Faith; the ability to live with uncertainty

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A senior Catholic churchman recently expostulated on signs of hope in the Catholic Church in Ireland. Among them he listed a number of organisations, ‘dynamic movements’ he called them. All of them were from the ultra-conservative wing of the Catholic Church. Some of them were, in common parlance, ‘completely off the wall’.

I could sense, as I read his words, Catholics around the country holding their heads in their hands in one great collective movement of disbelief and horror. Was this naivety or just a device for rallying the troops or even a refusal to deal with reality?

Whatever was the intention, it’s a dangerous wheeze. Because it’s leading the Catholic Church into a cul-de-sac and jettisoning those in the middle-ground, who are hanging on to the door-posts of faith and religion with their finger-nails.

In times of difficulty, especially when the world seems to offer a different wisdom, religion is susceptible to lapsing into what’s sometimes called ‘over-belief’. This is the religious disposition to accept extravagant claims and absolute guarantees as a way of dealing with a shifting reality. Doubt is blocked out, personal freedom and individual responsibility are set aside as everything is placed in a context of absolute certainty. We’re right and everyone else is wrong.

As religion is held up to ridicule, and the anti-religious movement is popularised by scientists like Richard Dawkins, the temptation for religion is to reject doubt and scepticism and to construct a self-indulgent fort, building walls and digging moats in case a carefully constructed certainty might be undermined or infected.

In its more extreme form this tendency allows religion to deteriorate into a sect as fundamentalism, always a temptation for religion under pressure, creates a Them and Us situation – we’re absolutely right and they’re completely wrong.

The churchman mentioned above is probably right in seeing the dynamism of conservativism in Irish Catholicism now. What’s emerging is almost a church within a church where visions, novenas and relics skirt the edges of superstition, where questionable piosities are lauded and intellectual rigour is suspect, where asking a question is tantamount to betrayal, where pleasure is distrusted and sexual pleasure anathema, where Catholicism takes on an Amish-like appearance and where a series of ‘Catholic’ newspapers encourage a return to the severity, rigidity and judgementalism of the past.

While most Irish Catholics look askance at and distrust this exaggerated form of their faith, bishops find themselves being bounced into supporting groups that mine this narrow vein of Catholic life as if it represented the whole of Catholicism. The end result is that a growing middle ground becomes disaffected when they recognise that their experience of life (and sometimes their intelligence) places a huge question-mark over some of the more exaggerated forms of Catholicism.

Some years ago now, the Anglican cleric, Richard Holloway in Crossfire, Faith and Doubt in an age of Certainty, wrote about the temptation to react against the confusion of our times by building a religious system that attempts to remove doubt by searching for certainty. Faith, Holloway argued, is under attack from two extremes, from those who tell us we can know nothing, to those who tell us that they know everything.

Both extremes are absolutely rigid in their positions and those in between what presents as absolute doubt and absolute certainty struggle to hold on to a faith that hovers between the two extremes. But doubt and scepticism are necessary, indeed essential parts of the building blocks of that faith.

The truth is that pious people can sometimes accept nonsensical beliefs and practices because, in their need for a system to offer unerring guidance and give absolute guarantees of meaning and value, they end up accepting extraordinary and extravagant views because, for example, someone somewhere had a vision and Our Lady told them!

What doubt does is filter out the nonsense that can seep into the crevices of our faith by grounding it in a clear understanding of what it is we believe and what we don’t believe, what’s essential and what’s peripheral, what’s of the faith and what’s little more than personal enthusiasm. And recognising that waiting and wonder, presence and absence, awareness and incompleteness are all part of the journey of faith. Absolute clarity is a mirage and those who imagine they have attained it are living in dreamland.

I suspect that most Irish Catholics today find themselves in that middle ground between competing certainties – atheists who tell them that faith in God makes no sense and extreme Catholics who sometimes seem to believe in everything.

Some are still attending Mass and sometimes wondering why they turn up. Others are more irregular attenders, wondering how long they can sustain the fiction. And still others find themselves drifting towards the church at Christmas time because something within them, a resonance of the beyond, beckons them. A need to express a longing for the spiritual haunts them, no matter how much they think they have jettisoned religion.

Instead of unambiguously cheer-leading for ultra-conservative Catholics whose absolute beliefs will not tolerate any modification, leaders of our Church need to recognise the huge number of Catholics in Ireland who are drifting away from the faith because the tentative and questioning journey they are on is made all the more difficult by the official church sponsorship of groups who imagine that they know all the answers to every possible question.

Many years ago, the great poet Keats wrote about what he called ‘negative capability’, in simple terms, the ability to live with uncertainty. Religion, including the Catholic religion, is about living with mystery, because without doubt there can be no faith. The greatest form of unbelief, the great theologian Karl Barth once wrote, in absolute certainty.

The truth is that those who struggle with doubt and disbelief are ultimately closer to the right road than those who profess to know all the answers. They need to be supported too.

Fr Brendan Hoban; Western People; 5 October 2015