None of us can believe in something that we do not assume is somehow true. To do so is an absurdity. And belief in the driving force and cultural power of anything — whether it’s science, art, politics, or philosophy, or some combination of all of these — is always a matter of a decision that one makes, consciously or unconsciously, to acquiesce in its meaning and possibilities. Even the belief that there is no driving force or cultural power in the universe or anywhere else is a belief, and a decision that we make.
There are various modes of evidence for all of these things, of course, but they always lie somehow outside of that belief itself. One can’t prove the truth of science with the scientific method without indulging in solipsism; nor can one posit a belief in the arts or politics or, for that matter, religion, without seeking the basis for that belief somewhere outside of the arts, politics, or religion.
Ultimately, one makes a decision to believe in something. As I said, it’s either conscious or unconscious, and one bases this decision on one’s own personal intellectual, physical, cultural, and spiritual experiences, which are never static but are ever-changing; ultimately, too, we move and behave in the world based on that faith — which is what belief becomes over time — whether we consciously or unconsciously do so. This must mean that there comes a point at which acquiescence in one truth or another, especially that overriding truth of which faith is the result, is something of an epiphany or revelation: something mysteriously outside of everyday time and place. Two metaphors come to mind. First, perhaps this epiphany or revelation is comparable to the clouds parting, the sun shining, and the seraphim descending from heaven to brilliantly light the world. But second, it may be a matter of recognizing (and, more important, hearing and listening too) a still, small voice through which that truth speaks: a quiet whisper in the ear, not an immersive light-and-sound show.
There are as many avenues to faith as there have been individuals who have walked upon the earth, and though various of them share some qualities, none is identical to another. (Indeed, some claim to have genuinely seen angels and heard voices, but for me personally these remain metaphors, though far be it from me to deny those visions and voices.) A friend asked yesterday, “If [you are] no longer agnostic, then what? Exploring?” I responded, “For me the Nicene Creed says it best as a start,” and indeed it is only a start, a first step, but an important one. That was the decision I made last week. More on all this anon — especially about faith and our activities and behaviors in this world, from my own modest perspective — but it was a long and difficult decision to make, and it took me years to make it. The road started a while ago. The below essay from January 2016, provides context.
Yesterday morning I attended the early Holy Eucharist service at a nearby Episcopal church. It was the first time I’d been in a church in about fifteen years; I’d passed this church probably hundreds of times over the past decade located, as it was, only a few blocks from the Strand Book Store, a regular weekend haunt of mine. This time I did not pass it, but stepped indoors for the service.
I blame this deviation from my normal route on poetry — more specifically on T.S. Eliot, more specifically still on his Four Quartets, which I read early in 2015. Though he turned to orthodox Anglican Christianity shortly before the Second World War, Eliot cannot be said to be ignorant of the modern world; indeed, he’s described as a great modernist, not least for his poems “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and The Waste Land. Written in the years following the First World War, these poems were almost dementedly modern in their description of the fragmentation, desiccation, and destruction of Europe that seemingly offered no way out (not unlike the world as I see it today). “Ash Wednesday,” the 1930 poem that announced his formal conversion to the Church of England, did not trace a way out so much as a way up.
Eliot’s poems after his conversion did not become more explicit, but they did become more lucid — and lucid, particularly, in the mysteries that they described. They contain much more than can be revealed through only a few readings; their considerations of time and redemption, especially, are swirled rather than concrete (though Eliot’s imagery, as I said earlier, is quite clear). So when, as a consequence, I turned to the Gospels themselves later in the year, I was able to recognize the same power, the same unfathomable sense of mystery that nonetheless, like the Four Quartets, profoundly spoke to my own suspicion that there may be, after all, something beyond this world that nevertheless was profoundly within it and to which mankind had a particularly deep connection, that mankind ignored at its peril. There is something that scripture does to those who read it closely; indeed, two twentieth-century translators of the Gospels, Richmond Lattimore and E.V. Rieu, were transformed from non-believers to believers through their efforts to English them.
I sat in the pew and really came to think that I’d arrived quite in the middle of things. The church I attended is over two hundred years old — more to the point, its community is over two hundred years old, and a church is a local community of souls. I was impressed through the service with the means through which the liturgy combined scripture, tradition, and reason, the three-legged stool upon which Anglicanism and its American cousin the Episcopal church rests (I only, at this point, have observer status, after all). As a newcomer I was quite hesitant to raise my voice — and I think it’ll be some time before I’m confident enough in contributing my own voice to the hymns, merely from an aesthetic consideration — though I did find myself reciting, along with the rest of the congregation, the Lord’s Prayer; at a certain point in the service, you are meant to turn to the others around you and shake their hands in greeting and community. And this I did too, the most natural thing in the world by then.
At the coffee hour after the service I was standing I suppose rather forlornly with a cup of weak tea when I was approached by another newcomer to the church, a young woman recently arrived from West Virginia, and we were able to share observations about being strangers in a strange land (less strange, I think, to her, who was I believe a cradle Episcopalian after all). We were then approached by two rectors of the church who had spotted us as a couple of live ones, and their warm honest welcome was something I don’t come across too much in New York, especially not in the theater where I used to spend much of my time. Ironic, but there you are.
Like other New Yorkers I’m possessive of the personal space around me and I’m not used to embraces — though this was not a physical embrace, it was a warm social and even emotional embrace. As Eliot may have suspected, this is the church’s role. I still don’t know whether or not faith is something you can ever fully possess, doubt being such a strong part of our nature and the world, and us, being what they are. Even Augustine — “I do believe, help thou my unbelief,” he prayed to God — had his moments. But as for the Christian church itself, the truth of G.K. Chesterton’s imaginative statement of the matter in Orthodoxy was borne home to me:
As we have taken the circle as the symbol of reason and madness, we may very well take the cross as the symbol at once of mystery and of health. Buddhism is centripetal, but Christianity is centrifugal: it breaks out. For the circle is perfect and infinite in its nature; but it is fixed for ever in its size; it can never be larger or smaller. But the cross, though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction, can extend its four arms for ever without altering its shape. Because it has a paradox in its centre it can grow without changing. The circle returns upon itself and is bound. The cross opens its arms to the four winds; it is a signpost for free travellers.
So I was thankful for the open arms I was perhaps unduly surprised to find at church yesterday. And thankful, too, that I’d found Four Quartets again when I did.