FROM SCEPTICISM TO BELIEF
When I discovered the social teaching of the Catholic church, my political urgings suddenly made sense
I found my faith the way others lose theirs: by examining the presuppositions of secularism and finding them wanting.
I was educated at a loving monastic school, but I don’t remember believing. The assumption at that time was that the monks were doing something quaint but anachronistic, like a tribe performing ritual dances shortly before a motorway was built across their ancestral lands. It took me years to realise that they’ll be there long after the motorway collapses.
After a fractured childhood in which faith had been a source of division, I had a suspicious, sceptical approach to what I was being taught and practised – a typically modern attitude, shared by most of my fellow pupils, most of whom stopped going to church after school. I’ve never understood why some people think a religious education brainwashes. It introduces you to values and beliefs, but they don’t take, not unless your mind and heart assent. Mine didn’t.
It was only later, as a postgraduate at Oxford, that my secular assumptions collapsed, when I discovered – through a personal crisis – that I had certain deeply held beliefs about what was right, but couldn’t explain where they came from. I decided to examine them, and put them to the test. I knew that I hadn’t reached them by the kind of open intellectual enquiry – beginning with a blank sheet, examining all the evidence, and reaching a conclusion – which secularists love to pretend is the only way truth can respectably be reached (which it never is, because even what you choose to look at reflects what you believe is important).
Most students didn’t do this self-examination. They were helpless to explain why they cared about what they cared about. The anthropological assumptions of my secularist fellow students were breathtaking, yet we all claimed to have an open mind. My experience at Oxford, in other words, was a little like Julian Baggini’s teenage years, when he was dissatisfied by the answers he received from Methodist Association of Youth Clubs. We were both alienated from the assumptions of our environment through intellectual dissatisfaction.
I tested my heartfelt presuppositions. What value did human beings have – and why are exploitation, impoverishment, oppression bad? Why do people treat each other badly, and selfishly – what is sin, in other words, and how can it be overcome? What is love, and how do you do it? I discovered that many of the answers were within me, but required being drawn out – and then explored in books and in conversation.
When I discovered the social teaching of the Catholic church, my political urgings suddenly made sense; I realised I was a Catholic. Here, finally, was a coherent philosophy: the way you treat human beings matters, because they are precious, because God-created. There was such a thing as a just wage, because human need came before supply and demand; human beings could not be – should not be – reduced to commodities. People’s worth is derived not from their status or looks but by virtue of their humanity – which is why a child in the womb or a paraplegic needs to be protected from a society that sees them as subordinate.
All this opened my eyes, and made me realise I believed in what the church taught. Next step was to ask where it got this wisdom: was it the fruit of unencumbered ratiocination, or something else – the application of human reason to the insights of revelation? Who was Jesus, and on what basis did the church claim him to be the incarnation of God? If God were to be incarnated, what would that look like? That last question took me to scripture, and I began to follow Jesus in my imagination. And that led to prayer. Once you pray, you’re in a relationship. You can reject the other, or pretend they’re not there; but the relationship is there, and your heart knows it before your mind.
It’s not simple. Like any relationship, you lurch between crises, past sudden flashes of insight into craters of doubt and questioning. You read, you talk, you discuss, you observe, you test, you think. But over time, it falls into place, not like an ideology which explains everything, but more like a journey in which you learn, through testing and experience, to trust. It’s like finally realising you’re in love, and there’s not a lot you can do about it, except surrender – usually after an embarrassing period of denial.
It doesn’t stop you enquiring, protesting, objecting – especially when you see what Christians can do, and all the doublethink and hypocrisy and inconsistency Stephen Bates discovered as religion reporter. But I know what I’m capable of, and how broken and lost I can be – and that’s why I’ve learned not to throw stones, even at popes.
The gap between who we are and what we are called to be is the great, crucifying divide which faith exposes, and which the church exists to help people navigate. Most people prefer to escape that tension by downgrading expectations of themselves (cynicism) or pretending they are good (narcissism); only people of faith, in my experience, are willing to live in that radical honesty, that humility. It’s in that place of tension, between the world as it is and the world as it should be, between who we are and what God dreams for us, that we open up to the power of God, and ask for what we can’t do on our own. And it’s in that gap that the fertile conditions exist for all the really fruitful things of which human beings are capable in this life, like joy, art and humour (the funniest people in my experience are religious, and the least funny are ideologues).
Baggini is a clever chap, and it’s hardly surprising his Methodist Youth Club couldn’t keep pace with his sharp questions. But I don’t think he is right to claim that alienation from faith gives an objectivity that religion lacks: “the further you zoom back from religion and see the big picture, the more absurd it seems,” he says. In my experience it’s the opposite. Any fool can be alienated. The big step in life is to swallow hard, go inside, and see for yourself with your eyes and heart open. It’s amazing what you find.