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Thursday, May 25, 2023

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I have been pondering this exceptional short essay on faith and death since reading it yesterday evening, and one of things that it brought to mind was the danger in treating belief as knowledge. By this I mean, too often those who are religiously inclined or devoted assume that holding a set of beliefs commits one to an absolute certainty about their veracity. I expressed my opinion on this matter in an email to you earlier this year, which you posted on Maverick Philosopher. In it I had in mind, “the intellectual believer, imbued with an inherent religious sensibility and inclination, desirous of affirming the foundational propositions of his faith, … but who, however much he wills it, is often suffused with doubt about their veracity.” However, in light of your Substack essay, I think that when faced with the immediacy of death, customarily less doubtful and perhaps less sophisticated religious believers may find the very same sorts of doubts arising in their minds, especially with regard to dogmas or doctrines, illogical or contradictory to the human mind, that are easily embraced by them in the full bloom of life but that on the coming of death are suddenly less than comforting. In other words, for those inclined to accept authority or tradition without question, the risks of holding false beliefs in the church pew or the home easy chair are entirely bearable, but on the death bed, these risks become overwhelming and insupportable. And this is in part why the fear exhibited by the elderly grandmother of whom you write reflects a pastoral failure on the part of the Church, in that such persons have been discouraged from entertaining doubts about the final things, being assured, instead, that orthodoxy requires them to act as if they know what awaits us all. The imposition of this expectation leads to the repression of the natural fears and natural questions that every man and woman raises before the mystery of death. Would it not be better if we were all asked, as you do, to cling to the faith that has formed our lives, a faith that is built, after all, on belief, which encompasses uncertainty and doubt, and on hope, so that we confront the greatest of all challenges without the too fragile illusion of certainty?

Vito,

Thanks for your thoughtful reading of my piece. You've understood me very well. There are a number of difficult philosophical and pastoral questions here. 'Pastor' as you know means shepherd, herdsman, and is connected etymologically with 'pasture.' The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want; he shall maketh me to lie down in green pastures. A good priest is a shepherd of souls. The pastoral point that you and I seem to be converging upon is that a good priest, one who knows and does his job, is honest with his mature parishioners about the relation of faith and knowledge and how faith goes well beyond knowledge and thus is open to reasonable doubt, and how it is necessary to confront these doubts long before the hour of death. Confronting the doubts and overcoming them by an act of will, the believer will be prepared to say to himself on his death bed: "I have examined these matters in detail on many occasions when I was at my best and I have found reason to make and live by a faith commitment; I will not go back on any of that now when I am dying and at my worst. I have lived by faith and I shall die in the faith, praying for a happy death, for the Lord's mercy, and to be spared demonic assault as I leave this vain world."

I think this points to a wider issue in the church - its complete failure in teaching apologetics to the laity. It seems that many people are simply taught the faith as a set of facts to accept as children (assuming nowadays they are even adequately catechised), then when they grow to adolescence and early adulthood if they are intelligent they are usually assailed by doubts - doubts for which they often can find no answers as there is simply no culture at their church of addressing these problems. The laity is no longer largely made up of illiterate peasants after all. In my own case, (and going off what other converts of my acquaintance say, my experience is not unique) as so much of the secular world and wider culture tends to present religion in a very unfavourable light and focus on bogus notions of science-faith conflicts and so on, I was well into my twenties when I discovered - in fact, through the discovery of this here blog! - that an intellectually respectable, non-question-begging defence of faith was even possible (and, finally, persuasive). Before that my impression was that however much I might wish to believe, belief was some sort of pyschological trick or ability that I lacked.

I'm not suggesting of course that every parishioner needs to be schooled in the intricacies of Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics or what have you, but rather that thinking in an apologetic manner is conveyed to them as a valid means of thinking about faith - so, as you say rightly say, Bill, they know that these questions are not merely inevitable, but valuable to the believer. The clergy should also be trained to realise in particular that the kind of apologetics required differs from person to person - to give one person a relatively accessible book like C. S. Lewis's 'Mere Christianity' may be enough, but another might have questions that can only be answered by something more thorough and demanding.

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