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Beyond QandA: Insights into Atheism and Faith with Nikki Gemmell

So last night we had the so-called great debate between Cardinal Pell and Dr Richard Dawkins, and of course today the social media has been atwitter with the postmortems.  I don’t intend to offer such a post- QandA analysis, but rather would like to direct you to Nikki Gemmell’s latest column from the Weekend Australian’s magazine (p14, April 7-8, 2012).  It’s obviously not an analysis of last night’s debate, but it might better serve people who would like to genuinely explore some of the issues around belief and unbelief today.

In the column Gemmell traces something of her own quest for faith, for meaning.  She begins by describing herself in her 20s as “one of those pitbull atheists, a sneerer a la Dawkins”, but she nonetheless would occasionally slip into a church service, a practice which slowly developed into a semi-regular habit in her early thirties. Gemmell no longer goes to church, and now identifies more with the atheism of Alain de Botton, “tipping a hat to the graces within organised religion but not be sucked in by it.  I’ll never be with Dawkins, thumping that believers are deluded, stupid; I’ve too much respect for the mysterious in life, can’t turn my back on wonder”.

Gemmell’s article concludes with a summation of her sense of spirituality:

My spirituality is private, bound by no institution, carved from years of bitsy church-going and from the land and giving birth, carved from the shock of kindness I see again and again in people and am deeply moved by. These attacks of Dawkins and his ilk feel like a violation in some way, but I can’t explain why.  Because my head’s telling me they’re right, it’s true.  Yet, yet…

Dawkins surely has his supporters in Australia, but I can’t help thinking that Gemmell has articulated far more successfully what many Australians feel about the possibility of belief and the seeming inevitability of unbelief.  She has clearly experienced the power of some of the practices of religious faith and the power of sacred sites to engender a sense of peace and invite a return to wholeness.  She is drawn to the values of religious faith: “generosity, compassion and quiet”, as she names them.   And yet her article concludes with her “head”, her reason telling her that the atheists are right; her intellect or reason precludes her from believing, as much as she might in some way like to.

There’s possibly (indeed probably) a whole bunch of reasons running around inside Gemmell’s head making religious belief within an institutional setting implausible for her.  And so there is more that could be said than is possible in a single blog from me.  But in response to her insightful column, I would simply point out this: in the last lines of her article it would appear that Gemmell has articulated a fundamental belief of the age in which we live, namely that the only “reasons” that count are the one’s that belong to her “head”.  As a product of modernity she believes that  empirical proof is the only valid form of knowledge.  But every paragraph of her article points to another mode of knowing that she is not prepared to trust and yet feels so intensely: a mode that has several different names in the Christian tradition, but is probably best known as the way of the heart.  As Blaise Pascal so famously expressed it, “the heart has reasons that reason knows not of”.  The heart’s knowledge is more than emotion or feeling; in fact Augustine and Thomas Aquinas both described this kind of knowledge as a higher part of the mind or a higher reason, distinguishable from the normal processes of discursive thought that we commonly call reason.

Now when the atheist looks in vain for proof of God’s existence, and when Nikki Gemmell’s “head” tells her that the atheist’s arguments are right, they are looking for reasons at the level of discursive thought, at the level of what we usually call reason.  In part that’s because modern epistemology (the philosophy of how we know) has said that such empirical reasoning is the only real way of knowing anything.  But it stands to reason (pun intended) that if God is not a thing in the world, not an object that can be found in the world, but is rather the very foundation of all things and is thus utterly beyond the world, then he is not to be found or discovered by discursive reason at all.  Which is why the Christian tradition has maintained, over and against this modern epistemology, that God is known and encountered by the heart, by the higher form of reason that modern epistemology has excluded or forgotten.  I would contend that Dawkins doesn’t get this.  He is totally convinced that the only form of trustworthy knowledge comes from empirical reason, from the scientific method.  But Gemmell does get it.  She needs to trust her heart, trust the mystery that she intuits within her life experience, the “tugging” that she feels.  Because the heart has reasons that reason knows not of. And they are valid reasons to believe.

Speaking in Tongues: as Silly as it Sounds?

I recently had a conversation with one of the philosophy lecturers at the College where the Missionaries of God’s Love seminarians study.  It was just the two of us in the senior common room, and so he seized the moment to ask me if a strange and worrying rumour he had heard about the MGLs was actually true.  “Do the MGLs really speak in tongues?” he asked.  What a relief!  I had thought he was going to ask something really difficult.  “Sure”, I replied, and that began an involved discussion where he peppered me with questions about praying in tongues.  Like many people I suspect the philosophy lecturer had some preconceived ideas about it.  So here are some (not so) random thoughts about speaking in tongues.

