16 CONDEMNED TO BELIEVE
CATALYST SUGGESTION SHEET #16
CONDEMNED TO BELIEVE
A COMMON SENSE VIEW
The human being is a believing animal. To be human is to believe. We cannot avoid it. And we are talking here about something more significant than the everyday beliefs – for example, that the bus will come, that the oncoming traffic will stay on the other side of the road and that, when I pack my lunch in the morning, I will still be alive at 1pm to eat it.
There is a more serious and deep level at which belief must operate. For example, if I do not believe in myself and my ability to cope with this and that, I will have some difficulty getting on with the business of the day; if I do not believe in other people and their basic good will I will find myself caught in paralysing paranoia. And if I do not believe that life is worth living I will probably have great difficulty getting out of bed in the morning.
BELIEVING SOMETHING ABOUT DEATH
Perhaps the issue of belief is nowhere more pressing then when we face the fact of our mortality. Confronted with the prospect of my own death, I have only two options really. (I can of course avoid the issue and suppress the question. But this is hardly an option if I am to embrace my humanity in all its aspects and attempt to live life to the full.) The two options are both options of belief: I must either believe – or tend towards believing – that death is simply termination and annihilation, or I must believe – or tend towards believing – that death is some sort of passage or transition. I am condemned to believe, more or less, no matter how implicitly or explicitly, no matter how coherently or incoherently, one of these.
In this context, we could say that the idea of "resurrection" – that life is moving towards, and is therefore defined by, a meaningful "passing over" – is more reasonable than the idea of "annihilation" – that life is moving towards, and is therefore defined by, a meaningless cessation. If my life is moving ineluctably towards a meaningless conclusion, why bother? Why would I make the effort to turn something that has no meaning into an experience in which I fabricate meaning? But so much about the human experience suggests meaning and purpose, suggests journey and goal. And these are not of my making. I may, of course, give them my meaning – which meaning may in turn be more or less consistent with the meaning inherent in the reality as such.
THE ACT OF BELIEVING
The act of believing – particularly when it is of the more significant kind – is a deeply human act, a liberating act. It is one of the primary ways by which we become human. And to engage the act of believing as a clear-eyed and reasonable adult, is also to struggle and, in a sense, die. For our inherent tendency towards egotism and its wish to be in control – itself a flight from our inherent anxiety as finite beings – will be threatened by the self-transcending movement and loss of control implicit in the act of believing. Believing exposes our anxiety. To the extent that we are unwilling to engage this struggle, and live through the anxiety, we will be less than we might be as human beings.
The act of believing ultimately demands trust and abandonment to something – or Someone. It calls us out of ourselves, beyond egotism and control. It will, at best, be no more than pseudo-belief if it is not an expression of a relationship with something more than ourselves. Belief is, at its best, an act of love. In it we are as vulnerable as we are real.
THE ENLIGHTENMENT LEGACY
The post-Enlightenment consciousness, which we have inherited, promotes the proposition that belief belongs to another era, that it is essentially a sign of immaturity or perhaps anxiety. Belief, according to this thesis, is unnecessary because rationality can – in principle at least – reveal all we need to know about reality. Hand in hand with this proposition is the belief that knowledge is power. When we know what we need to know, we just set about doing what we need to do. The rationalist motto might be stated thus: Real human beings believe nothing – they know!
The irony of this rationalistic proposition ought to be evident to any reasonable person. It is actually built on the belief that we should only accept as true what can be empirically verified or proved by mathematical or philosophical argument. What happens when we apply this principle to the principle itself? Can we, for example, empirically verify that empirical verification is a valid – or necessary or even sufficient – condition for accepting this or that as true? Rationalism, built as it is on such a strange leap of faith, is ultimately irrational, despite its claims to the contrary. Rationalism – the over-prizing of the rational – is the antithesis of what is reasonable.
A CONTEMPORARY DILEMMA
The influence of rationalism over the past century or so has left us with a dilemma: We must believe (because we are human beings) but our ability to believe has been severely – in some instances perhaps fatally – eroded (because we are post-Enlightenment people). In other words, belief for our generation, is not quite the same as it was, for example, for our grandparents and great-grandparents.
Add to this dilemma – which has deep roots in our post-modern consciousness – the disillusionment many feel today in the face of the failing structures and institutional forms of organized religion, and you have the ingredients for a dark night, a prolonged walk through the desert.
Therein lies a paradox. In the very limits of this situation we find our possibilities. Just as the desert was the place of liberty and love for the People of old, so we might find in this new "desert" a place of liberation and love.
Nothing can fail quite so badly as institutional religion when it is successful. That might just be the essential lesson for Catholics – and other Christians – at this time. What do we have left? To whom shall we go? The desert and the dark night are places of urgent questioning. They are also places where the superficialities and pretences evaporate. And that can be life-giving, even if painful.
SUGGESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION
Having read the foregoing, what is the main question on your mind?
Name the various levels of belief in your life, giving examples of each.
Do you think it is possible to live without believing anything?
In what sense can we speak of the act of believing as a deeply human act?
How do you experience the act of believing?
Reflect on the relationship between anxiety and believing.
Do you in any way experience the "dilemma" described above? Give an example.
Hw do you understand the metaphors of "desert" and "dark night"? Give a personal example.
In what sense might the act of believing be "liberating"? Is this part of your experience?
Does this discussion put in you in mind of anything in the Gospels?