Peter Steele, that iconic literary Jesuit @ Newman College, suggests that we Australians are in effect the twins of Thomas, who had a good dose of scepticism about him, believing that it’s only fools that rush in where the wise fear to tread and would be pretty reserved about the clamouring enthusiasm of other people, being inclined to say, as often as not, ‘count me out.’ It is healthy to be sceptical of the drift and clamour of public opinion in the conduct of our own lives. Public opinion can say, or imply, that you are only as good as you look, or that you are worth only what you own, or that you count only as much as your career does and so on. The tide of public opinion can reveal as it did in the poll on Monday night’s Q & A with Cardinal George Pell & Richard Dawkins, that 74% of Australians believe that religious belief does not make the world a better place. The New Athesism advocates that religion is morally bad, with Christianity and religious belief generally holds back progress, approves of oppression and stokes hatred. Yet Chris Berg’s article in today’s Age reminds us that virtually all the secular ideas that nonbelievers value have Christian origins – including the idea that all individuals have human rights, that simply by virtue of being human we have basic liberties that must be protected by law and that for most of our history the great thinkers have all been religious believers. This, together with the 2012 atheist convention being held in Melbourne this weekend, promoted as a ‘celebration of reason’ with the kind of evangelical fervour and missionary enthusiasm that faith groups might only dream of - all presents to us the social and cultural reality in which we believers find ourselves in what is increasingly a post-Christian society.
Thomas Merton great spiritual mystic of the last century, wrote that "Faith is not the suppression of doubt. It is the overcoming of doubt, and you overcome doubt by going through it.” He goes on to say that “the person of faith who has never experienced doubt is not a person of faith." He said that it is necessary to struggle in the depths of our being with the presence of doubt. Going through what some religions call the Great Doubt, to break through doubt into a certitude which is very, very deep because it is not our own personal certitude, it is the certitude of God, in us.
Faith in the risen Jesus doesn't give us absolute certainty. Just because we believe doesn't mean we know all the answers – it doesn’t absolve us from searching, faith involves trust, not certainty. Absolute human certainty can lead to intolerance, arrogance and ignorance. There is an increase today in fundamentalism - frightened by the absence of certainties, many have retreated into fundamentalism and what we might call a literal faith. It can be very attractive - for the fundamentalist path is straight, the answer is simple, but it’s an impoverished way of seeing reality. It results in a rigid, simplistic, moralistic, authoritarian religion. It makes people into a herd, following the exact same path - it might offer a safety to some, but it protects us from the hard work of coming to deep and personal faith. It spares us the anxiety of dealing with choice and responsibility, playing right on our insecurities and fears. But it deprives us of encountering mystery, and the God of mystery, whose presence was experienced amidst fear and doubt, and it deprives us of our God given gifts of reason, intellect, feeling and emotion. What it does ask is that we trust, which is what faith demands, and what the community of faith offers is not the certainty that comes without doubt, but the assurance of God's abiding presence, that the risen Jesus can be encountered anew and will continue to work through us.
In our tradition the classical mystics speak of two “dark nights of the soul”, two painful, purifying periods of life we must all undergo. The first of these it calls “the night of the senses”. This darkness, they tell us, refers to a period of painful trial which helps purify our motivation so as to make us less selfish. But these same mystics assure us that, during this first dark night, we are given consolation in our faith. God feels near. The feeling is like that of taking a bitter-tasting medicine that we know will make us better.
The second night, “the night of the spirit” is much more “the test” to which the Lord’s Prayer refers. What happens here is that God seemingly disappears. All our old securities in faith dissolve and all efforts to reground ourselves through former faith-practices come up dry. God seems unreal to our heads and hearts, even as, in the depth of our being, something else is happening which belies what’s happening on the surface, namely, even as our thoughts and feelings about God seem empty, we are, in our more important decisions and values, riveting ourselves ever more firmly to God and the other world. Such are the dynamics of faith. Sometimes what feels like doubt and atheism is the beginning of real belief.