An inevitable knowledge, required as a necessity requires
An obvious story to cite in this context is that found in the Gospel of Mark in which a father brings to Jesus his son who is suffering from seizures caused by (they believe) "a spirit", a stubborn spirit whom even the disciples could not cast out. The father asks Jesus if he is able to do anything about this to which Jesus replies, it seems with utter exasperation, “If you are able! - All things can be done for the one who believes”. The story suggests that the "spirit" finally comes out of the child at the climactic moment of the father’s cry, "I believe; help my unbelief!" (Mark 9:14-24), a cry which seems to be signaling to us a move from an inauthentic, shall we say merely lip-service belief to, an authentic, deeply felt and lived one. I think that authenticity is key in reading this story - an authentic response that leads to a wholeness in both the father and, of course in this story, also the son.
With this story in mind it is worth asking what might be going on when someone who doesn’t - genuinely can’t - believe says to me that they’d like to believe - that they'd like, in some way, some help with their unbelief?
Well, the first thing to note is that there is nearly always in play an assumption that belief (and by extension a life of faith) is something they don’t have and, secondly, they assume I do have it, which (as most of you know) I don’t - or at least I don't have it in the way the common assumption would have it. Thirdly, they feel that this belief (or life of faith) would offer them something that they feel is missing in their own life and so are separated from an opportunity to experience an ongoing sense of healing and wholeness. Generally, this missing 'something' is an identifiable, expressible grounding out of which they feel they would be able to act in the world with assurance and confidence. The general feeling I always pick up in these conversations is a nagging sense of rootlessness - not felt on most of the good days of their lives but certainly felt on the less than good days when they inevitably question whether the form of life which gives them their basic values is really secure and up to the mark; at that point it is perfectly natural that from time to time they begin to imagine what it would be like not to doubt their own form of life and silently to ask - or on rare occasions with someone like myself to ask out loud - a modified version of "help my unbelief". Theistic religions are, of course, very quick to jump in with their often unsubtle call "Now believe - just believe like the father and all will be well." But, for countless reasons none of which I will rehearse here, my disbelievers (and I count myself amongst them in an important way) cannot believe in the way Christianity - at least in its more orthodox doctrinal church forms - what it seems that Christian belief is asking from us. To repeat verbatim a point I made last week - we cannot but admit that we find basic elements of monotheism which we simply cannot render coherent any longer, and we cannot but earnestly wonder how other persons manage to. And there we are, yet again, left high and dry. The attraction and power of Christianity remains - and we feel a strong desire to go along to a service now and then (especially at Christmas and possibly Easter) to catch a frisson of what we think we are missing - but, in the end, no, we must admit, we can’t believe. Inevitably, this makes us feel we will always be excluded from Christianity and its promises of healing and wholeness and this pains us.
There are a million variations on this story and a vanishingly small number of people who play these variations in their own lives end up in a church like this - and some of them even become its ministers. But this forces me - us - to ask the question what’s going on here? What is it a church like this might be said, collectively, to "believe in"? - or better, what message (Gospel) are we taking from the Christian story which is still so much part of our own culture (even if so often negatively)?
Not surprisingly I get asked this a great deal (by both believers and unbelievers) and it has taken me to this very day even to get within a gnat’s whisker of figuring out how I might say something meaningful about it. A key text in helping me articulate what we (I) might be up to has been James C. Edwards' work and especially his "The Plain Sense of Things - Religion in an age of Normal Nihilsim". What I’m about to offer you hinges on knowing something about the concluding two lines from Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Plain Sense of Things” in which he says that "all this" (i.e. all that we see around us now seen without our culture’s old certainties) "Had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge, Required as a necessity requires."
Edwards' sees three incredibly helpful things in Stevens' fecund lines. The first is that our grasp of our own history (which includes how we have arrived at our unbelief) is present only in the story we tell of it. Part of that story includes for us the Christian narrative even as it also includes our journey to disbelief.
The second is that in this desire to tell our story truly we are no different from all those who preceded us. Our forebears could not make sense of who they were without also having some "sense of themselves and where they came from without some sense of storytelling about who they [were] and where they [came] from".
Thirdly, no-one is free to tell whatever stories about themselves that they wish. In so far as we are genuinely seeking real, grounded meaning to our life we remain a people set under the discipline of truth - we know we must tell our story truly in the sense that we know it must answer to something real historical truth independent of our imaginations. As we tell our story (as our forebears told their own) - for it to ring true we must at every step scrupulously assure ourselves that it can really does appear to us (which is also to say imagined because all true stories involve acts of imagination) as "an inevitable knowledge"; it has to be imagined by us as "required as a necessity requires" (p. 229). Now here is how Edwards puts the matter under discussion in this address across:
"Dewey was right: in our time the problem with supernatural religion is belief. However lively and powerful the stories of the gods and their minions are, there’s just no way for us that they are "required, as a necessity requires." To say that we can’t really believe in them is just to say that we aren’t now forced to; they are not any more for us "an inevitable knowledge" [in the way they were for our forebears]. There are plausible - more plausible - alternative accounts of phenomena upon which the supernatural has based its claims upon us: in the public square, or at least the college quad, genes now compete with gods, and win. For us full Pathos, full belief, comes only with an intellectual or artistic inevitability" (p. 231).
Edwards concludes by saying "Having put myself to the question with all the scruple I can muster, it’s only what I cannot help saying that seems genuinely true, and therefore capable of being believed and acted on with a clean heart." I cannot but agree with Edwards - it is required of me as necessity requires. So where does that leave us?
Well, here we may return to the beginning of this address and those people who say to me 'I don't or can't believe but I'd like to.' If it can be shown that their disbelief is (or maybe) present 'as a necessity requires' then you can also show that their disbelief is remarkably similar to the belief of the father in the Gospel story; he, like the disbeliever, is living 'as a necessity requires.'
However, there is a difference between the two for the father comes to know that he has no choice but to believe (he knows he is believing as a necessity requires) but many disbelievers (especially those who retain a certain sympathy towards Christianity) don't know that they have no choice but to disbelieve (he does not knows he is disbelieving as a necessity requires). It is the KNOWING of this that counts not belief or disbelief per se.
Knowing this the father can begin to live a life that is characterised by a certain wholeness; not knowing this the disbeliever cannot live a life that is characterised by a certain wholeness.
It seems to me, then, that a church such as this has a role in helping disbelievers (at least those sympathetic to Christianity) to see that their disbelief is, when they know it living as a necessity requires, their disbelief is just like the father's belief. In other words their disbelief does not exclude them from anything - least of all the opportunity for wholeness promised by living within the Christian tradition.
The second thing a church can offer is connected with the foregoing - it is to help people to read the Judaeo-Christian stories as authentically very much their own. We can do this by encouraging readings which avoid, like the plague, questions of doctrinal belief and which, instead, concentrate on how the stories reveal to us characters who are being challenged to lead authentic lives - lives lived only as a necessity requires whilst always bearing in mind the first-century Palestinian necessities are not twenty-first century necessities.
It seems to me that here we come close to being able to say what it is for us to say we belong to the Christian tradition, what it is we think the message of the Gospel is. For me it was tantalisingly expressed (though somewhat obscurely) by Wittgenstein and with his words I'll leave you:
"Christianity is not based on a historical truth, but presents us with a (historical) narrative & says: now believe! But not believe this report with the belief that is appropriate to a historical report, - but rather: believe through thick and thin and you can do this only as the outcome of a life. *Here you have a message! - don’t treat it as you would another historical message!* Make a *quite different* place for it in your life. - There is no paradox about that." (Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, p. 37e. MS 120 83 c: 8- 9.12.1937.)