This Great Absence
What's left of religion without faith?
It is this great absence that is like a presence, that compels me to address it without hope of a reply. ~ R S Thomas, "The Absence"
In response to an essay here on Art Of Conversation, a perceptive reader suggested that for a person to call herself a Christian, she must take certain axioms of the faith to be literally true (the resurrection of Christ, for example). I disagreed, and then I changed my mind and was led to wonder what else, besides the label, might be lost with this loss of literalist faith. That same day, I happened to re-read Richard Holloway on his leaving the church:
“I have asked myself repeatedly in recent years whether I can still call myself a Christian, holding the faith in the way I now do. The answer to my question may be No ...”
I interpreted this confluence of answers to the same question on the same day as the Baader-Meinhof effect: I was everywhere seeing the problem that has been, for a while now, twisting its thumb into the open wound of a “great absence” (to borrow from the poet R S Thomas). I continued to be drawn to that which repelled me, namely religion.
My own history with faith is not unique. I was raised in a fundamentalist Evangelicalism that prioritised certainty and did not so much disapprove of critical enquiry as much as simply dismissed it – there was no need to examine that which was undoubtedly true. I held onto this Christianity until I was nineteen, when I was struck by the usual laundry list of life events that tend to precipitate a fall away from faith, and after one reading of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, I began advocating atheism with the same proselytising zeal with which I had held my religious belief.
Over the last decade, I found myself (to quote from a different poet, Hugh Mearns) continually crossing paths with a “man who wasn’t there”. As I travelled up and down the stairs of my late-twenties, I’d find “he wasn’t there again today” and I would “wish he’d go away”. This man who wasn’t there and who haunted me took on many forms. At first, he embodied literature, and I ran to books to answer his call. Then he resembled mythology, and I learned what I could of the old stories. Eventually, I read a book that lit up this ghostly figure and gave him a pleasant face – that of the kindly, equally haunted Richard Holloway.
I was working as a bookseller at the time, a role in which I came across a little book by Holloway called On Forgiveness and which my natural curiosity led me to read. I still had defensive walls up; having been burned by religion in ways that left scorch marks on my psyche that I was still discovering, I read his book with a cautious eye out for any hint that this once-Bishop of Edinburgh might be trying to smuggle in religious bigotry or faith-based irrationality. I found none of it.
In fact, I found nothing of the Christianity I knew and that sermonised weekly on the same subjects this book was about. Just as Holloway sounded nothing like the pastors I had known, his forgiveness and love and hope sounded nothing like that of the churches I had attended.
Holloway was also very different from the atheists I looked up to at the time. I could not imagine what a conversation would be like between Holloway and Hitchens. The Qur’an teaches to “repair the evil done to you with something that is better”. I had found something better than fundamentalist religion in so-called new atheism (which I prefer to call internet atheism), but it was not up to the challenge of metaphoric renditions of religion, so non-sectarian as to be impossible to pull any kind of dogma from. This view of things was able to agree on all the objectivity-based precepts of atheism (No evidence of a god? Agreed. The supernatural and superstitious? Nonsense, of course) and still see that there is much more to discuss, while the internet atheists had to return to the beginning to argue the same stuff over again.
Gravediggers of the present
I met with Holloway’s worldview the way he describes others responding to On Forgiveness in its introduction, “not so much as a thesis they agreed or disagreed with, but as a question that prompted a reply”. My own replies frequently took the form of questions, answers to which I sought in other books by Holloway, which in turn offered me further questions. Where, I began to wonder, do I go from here?
In that same introduction, Holloway writes about a quotation from Nietzsche that reminds us of the “ability to prevent incidents from the past becoming the gravediggers of the present”. This line floored me, and I decided that my route forward was being blocked by the debris of my past. So I began sifting through it and shovelling it out of my life, in a way the atheism I had adopted from Dawkins and reinforced with YouTube debates between demagogues on both sides was unequipped to help me with.
This journey led me to explore the varieties of religious expression, to discover the creative and often conflicting ways humans have lived out their faiths throughout history. This was an autodidactic class in comparative religion that my own religious upbringing had not prepared me for, having divided the world neatly into “proper Christians” and everyone else. My interests remained (as they do today) largely centred on Christianity as the faith of my personal and cultural identities, though lessons have been found across the religious spectrum. Discovering this diversity allowed me to more usefully direct my opprobrium at the appropriate target of the narrow-minded and cold-hearted Evangelicalism that had hurt me, rather than at Christianity as a whole.
