Photo credit: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/129478558011794613/, “Thence we came forth to rebehold the stars.”
There is a facile enthusiasm about “believing” that is manifest every Christmas season and often enough in-between. Sentimental movies like “The Polar Express” and “The Miracle on 34th Street” chime in with their paeans to believing, and even works like “The Life of Pi” suggest that it is proper and even admirable to accept as true “the better story” even when it is the unlikeliest story imaginable.
At the front end, let me admit that there is a kernel of truth in these expressions. But there is also great danger is assuming that optimism can or should trump reason, and that belief in the truth of whatever appears good or lovely is itself necessarily good.
At least in questions where the relevant evidence is capable of being comprehensively considered, the proper formula is very simple: belief should be according to the evidence. End of story. What one would wish to be true should play simply no role, except in those matters where what one would wish for actually constitutes evidence—and then only according to the strength of its evidentiary value. Suppose a couple wanted to have children but one of them had a medical condition that made conception extremely improbable, but still possible. Should they believe that they will have children, absent divine or medical intervention? I do not think so. If no such intervention is within their reach, they had better find other meanings to fulfill. The story that is best supported by evidence, not “the better story,” should be believed.
To the extent that the paeans to belief are inconsistent with this formula, they must be rejected. It is stupid to believe against the evidence.
But what is the kernel of truth in the paeans to belief? Usually within the world of the sentimental Christmas movie, there is very good evidence for believing in Santa. You’ve just been on a fantastic train ride and freakin’ met the man! Of course, within that world, you should believe in Santa. He is clearly real. The real question is why—or how—could one fail to believe.
Within that world, one could fail to believe only by rejecting the reality of all those experiences. If people in that world are like people in our world (as I think we should assume), one would probably reject the reality of those experiences on the assumption that it was “all in my head.” And why would one make that assumption? The reasoning, I think, would run something like this: “everyday life is nothing like that charmed adventure. Everyday life is tame and meaningless. Everyday life is what is real. Therefore, the magic adventure must have been in my head.”
Now this reasoning, if possible, is even stupider than belief against the evidence. Everyday life is in fact a charmed adventure if we only had eyes to see it—wild and meaningful and solidly real. “Life is real, life is earnest,” says Longfellow. What is unreal, tame, and meaningless is simply our mental ruts of habit and preoccupation—the stupid melodies that our souls have on repeat.
To say that the marvelous “must be in my head” because what I usually experience is the mundaneness of my mental world is to say, “it must be in my head because it is not what is usually in my head.” The fallacy is palpable.
In fact, the marvelous is precisely the real world knocking for admittance, asking to be allowed to displace the cobwebs, to open the shutters and turn down the blinds.
Reality Really Is Marvelous
All cultures have recognized the out-flaming grandeur of the world, and all the gods of paganism are, in part, an expression of the recognition. One of Wordsworth’s great poems expresses his conviction that if we have sacrificed this recognition for worldly “progress,” the price was too high. The poem laments how we have lost the ability to nurture our imaginations and solace our souls with nature. Rather than a post-Enlightenment man of the world, he would prefer to be “A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn”: better to “Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea” than to impassively note in the catalogue that the high tide will be at 7:13 AM.
Certainly, science does not justify us in our blindness to the out-flaming grandeur of the world. Science, so resolute in its progress and so astonishing in its fruits, is nonetheless perhaps no closer to answering its own ultimate questions than it was in the days of Aristotle. There remains always another question behind every answer—a “why” behind every “why.” Science has undergone numberless revolutions. Newton was, of course, “right” in a certain sense—but Einstein was even more right—and, I am told, we know that Einstein’s elegant equations are still wholly inadequate to explain observable phenomena. Einstein’s theory reaches only the fourth dimension, while mathematical consistency apparently demands ten, eleven, or twenty-six dimensions, depending on which school of string theory you ask. The ultimate structure of space and time remains a matter of speculation, as does the nature of matter, the origin of the universe, and the explanation(s) for human behavior and that of other living organisms. These are among the major questions the presocratic philosophers wrestled with, and they still remain unanswered, even as the utter inadequacy of the presocratics’ answers has become obvious. The question of why anything exists at all is probably entirely beyond the scope of science, but even if science were to answer every other “why,” there would still be this problem, glaring and unanswerable.
