Letting Go Of Myself: Religion without belief
On Jordan Peterson's terror, the poetry of religion, and whether a believer must believe in a god.
When we find ourselves lost in life, or on a journey, we instinctively seek the reassurance of someone who knows the way – yet there is also something comforting in finding other people also looking for the path, a kind of comradery in disorientation, an affirmation that you are not alone. I had a profound experience of this “seeker’s solace” when I read an article by Giles Fraser in which he asks, “Does Jordan Peterson believe in God?”
Fraser opens the article observing that Peterson is known for many things, but a hesitance to voice an opinion – even an unpopular one – is not among them. But when asked if he believes in God, Peterson becomes shifty. After four two-hour conversations in which Sam Harris tried to decode Peterson’s various responses to the God question, Harris said he was still no nearer having any clue what Peterson’s position was on the existence of a deity. The verbal gymnastics with which Peterson dodges around this question would make anyone think he’d been asked to confirm an erotic predilection towards stuffed animals.
However, Peterson has answered the question somewhat orthogonally by saying: “I act as if God exists, and I am terrified that he might.” I find this answer frustrating in its unnecessary conflation of behaviour and belief; his statement can exist perfectly well with the preface “I don’t believe in God, but ...” That said, I also find Peterson’s statement enlightening, not least as something against which to contrast my own proposition: “I act as if God exists, and I am terrified that he might not.”
Regarding the first clause of this statement, I’m not sure to what extent I do act as if God exists, although I am consoled by the fact that each of us can only ever live imperfectly as if God exists – after all, no Christian has ever been perfectly Christ-like. Besides, what can it mean to act as if God exists?
I suppose a person could go through the motions and do a decently convincing impression of a believer. I could go to church every Sunday, say my prayers and amens, and adopt the specific trappings of a denomination – giving my confession, denouncing Harry Potter, or whatever it is that makes me part of the in-group – and to most I would appear to behave like I thought God was watching me. By their fruit we might know them, but an apple can be dressed up to look like an orange. However, I have no desire to engage in such an empty performance. So how then do I act as if God exists?
I’m going to let the rabbit out of the hat before any more hand waving: I don’t have a fully-formed answer to this question. The best I can offer is that it means taking the question of God seriously; to engage deeply with questions of meaning, morality, mortality, and more; to be committed to the search, regardless of whether there is an end and what it might be. Beyond that, I can’t say anything sensible about what acting like God exists looks like – and yet something in me is sure that the idea has some substance.
This is where the second clause comes in, the fear that God may not exist at all. Something within me responds to the idea of “acting as if”, and it is the same something that resists its negation with a shudder. Some years ago, I tried to live out the total absence of this religious dimension (by which I mean a dimension of human experience traditionally expressed in religious terms) and I quickly and urgently understood Camus’ claim that deciding whether life is worth living is the “only serious philosophical problem”.
In his article, Fraser turns to C S Lewis and a scene in The Silver Chair in which Puddleglum – kidnapped by a witch and told that Narnia does not exist – insists that he will live as a Narnian “even if there isn’t any Narnia”, and that he will follow Aslan “even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead”. While Fraser lets this stand as a description of what it means for him to think of himself as a Christian, I can’t go that far.
I could commit to live as Christian even if there isn't a Christ to lead me, but the moment I had good reason to think that God does not exist, I would be faced with two options: I could continue believing even in the face of contradictory evidence, which would leave me feeling intellectually bankrupt. Or I could drop my prior faith commitment. If the second, in what way can I say it was ever a commitment? It seems to me that commitment means voluntarily removing the exits from a position. When I married my wife, I committed myself to her by renouncing the option of divorce even if the relationship becomes difficult. If leaving a commitment does not mean negating it, I am open to someone explaining how this can be – but I don’t see it now.
Furthermore, what if my commitment to follow God is what prevents me from discovering and fairly evaluating the evidence – should it ever appear – that shows God not to exist? My worry is that a commitment of this kind too easily becomes a mere bias.
