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Never?

The November 8th issue of the TLS has a review of My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, a memoir written by Christian Wiman, a poet and former editor of Poetry.  (Last May Kathleen Norris gave the book a very appreciate review in the New York Times.)

The TLS reviewer, Graeme Richardson, notes that the “rules” for modern poetry don’t really allow for overtly religious poetry, and Wiman has received criticism as his poetry has come to include explicitly religious themes and topics. The memoir describes events in his life that help explain this development. The result is what Richardson says “could function as a field guide to making atheists angry.” One of the steps struck me:

“Step three: question whether being non-religious is really possible anyway. (“Really? You have never felt overwhelmed by, and in some way inadequate to, an experience in your life, have never felt something in yourself staking a claim beyond your self, some wordless mystery straining through words to reach you? Never?”)

Wiman’s question reminded me of a couple of pages of Karl Rahner that explored the possibility of an experience of grace.

  Rahner’s whole theological project was an effort to bridge the abyss that often separates doctrinal and theological language from everyday experience, an abyss so wide that many people have simply never asked what the language has to do with the experience. In a brief essay “Reflections on the Experience of Grace,” Rahner asked a set of questions that were designed to get people to identify and name experiences of transcendence:

Have we ever kept quiet, even though we wanted to defend ourselves when we were being unfairly treated? Have we ever forgiven someone, even though we got no thanks for it and our silent forgiveness was taken for granted? Have we ever obeyed, not because we had to, and because otherwise things would have become unpleasant for us; but simply on account of that mysterious, silent, incomprehensible Being we call "God" and God's will? Have we ever sacrificed something without receiving any thanks or recognition for it, and even without a feeling of inner satisfaction? Have we ever been absolutely lonely? Have we ever decided on some course of action purely by the innermost judgement of our conscience, deep down where one can no longer tell or explain it to anyone; where one is quite alone and knows that one is taking a decision that no one else can take in one's place and for which one will have to answer for all eternity? Have we ever tried to love God when we are no longer being borne on the crest of the wave of enthusiastic feeling; when it is no longer possible to mistake ourself and our vital urges for God? Have we ever tried to love God when we thought we were dying of this love and it seemed like death and almost negation? Have we ever tried to love God when we seem to be calling out into emptiness; when our cries seemed to fall on deaf ears and it looked as if we were taking a terrifying jump into the bottomless abyss? Everything seemed incomprehensible and absolutely senseless. Have we ever fulfilled a duty when it seemed it could be done only by a consuming sense of really betraying and obliterating one's self? When it could apparently be done only by doing something terribly stupid for which no one would thank us? Have we ever tried to be good to someone, who did not show the slightest sign of gratitude or comprehension, and when we were not rewarded by having that feeling of having been absolutely selfless or decent? Let us search for ourselves in such experiences in our life. Let us look for our experiences in which things like this have happened to us. If we have had such experiences, then we have experienced the spirit in the way I mean here. ("Reflections on the Experience of Grace," Theological Investigations, III, 87)

Such questions are more briefly evoked in another essay by Rahner, “God is no Scientific Formula,” in which he sought to convey a notion of God as something more than a word or a definition:

Nevertheless, God is there, not here or elsewhere, but everywhere in secret: where the ground of all silently confronts us, where we encounter the inescapable situation of responsibility, where we faithfully do our duty without reward, where we realize the blissful meaning of love, where death is accepted in the midst of life, where joy no longer has a name. In all such modes of his existence man is involved in something other than the strictly definable. Hence he must become more conscious of transcending what is individually determined; he must accept this transcendence–perhaps against much resistance–and finally courageously defend it. This speaking of God may ultimately only point to the question which is man himself and thus hint at God’s mystery in silence, the result may be less adequate than any statement on another subject, the answer, aimed at God’s ‘bright heaven,’ may ever again fall back into the dark sphere of man or may consist in inexorabley upholding the question that transcends any definition, formula or phenomenon. At least in such efforts, whether successful or not, man continues to question, he does not despair, and he will receive an answer because just this question is blessed with the experience of the incomprehensibility which we call God. ("God is no Scientific Formula," in Grace in Freedom, p. 193)

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One of the essays included in My Bright Abyss appeared in Commonweal ("Dying into Life," April 23, 2012).