Firstly, it can be helpful to spell out what tongues isn’t.  When someone speaks in tongues they haven’t gone into an ecstatic trance or an altered state of consciousness.  They are in full control and so can stop and start praying in tongues whenever they want to.

I don’t believe that tongues is the infallible sign of the Holy Spirit.  Some tongues-speakers believe this, but I don’t see how that can be so.  The infallible sign of  the Holy Spirit in someone’s life is whether they are growing in virtue: whether they are becoming more loving, just and compassionate people.

Nor is praying in tongues usually to do with speaking an unkown foreign language.  The technical term for this is xenoglossia, and while I don’t think it would be impossible for the Lord to perform such a miracle, it isn’t what is normally happening when someone is praying in tongues.

The technical term for praying in tongues is glossolalia, and while it is not an actual language in that the discrete sounds someone is making are not actually words, tongues is like a language in that it is expressive of emotions and desires.  So while it is wordless, the gift of tongues does actually involve communication.  In this way, tongues is not actually so different from many other ways in which human beings communicate without using words.  When you shrug, smile, cry or hug someone you are communicating without using words.  Such actions are often called body language because you are using your body to ‘speak’, to express how you feel.  And as a shrug uses your shoulders, a smile your mouth, and a hug your body, praying in tongues uses your vocal chords.

If tongues is a form of body language then it stands to reason that glossolalia is a latent capacity that everyone possesses.  This is corroborated by the fact that glossolalia is found in the religious practice of non-Christians (including African tribal religions as well as the Muslim Sufi tradition).  In fact, I think that the jazz practice of ‘scatting’ and yodeling are pretty close cousins to tongues as well.  They are all wordless songs or sounds that express the emotions or desires of the one making the noise.  What distinguishes these practices is the recipient of the communication: with ‘scat’ the recipients are an audience, with yodeling it may be oneself, and when you pray in tongues you are expressing your feelings to God.

So anyone in principle can pray in tongues.  But why would someone want to talk to God in this way?  Wouldn’t it be more important to say something rational and intelligible to God than to babble incoherently?  This objection presumes that tongues is unintelligible, irrational and incoherent.  But just as a hug communicates affection and love without words, and just as ‘scatting’ while unintelligible nevertheless communicates emotions such as joy or pleasure, tongues is expressive of how someone feels.  It’s for that reason that Augustine called glossolalia jubilatio, as he compared it to people at harvest or vintage singing at first with words and then breaking into a wordless song:

For jubilation is a sound which signifies that the heart is giving utterance to what it cannot say in words.  And for whom is such jubilation fitting if not for the ineffable God?  For he is ineffable whom one cannot express in words; and if you cannot express Him in words, and yet you cannot remain silent either, then what is left but to sing in jubilation, so that your heart may rejoice without words, and your unbounded joy may not be confined by the limits of syllables.

Some people also think tongues is all a bit noisy and only for extroverts who aren’t afraid to be very demonstrative in public.  I want to suggest that while tongues is a vocal form of prayer it can, like other forms of vocal prayer such as the rosary or the Jesus prayer of the Orthodox tradition, be a valuable aid to contemplation.  Praying in tongues, like the repetition of the Hail Mary’s or the mantra of the Jesus prayer engage the analytical, conceptual side of the brain that is often so busy with thoughts, thereby freeing up the more intuitive, receptive side of the brain for silent, attentive presence to God.  Let me be clear: praying in tongues is not contemplative or mystical prayer in and of itself, but it can be an effective precursor to deep contemplative enjoyment of God.

I also want to suggest that speaking in tongues does something, or indeed three things.  Firstly, because praying in tongues involves a surrender of some of the usual powers of speech it can serve as an effective release of control.  I’d like to suggest that it can be very helpful in the act of surrender that we usually call faith, where we make an act of trust in God with a concomitant letting go of ourselves.  In a world where the self reigns supreme, such a contraction of one’s ego is vital for the obedience that faith requires.  Or to put it more simply perhaps, praying in tongues invites us to let go and trust in God.

Secondly, as an expression of  our emotions and desires, tongues goes a significant way to reclaiming the place of affectivity in the life of faith.  We do not believe by merely thinking our way into faith (which is not to deny the place of the intellect in the act of faith), but by the ordering of our desires to God.  As the quote above from Augustine suggests, praying in tongues or with jubilatio involves the ordering of our  ultimate desire to the ineffable God.

