Tuesday, December 9, 2008

What He Believed

Once again (and bits of this post have appeared before) I’ve been thinking how our little minds falter when we don’t have a system for organising the universe into what we know and what we don’t know. My fiancĂ©e struggles to explain how I can tolerate a semi-formalised system of spiritual belief (I am not going to pretend to call myself a “this” or a “that”, suffice it to say that I believe something is out there) just as I have difficulty grasping her apparent lack of one. I know my world view is just that, a view, wrought from a Catholic father and Protestant mother who saw beyond the apparent contradictions of their religious systems to build a life together.

To me, no-one understood the fragile yet fundamental notion of faith better than the English novelist E.M. Forster, who in his agnosticism belied a far purer understanding of spirituality than many so-called Believers. Consider the startling passage from his essay "What I Believe", taken from the collection Two Cheers For Democracy:

I do not believe in Belief. But this is an Age of Faith, and there are so many militant creeds that, in self-defence, one has to formulate a creed of one’s own. Tolerance, good temper and sympathy are no longer enough in a world which is rent by religious and racial persecution, in a world where ignorance rules, and Science, who ought to have ruled, plays the subservient pimp. Tolerance, good temper and sympathy - they are what matter really, and if the human race is not to collapse they must come to the front before long. But for the moment they are not enough, their action is no stronger than a flower, battered beneath a military jackboot. They want stiffening, even if the process coarsens them. Faith, to my mind, is a stiffening process, a sort of mental starch, which ought to be applied as sparingly as possible. I dislike the stuff. I do not believe in it, for its own sake, at all. Herein I probably differ from most people, who believe in Belief, and are only sorry they cannot swallow even more than they do… one must be fond of people and of people and trust them if one is not to make a mess of life, and it is therefore essential that they should not let one down. They often do. The moral of which is that I must, myself, be as reliable as possible, and this I try to be. But reliability is not a matter of contract - that is the main difference between the world of personal relationships and the world of business relationships. It is a matter for the heart, which signs no documents. In other words, reliability is impossible unless there is a natural warmth….

The heart signs no documents. What a stunning indictment of the war between the sacred and the profane. Or, more prosaically, the trade-off between passion and wisdom. To think that beneath Forster’s tweedy, Earl-Grey soaked exterior lurked a soul that was prepared to burn its delicate English sensibilities on the ancient fire of a created Universe. I daresay anybody who could emulate Forster’s suggestion (prescription is too strong a word) for living would go a long way to become what the ancients termed a “Righteous One”. (I’m probably just a “Fractious One”).

I wonder what E.M.F. would have made of Dawkin’s religious-trashing polemic The God Delusion. Perhaps he would have been content to mark it as simply another example of “Belief”. And I’m probably just chicken for not wanting to consider a universe without some higher consciousness holding it all together, but Forster’s urge to “formulate a creed of one’s own” is certainly a warmer filter to look through than Dawkins equating religion with psychopathology.
If Forster was unable to “believe in Belief” himself, he was able to take leaps of faith vicariously through his writing, which is beautifully explored in his short story, "Mr Andrews", in which a soul finds himself disillusioned with the Afterlife he has entered. No Fear and Trembling here, just a beautiful meditation on eternity that is disarmingly free of literary and religious devices.

Ah, the penny drops, and the apparent contradiction is resolved - he never said he didn’t believe, he just pooh-poohed Belief itself. And as I type, the horror of realising that every word we say (or write) amounts to a statement of belief, however false, however confused.
I can't help but leave you with Pilate’s words:“What I have written, I have written.”


I’m a prodigal, quixotic blogger, I’ll admit - leaving bleeding bits and pieces all over cyberspace like a rogue subatomic particle. This is an (umpteenth) attempt at giving credence to my Frustrated Writer Within (wow, that sounds straight outta Oprah), but hopefully the first to successfully consolidate all my previous (and defunct) posts into one space - I do think there’s some good stuff there. Plus it does make this post look a little less lonely. Enjoy, curse, caress, whatever; thanks for reading.