We also published Paul K. Johnston's review of the book in our September 13 issue.

Paul Lakeland reviewed it in NCR:

http://ncronline.org/books/2013/10/wisdom-followed-poets-illness

Joe Komonchak's comments, and the quotes from Karl Rahner, got me recalling this sentence from the review: 

Nor is the transcendent available only to religious people. It is present wherever you hear "a cry that seems to at once contain and release some energy that is not merely the self, that does not end at despair but ramifies, however darkly, beyond it."

I think the book remarkable, both for its challenging content and its limpid style. I also think Wiman keeps in creative tension what Rahner calls the "transcendental" and the "predicamental" (in a way that Rahner himself sometimes fails to do).

Here is Wiman:

Modern spiritual consciousness is predicated upon the fact that God is gone, and spiritual experience, for many of us, amounts mostly to an essential, deeply felt and necessary, but ultimately inchoate and transitory feeling of oneness or unity with  existence. It is mystical and valuable, but distant. Christ, though, is a shard of glass in your gut. Christ is God crying I am here, and here not only in what exalts and completes and uplifts you, but in what appalls, offends, and degrades you, here in what activates and exacerbates all that you would call not-God. To walk through the fog of God toward the clarity of Christ is difficult because of how unlovely, how "ungodly" that clarity often turns out to be.

This from a man who knows the trial of battling with a rare cancer and suffering weeks of pain and affliction.

 

Thanks, Joe, for posting these thoughts of Wiman and Rahner.  Readers interested in more about Wiman may

wish to watch a wonderful dialogue between him and Peter Hawkins that was part of  Yale Divinity School's Fall Convocation last month.  Wiman is currently a visiting professor at YDS, and Hawkins is a long-time professor of religion and literature (I took his year-long course on Dante 34 years ago!).  The conversation, entitled "Poetry in the Round: Christian Wiman and Peter Hawkins," can be found on youtube at this address:

 

http://m.youtube.com/watch?feature=youtu.be&v=IJOwR-j2unA&desktop_uri=%2...

 

I really, really like this book.  His awareness of the immanence of God is beautiful.  But Wiman strikes me often as being distrustfull of  what Catholics view as "transcendent".  He says, for instance:

"Omnipresent, eternal, omniscient -- what in the world do these rotten [!] words really mean? Are we able to imagine such attributes much less perceive them?  I don't think so.  Christ is the only way to a knowledge of God, and Christ is contingent."

Hmm.  He seems to have the old Protestant distrust of  medieval theology, and yet he is a mystic of sorts.  Would that he knew more of what Thomas was about.  And surely he must know that God is properly described as "necessary".

At the end of the book Wiman says he's in remission.  Has anybody read how he's doing since then?  I checked the net,, but couldn't find anything.  I hope there is a lot more to come from him.

I have read the article ‘Never’ by Professor J Komonchak. One early comment that strikes me uneasily but nobody has commented on is:

The result is what Richardson says “could function as a field guide to making atheists angry.”

Why ? Why ‘angry’ rather than ‘bemused’ or ’curious’ or admit this is a mental world they do not and cannot share and therefore courteously withdraw from the conversation?

I spent years in primary schools as well as in higher education and one kind of bully I did not like was the one whose main delight was in making their victim ‘angry’ and would enjoy eliciting an angry response from their victim and then run howling to a teacher.  I must admit I had a strong experience of this; a boy from Bangladesh knifed  a ‘white boy’ in the secondary school opposite my primary one and the boy died. Bangladeshi ex-pupils of mine now at that school came and talked to me, and I remember Shaharon sitting with tears streaming down her cheeks saying, “We all knew it would happen Miss; we all knew it would happen”. The teachers and many ‘white pupils’ admitted that the ‘white boy’ had taunted the Bangladeshi boy beyond endurance over a long period of time.   So I don’t like what sound like  triumphalist  comments along the lines of  – ‘I know how to make atheists angry  [and then I’ll say they live up to the reputation I  have already given them!].