Lastly, in his book Thinking in Tongues, James K.A. Smith suggests that tongues is a language of resistance that expresses a person or a people’s nonconformity with the structures of mass-consumer capitalism.  Tongues defies the logic of the market; it is not a commodity that can be bought or sold, and it resists a commercial value.  It is an act of ‘play’, which is by definition, ‘useless’.  By praying in tongues, then one is saying that the Lord they worship is not the god of material prosperity, but the One who promises that the kingdom belongs to the poor in spirit.

Grand Final Week: Footy and Faith

I’m a Collingwood fan.  That surprises many and shocks a few.  I have all my teeth, a tertiary degree and do not own a pair of ugg boots.  Furthermore, I do not think that any of the aforementioned characteristics make me an atypical supporter.  I’m pretty happy that my team has made the Grand Final.  For reasons passing understanding I am going to be in far western Queensland for the game, but as the brother in the MGL who was lucky(!) enough to watch the game with me on Friday night will testify, I don’t need to be at the MCG to make a fair bit of noise when the ‘Pies are playing.  To be honest, I think we’re up against it next weekend, but then I also think that we don’t do well when we’re favourites.  So I’m happy with the underdog tag for next Saturday.

Non-Victorian readers may not believe me, but it really is hard to appreciate just how seriously people take it down here unless you live in Melbourne.  And there are some, probably many in the churches who deride the obsession with footy as an idolatrous substitute for faith.  They’re probably right.  There’s no doubt in my mind that the footy is a secular liturgy.  The commentators resort to clichés when they describe the ‘G as a sporting cathedral, the fans converge on the ground like Sunday morning worshipers in suburban parishes, and the game itself is a delicate combination of ritual and pageantry that rival a high Mass in terms of spectacle.  And for many, the devotion and adoration for their team, maybe even for the game itself, is surely a substitute for worship of God.  The rabid fans who paint their bodies black and white or blue and white next weekend are proof that the the human being is truly homo liturgicus: we make liturgies, rituals in our lives, even when we don’t intend to.  The world is not divided into those who worship the divine as they best understand it and those who don’t, into theists of all stripes on the one hand and atheists on the other.  We are all worshipers.  What distinguishes us is not if we worship or not but what we worship.  And in a world where many regard God as far beyond their reach, the Pies or the Cats or some other team will sadly do for some as the focus of their devotion.

Any other week of the year, I would quite possibly be waxing far more lyrically about this, and of the pretty poor substitute that a footy team (even the Magpies!) is for the Lord of all Creation.  And for the record, I really do think it is a tragedy when people’s ultimate sense of happiness ebbs and flows with the fortunes of their team.  But it’s Grand Final Week, and my team are going to run out on Saturday.  So without rejecting the argument above, let me offer a different take on footy and faith.

Some of you will remember the movie Chariots of Fire which tells the story of the sprinter Eric Liddell’s attempt to win gold at the Paris Olympics. Liddell was a missionary, and refused to run on Sunday because he didn’t want to break the Sabbath.  My favourite moment in the movie is when his sister, a devout if slightly puritanical woman, asks why he is pursuing his Olympic dream.  She reminds him that his calling is to go to China, and tells him that she cannot understand why he is wasting his time with running when it is clear what his real mission in life is.  Liddell responds by saying to her that he knows that God has made him to be a missionary.  He then pauses and says, ‘but he [God] has also made me fast.  And when I run, I feel his pleasure’.  To believe that a human being excelling physically, or more accurately, that human beings excelling physically together in extraordinary displays of synchronicity that we usually simply call teamwork, gives glory to God ought not be a stretch for the believer.  Footy is really a riff on Irenaeus’ much quoted dictum that  ‘the glory of God is the human being fully alive’.  Think about it.  This isn’t about winning; it is about being in what psychologists call ‘the flow’, experiencing the intrinsic joy and even rapture of excellence.  Witness Buddy Franklin’s goal last Friday that nearly won the Hawks the match.  As a Pies fan I might have been horrified, but as a lover of the game I could not but be in awe.  And on a warm September afternoon, as the pill is sent up and down the ground at breakneck speed and as the sheer athleticism of the players leaves us spectators breathless, is this not a scene of great beauty?  Couldn’t it be a glimpse of glory? Am I going too far when I suggest that Augustine might have been thinking of footy when he recognised that all created things can be reduced to idols or elevated to sacramental signs of God’s presence?  Perhaps, but only just.  After all, it is Grand Final week, and my team are running out this Saturday.  Carn the ‘Pies.

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