‘Perhaps It Is True After All’

Notes on Faith
This story is included in these collections

Some decades ago, while living in West Africa, I became friends with a United Nations public servant, whom I shall call D., a European bothered by questions of faith. We have remained friends ever since, via correspondence and occasional visits. Years before I met him, D. had given up a lucrative job with a European bank in order to try to make a difference in the way people live in the developing world. The effort brought him and his family to relatively poor nations in Africa and Asia. Wherever D. went, administering programs for the Development Program, he led a much simpler life than most of his expatriate colleagues. This represented a moral decision made by D. and his wife. Their vocation as development workers has been to do good, not to do well.  

Long inactive in the church, D. nonetheless still struggles to come to terms with what it means to be a Christian and a Catholic. Even while working for the UN, he found time to read works of theology and philosophy. He has read all the major encyclicals of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI as well as the more recent writings of Pope Francis, sharing their moral concern for the poor. It’s fair to say, however, that D. has more than a few problems with the church. He finds the televised liturgies at the Vatican, attended by dozens of cardinals, archbishops, and bishops in full regalia, simply ridiculous: What, he wonders, would Jesus have thought of these baroque liturgical operas? Concerned with the problems of densely populated poor countries, he questions papal teaching on contraception. At the suggestion of a papal nuncio D. once met in Asia, he wrote a long letter on this subject to John Paul II, hoping to give the pope the point of view of an informed observer on the ground. He received in reply a polite note, sent by some Vatican undersecretary, assuring him that the pope disagreed with him but sent his blessings nonetheless.

D. also asks more basic questions about God. In recent years he has read much of what I have written, especially in the area of Jewish-Christian-Muslim trialogue, and his response is always: “Patrick, that’s all well and good, but what does this mean to you? Why do you put your faith in God?” Let me put forward some of the thoughts I have shared with D. on faith—and not only Christian faith. I have lived for many years in close contact with Jewish friends in New York and with Muslim friends in Africa, and some of them ask the same questions that D. does. Problems with faith—with God—cross religious boundaries. Here, then, are the fruits of a conversation that I’ve been conducting, both with my friend and in my mind, for a long time.

 

AT THE BEGINNING of a long panegyric on faithful people in times past, the anonymous author of the Epistle to the Hebrews evokes what faith means: “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). That Epistle aimed to comfort Jewish Christians discouraged in their adherence to Jesus as Lord and Messiah. Caught between their uncomprehending families and the Gentiles who were gradually outnumbering them in the early church, they were at a loss. Their framework of faith seemed to be collapsing. 

It is possible to hear, in the way faith is described in Hebrews—as “assurance” and “conviction”—a bit of smugness. Such assurance and conviction would seem to be unavailable to outsiders. Is this what the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews is trying to shout at us down through the echoing corridors of so many centuries? Let me suggest a different translation of the verse: “Faith is the reality that undergirds our hopes, the argument that convinces us about realities we do not see.”

The Greek word normally translated as assurance or substance, hypostasis, designates an underlying reality, a reality that undergirds and supports what rests on top of it. In this construal, faith lays the foundation for what we hope for, enabling us to stand steady and upright. It is a foundation, a foothold, from which we can look forward to the future of this world, but also to the future that is the age to come.

Yet even if faith undergirds our hopes, we must acknowledge that it sometimes provides a very shaky foundation. A book Joseph Ratzinger published in 1968, Introduction to Christianity, recalls the first scene in Paul Claudel’s epic drama, The Satin Slipper. A Jesuit missionary, the brother of the main character of the drama, has survived a pirate raid and shipwreck—but just barely survived. Lashed to the floating mast of the sunken ship, the Jesuit drifts over the raging waters. “I really am fastened to the cross,” he soliloquizes, “but the cross on which I hang is not fastened to anything else. It drifts on the sea.” Ratzinger saw the Jesuit’s situation as an apt model of faith for many in the modern world: yes, there is certainty, fastened strongly as we are to the mast, but also a raging sea of uncertainty just below. How could it be otherwise?

One day late in her life my grandmother asked my mother whether she believed there was life after death. My mother was more than a little shocked by this inquiry from an eighty-year-old Irish woman, legally blind all her life and illiterate as a result, who never had the leisure or the ability, one would have thought, to raise philosophical or theological questions. She assured my grandmother that there was hope for blessed survival. Widows both, they knew full well the sorrow of death and separation. And so the resilient strength of my mother’s foundation in faith—inherited from her mother—was returned as a gift when the sea beneath my grandmother’s drifting mast proved too turbulent.

There is much that frightens us in life, especially as we approach the end of it, but there remains—through God’s graciousness—a future for which we can hope. For most of us that hopeful future is inextricably linked with a personal future, spent with much loved persons, surrounding the God who loves us to the end. Jeremiah put it well when urging the deportees in the Babylonian Exile to wait in patience for their future redemption: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).