As to the Rahner questions, the only way I could get to grips with them was to number them and put them on separate lines. Otherwise I was reminded a bit of Hazlitt’s brilliant

“What is truth? asked the jesting Pilate and did not wait for an answer”!

This is quick and easy to do and if you do it you should be able to  follow me easily.  The only ones I have elided together are 10 and 10a – i.e.

Have we ever fulfilled a duty when it seemed it could be done only by a consuming sense of really betraying and obliterating one's self? [10a]When it could apparently be done only by doing something terribly stupid for which no one would thank us?

For me, questions 1, 2, 4, and 11 are very closely related and the answer to them is “Yes” , especially from those who, at home, at school, or in other work or institutional forms  look after children, the elderly who are confused and deep into dementia,  the socially incompetent or anti-social or see friends through difficult situations.  We count them in millions irrespective  of religion or no religion, belief or no belief in God. If anything does make atheists [I prefer the word written as a-theists’] angry it is the frequent supposition that such lives are lived only by the theists.  I myself spent time in Care, in totally secular local authority Care, and I am so glad I was in Care under such unholy people and not in the horrifying institutions of Ireland and elsewhere run by the ‘Brothers’ and the’ Sisters’.  I experienced no brutality, no abuse.  

Other questions that go together for me are 3, 6 and 10[and 10a].  It is called conscience.  No a-theists disbelieve in conscience and no a-theist believes that only God is the source.   Indeed, many looking at Church history, both Catholic and Protestant, might suspect that God-driven conscience has led to terrible and terrifying acts, just as those living under the Taliban or the terrifying witch  cults operating under the name of Christianity in some African countries  – especially women, may well feel now.  

I’m afraid I do not see the point of question  Have we ever been absolutely lonely? Does the writer mean that or does he mean “Have we ever felt absolutely alone?  Does feeling absolutely alone or being ‘absolutely lonely’ lead to a belief in God or come from such a belief? Why?

Questions 7, 8, and 9 return me to my earliest point:  – why should these make atheist ‘angry’ rather than bemused or just to be honest about the fact that these ideas mean nothing to them, play no part in their life?

If you want to read a biography of somebody who seems to operate well totally without religion in unselfishness, conscience, feeling alone or abandoned, can I suggest – assuming it is published in the USA -   A Long Walk Home by Judith Tebbutt [Faber & Faber 2013].  She was the woman who spent six months in captivity under Somali pirates and who had to learn of the death of her husband whom she thought had survived the original incident and that she would meet him again. Her own professional background was in Mental Health, socialising in dealing with very damaged and very dangerous women.  She had faced weapons before facing pirates.  She’d had a long, happy,  stable marriage and so obviously loves her young adult son.   She does not pray, blame God, ask for religious books and  she doesn’t even point out that she doesn’t!    This is a decent loving person who could only form such a marriage and do such professional work by unselfishness who faces suffering and deprivation, desperate grief, the fact of death, with any words of eternity or God or transcendent. I think she could answer “Yes” to all these questions except the three explicit ‘God’ questions [7, 8, and 9]– but she would understand those who faced them in that form in such a captivity or in other such circumstances.

And me – I am retired now and work as a volunteer in a Hospice and I don’t even believe that ‘pure’ altruism is possible – we are reciprocal beings  - one would have to know oneself so well to claim it. That’s what CS Lewis understood so well and so humorously, and expressed so vividly in the Screwtape Letters  - and so many of the Brothers and the Sisters not at all. If I consciously use the idea of ‘transcendence’ at all it is not when I am behaving, however incompetently, as a half-way decent human being, but when I am conscious of time and beauty,  brought home in landscape and sky, especially night sky, expressed to me in poetry and in music; loving the idea that they were there before me and will be afterwards.  

 I leave you to answer the questions for me.

 

Dear Lorna:

Thank you for your comments.

The description of Wiman's book as “a field guide to making atheists angry” was the reviewer’s, not the author’s.  Not having read the book yet, I do not know, but tend to doubt, that it was meant to bully atheists.  I do wonder if the reviewer might have had in mind the sentence with which Terry Eagleton began his review of Dawkins’ The God Delusion: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.”