I began the work of what Holloway describes as “one of the most astonishing and liberating of the human experience(s)”, which was forgiving not the indoctrination but the indoctrinators. The anger I felt at having been “lied to” melted into a compassion for those who had been lied to themselves and had perpetuated only what they honestly thought best for me. There were undoubtedly also those in the church who had cynically exploited their power for personal gain, and the responsibility then became sifting through these characters and making peace accordingly with the role they each played in poisoning me against all religion.
Finally, I moved past the ephemera and temporality of my own story to take stock of the greater story that religion has been a part of over the course of human history. As I read more from Holloway, and engaged with the ideas explored by Karen Armstrong and Jordan Peterson and in the Christian podcast Unbelievable?, and as irreligious friends expressed mild confusion at my interest, I bumped up against a question: Why was it religion that I kept returning to in my wondering wandering? What was it about the traditions of faith, as well as the liturgies and architectures of its institutions, that so captured my imagination and spoke to me of transcendence and meaning?
The God that never was
There is a short story by Grant Allen called The Missing Link, which has these two lines burning in it like the white-hot filament inside of a bulb:
“In his own study, he knelt down and prayed earnestly, fervently, to the God that never was, that never had been. You can’t conquer in a day the habits of a lifetime.”
This inability to build Rome in a day – or cause its collapse in twenty-four hours – has much to do with our culture’s losing battle in ejecting everything religious or founded on a faith from society. Not only are we struggling to replace it with something, I am convinced that even if we found some metaphysically stable and emotionally sustaining secular humanism that met our need for ritual, communion, and metaphor, the echoes of faith would still resonate through the walls of what we had built. The tabula rasa that modern rationalists seek is impossible – the canvas will never be clean of the impressions and blemishes left by the images religion once painted there.
There are those who take this to mean we should simply repaint the religious picture on the canvas, that what is required to overcome nihilism and vacuous materialism is a return to traditional Christianity. I am not convinced by this. To turn back to the source of problems that gave rise to our current forms of secularism and atheism, because the problems associated with those seem far worse, is obviously doomed. Regression will lead to repetition.
There is a section of society that proudly plumps itself on the opposite end of the spectrum; those who wish never to see religion again and, very often, have no deep knowledge of or even curiosity about it. This group not only rejects religion but (without knowing what they are doing) denies also the fundamental human necessities that gave birth to religion in the first place. But this hyper-practical, myopically logical rejection of – dare I say it – spiritual longings for metaphor and narrative identity is not uncommon. I believe it is based on a conflation of two distinct yet overlapping things that need parsing out to be understood: your tastes as an individual and the needs of your culture.
There are happy, intelligent people who do not like to read, just as I live a fulfilled life absent an appreciation of dance (I neither speak nor understand its language). But an individual’s disregard for books or ballet does not negate society’s need for literature and dancing. There are those who get by with no more consideration of religion than entering a church for weddings or funerals. It is possible that they manage this by not knowing what they are missing – that in understanding nothing of religion and their cultural history, they also don’t know what is lost in the salve of ignorance. Whatever the reason, these individuals are happy without Biblical stories and religious ritual. But that does not provide evidence that their culture can do without it.
An awareness of what is missing
The philosopher Jürgen Habermas once described the memorial service of an irreligious friend, at which there was an empty coffin and no priest or “amen”. This was designed, said Habermas, to point out that “the enlightened modern age has failed to find a suitable replacement for a religious way of coping with the final rîte de passage which brings life to a close.” He told this anecdote in a lecture he titled with a phrase that, now I’ve heard it, I cannot forget: “An awareness of what is missing.”
This evaluation of our position in modernity leaves out the complimentary realisation that there is an absence in the church too. Without the religious trappings of priests and rites and so on, the humanist memorial seemed rather empty. But without those features of faith, the church is hollowed out too. What is left of religion when we scoop out belief – in the sense of accepting the existence of the supernatural the way we accept the existence of cousins in another country – and scrape the interiors of faith clean of unjustified credulity?