In any case, Fraser goes on to share Rowan Williams’ typically wonderful reading of that Narnian scene with the witch, Puddleglum, and the possibly fictitious Narnia. Williams rephrases Puddleglum’s loyalty as an assertion: “There’s something here that I cannot let go of without letting go of myself.”
There are a few phrases a reader will discover over a lifetime of reading that will send the electric charge of recognition down his or her spine, along the fibres of their being, and into what they may or may not think of as their soul. These are rare beasts that know you in ways you already knew yourself but could not articulate, and sometimes in ways you were yet to recognise. Williams’ statement, for me, was one of the former. There is something in this religious view of the world, in this approach to life often labelled “spiritual”, and specifically in what has been passed down through centuries to us as Christianity, “that I cannot let go of without letting go of myself”.
The question (more interesting and more revelatory than the question of belief in God) is just what is that something I cannot let go of? If I peel away the layers of superstition, dogma, prejudice, and parochialism, will I discover an indivisible, irreducible, necessary heart at its centre?
While idly passing an afternoon away in a second-hand bookstore, I was drawn to the slender red spine of a book called Soundings: Essays Concerning Christian Understanding. I’m not particularly drawn to the excesses of esoterica, but – and here the idea repeats of Christianity calling to some deep, unknown part of me – I felt compelled to slide the book off the shelf and allow it to fall open at random, so I could find the beginning of a chapter and sample some of it, my usual method for divining whether to take a chance on an unknown book. Reader, I took the book home.
In his introduction to Soundings, A R Vidler expands on the metaphor of the title, saying that the modern world is in a period best suited “for making soundings, not charts or maps”. Soundings are an attempt to gauge the depths of an ocean, to simply understand the space to be explored, not to give directions to the bottom, the surface, or anywhere else. Leave the charts and maps to the scholars; soundings should be the project of those of us not studying religious experience but living it.
I return again to Giles Fraser’s article, in which he provides an idea from Aquinas I was not familiar with: fides quaerens intellectum – faith seeking understanding. Faith (that is, the experience) is already there, and making sense of it comes second. Right now, wherever you are as you read these words, you are in a space, be it a room or an outdoor area with some demarcations, maybe roads, buildings, or fences. You do not need to be able to write a scholarly treatise on the aetiology, ontology, and teleology (the origin, nature, and purpose) of that space to experience being there. Faith, belief, experience, call it whatever gives you a thrill or the least embarrassment – this is the existential space you find yourself in, and mapping that space to explain it intellectually is a project that follows after the fact.
In making my own soundings of the philosophical space in which I live my life, some of my most useful instruments are the language, theologies, and narratives of religion. The most useful religions to me have been Judaism, Protestantism, and to a lesser degree Catholicism. Enter the standard sardonic observation of the “funny coincidence” that these would also be the prevalent faiths of the culture I grew up in. This is no riposte to any position I hold – I’m not evangelising the superiority of these faiths over others, merely recognising that they are the religious languages I am most fluent in. They are also those that speak most clearly to me.
For instance: Job’s struggles and Habakkuk’s lament.
For instance: radical forgiveness that requires sacrifice from the forgiver on the part of the forgiven.
For instance: confession, repentance, atonement, and mercy symbolically enacted through various rituals and practiced with dramatic consequence in the real world.
So, these faiths usefully describe important features of my condition – and yet I don’t feel comfortable calling myself religious. This was, for Fraser, the sudden part of his “instant and drawn out” conversion, when he found himself no longer an outsider whose “funny sort of hobby” was Christianity, but a member of a faith of which he is “on the inside looking out”. I am still very much on the outside looking in. I constantly couch my opinions on religious matters, when talking to those firmly within a particular faith, in caveats such as “not that it’s my place to say” or “I might not have a dog in this race, but ...”
