The Unclean Glass


Here's my latest response to Sam Harris on the question of faith and reason. You can read his most recent epistle to me here, and the full blogalogue here.

Dear Sam,

Thanks for your invitation to sup from "a clean glass." You unpack that revealing metaphor in the following way:

I'm asking you to imagine a world in which children are taught to investigate reality for themselves, not in conformity to the religious dogmatism of their parents, but by the lights of truly honest, fearless inquiry. Imagine a discourse about ethics and mystical experience that is as contingency-free as the discourse of science already is.

My first thought is: where are all these children separated from their parents? Would they have to be sent away to protect them from the influence of parental dogmatism? And my second thought is amusement at your use of the passive tense: "are taught". By whom? You? Who is teaching these finally liberated children, and on whose authority? And where is this discourse they will enter that is "contingency-free"? I have never heard or read or engaged in one.

That is because I have never met a human being or a human mind that is "contingency-free", and never will. No child grows up without the contingent facts of their family, place, genes, and any number of details that make us who we are. You and I would be very different people if we had different contingent genetics and different contingent histories. This is the experience of being human, an experience eternally different from the dream of your new, unfettered, purely rational "education," where the young are severed from the toxins of contingent culture and faith and family. You echo the later themes of Plato's Republic in this respect, and Socrates' irony still echoes through the millennia. You are not the first person to come up with such an idea, Sam, and I have no doubt that the guardians you will pick to educate the young will be selected in good faith - your good faith, not the children's or their parents'. And I am not the first person to find this project for all mankind absurd in my lighter moments and deeply sinister in my darker ones.

Science, your preferred mode of human understanding, is not contingency-free either. I know of no scientist who would claim so. It is shot through with contingency. It is the consequence of millennia of human thought, logic, experiment, argument, discovery, thesis, antithesis, synthesis - propelled by human curiosity, pride, obsession, and error. What science knows at any given moment is a function of everything it has ever known. And it is built and unbuilt by human minds with human weaknesses. Yes, it can overturn all of it at any moment in theory - but it will still be defined in part by what it has overturned. And such moments of revolution are rare. Much more common is the slow accumulation of insight and evidence until it becomes the coral reef we call science "now".

Science rests as well on some basic elements of faith. You've read your Hume and you know what I mean. A reader came up with a useful list of some of them:

our faith that our senses and our memories are (usually) reliable, rather than being hallucinations induced by some unknown outside source; our belief that our short-term thought processes are (usually) reliable (that is, that we are sane at all); our belief that the entire universe didn't whisk into existence a second ago (including all of us, with a complete set of fake memories), and won't whisk out of existence a second later; our belief that other bodies which act like ours contain conscious awarenesses like our own (and that the "intensity" with which they feel sensations and emotions can be judged by the complexity of their behavior); the belief that it is likely that a consciousness is permanently destroyed by the destruction of its physical body and will never be resurrected later in another body (that is, the only thing that makes us think murder is immoral at all).

These little puddle-jumps of faith are the foundation for your reason. I think they are justified. But that reason is really, au fond, a belief, an act of faith, an acknowledgment that, as humans, we have no "contingency-free" place from where to start at all and no "contingency-free" place on earth to end up at. We are not gods.

The place you are seeking - this "contingency-free" place where no specifics exist but pure truth and a clean glass - is something we people of faith call heaven. Your search for it is a religious search, even if you are unaware of it. We religious people have known about heaven for ever; but only the truly foolish among us have ever mistaken it for earth, or human life. And when those truly foolish people have attempted to replicate this heaven on earth, they have been responsible for the worst atrocities religion has produced, which is why I fear similar darkness from the world-view you are, with impeccable intentions, enthusiastically proposing. But the glass you and I drink from, Sam, is never clean; it has been drunk from since before our human history; it has passed from lip to lip through vistas of history and pre-history. It has been filled and emptied and filled again, its contents traced in stories and myths and parables and histories and DNA. It is contingent in the way that everything human is contingent.

Can I imagine a world without such human contingency? Yes, I can. I can imagine all sorts of things - flying spaghetti monsters, to use one vivid term now beloved of today's atheists. I can imagine Lucy in the sky with diamonds. I can imagine all the people living life in peace.