Is this self-deception, I might ask D.—a mirage in the desert, a well where there is no well? Perhaps. Such questions afford no certainty, one way or the other. In his 1968 book Ratzinger observes that both the faithful and the faithless live in a world of doubts; only fanatics have no doubts.  Ratzinger recalls the story told by Martin Buber about the Enlightenment Jew, a rationalist with no faith, who went to visit Levi Yitzhak, the Rabbi of Berditchev, to engage him in philosophical argument about the basis for his faith. When he arrived, he found the rabbi walking up and down, absorbed in a book. Barely acknowledging his guest, the rabbi looked up to utter only one sentence: “But perhaps it is true after all.” Presently the rabbi told his visitor that his fellow rabbis had wasted their time trying “to lay God and his Kingdom on the table before you, and neither can I. But think, my son, perhaps it is true.” The disciple of Enlightenment skepticism left the rabbi’s home haunted by that “perhaps.”

There is a cave in northeastern Ghana, not far from Tongo, where members of different clan lineages traditionally settle disputes in the invisible presence of a spirit. Petitioners come to the shrine from as far away as Southern Ghana to seek out the power and mystery of Nana Tongo. It is a challenging experience. Before entering, petitioners must strip naked, then walk backwards into the cave. The cave floor is rocky; scorpions and other creatures of the darkness scamper around their feet. Gradually, visitors start to hear what seems to be the bellowing of a wild animal, echoing and re-echoing in the cave. The priest interprets the bellowing as the spirit demanding offerings of chickens, sheep, goats. It is, in fact, the sound of a bullroarer—a pierced piece of wood on a string, whirled about in the inner recesses of the cave by the priest’s assistant. But the petitioners hear only the voice of the spirit. Terrified, unsure of their footing and stripped of all their defenses, they comply with the priest’s demands. Like the Enlightenment Jew haunted by the “perhaps” of the Rabbi of Berditchev, like the Jesuit tied to the wave-tossed mast in Claudel’s drama, petitioners at Nana Tongo’s shrine are thrown off balance. Their faith and their hope for what lies ahead are both steady and unsteady, sure and unsure.

Faith is hard to define, hard to explain. It gives us a place to stand, to take a stand, even if that place is itself floating on an ocean of uncertainty, or on slippery rocks in a dark cave. We crane our necks and listen intently, trying to understand what we hear indistinctly in the darkness. We hope that beyond that darkness, the realities we look forward to are actually there. 

“Perhaps we are deceived,” I might say to D. “Perhaps it is only the sound of a bullroarer. But then again, perhaps it is the voice of the cave spirit. Your faith in God and my faith, when they are vivid, shine like the face of the moon reflecting the sun. But we also experience eclipses of the moon of faith. Our planet—we ourselves—sometimes eclipse our faith. And sometimes even God seems to be the source of darkness, and we don’t know why. We must live with both the light and the darkness of God.”

Faith is also depicted, in that same verse of Hebrews, as “the argument (elengchos) that convinces us about realities we do not see.” That Greek term most famously characterized the logical process by which Socrates elicited from his interlocutors a truth that they knew in some sense, but had not actually recognized before. The other secular use of the word comes not from philosophical deduction but from the usage of law courts, where the elengchos is the argument that leads to the conviction of the criminal. The argument of faith, I would like to tell D., can convince us of realities we do not see, and especially two: the depths of our selfhood, and the depths of God. We must plunge into them, even in darkness.

First and foremost we must begin with the depths of ourselves and of our human experience. Many people live out their lives without ever plumbing those depths, never gaining any insight into who they are as human persons. Yet it is from within those depths that we as human persons experience most profoundly what and whom we know and love. Are our souls simply mental projections? That is not a very satisfying basis for understanding what happens within us. We launch the arrows of mind and heart from the bows of our innermost lives toward a high-flying and finally unattainable bird, much like the kestrel that catches the eye and stirs the heart in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s sonnet, “The Windhover”: “My heart in hiding/ Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!” Hopkins dedicated that sonnet “To Christ our Lord,” but it also evokes the transcendent majesty of God discernible in those mundane realities that are the object of human knowing and loving.         

God, like the kestrel, will always fly higher and draw us upward, as in the Latin phrase, Deus semper maior: God is always greater. In Saint Augustine’s meditative commentary on Psalm 63:7—“You have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy”—he lays a foundation for so describing the absolute transcendence of God:

I rejoice in good deeds, because the shadow of Your wings is over me. Because I am a chick, the kite will carry me away, if You do not protect me.... We are little chicks: let God therefore protect us under the shadow of His wings. What happens when we have grown up? It is good for us even then that He protect us, so that under Him as One greater we would always remain chicks. For He is always greater, no matter how much we may have grown up. Let no one say: let Him protect me while I am little, as if at some time one could arrive at such maturity as to be self-sufficient. Without the protection of God you are nothing. We should always want to be protected by God; then we will be able to be always great in Him, as long as we remain little under Him. “In the shadow of Your wings I will sing for joy.”

Only God fully exists in Augustine’s terminology; human beings exist only partially, and for a time. And yet we still can aim the arrows of our deepest selves toward the always more transcendent horizon, the goal of our deepest being and longing.

