Thinking honestly about life and faith requires a genuine commitment to being truthful. It is not all that common, I reckon.
This view was well expressed by the nineteenth century English writer, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
‘He who begins by loving Christianity better than truth, will proceed by loving his own sect or church better than Christianity, and end in loving himself better than all.’
(Aids to Reflection, 1825, p101)
(My apologies for the lack of gender-inclusive language in my source here. It is important to me that we don’t use language that excludes half the human community, but I can’t alter the original saying.)
Coleridge was very clear that in genuine theological enquiry we must not begin from a position which privileges the claims of our own church or sect. We may love that community, but if we love it more than we love truth, he says, or if we love even the basic idea of ‘Christianity’ more than we love truth, we will in fact end up loving ourselves in a community of one.
Thinking about faith and life, and how the two relate profoundly to one another, needs to be an honest and open engagement with the truth. But truth and honesty can’t be separated from the life-story of each person, and that life is lived in relationships, within a community. So in fact our quest for honest thinking and our search for truth is part of our life in community, in relationships.
I find it helpful therefore to study human life-stories as one of the ways of studying faith and life. Biographies are one of the most helpful forms of theology. Some biographies, at least, provide honest thinking about life and faith.
I’ve just finished reading Maryanne Confoy’s biography of the Australian writer Morris West. It’s called, Morris West, Literary Maverick. I won’t attempt to summarize West’s extraordinary life. My interest is in the way Confoy presents her subject as a ‘divided self’. The work is hugely appreciative of West’s insightful novels, so many of which Confoy shows to be significantly autobiographical. She presents West as constantly interested in situations where personal circumstances and human relationships are, more or less, unique. West shows that the fixed formulations and moral systems of his church (the Roman Catholic Church) do not immediately apply. While West was especially concerned to show this about his own church, he believed it to be true for all churches and all systems of moral rules or teachings. At certain times, human beings have to engage their own moral capacities, to invent or to make up their own judgments, to find their own way forward, to discover what their values really mean, in the unique circumstances of their lives, their problems and possibilities. This conviction reflects West’s own struggle with the church, over the ending of his first marriage.
What is intriguing is the way West saw these dilemmas. It was as if people were trapped in their freedom (as Sartre had maintained, ‘condemned to freedom’). For West, moral choices presented themselves to us, but really we have no choice, in the sense of no other right thing to do. So to act against this choice, for example because the church has not permitted such action, is really not a moral choice.
Morris West went through many struggles in his life, especially relating to his decision to leave his priestly training, to engage with a writing career which challenged papal and priestly authority—not to deny these offices, but challenging them to become more genuinely Christian, as West saw it.
Having made his choices, West insisted that he remained a believer, indeed a loyal member of his church. Yet, he wrote, ‘My adult experience forced me to question everything I had been taught. I am still a questioner because I regard the Christian life as a search and not an arrival. I have not rejected anything essential to the profession of faith.’
Still, Confoy shows that West’s life continued to be a struggle. He believed in a God of love and mercy, but ‘his writings explore a God of darkness, of absence, and of mystery.’ (p 297.)
West was willing to fight hard for the freedom to think about life and faith without the questions being pre-judged by a church authority. This freedom he said was the most difficult to defend; it is the liberty to be mistaken, even, in a genuine search for truth.
I’d like to suggest that the story and works of Morris West offer some basic directions and affirmations for what this blog can be about.
To be frank, to think honestly about faith and life, means that we join together in a quest for truth. But the kind of truth we are seeking has to do with our lives and the way we live with our faith.
It is not primarily about the content of right beliefs.
Honest thinking will issue in truthfulness, not in correct ideas but in genuine lives.
It will issue in truthful relationships and genuine community -even before we have arrived at an answer or at ‘the truth’.
To engage in honest thinking like this, we need to have courage. I suggest three kinds of courage are necessary here.
1. We need the courage to engage authentically with our questions, and not avoid them, or not presume that some ‘party line’ or fixed way of addressing them has already given us the answer. We need the courage and the commitment to think for ourselves.
2. We need, like West, the courage to take decisions, to take a position, even when no final or clearly established ‘answer’ is given. We need the courage to take a stand, sometime. We cannot endlessly postpone engagement. We must offer some ‘truth’. But we do this only in the conviction that if we are wrong, especially if we are in some way wrong about God, that is not the end of the world. I don’t believe will strike us dead if we say something that is, in the end, not correct. (As if we can know this, anyway.) No, it is no ultimate tragedy if one day we come to say, ‘Well, I used to think that, but now I’ve changed my mind …’ We need the courage to make a provisional commitment, but nonetheless a commitment.
3. We need also the courage to review our opinions and ideas, and past commitments, in the light of ongoing experience. This may mean the willingness to see that there is more grace and goodness in the world than we had acknowledged. Or maybe that things are more complex, less ‘black-and-white’ than we had thought. This courage and grace is mostly mediated to us through others. We learn from them. We grow with them. We become more truthful because of our relationships and experiences with others. Honesty is something we work out, together.
Honest thinking about faith and life: to be frank, that’s what we are trying to be and do, here, together.