As for Rahner’s questions, he didn’t mean them as anything like a proof of the existence of God, and he most certainly did not think that positive answers to them can be given only by believers in God. Quite the contrary, in fact: he was trying to get people–whether believers or not–to attend to experiences of transcendence, and he sought to do so because all too often words like “God” and “grace” are used without reference to the experiences to which in part they do refer. All that Christians mean by “grace” and “God” cannot be derived from experience alone, but the realities of which they speak are not utterly beyond experience. 

Rahner’s attempt to bridge the abyss between doctrine and common human experience was an instance of what sociologist Peter Berger called “a theology of very high empirical sensitivity that seeks to correlate its propositions with what can be empirically known.” Berger’s sketch of foundations for such an enterprise tried to “seek out what might be called signals of transcendence within the empirically given human situation” and to “suggest that there are prototypical human gestures that maya constitute such signals” (A Rumor of Angels, pp. 57-58, 65).

Now while such evocations of experiences that point beyond are not strict demonstrations, they do serve a role in a believer’s pursuit of intellectual integrity. As Anthony Levi put it:

Both for Christians and others we have to start from an analysis of human experience and show why it demands to be interpreted in terms of the Christian message in order to be fully intelligible. It is probably even true to say that if human experience were fully intelligible without the great truths assured by revelation, then the Christian message could be neither valid nor revealed  (Anthony Levi, Religion in Practice , p. 3).

Similarly the Canadian philosopher/theologian Bernard Lonergan argued that “because it is difficult to know what our knowing is, it also is difficult to know what our knowledge of God is. But just as our knowing is prior to an analysis of knowledge and far easier than it, so too our knowledge of God is both earlier and easier than any attempt to give it formal expression.” And while the following claim presupposes a good deal of the argument set out in his book Insight, you can get some sense from it of the “signals of transcendence” to which Lonergan might appeal:

...just as misuse of the notion of nature makes it ridiculous in the eyes of those most eager to know what is to be known by understanding, so too misconception and misuse of the notion of God lead to its rejection by the very men that are most insistent in denouncing obscurantism, in demanding judgments to rest on the unconditioned, and in calling for consistency between knowing and doing. But if one is eager to know what is to be known by understanding, one can ridicule the notion of nature only because one does not know what the name means, and if one is genuine in denouncing obscurantism and in demanding the unconditioned, either one already adores God without naming him or else one has not far to go to reach him (Insight, 683-684).

Now I am sure that no one of these four men would deny that there are millions of non-believers who can answer Yes to Rahner’s questions 1, 2, 4,  and 11, and would not suppose “that such lives are lived only by the /theists/.”  As for questions 3, 6 and 10 [and 10a] on conscience. It certainly is true that atheists can recognize conscience and its demands, but it is just as certainly not true that “no a-theists disbelieve in conscience”: there are plenty of materialists and determinists around. And it is no argument at all against the kind of use to which Rahner put his appeal to conscience to draw attention to the violations of conscience committed by believers.  In fact, I might argue that it is the felt experience of violated conscience that is the best way into the question of what conscience is and is not.

I’ll pass over the question of what Rahner might have meant by the experience of aloneness.

I confess that I do not understand why you think that “pure” altruism is impossible; and I don’t know what you mean, against the idea, by saying that “we are reciprocal beings.”

I appreciate your hesitant appeal to your own experiences of “transcendence” (“brought home in landscape and sky, especially night sky, expressed to me in poetry and in music; loving the idea that they were there before me and will be afterwards”). But don’t we have to allow believers also to reflect on such experiences, and on many others, and to make sense of them in the light of their faith?

Bill Moyers interview with Wiman:   http://vimeo.com/37362289

PBS interview with Wiman:   http://video.pbs.org/video/2319982486/

 

You should all mark your calendars now for March 5 at 8 pm when Christian Wiman will deliver the 10th annual Commonweal Lecture at Fairfield University. His title, intriguing, is: "Hammer is the Faith: Radical Doubt, Realistic Faith." Details at www.fairfield.edu/cs. 