Sometimes, however, we feel unable to keep our eyes on the kestrel; sometimes we lose the vision that draws us up and out of our selves, and forget that we are chicks under the shadow of His wings. In those moments of doubt, the argument about the realities we do not see no longer convinces us. Along these lines I would tell D.—who, like me, has spent a long time in places where Christians and Muslims live together—of the faith struggles of some of my Muslim friends, and of the thoughts and life stories of Muslim philosophers and mystics down the centuries.

I myself have found great companionship in the faith struggles experienced by the intellectual and mystic Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, who died nine hundred years ago. Iranian by birth, a prominent Sunni Muslim scholar, Ghazali made his academic reputation as a professor of Islamic law in Baghdad, where his chief patron, a Persian power broker known by the sobriquet Nizam al-Mulk, had successfully manipulated Seljuq Turkish emperors and weak Arab caliphs for nearly four decades. Nizam al-Mulk’s career ended dismally when he was dismissed from office in 1092 and assassinated a year later. Perhaps these dark turns in his patron’s fortune upset Ghazali’s equilibrium. Or maybe it was the accumulated burden of the philosophical writings he had been studying throughout those years as a professor of law. At any rate, in the year 1095-96, he felt that he was losing his faith, missing the point of the argument about the realities he could not see. Whatever caused his crisis, Ghazali narrates its incapacitating physical components vividly. “God put a lock upon my tongue so that I was impeded from public teaching,” he wrote, noting that he was “completely unable to say anything.” His sudden impediment of speech “caused a sadness in my heart accompanied by an inability to digest; food and drink became unpalatable to me so that I could neither swallow broth easily nor digest a mouthful of solid food.”

Resolving to give up his teaching position in Baghdad and pursue again the sources of his faith as a Muslim, Ghazali decided to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. On the way he spent two years in Damascus, where he often locked himself into the minaret of the Umayyad-era mosque, and then departed for Jerusalem, where he would shut himself up in the Dome of the Rock, a locale associated with the Prophet Muhammad’s heavenly ascension. From Jerusalem he went to visit the tomb of Abraham in nearby Hebron/al-Khalil before finally departing for Arabia and the pilgrimage sites in and around Mecca. After his pilgrimage Ghazali returned, at the behest of his children, not to Baghdad but to his native Iran. Renouncing the life of a scholar-jurist, he came to embrace the way of the Muslim mystics known as Sufis. “All their motions and quiescences, exterior and interior, are learned from the light of the niche of prophecy,” he wrote. “And beyond the light of prophecy there is no light on earth from which illumination can be obtained.” Ghazali’s elevation of Sufism as the highest form of Islamic existence spurred the forty short volumes of devotional writings he produced in the last decade of his life, which form the best of his legacy today.

When the sources of faith dry up, and we are no longer able to keep our balance on the reality that undergirds our hopes, when we can no longer follow the argument that should convince us about things we do not see—then it is time to pray, to go on pilgrimage, to forsake our attachments to the sources of our pride. Ghazali learned this, and left behind a lesson for all of us whose faith is wavering. “In the morning I would have a sincere desire to seek the things of the afterlife but by evening the hosts of passion would assail it and render it lukewarm. Mundane desires began tugging me with their chains to remain as I was, while the herald of faith was crying out: ‘Away! Up and away! Only a little is left of your life, and a long journey lies before you!’” Faith is our most important journey, a pilgrimage towards a holy place. It is not the arrival at the holy place but the journey toward it that is most important. When we dead awaken, when we reach the holy place, our faith will be swallowed up in love.

 

WHAT I SAY to my friend D., in the end, is that—of course—only God can bestow the gift of faith. But knowing D. as I have down the decades, knowing the asceticism of the life that he and his family have lived, and the commitment to helping others, I feel he is in some ways a witness for faith, in the deepest sense—his own ambivalence notwithstanding. Let me return to the Epistle to the Hebrews. After evoking those images of faith as the reality that undergirds our hopes and the argument that convinces us about realities we do not see, the author of Hebrews enumerates a long list of heroes and heroines of faith in Israel’s past, among them Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, and Gideon. What the author says about these saints of old strikes me as quite significant:

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11: 13–16. )

D., why do those verses remind me of you? You gave up comfort in Europe five decades ago to take up an arduous career in situations of poverty where you insisted, unlike so many of your colleagues, that you and your family live simply, as “strangers and foreigners on the earth,” among those you were trying to assist. I don’t think you did this because “you desired a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” You would never lay claim to such piety. But you were then, and remain today, the most deeply Christian human being I have ever met. You are ten years older than I, and as they used to say in the old gangster movies, none of us is getting out of here alive. Thank you for all you were able to do for poor people. Thank you for being a living patron saint for me. May God reward you for a life given for others, a life of faith expressed in practical love for humankind, love for the image and likeness of the God with whom, finally, you always kept faith.

Published in the December 2, 2016 issue: 

Patrick J. Ryan, SJ, is the Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society at Fordham University.

Also by this author
Fertile Crescent?
This story is included in these collections:

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion
Religion
Culture
Books
Collections