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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.

Why am I a Catholic? A Letter to K

A funny thing happened to me the other day. I got a letter, and I mean a letter, not an email, facebook message or sms, but a real letter with a stamp on it and everything from a twenty-year old.  I know, it floored me too.  And it included a self-addressed stamped envelope and a blank piece of paper so I could reply.  The letter went more or less like this:

Dear Fr Chris, I was wondering if you could do me a huge favour.  If possible could you please respond to the question, ‘why are you Catholic’? on the enclosed paper.  God bless, K

So I hopped onto Facebook to ask K if she would mind if I posted my answer on this blog.  No, I wasn’t oblivious to the irony of that either.  K said it was ok, so here it is:

Dear K,

Thanks for writing to me, it was great to hear from you. And thanks for letting me post my response to your question on this blog.

Why am I a Catholic?

I’m a Catholic because I believe that Jesus of Nazareth is Emmanuel: God with us.

I’m a Catholic because I believe in the God that Jesus Christ reveals to us: a God of unfathomable love, beauty and goodness.

I’m a Catholic because I believe that Jesus also reveals to us what it means to be truly human.

I’m a Catholic because I believe that the Spirit of Jesus has been given to me through baptism.  And as a consequence of the Spirit’s power at work in me, I know, as the deepest truth of my life, that I am so completely loved by God that the only Son of God was crucified for me and rose from the dead so that I might  participate in the very life of God.  This means that I experience myself as forgiven, loved even in my blackest moments.  And it means that I believe I have already begun to share in the Love that is God.

I believe all this because I have discovered an inexpressible joy that bubbles up when I least expect it, a joy that emerges when it should least be present, because it is the joy of knowing that even death has been defeated by the One who was raised from the grave.

I’m a Catholic because I believe that all of what I have described above is possible because of the mediation of the Church.  It is in and through the Church that I have met and continue to meet the risen Jesus.  I experience the saving love of Jesus in her Sacraments and in the Scriptures.  I experience the saving love of Jesus in the witness of those saints present and past, those publicly canonised and those hidden and almost unknown.  In the Church’s prayer and in her action on behalf of the weakest and most vulnerable and rejected members of the human family I meet Jesus the Lord.

I’m a Catholic because the journey is better with friends; in fact they’re indispensable.  Being Catholic means we’re in it together.  And there’s more laughs that way.

I’m a Catholic because Catholicism takes both my brain and my body seriously.  As a Catholic I neither have to leave my mind at the door of the Church nor pretend that I am an angel or merely a spirit.  The Catholic faith has real intellectual depth, and yet it is not a religion of the elite but is good news for those who can become like little children.

The Catholic faith provides the only response to the reality of human suffering that comes close to doing justice to the mystery of human misery that I see in the world. For only Christian faith says that God cared enough about our agony to join us in it. And my faith does justice to my deep sense that such suffering should not be by promising that it will end, for our destiny is a life free from suffering and pain, where every tear will be wiped away.  My Catholic faith commits me to the alleviation of suffering wherever I find it too.

I’m a Catholic because it offers a message of sanity and hope when many are peddling messages that are anti-human and destructive.  I’m a Catholic because our faith tells me that me, you and this world are all fundamentally good, but radically damaged, and that Jesus Christ is the Healer who can return you, me and this world to wholeness and harmony.

I’m a Catholic because I value the teaching office of the Church.  That’s not because I can’t think for myself, but because I trust in the wisdom that has been distilled over two thousand years and because I believe that the Lord promised to continue to guide and care for his Church.

I’m a Catholic because I know that I need to be challenged to truly love others as Jesus has loved me. The teaching of Jesus continually puts forward an ethic of radical loving that is at the same time deeply merciful and compassionate.  Being Catholic means that I am challenged not to be content with mediocrity or superficiality.  God means to make me whole, holy, truly human.  And he won’t be content until I am.

I know too that the Church’s witness to all of this is often disfigured and that her members all too often obscure rather than proclaim the truth of God’s saving love.  I know that I too don’t bear witness to Jesus as faithfully or as fully as I truly desire.  That means that I cannot say that the Church’s failures are simply ‘out there’ , because I fail to love as radically as  the Gospel calls me to too.   The Church has never been completely faithful to her mission to bear witness to Christ.  And so the Church always needs to be renewed through the power of the Spirit.  But I’m convinced that the light of Jesus still shines in and through his Body the Church.

Dear K, I’m a Catholic because the Catholic faith claims that Love is the meaning of the universe.  I find that immensely beautiful… and true.

Reasons to Believe

I leave tomorrow for a parish mission in Holy Spirit parish, Sandy Bay- Taroona in the Archdiocese of Hobart.  There are twelve of us going from Melbourne for the mission: myself and three of the MGL brothers in formation for the priesthood, two of the MGL sisters, four single men and women and a married couple from Disciples of Jesus Community.  The mission begins on Sunday July 10 and finishes on Sunday July 17.

The first event for the mission is a pub talk that we have called “Questions of Faith, Reasons to Believe.”  In the talk I am going to try to tackle some common objections to belief in God today, such as:
Can I really believe in a God who I can not see, cannot touch?
Have scientific discoveries like evolution disproved Christianity?
Isn’t ‘God’ the projection of my fantasies onto an imaginary super-being?
How can I believe in God when in the past it has led to the oppression of those who have disagreed with the Church?
How can a loving and all-powerful God allow evil in the world and the suffering of innocent people?
Is Jesus the only way to God?

It is a Q and A session though, so the night will go where the questions lead!

One of my main aims in the talk will be to demonstrate the intellectual credibility of the Catholic faith, in order to show that belief in God does not require jettisoning one’s mind.  At the same time, I also hope to at least hint at the truth that the heart of the Catholic faith is not a great idea, but an encounter with Jesus Christ:

Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est

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