Brendan Hoban: We are all the poorer for the ‘missing God’  

Western People, 22.11.2022

Nowadays, as interest in religion declines and as religious imagery is no longer part of the common currency of a lived life, art galleries have taken to erecting wall captions explaining events like the Annunciation or the Assumption to the growing constituency of the religiously illiterate in order to help them understand religious art.

Francisco de Zubaran’s painting, The Bound Lamb, explains the problem. It shows a lamb with his feet tied, a compelling image of the slaughtering of the innocent. But, in a Christian culture, it’s viewed as a metaphor for the sufferings of Christ, the Lamb of God. While the painting works at a surface level, without the understanding of the origin of the image it loses much of its impact.

The developing ignorance around religious knowledge has the writer, Julian Barnes, wondering aloud what it will be like ‘when Christianity joins the list of dead religions and is taught in university as part of the folklore syllabus’. Likewise, the poet, Philip Larkin, famously wondered what will happen when ‘churches fall completely out of use’ and whether there is a need to ‘keep a few cathedrals chronically on show’.

While the poet Dennis O’Driscoll writes movingly about ‘missing God’, others have suggested that for many now God is ‘missing but not missed’. Understandably then the month of November – with its resonances of death, its melancholic character, its tradition of praying for the Holy Souls – like the Bound Lamb, seems to be losing its religious context.

We’re complicated – especially when it comes to belief. The writer, Somerset Maughan, relates how, as a young man, he lost his faith in God but for many years retained his belief in Hell. Others have replaced religion with socialism or art or in some cases, sport – a form of worship now snugly ensconced in the traditional God-slot on Sunday mornings. For others, fear of death has replaced fear of God.

Religious belief, and what it means, can fluctuate. A confirmed atheist I know always gets a Mass said for his mother in November. Another very publicly goes off the drink for November ‘for a special intention’. And recently believers, agnostics and atheists found themselves drawn to a Mass in Creeslough, in Donegal, after the disaster there. In seeking some kind of meaning for what seemed so meaningless, there was nowhere else to gather.

Of course, we know enough, most of us at any rate, not to draw an equivalence between those who go to Mass and those who have faith. Or between those who say their prayers and those who are ‘Catholic’. The definition of ‘an Irish Catholic’ is expanding as the Catholic Church struggles to ‘widen the tent of belonging’, as Pope Francis described it recently.

Not so long ago, defining belief and its constituents, followed tried and tested formulae. The existence of God could be proven by the Five Proofs, listed in Sheehan’s Apologetics, once the classic exposition of all the doctrines of the Catholic faith for second level students. Later, the same proofs, written by St Thomas Aquinas, were systematically dissected and rejected by philosophers, Catholic and otherwise.

The simple truth emerged that belief in the existence of God is just that, a belief, and of its nature a belief cannot be proven the way a mathematician might prove a theorem in geometry. Belief of its nature has to live with doubt. The Protestant theologian, Kark Barth, has written that ‘absolute faith is a contradiction in terms’.

Scarcely had philosophers agreed that belief in God can’t be proven when agnostics (those who don’t know whether God exists or not) and particularly atheists (those who believe God doesn’t exist) tried to slot their creeds – because creeds they are – into the apparent gap. But while agnostics have the luxury of taking both sides of the road with them and can languish in easy ambivalence, atheists have casually taken over the cloak of infallibility once the preserve of theists (those who believe God exists).

Thus, atheists like Richard Dawkins casually but confidently pontificate on the impossibility of God existing as if proving God’s non-existence is more possible than proving his existence when both are clearly not susceptible to proof. The fact that Dawkins uses some fairly wonky theories like his poor grasp of theology – the equivalent, as the erstwhile professor of English at Oxford, Terry Eagleton, has argued, of a commentator on ornithology quoting from The Great British Book of Birds – indicates his unwarranted confidence in his often specious arguments.

It’s a problem with atheists in general – because Christian believers have conceded that God cannot be proven to exist, that the opposite case (proving that he can’t exist) has left the field open to itself. That’s not the case. However, if Dawkins and his crew are wrong, the fury of the resurrected atheist will be a joy to behold.

Perhaps the best advice on the God debate came from the novelist Somerset Maughan, an agnostic who considered the various proofs for the existence of God – first cause, design, efficient cause and so forth – but opted instead for the notion of ‘general agreement’. Since the beginning of time, Maughan argued, the vast majority of people, including the greatest and the wisest of them, from a wide variety of different cultures, have accepted some kind of belief in a God. And how could such an instinct so widespread and so compelling be less convincing that the tiny cadre of committed atheists who hold an opposing view?

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  1. Joe O'Leary says:

    Dorothy L. Sayers was appalled long ago that peopled did not understand the phrase ‘Lamb of God’.

    A rethink of God in dialogue with agnostics need not begin with epistemology. Shelley was a militant atheist yet wrote one of the most deeply religious poems in the English language, which even refers to ‘the great morning of the world when first God dawned on chaos.’ There is a contemplative realm where different religious apprehensions can meet in mutual challenge and confirmation. Pope Francis quotes Hölderlin. His admired Romano Guardini engaged in deep religious study of Rilke. Hans Urs von Balthasar and Benedict XVI saw artists as exploring their own distinctive path to God.