More traditional believers would have it that nothing – or nothing of value – is left after this process. They point to this vacuity as the reason faith must be defended from criticism or modernisation. Where does that leave those of us so made (as Blaise Pascal described my kind) that we cannot believe? Are we supposed to pretend that we don’t know how to use logic, and pretend that we cannot see the fallacies in religious apologetics, and pretend that we are convinced in spite of a lack of evidence or in spite of evidence to the contrary?
In his Pensées, this is precisely what Pascal’s imagined interlocutor asks of him. The mathematician is gracious enough to reveal how we might “cure [ourselves] of unbelief”, sickly affliction that it is, apparently. All we need do is “follow the way by which [previous converts] began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc.” In short, act like a believer until habit anaesthetises you to your disbelief and inculcates faith within you; shorter still: Fake it until you make it.
Even the religious can see that this is intellectually dishonest and even cowardly, hence the rise in apologetics, which attempts to strongarm reason into demonstrating what they want it to show, that their particular religion is literally, philosophically, and scientifically true. So far, it is a failed project, at least for me and a huge number of others through history and across the globe. And so we are left with metaphysically empty churches (which are increasingly becoming actually empty churches as congregations wither) and a “god-shaped hole” left in us by a god inconsiderate enough to not exist.
Religion without religion
The task of addressing this is left to nonbelievers and those who don’t fall within the brackets of traditional faith, whose collective response has been a form of “religion without religion” (in Jacques Derrida’s term for it). Holloway suggests treating formalised faith like “the rocket that has to fall away when it has established its satellite in space”, its payload here being the values and ideals of which religion has been the carrier for millennia.
The sticking point for some in our relativistic times is a self-refuting denial of the existence of values and ideals. This reminds me of the Red King in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland who, on being told that a particular text has no meaning, remarks, “If there’s no meaning ... that saves a world of trouble, you know, as we needn’t try to find any.” Too many today escape through postmodern nihilism from the burden of trying to understand ourselves, our world, and the place in the latter for the former.
But I don’t write for those who take the view that anything can mean anything and so everything means nothing at all. I write for those who, as I do, suspect life is far deeper and grander and more difficult and worth grappling with than we experience regularly in our ordinary lives – and that ordinary ways of speaking fail us in interpreting and communicating that grandeur. Time and again, those seeking somewhere to ask the deepest questions of human existence find that religions are still the primary place for such questions. Indeed, oftentimes they are the only refuge for the spiritually curious or malnourished.
It was a frequent occurrence at the churches I attended growing up to hear “testimonies”. This was largely because personal experience was the only form of “evidence” they could offer, so they offered it often. These, I’m sorry to have to say, became tediously predictable: Hadn’t taken religion seriously, in a bad place by their early twenties, approaching thirty, some event – as dramatic as almost dying or joining a suicidal cult, or as banal as a minor existential crisis at the club while vomiting up that twelfth vodka and coke – convinces them there must be a better way to live. And they end up at a church because there is nowhere else offering them that something more.
This is their own “great absence” that drives them to fill it with belief. And when the religious sanctuaries they turn to harbour extremist renditions of the faith, it can be very difficult to divorce this danger from the respite they have found. Better that these lost souls find a temple for “religion without religion”, a place that neither denies their brokenness nor masks it with false consolations, but confronts and transforms it. This could be the collective cause that brings congregants together, with their communion being confronting the absence of God and creatively addressing the voids in our lives. A knowledge of what is missing might just be what fulfils us.
“The transcendent,” Jordan Peterson once said in conversation with Roger Scruton, “is what we bump up against when we realise our ignorance.” Peterson claimed that transcendence is that which exists beyond what we know or think we know. He went on to describe how ignorance manifests in error when it comes up against unknown reality – he cites the way we argue with someone about whom we believe something that is false. The conversation “goes sideways”, revealing that we have made a mistake in our assessment of the reality in front of us. “Error is the place where transcendence reveals itself.”