Lorna Crossman has had some difficulty getting her reply to me to copy properly, so she sent it to me and I give it here:

Dear Professor Komonchak,

Thank you for your long, detailed, thoughtful – and terrifyingly erudite - reply! I’m going to start from one of your later questions in the context of my final comments of what transcendence means to me - But don’t we have to allow believers also to reflect on such experiences, and on many others, and to make sense of them in the light of their faith?

Of course. Who has said otherwise? But I have heard so many spokesmen of the Christian churches, and indeed spokesmen from other religions, sneer that a-theists have no such idea and conception. In a talk programme chaired by Andrew Marr every week he brought together, some time ago, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, till recently the Chief Rabbi in Britain and Richard Dawkins. This theme was the only theme Dawkins said made him angry, this kind of hi-jacking of all sensitivities into religion, done by so many within it. That was the experience of my church-going days when, of course I approved of it and believed it all, and of my post-church-going days when I realised how untrue and how unjust it was. I’ve never heard it the other way round. I have heard – as your Carl Sagan for example said and wrote, that not everybody needs to add ‘God’ onto that. I’m ashamed to say I do not know the full context in which Laplace said, “I have no need of that hypothesis”. That is where people like Dawkins stand. Not every scientist does. The theist assumes and lives it through prayer, praise, petition, worship, and other religious practices; the a-theist – stressing the Greek ‘without’ - does not. Neither can ‘prove’ or disprove the existence of God,– it is mainly a time-wasting and pointless exercise. However, the problem comes when the theists, equipped with centuries of power, accuse the a-theists of being also without moral values, virtues, sensitivities etc.

One of the traumatising moments for me in May 2009 was waking up to the Radio4 broadcast [the most honoured radio talk-channel in Britain] of the details of the horrifying Ryan Report and on the same day the outgoing Archbishop of Westminster asserting that atheists have no idea of transcendence, and using the expression “only half-human”. The incoming Archbishop of Westminster who was being installed that day was headlined in one newspaper as being willing to ‘make war’ on such people. Pope Benedict’s first reactions to the Ryan Report was that it was all the fault of atheists and secularists infiltrating Ireland! The Irish priest who wrote one of the first great responses saying, “No, it’s about us’ was silenced by Benedict and as far as I know has not been ’unsilenced’ by Francis.

Dawkins – who for me is not representative of the typical a-theist and is probably the only person to whom Richardson alludes without saying so, wrote his book in order to enable and encourage the non-believers to ‘come out’, after 1700 years in which it would have been too dangerous to do so. I suspect it takes far more courage to do that in America than here. [I say 1700 rather than 2000 in order to date it only from Constantine, although the Christian tendency to hate and yell ‘blasphemy’, ‘heresy’, ‘exile’, ‘kill’ begins terrifyingly early.] One cannot forget centuries of power which could keep people even out of universities till  century and then howl about one book [or even four!] He is fulfilling John Stuart the 19th

Mill’s father’s hope that it would one day be possible to do talk and write openly like that. I refer to Chap 2 of JSM’s’ Autobiography, especially the paragraph that begins, “The great advance in liberty of discussion..” . to the end of the chapter. I find their comments absolutely true to my life experience, from both sides. I believe Mark Twain’s essays on religion were not published in his lifetime?

I do not know who Richardson is, [at least I have heard of Rahner you will be glad to know!] All I know is that that is how you chose to frame your article and relate the two: The result is what Richardson says “could function as a field guide to making atheistsangry.” One of the steps struck me:
“Step three: question whether being non-religious is really possible anyway. (“Really? You have never felt overwhelmed by, and in some way inadequate to, an experience in your life, have never felt something in yourself staking a claim beyond your self, some wordless mystery straining through words to reach you? Never?”)It seemed to me therefore that there was something salient in the connection for you. I apologise if I was mistaken.