    Some say Christianity is morphing into a merely artistic patrimony, that French weeping over Notre-Dame have no Christian investment in the monument, that the composers of stirring masses, requiems and oratorios were all agnostics or heterodox (Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Elgar, Britten — not sure about Berlioz or Fauré). But who can measure this? The widespread study of the Bible as Literature is another channel of potential God-awareness.

    Liturgy should be a constant school of religious awareness. That would be the best ‘proof’ of the ‘existence’ of God.

  2. Sean O'Conaill says:

    Disbelief is in the ascendant only in the public spaces considered important by the academically fortunate – who happen, coincidentally, to be also usually materially fortunate. Moreover, this disbelief relates only to the ‘power’ God of Christendom, who was never the Father God of Jesus anyway. The latter is still followed, faithfully, by those for whom practical loving is far more important than knowing whatever is most fashionable to say nowadays in the academy or on the cocktail circuit. (Is that still whatever Richard Dawkins says? If so he has outdone Andy Warhol’s prediction that about now everyone would get to be famous for a quarter of an hour.)

    To be complacent about the non-existence of God is not to have explained or resolved the ongoing crisis of secularist dithering – which is now (we are told) probably ‘existential’ if we look only at Cop 27. Why did the 18th century Enlightenment – the historical cradle of Dawkinsism – not see that one coming? If no world leader is persuasive today in fully getting a grip of that problem alone, is the non-existence of God truly something that should cheer us all up? Isn’t that like finding yourself on a bus going downhill without brakes and telling the guy next to you not to worry one little bit – because this bus never had a sighted driver anyway?

    For me René Girard has finally toppled the postmodernist convention that no ‘grand story’ can ever be taken seriously. All fashions are fully explicable in terms of mimetic desire – and that includes intellectual fashions such as atheism and the superficial assumption that the discrediting of Christian clergymen is a discrediting of the Creed they professed to believe in. Had he truly been following the Nazarene in every particular, how could any stipendiary clergyman have colluded in keeping from Christian families the facticity of clerical sexual abuse of children, a convention that was binding for centuries?

    Those clergymen did that because they had only the faith of Peter on the road to Jerusalem – a faith that included the premise that on no account could Jesus submit to public shaming. Shaming is something that must never happen to us, God’s chosen: wasn’t that the conviction that underpinned the cover-up, always, and especially after 1517 when the clergies of the Reformed churches were ready to pounce on any sign of corruption among the Rome-oriented?

    In c 1958 my class was assured by our ordained Spiritan RE teacher in St Mary’s, Rathmines that the Catholic Church had absolutely nothing to apologise for. (This was in case we should mistakenly suppose that ‘apologetics’ might have anything at all to do with apologising.) That is the ‘faith’ that is dead sure enough – but was it truly faith in a loving God, the faith of Jesus – if what underpinned it was so driven by fear of social shame that it had to deny the reality that all of those mature priests in St Mary’s must have been aware of: that there were predators in their midst?

    The Creed was not compiled to assist authoritarianism but to reassure any follower of Jesus who might in danger of the most outrageous persecution – that what ‘the world’ (i.e. ‘fashionable belief’) held to be true was always ‘a house of sand’ and passing away. If imminent climate catastrophe isn’t ‘arresting’ us yet, it soon enough will. So might the political rightism that threatens liberty and civility now in many places. The very least of our worries then will be the intellectual fashions of now. Has anyone ever found Dawkins helpful when faced with a real emergency? Does Greta Thunberg quote him avidly on her climate crusade?

    When intellectual ‘influencers’ are also obviously sleepwalking, who should care for more than twenty seconds what they ‘think’?

  3. Michael Boyle says:

    How can the intellect know of the existence of god before the heart rejoices in His presence ?

  4. Paddy Ferry says:

    Of course, our land, Ireland, we now know has for decades, maybe centuries, been a Land without God, to quote Gerard Mannix Flynn.

    And, it must have been the same feeling for all the thousands of children and young women who suffered such unspeakable abuse and cruelty at the hands of those claiming to act on behalf of God. Some God!!

    I expect the Blackrock Boys — the most recent addition to the catalogue of horrors — would have felt the same.

    I was home two weeks ago for our dental class reunion. The papers were full of it. Two of my classmates were Blackrock boys and knew some of the 77 priests accused. I noticed that there was not a word about it on this site.
    At least nobody has tried to deflect blame this time from those accused as we have seen in other cases in the past.

  5. Joe O'Leary says:

    “Disbelief is in the ascendant only in the public spaces considered important by the academically fortunate – who happen, coincidentally, to be also usually materially fortunate. Moreover, this disbelief relates only to the ‘power’ God of Christendom, who was never the Father God of Jesus anyway. The latter is still followed, faithfully, by those for whom practical loving is far more important than knowing whatever is most fashionable to say nowadays in the academy or on the cocktail circuit.”

    This remark has given me an answer to the devastatingly sombre book of sociologists Danièle Hervieu-Léger and Jean-Louis Schlégel, ‘Vers L’implosion?” occasioned by an official French report claiming 330,000 victims of clerical sex abuse since 1970.

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