But it is important to note that such a world has never, ever existed, and never, ever will. No human society has ever functioned without the large faith that underpins all the little faiths: religion. No society has ever existed without the mature human acceptance of what we do not know and what is greater than we are. No civilization has ever been atheist at its core. No polity has ever been constructed in the absence of faith, or in the absence of a tradition of faith that makes belief in the present possible at all. Earth to Sam: Does this not tell you something? Or is it plausible that human beings tomorrow will become something that in all of human history and pre-history they have never, ever been?

You write: "whatever is true about us, spiritually and ethically, must be discoverable now." Yes - absolutely yes. But now is always and everywhere a function of all that we have ever been. The key contribution of religion is to grapple with that fact at a far deeper level than science, to see human life as an intersection, in Eliot's words, of the timeless with time. Religion at its deepest is the attempt to reconcile this profound human predicament: that we exist in bodies but dream beyond them, that we are caught between the irrational instinct of beasts but endowed with the serene hope of angels. This paradox of humanity - which you would erase into a clean slate - is what religion responds to and has always responded to. The genius of the religious life lived to its fullest lies, in Oakeshott's words,

"in the poetic quality, humble or magnificent, of the images, the rites, the observances, and the offerings (the wisp of wheat on the wayside calvary) in which it recalls to us that 'eternity is in love with the productions of time' and invites us to live 'so far as is possible' as an immortal."

This is drinking from the unclean glass and drinking deeply.

In that context, let me unpack the contingency of my own faith. In my last letter, I wrote of how I experience faith as a gift, something I didn't actually choose. This unchoice can be understood as simply a function of the contingent accident of my birth and upbringing, as you point out and I readily concede. But I do not consider its contingency a mark against it - since there is nothing on earth that is not contingent. For eternal truth to be apprehended by the human soul, it must enter a contingent world, and be refracted and distorted by such an entrance. Contingency is as integral to any human being's faith as eternity. This is a logical necessity for faith to exist at all.

My story is the story of every person of faith - a mix of contingency and eternity. I have tried to explain the eternity, and I understand if it simply baffles the faithless. So let me explain the more comprehensible contingency, and why it actually supports my faith, rather than undermines it. The contingency comes from my family, of course. But it also comes from where I was born and grew up - England. The Catholicism I imbibed was a minority faith in a majority Protestant or agnostic culture. And I can track its origins through history - through my Irish ancestors who held onto it despite cruel persecution, back to the time when England itself was pervaded by the religious faith I still hold. In high school and university, I was able to study the history of that faith - the astonishing cultural wealth and spiritual depth of the Catholic church that kept the memory of Jesus alive for millennia. I was then able to move to a different continent and country and walk into a church that was itself part of that universal inheritance. There is no free place on earth where I cannot find a home. And I know who made that possible. Without that long lineage of faithful preservation, without that dreaded institution, the Church, I would have no cup from which to drink. They passed it, these souls, from person to person, from generation to generation, in one of the most astonishingly persistent endeavors in human history.

The more I discovered about that long endeavor, the more amazed I was by it. Yes, you will cite the terrible parts of its history, parts I have not shied from myself. But you have missed so much more. The more I questioned and asked, the more history and theology I engaged in, the more I used reason to inquire into faith, the more remarkable the achievement of Christianity appeared to me. My reason strengthened and informed my faith. I felt blessed to have been given this gift, amazed at my good fortune. The thought of throwing it away for a "clean glass" that is itself an illusion seems absurd to me.

Why would I want to forget all of that precious inheritance - the humility of Mary, the foolishness of Peter, the genius of Paul, the candor of Augustine, the genius of Francis, the glory of Chartres cathedral, the haunting music of Tallis, the art of Michelangelo, the ecstasies of Teresa, the rigor of Ignatius, the whole astonishing, ravishing panoply of ancient Christianity that suddenly arrived at my door, in a banal little town in an ordinary family in the grim nights of the 1970s in England?