At the very same time, I don’t feel at home in contemporary post-religious culture, which Howard Root describes in an essay in Soundings as “a state of mind and feeling in which questions about God, the meaning of life, the nature of reality and human destiny ... are no longer treated seriously, whether in belief or unbelief, because they have ceased to be matters of what Tillich calls ultimate concern”. I continue to find that my home is with the believers and unbelievers who keep these questions alive because these questions burn in their hearts and won’t leave them alone. As Root puts it, “our greatest ally is not the dying establishments but the hungry and destitute world which is still alive enough to feel its own hunger”.
Root goes on to describe a triptych of positions a person might take within the realm of religion. He tells us that “believers are in love, theologians write love-poems, and metaphysicians – natural theologians – write criticisms of poetry”. I sit somewhere between the believers and the metaphysicians of his triad, mournfully conscious of the failings of both.
Of the believers, I find something hollow and unsatisfying in their devout, almost frenzied love-without-reason. It reminds me of the new passion of young lovers, allowed to roar through their lives like a storm until it blows itself out. It also reminds me of the love of a child for its parent – meaningful, yes, and profound, no doubt, but lacking the depth, seriousness, and extra metaphysical dimensions of thoughtful, grown-up love. The child’s love is somewhat reactive and conditioned by need, while mature love is forged in experience and enriched by self-awareness.
Of the metaphysicians, there is something too cold, too held at a remove, to satisfy. This objective distance is, of course, a virtue of the way it works. But this objectivity is also why it, on its own, cannot lead to anything outside of an intellectual ascent or rejection of the item under scrutiny. There is also a meta-question about how a method of enquiry can ever be complete without containing as part of itself that which it studies. In other words, how can the metaphysician fully analyse the condition of belief without analysing the first-person experience of it?
It might seem that the category of theologian-as-poet, falling between the believer and the metaphysician, is essentially complete. Genuine belief of one’s own is not essential to writing poetry about it, any more than a sci-fi writer need have visited Mars, and a grounding in metaphysics is not required to intuit the structure of the poetry. But the poetry of faith does invite both belief and its metaphysics. After all, who can read Keats and not want to fall in love, or desire to understand the craft that gives life to such poetry? The poetry of religion that incorporates belief and analysis is both the study and the expression of a personally held faith, which might be what it is to practise a religion.
While I aspire on my best days to be a theologian of this kind, and while I am in close conversation with the metaphysicians, I am not a believer. I can think clearly and write sincerely on ideas of faith and religion, but I don’t love like a believer yet. That “yet” holds so much in it: both the sad fact that “yet” seems likely to remain in place, and that this fact is, to me, sad. Not paralysingly so, but no easy thing to sweep aside either; a quiet heartbreak I learn to live with each day.
So, what is that something within religion, or within Christianity specifically, that I cannot let go of? I still can’t say, but I won’t give up asking. The search yields so much of value that whether I ever resolve the initial question can at times seem quite secondary. Can I call myself religious? I still suspect that it’s not for me to say, and I don’t yet know what it would mean to say that I am. And finally – do I believe in God? No. But there’s much more to it than that.
NB ~ There are bound to be a few who take issue with my side-stepping the matter of which god I refer to when I write that “I am terrified he may not” exist. I decided to avoid that question for the purposes of this essay as it is, after all, a question that could take up its own essay – many essays, actually. I can easily affirm that the Yahweh character in the Bible taken literally and not as metaphor – the one who actually places bets with the devil against the lives of his creatures and literally endorses slavery and would happily have others stone me to death for advocating atheism – is a god I am supremely happy to find no evidence for, so that objection can be quickly rebutted. Well then, which god do I mean? Add that to the list of questions to be explored at length in my life, not casually answered in a single essay (let alone a single sentence).
• Does Jordan Peterson Believe in God?, Giles Fraser, in UnHerd (2021)
• “Beginning All Over Again”, Howard Root, in Soundings: Essays Concerning Christian Understanding, ed. A R Vidler (196