The truest scientists I know have a sense of wonder, as well as of delight in the things they study. Even to the degree they can explain things, the things themselves—say, the night sky, or a particular species or ecosystem—have a wonder and charm apart from the explanation. It is all so beautiful—and why should it have been? Why should the sky be quite so blue, the sunset so vivid, and the stars so poetic? Why should the mountain flowers be quite so many colors? Why should shooting stars blaze across the sky now and then? Why should the ancient and noble family of fish contain quite so many thousand varieties? Why should the tiniest shells and scales and feathers be painted with such minute, exquisite, and superfluous detail?
Perhaps the scientist can provide technical answers to each discrete question. But if so there is still so much left over after these explanations—the magnificence of it all, among other things.
And the answers themselves are so often astonishing and bizarre. The entire universe was concentrated in a single point. And then, inexplicably—it wasn’t. The entire, silent universe existed in that moment as pure light, while space-time itself expanded at several times the speed of light (so that the light would have somewhere to go, one supposes). Some of the light distilled into hydrogen, which amassed into stars, where it combined into heavier elements. The stars patiently built the periodic table as they burned for their unimaginable lifespans, and then they exploded or did other equally dramatic things—like collapsing into balls of pure neutrons so dense that a teaspoon weighs a billion tonnes. Some portion of the heavier elements that were exploded into space were captured in the orbit of our newborn sun and coalesced into molten planets, including mother Earth. Thank goodness for climate change. The heaviest elements sunk to the middle before the planet’s crust cooled, meaning that the world literally has a heart of gold. But with a couple thousand miles of magma and molten iron between us and it, meteors had to be sent for so that we could have wedding rings and gold-backed economies. Against all odds in this supposedly entropic universe, a highly complicated and organized primordial soup then formed. Lightning from heaven struck the soup, and voila! DNA! Evolution—and the almost infinitely improbable conditions that prevail on earth to support life—took care of the rest.
Really!? I mean, you can’t make this stuff up. The mythologies of the world have tried to come up with explanations that befitted the strangeness and wonder of things. Science has finally succeeded. Yet people—usually non-scientists—talk about science as if it had dispelled all that superstitious sense of wonder—as if now the world was quite explained and quite ordinary and quite consistent with the unimaginative mundaneness of their own souls.
And then of course there are worlds upon worlds that science can never even touch. The world of concrete experience—consciousness, in other words—is the precondition for science, but in itself it is entirely inaccessible to hard science because it is not directly observable by any of the five senses.
Eternally beyond the reach of science, therefore, is our experience of music, majesty, and myth; of love, longing, and laughter; of family, faith, and fulfilment. The soul is wonderful. At one moment it can be little, cramped, and mundane, as discussed. For most of us, that is its usual state. But then a glimpse of a bird in flight, or a strain of music, or an encounter with an old friend, a comical scene, or even an excellent hamburger, catches it up, and it expands and comes to itself and is again within sight of home.
As just one example, I have been driving with classical music on the radio, thinking little thoughts about my little successes and failures, when suddenly the music seized my attention and I was all at once delivered from that littleness into the appreciation of something excellent and beautiful. Bach breathed into my spirit a joy that is unspeakable and full of glory.
Surely the expanded soul, caught up in the contemplation or enjoyment of the good, is more in touch with reality than the collapsed, mundane, self-regarding soul. Yet there is a limit to our ability to sustain this elevated, self-transcending state. A sort of spiritual gravity bears us back towards our smaller selves. Call it pride, call it our fallen natures, call it sensual desires, call it “id,” call it “the fat, relentless ego,” call it intellectual incapacity or mere tiredness. For whatever reasons, “humankind cannot bear very much reality.”