You want to be contingency-free? Maybe you need a richer slice of contingency. There is more wisdom, depth, range, glory, nuance and truth in my tradition than can be dreamt of in your rationalism. In answer to your question, "why not leave all this behind?" my answer is simply: why on earth would I? Why would any sane person abandon such an astonishingly rich inheritance that civilizes, informs, educates, inspires and then also saves? If faith were to desert me, I may be forced to leave. But even then, the wealth of that human inheritance would inform me and make my life worth living. I would cling to and celebrate this cultural inheritance, even if the faith that made it possible has waned for me.

Why would a human being not look at the unclean glass he is born with and ask: what is this that I have been given? Who passed this down to me? Why? Who died to give this to me? Who suffered? Who spent their lives transcribing texts to keep the memory of this man alive? Who built these churches and composed these chants and wrote these books for me to engage long after they have all disappeared from the earth? How does this amazing cultural, intellectual, spiritual inheritance connect with that inchoate sense of the divine that still permeates my soul? Could it be that what I sense in my soul is what Augustine sensed? What Dominic sensed? What John actually saw and loved and rested his head against?

I know this may sound alien to you. So let me put this in a context that might appeal to you, as a rational, empirical person. How do you explain Christianity's enduring power? Is it all a terrible, ugly blight on the human mind that must be thrown out in favor of "truly honest, fearless inquiry"? But wouldn't "truly honest, fearless inquiry" into religious faith begin by asking how Christianity came to exist at all?

Consider the evidence. I do not believe in a flying spaghetti monster. I believe in Jesus of Nazareth as God Incarnate. We have no evidence of a flying spaghetti monster. But we have solid evidence of Jesus' existence. We have a handful of independent historical artifacts that attest that a minor Jewish rabbi in first century Israel was executed by the Roman authorities. We have many Gospels that date from the period after his death testifying to the power of his message. Purported messiahs and crucifixions were not uncommon at the time. But only one of the thousands of Rome's victims is remembered in this way - and not just remembered but worshiped over two millennia later in the most advanced civilization the world has ever known. Does this not intrigue you? Have you never asked in the spirit of "truly honest, fearless inquiry": How on earth did this happen?

As a simple piece of historical inquiry, it's an astonishingly unlikely turn of events. Within a short period of time, not only was an obscure, failed Jewish rabbi remembered, his teachings became the official religion of the empire that had executed him. In the ensuing centuries, his life and teachings inspired many of the greatest minds, souls and talents humankind has ever produced. The collapse of the empire that elevated him did not lead to the disappearance of Christianity. It led to its eventual re-emergence as a vibrant, beautiful, rich experience for millions. Only Muhammad and the Buddha rival the story of this man - a fact that leads me to ask questions of both (particularly Buddhism), but which prompts you to condemn and anathematize all religious claims of any kind.

Even today, as I type these words, I look on my desk and see the sign I bring with me everywhere: his cross. When I go to dinner later, a small cross will come with me, in my wallet. In my study at home, a fourteenth century wooden carving of Jesus stares down at me from the wall. He is alive in me and millions of others after all this time, sustaining, nurturing, inspiring not just me but countless more. Even if you do not believe in him in the way I do, surely you must acknowledge that something very special has been going on here, something truly remarkable, something beyond the norm of much else in human history.

I have a rational, empirical explanation for this. It is that those who saw Jesus saw something so astonishing, so utterly unlike anything that had ever occurred before, that they became on fire with this new truth. They saw God. It was a contingent expression of God - how could it not be if humans were to witness it? But it was also an eternal expression, so that today some will still say: I know this Jesus as well as anyone ever knew him. And Jesus grasped this paradox of contingent-eternity that is the core mystery of the Incarnation. "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe."

What is your explanation? How do you account for why one person out of the billions who have ever lived had this impact? How probable is it that all these countless followers were all deluding themselves completely? And if Jesus wasn't nothing, what was he in your eyes? What secret did he hold that so many others haven't?

That is an empirical question. And it merits an empirical answer.


(Photo: A field cross depicting the crucifixion of Christ stands at the roadside in a snowy landscape near the ham of Issing on January 23, 2007 in Bavaria, Southern Germany. By Johannes Simon/Getty.)