I agree with this, but only as a partial description; there are other important facets and maybe even other forms of transcendence, but it goes some way to accurately describing the transcendent. This notion of realising error might be why one of the more common “spiritual” moments had even by non-religious people is being outside at night, somewhere still and quiet, and looking straight up into the cosmos at the stars. For a second that shudders through your being, you perceive (imperfectly but potently) that the way you live your life almost every second of every day is an illusion. We live of necessity in practical ignorance of the fact of how small we are and in protective forgetfulness of how fleeting our time on Earth is.
I suspect that one of the major roles of religion is to locate us in the appropriate place to countenance our errors of perception and encounter transcendence. Our hymns and idols, rituals and reliquaries, the smells and bells of religious traditions are all indications towards the “spiritual” but they all fall short. It is this “failure” and simultaneously being positioned to focus on what is beyond ourselves that opens us up in the right place, time, and manner to experience the transcendent.
Fundamentalism and literalism of all varieties provide casuistic non-explanations to hide the failures from us. There is no admitting of error in such churches, which is why those of a more open-minded, modest approach witnessing these services can often feel like they are watching an inexpert piano recital from an inept musician who believes what he plays is perfect. No one gets much from it other than the deluded individual who gets to perpetuate his self-serving fantasy.
We often seek perfection in life, a wholeness to vicariously live through and so soothe the suffering of being incomplete. And too often religions have pretended to have achieved that perfection, selling themselves on the promise of wholeness. Rather than approaching religion as already having The Answer (whatever that might be), what a liberating and fulfilling thing it could be to see it instead as a search for answers that has provided many with as much solace as can be had in this life. It has unquestionably brought suffering and further brokenness, but this largely comes of claiming to have The Answer; people will kill and die for The Truth, fewer will do so for a hunch that is more about community, festivals, ritual, and bringing doubt into the collective light of religious enquiry.
This is why I find myself drawn back to religion. It is because I am human and have all the human concerns and questions that we as a species are unable to silence with the noise of modern life. It is because one of the exceedingly few places left in our society to ask those questions is in religion. I do not like religious answers, but I connect with the religious search.
Perhaps we should fill the empty space of abandoned religion with that empty space itself. For too long it was filled with the absolutism of faiths that insisted on the literal existence of things better understood as metaphors. Perhaps what ought to replace this is a radical uncertainty, a humble doubt that we bring to bear on our conviction that what we know is correct and that we know it all. We can create spaces in which we inhabit our ignorance and meet with our errors, which allow us to glimpse transcendence. These spaces could – I would even say should – be in our churches and other sacred places, from extravagant temples to unassuming shrines.
There will always be religious conservatives and ardent traditionalists who will reject this approach to their deeply-held faiths, and I know many Christians personally who will see my view as worryingly flawed. I think these well-meaning believers miss an undeniable truth, which is that, as Philip Almond puts it in his book on monotheistic deities, “the biography of the unchangeable God is the story of his seemingly infinite capacity to change”.
Culture has transformed in irreversible ways, just as the minds of a constantly growing number in our society have changed on the question of whether a god literally exists. The egg cannot be unscrambled – it is impossible to maintain one’s intellectual integrity and pretend to believe in the old style of belief. This is a part of what constitutes the “great absence” we are left with.
But the absence isn’t all that there is. There are things left to work with and worth working with. What emerges from this endeavour might just be like Cervantes’ moon over Don Quixote, which “shone with a splendour that might vie even with that whence it was borrowed”. The void need not remain in darkness; we can instead light it up.
• Frequencies, “The Absence”, R S Thomas (1978)
• Doubts and Loves, Richard Holloway (2001)
• Antigonish, Hugh Mearns (1899)
• On Forgiveness, Richard Holloway (2002)
• Qur’an, 41:34
• Sir Roger Scruton/Dr. Jordan B. Peterson: Apprehending the Transcendent, Jordan B Peterson (YouTube) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XvbtKAYdcZY&vl=en
• The Rare Or Unread Stories of Grant Allen: 1848-1899, “The Missing Link”, Grant Allen (2019)
• An Awareness of What is Missing: Faith and reason in a post-secular age, Jürgen Habermas (2010)
• Pensées, Blaise Pascal (1670)
• The Gift of Death, Jacques Derrida (1992)
• Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll, (1865)
• God: A new biography, Philip Almond (2018)
• Don Quixote, Part I, Miguel de Cervantes (1605)