Friday, 16 August 2013

Of Human Bondage and Belief

By Adam Hincks, S.J.

(Photo: Jonathan Kim, Lejac, B.C.)

Man is not a reasoning animal; he is a seeing, feeling, contemplating, acting animal. He is influenced by what is direct and precise. – Bl. J. H. Newman

This summer I read W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage for the first time and found it thoroughly engrossing. It is a magnificent Bildungsroman chronicling the life of its protagonist, Philip Carey, from his early childhood through to his early thirties. At the same time, though probably not by design, the novel provides a good portrait of the early twentieth century, having particularly vivid depictions of Bohemian Paris and lower- and middle-class London during that period.

As a young man living abroad, Philip loses his Christian faith, never to regain it. It is an abrupt experience for him, coming in the middle of a conversation with a freethinking, American theology student.
Philip paused for a while, then he said: “I don’t see why one should believe in God at all.” The words were no sooner out of his mouth than he realised that he had ceased to do so. It took his breath away like a plunge into cold water … It was the most startling experience he had ever had.
In many ways, the novel’s subsequent treatment of the meaning of life and the role of faith anticipates the postmodern position. Philip comes to believe that life is absurd but that we are capable, if we are fortunate, of carving out an existence to which we can give some measure of meaning. He is not especially bitter about life—nor about religion, for that matter—but ceases expecting it all to make sense. Now, though the subject is not treated simplistically in the novel, there are a couple of aspects about Philip’s apostasy that betray his misunderstanding about the nature of belief.

The first is rather obvious: ceasing to believe in the God of one’s childhood does not make it reasonable to stop believing in God altogether. It is altogether reasonable to cease believing that God is an old man sitting on a cloud, but it is not reasonable to conclude from this that there is no Supreme Being. This point seems trite, but I think it is one that we often miss. Philip discovers that he no longer believes in the God of his boyhood, associated with boring cathedral services at his school, puzzlement about the interpretation of scripture and (above all) his emotionally distant, clergyman-uncle. When he thinks he has stopped believing in God, he has in fact simply stopped believing in a grotesque childish god, but not necessarily in the Creator of the universe. This kind of mistake happens in other spheres of life. Some, having a bad experience of love, stop believing that love is possible; others, discovering that a profession is not what they expected, believe that it could never make anyone happy. But realising that one is mistaken about something does not mean that that thing does not exist: that must be a separate conclusion.

The second misapprehension Philip has about belief is a bit more interesting. Consider the following passage, which is from the same section as that quoted above.
The fact was that he had ceased to believe not for this reason or the other, but because he had not the religious temperament. Faith had been forced on him from the outside. It was a matter of environment and example. A new environment and a new example gave him the opportunity to find himself. He put off the faith of his childhood quite simply, like a cloak that he no longer needed.
Here we see a confusion of belief itself with the psychological phenomena and the emotions that accompany it. Belief is one thing and feelings about belief are another, even if they usually go together.  When it comes down to it, it simply is not rational not to believe just because one doesn’t have the “temperament”. There are many things I believe in, even if I do not feel particularly convinced. When I am strolling through the serene woods near our community here in Vancouver, it is hard to imagine that there are places in the world where people are dying in armed conflicts. These realities seem completely dissonant with the quietude of nature. But this is no reason for me to cease believing in the cruel fact of war. Similarly, a person who has had his heart broken in love may feel that he could never possibly know happiness again, but it would be irrational for him to actually believe that.

Having a psychological or emotional difficulty in believing in God is by no means a good reason for rejecting faith in him. This does not mean that belief in God should not be examined—indeed it should, but always from the point of view of truth rather than of unaided, subjective feeling. In other words, questioning your faith is healthy, but only if it really is honest questioning and not irrational hand-wringing.

This being said, emotions about faith are still vitally important. It is obviously not a matter of indifference if one is always worried about one’s belief or if one is always dry in religious sentiment. What such feelings tend to tell us, though, is more about ourselves than about the truth of God’s existence. Feeling that something is hard to believe might mean that there is something in your own life which is distancing you from reality, not that reality itself has ceased to be. That is why sin can be an obstacle to belief—and why Jesus said that the pure of heart will see God.

To return to my example of walking through the quiet woods: if I have trouble believing in suffering during these moments, worrying about my belief is not going to help. I must make a decision to do something about it. Perhaps I will be more attentive to the world news; perhaps I will become involved in volunteer work to help those who are suffering; perhaps I will remember them in my prayers. Or consider the young man who was unlucky in love. If he continues wallowing in self-pity it will not bring him any closer to the assurance that happiness is still possible. Rather, he must start living as though he believed it. Allowing negative feelings to run their course and neglecting to act can lead to an eventual loss of belief in what really is real.

In matters of religious belief, Blaise Pascal understood this very well:
At least learn that your inability to believe comes from your passions. If reason is carrying you along but you still cannot believe, do not work at convincing yourself by an augmentation of proofs for God, but by a diminution of your passions. You want to arrive at faith but you do not know the way. You want to cure yourself of unbelief and  are asking for the remedy. Learn from those who were once bound like you and who are now “all in”. These are they who know the way that you want to take and are cured of the ill of which you want to be cured: follow the manner in which they began. It consisted in doing everything as if they believed—in using holy water, having masses said, etc. Naturally even this will make you believe and dull your qualms. “But that is what I fear!” Why? What have you to lose?
We are, as C. S. Lewis once put it, “amphibious”: part spirit and part animal. Unlike angels, intellectually grasping something does not make it fully real to our psyche. We need to invest our whole selves in it.

In this process of belief, though, is there no danger that by “doing everything as if we believed” we will come to believe in something that is not true? Putting aside the obvious answer that this would be to commit the opposite of Philip’s error—to allow a surge of positive emotions to trump rational belief—I do not think the danger is actually that large. I think it is easier to be led into false beliefs when one retreats from an encounter with reality. But when we are courageous enough to meet the world as it comes, we have a pretty good knack at realising when our beliefs require revision.

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