Jesus and to God. Here is the closing scene of a longer narrative:
Many of the Samaritans of that town had believed in him on the strength of the woman’s testimony when she said, ‘He told me all that I had ever done’, so, when the Samaritans came up to him, they begged him to stay with them. He stayed for two days, and when he spoke to them many more came to believe; and they said to the woman, ‘Now we no longer believe because of what you told us; we have heard him ourselves and we know that he really is the saviour of the world’. (9)
The influence the martyr, Stephen, had on the young Saul is another example. His story is to be found in the Acts of the Apostles. (10) Stephen was brought before the High Priest in Jerusalem and charged with a crime not too different from that with which Jesus had been charged. He had said, apparently, that God did not live in any kind of house or in any kind of temple. We can still read his speech today as it was written down after his trial.
Stephen died for his own witness to the revelation of God. His composure at his trial and his bearing at his death made a deep impression on the young Saul, later St Paul, who was present and consenting to his death. Stephen was the first martyr of the Christian faith, and his influence lives with us still.
Sooner or later, Christians believe, however, reflection goes beyond what has been received from others. It leads beyond human contact and human knowledge to the presence of the One who has created us and who communicates with us. Yet it is another human being who always stimulates the first movement in the path that leads us to God. We need to keep this human dimension constantly in mind. Religious belief is a phenomenon of human community.
1. See St. Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274): Summa Theologica, 2-2, q. I, art. 2, art secundum.
2. 1 Cor 1:9
3. Rom 10:6-8. Paul is here quoting a text already some thousand years old from the teaching of Moses in the book of Deuteronomy 30:14: ‘but the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.’
4. St Thomas Aquinas asserts that the existence of God is not self-evident to the human mind. Op. cit., la, 2, 1, sed contra.
5. J. H. Newman, A Grammar of Assent (1870), New York (Image Books Edition) 1955, page 113. My paragraph attempts to summarise Newman on these points.
6. Lk 1:46-47.
7. Mk 9:24.
8. Paula’s experience of her father in this matter is very different from that of both Suzanne and Martin. In Ireland religious matters in the home have often been seen as the province of the mother. See Tom Inglis, Moral Monopoly: The Rise and Fall of the Catholic Church in Modern Ireland, Dublin, 1998, pp 146, 196.
9. John 4:29-32.
10. For the full account of Stephen’s trial and death, see Acts 6:8-8.1.