Thoreau said something similar: “To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?” We are all spiritual sleepwalkers to some degree—bumping uncomprehendingly into things too wonderful for us.
The essence of faithfulness is cleaving to the memory of wakefulness, to the degree we have experienced it. Faithfulness means that the soul did not expand in vain, but that it took something from the big, wild, solid reality in which the soul has its being—took it back, if you will, to the soul’s ordinary smallness and insisted, by an active and vigilant remembering, that the soul may not and shall not grow too small to contain it. Faithfulness means preserving a living challenge to the soul’s habitual deadness. Faithfulness means recalling that you have forgotten something—and that if you only remembered it you would see clearly how badly you misperceive the world when you view it from within the collapsed soul.
“Faith is a belief in things that are not seen, but which are true.” This scripture cannot mean that faith is belief in invisible things that really exist. That definition includes all sorts of inconsequential objects obviously unworthy of scriptural notice, and it excludes some of the most important things to which we must be faithful—such as our spouses. “Things that are not seen” refers, not to invisible things, but to things once experienced, but now not directly present to the mind—things that must be represented (“made again present”) by memory and ritual.
In the context of marriage, it means loving your spouse even when the honeymoon phase has passed and it starts to be hard work to nurture the romance. It means remembering the words and acts and commitments that brought you this far; it means greeting your spouse with a kiss and a smile when you get home from work; it means reconnecting every day around the dinner table (the central ritual of many homes); it means playing well your part as husband or wife even when, for the moment, it does not come naturally.
In the context of religion, faithfulness means almost the same thing, only substituting “God” for “spouse,” and adding in the element of hierarchy. Spouses are, ideally anyway, equals. God and man are not. But the principle is the same. Faithfulness is remembering as best you can what really has passed between you, even when the enjoyment of a spiritual experience seems as if it took place in a fictional universe—“a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” It means reconnecting, through ritual, with God and (in my religious tradition) with the church. It means living as a disciple even when you don’t feel like it—even, that is, when the glory of discipleship is for the moment invisible to you.
In either context, and in every other context, faithfulness means living for something beautiful that your soul has glimpsed.
We ought to believe according to the evidence. The difficulty, and the main intellectual problem, is that we inevitably forget or lose sight of the vast majority of the evidence. We can only hold in our consciousness so many things at once. Faithfulness means a determined remembering of the evidence that really matters.
Doubting Thomas, within the world of the Bible narrative (leaving aside the question of its historicity), beautifully exemplifies the nature of our failure and the truth of the paeans to believing. His doubt was strictly against the evidence. He had seen the miracles, had heard Jesus testify that he would be killed and on the third day rise again, and he had reason to trust the reports of the honest followers of Jesus who arrived with breathless news of a resurrected Christ. Perhaps he could not muster the energy to believe. He was too injured, perhaps, from the trauma of the betrayal and crucifixion. All the miracles and all the transcendent experiences melted away like delicate ice sculptures in the everyday heat of mundane existence. It was all a dream, then—as he had always half-suspected and half-feared. Back to ordinary life—dusty and dim and diminutive, but with no risk of disappointment.
This was no triumph of reason over fanciful optimism. It was merely a failure to remember what he had seen and known. That is the whole sinfulness of doubt. “You should have known better” is the only chastisement we hear in the admonition to “doubt not, but be believing.” If we have no reason to know better—no evidence in favor of belief, that is—then the admonition simply does not apply.
We all fail in our faithfulness. We are the hollow men, the stuffed men, as T. S. Eliot puts it. Our minds are filled with silly things, empty things, worthless things (and so we are stuffed). Those things edge out the essential things (and so we are hollow). Our only hope is that when we fall, we may arise. When we forget, we may remember. When we take a tour of hell, we may reemerge into the openness of the sky. When we husbands glance at another woman, we may then glance at our meteor-delivered wedding rings. And when we say (as we often do when we blind ourselves with our own smallness), “except I see I will not believe,” we may then—after divinity graciously makes itself again palpable to us—fall to our knees and exclaim, “My Lord and my God.”