(Previously published in the Clare Champion)
I wonder if you remember a scene from the 1970’s TV series ‘Brideshead revisited’ where Julia is reflecting on her failed marriage to Rex Mottram; a man of prodigious money-making powers but of utterly stunted spiritual understanding and wisdom.
Looking out to sea she says: “He wasn’t a complete human being at all. I thought he was a sort of primitive savage, but he was something absolutely modern and up-to-date that only this ghastly age could produce. A tiny bit of a man pretending to be whole.”
Modern man – so well developed in certain ways – so clever so ingenious, master, mainly, of his environment and yet the signs are there of a few attributes and faculties so developed and trusted that they swamp other capabilities with which we have also been blessed. It is as if our sight is so clear that we no longer bother to hear, our intellect so relied upon that we have forgotten how to intuit or feel.
With its roots in the beginning of the late 17th and 18th century Europe the Enlightenment or the ‘Age of Reason’, which emphasized human reason and individualism rather than tradition and superstition – had much to commend it. It gave impetus to such brilliant minds as Spinoza, Voltaire, John Locke and Isaac Newton, and their emphasis on liberty, democracy, human rights and religious tolerance.
Rather less successful attempts, however, to reconcile science and religion resulted in a rejection of prophecy, miracle and revealed religion in preference for a constrained, attenuated vision of God – who sort of exists, but who doesn’t get involved. We can see it especially in Thomas Paine’s book ‘The Age of Reason’ and through Thomas Jefferson in his short ‘Jefferson Bible’ – from which all supernatural aspects were studiously removed.
Naturally there was a counter reaction, and as can so often when people feel under threat, rather than reform or re-express the wisdom of their religion or culture, attitudes can become defensive and harden, opinions become intransigent and stricter.
For example, I suspect that the people who first told the stories of the creation in Genesis did not believe that they were describing events exactly as they happened, moment by moment, how could they? No one was there. Sitting around the campfires they were content with stories that helped them make sense of their world – that gave shape and purpose to it.
Untroubled by the baggage of the Enlightenment, they didn’t feel the need to make absolute distinctions between objective facts and myth, to categorize their thoughts and feelings into boxes that separated them from each other and prevented their working in harmony. Actual events, poetry, stories, hopes, dreams and visions could all happily intermingle and complement each other. What they were seeking was something that gave meaning, a sense of truth, partial perhaps but a unity of understanding, a holistic approach rather than looking at the world through only one lens. Informing the heart and soul, as well as the mind.
No doubt a downside could be fear and superstition. But conversely, what a price we pay today for our single-minded rationalism. Our post-modern world is morally adrift, we are philosophically uncertain, fearful, our attitudes, our sense of right and wrong, our societies themselves seem founded on shifting sands, science is as likely to destroy our planet as it is to save it. We seem less capable of creating beauty, less able to understand what it is.
Some people, frightened and therefore dangerous seek to combat all this by a repeated insistence on religious and political fundamentalism and literalism – the age old, time worn reaction of opposites.
And yet one must wonder whether it is inevitable, to perpetually swing the pendulum between two ways of thinking, both vying for absolute supremacy? Might we instead seek a new way of thinking – a way that learns from the insights and revelations of science but also listens attentively and creatively to the wisdom of our religious sensibilities. That understands that whilst all facts are true, not all truths need to be simplistically factual. That poetry, art, music, myth, human creativity, the beauty of nature, the revelations of our faith, point us towards an understanding that all we can see, hear touch and measure is not all that there is. That beyond our brief existence lie realities than we can scarcely begin to imagine and yet are vital for us to grope towards, through the fog and cloud of unknowing, however ineptly.
It is often suggested that a classic example of medieval theologians wasting their time on pointless religious speculation was the debate about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. But actually the scholars were arguing, using the language of their day, about whether there can be entities that exist but who take up no space. Can there be location without extension? In other words, can something exist, without having physical mass and take up no space? In our modern language, they were actually talking about sub-atomic particles – quantum physics – the very foundations of our universe.
So perhaps the talk about devils and angels and miracles might not be quite so weird after all. Just language that seeks to reach beyond the limitations of so-called rational facts into the wiser and much more illuminating world of Truth.
Revd Kevin O’Brien