All I can say to the quote from Anthony Levi - is – well, yes, quite possibly.....The name Levi threw me a bit for I have seven of Primo Levi’s books here. This is a man who ‘looked into the abyss’ and did not come to the traditional Jewish or Christian conclusions. [And I loved his use of Dante’s Ulysses compared to that of Dante himself! If This is a Man, chap10.] If you have a copy of The Drowned and the Saved, read [re-read?!] chapter 6, The Intellectual in Auschwitz, especially the late paragraph that begins, “Like Amery, I too entered the lager as a non-believer....”. Step three questions...?

I knew about Eagleton on Dawkins: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.”

Actually, he is wrong and I have a strange reason for knowing. During the academic year of 2007-2008 I was a ‘note-taker’ for a dyslexic student in her third year of an honours degree in theology and religious studies which turned out to be almost totally ‘Christian’ studies. So I attended and noted entire courses on Christian theology, taking up the great “arguments for God” themes from the beginning and Christology from the first century. My student, if I’m honest, showed far less interest in her studies than I did! I attended every lecture, every seminar, did all the reading and even made notes on that for her, drew on my own teaching experience to make sure that she understood the arguments all along the way. I loaned her books that I had already possessed for years – and were still on the reading lists! Meanwhile, during 2007, I had been reading Dante with honours degree students and under that tuition, and my own longest essay involved reading both Augustine and Aquinas and understanding the ‘theological’ as well as ‘political’ world in which Dante was living. I gained a mark so embarrassingly high in both essay and exam that I am not going to quote it to you! From both these experiences I assure you, Richard Dawkins could take honours degree papers in those subjects and pass them well. I wonder how many science papers Eagleton could take and pass? I suspect he is relying on peoples’ ignorance to be able to get away with it. I don’t think Terry Eagleton would have dared write such sneering rubbish about JSM or his father.

All I want of people is that they try to be’ halfway decent human beings’ no matter how incompetently, reflect deeply, and keep a sense of beauty and fragility in the human and natural world, and humanly expressed in various art forms. I am too afraid that great ‘spiritual striving’ beyond that ends up in men as fundamentally ‘good’ as Thomas More wanting to torture and burn heretics alive even while he’s wearing a hair shirt, and people carrying rosaries and crosses every day making life unbearable for children, young people, and women. And in Father Vianney, whom I’m afraid I find joyless, misery-adoring, vicious to women, and, I suspect, finally psychotic, induced partly through anorexia and those countless hours in the confessional. All my knowledge of him comes from Catholic sites. I would not let anyone I loved anywhere near him, nor he near me. Give me the humble, ‘half-way decent’ ’theist’ or ‘a-theist’ any day. I’ll stand by Judith Tebbutt and Primo Levi, as well as Christian friends!

 

Lorna,

when I read your many examples of evil done by Christians and particularly members of the Catholic church, all I can think of is how sad it is that we are so bad at following the call of Christ. My interpretation of every instance you mention is colored by my belief that everything that is good comes from God, and that everything that comes from God is good. 

In that light, my interpretation is that the Ryan report was very upsetting, but it is about people and an institution gone astray. It says nothing about God. It only points to the inadequacy of the church in Ireland in incarnating the Body of Christ : the institution must urgently be reformed so that it becomes closer to what it is meant to be.

I did falter for a while when I read those news coming from Ireland, because the Eucharist is central to our faith, and if partaking in it helps us become the Body of Christ in an effective way, then how can one explain that some of those priests, who pray and celebrate the Mass every day, nevertheless committed sexual abuse in egregious ways? The juxtaposition is almost incomprehensible and can make one doubt the reality of the Eucharist. (But I have since then reconciled myself with the idea that the Eucharist only makes a difference if our attitude disposes us to receive communion.)

If you tell me that many atheists behave in admirable ways and many Christians in atrocious ways, then the answer is easy: those atheists, without knowing it, are closer to God than those Christians.

In that light, my interpretation of experiences of what is good, or true, or beautiful, is that such experiences, whether by believers or by unbelievers, are calls from God trying to reach out to us. When an atheist says "Love is a mystery" and expresses a yearning to deepen their understanding of love, what I see is a pull from God - deep calls to deep: God's call in and to the deepest part of themselves... When they act selflessly for the care of others, what I see is Christ working in the world through them. They do not see it that way, of course, and my interpretation, I suppose, could make them angry. 

As to the question "Have we ever been absolutely lonely?", my uneducated, improvised guess is that Rahner's point might be that if someone has that experience, then he or she is taken by a sense that he is alone, and that there is something wrong about that ; that he is meant to be in the intimate company of another being. His loneliness is an unrecognized longing for God, who amone can fully alleviate it. It is an implicit acknowledgement of his need to be together with God.

To those who believe, everything authentic, or admirable, or awe-inspiring, are either examples of a person turning towards God or of God reaching out to men and women.

 

A new phenomenon: the "atheist Mass".

(Sorry the article is in Frenhc) http://www.lemondedesreligions.fr/actualite/royaume-uni-franc-succes-pou...

 

amone -> alone

Frenhc -> French

 

Lorna --

 

I applaud your defense of honorable atheists, and, yes, there certainly are some, just as there are some honorable believers.  

 

The way Richardson presents him, Wiman does seem to be throwing down a challenge to non-believers for their apparent refusal of grace, that is, for their never having noticed calls to a transcendent reality, to the "beyond" which Wiman says  "stakes a claim" on his consciousness.  Wiman seems to think that everyone has experienced such a claim.  But what the nature of that beyond is for Wiman isn't clear, and, in fact, I find that Wiman isn't entirely consistent about it.  At any rate, I don't think that Wiman is making a moral judgment about the non-believers refusal of transcendence.  He's just astonished at what he sees as their apparent lack of curiosity.

 

I note also that Wiman's definition of "faith" is apparently not Richardson's.   Wiman defines  "faith" simply as "a motion of the soul towards God".  For him, faith is not belief in God or dogmas.  Given ordinary curiosity, it seems  inconceivable to him that an adult  would not ask the questions about God which he has asked.  And when he asks of the non-believers, "Never?" I don't think he's accusing them of having chosen to turn their backs on God.  He just can't imagine someone *never* being aware that human beings seem somehow incomplete, filled as we are with longings we cannot explain entirely.

 

I must admit I haven't read the whole book -- it's heavy going about extremely heavy matters, for instance, the nature of God and death.  He's not entirely consistent (and that doesn't seem to bother him a bit!), and neither does he accept the basics of the Christian faith, though I don't see why he accepts some but not all.  Still, he has a lot to say of interest, and he's a brave man in many ways.  

 

Maybe we should all read the whole thing and have a thread about it.

P. S.  About total loneliness -- Wiman thinks Original is is "cold and total loneliness",  -- it is "defined by  blankness, meaninglessness".

Claire ==

The atheist Mass poses some important questions:  how does such a man=made mass differ from the Christ=made one?  And how do we know it?  Back to Wiman and the evidence for belief.  He doesn't seem to think that belief -- i.e., literal belief in dogmas -- is important.  In fact, he thinks beliefs are limiting if held on too long.  He also thinks that God is a process, of which we are a part.  Not you usual Sunday school teacher.

@ Professor Komonchak, Claire and Anne - thank you for responding to me, and to you especially,, Professor for working out how to get me back on at all! I'm writing this 'straight on' which makes me a bit nervous. [Later - and it's misery!]

Claire, I don't think most a-theists I know would get so much 'angry' at being told they are 'closer to God  but without knowing it'  - as exasperated; it's what I mean by the 'hi-jacking'.   It gets dangerously close to questioning somebody's integrity. It was done to me once by a clergyman. His wife and I were colleagues and good friends.    I was at lunch with them.  At one point he turned to me and said something like, "Lorna I don't understand why you don't join us...." I knew he meant it kindly, indeed as a compliment to me, but I felt he was dangerously close to  saying  - "Look , you  don't put your fingers in the till, you seem fairly kind and courteous, you work hard, you even seem to spend your life doing the kinds of things we do,  what is your problem?" !   My problem was I didn't believe what he believes,  cannot sing and say with any real cmrehending assent the things I woud have to sing and say in  a Church service. He would not have assumed I could  just become a Hindu, Sikh,  Muslim  or Buddhist just because he finds me reasonably moral and faintly fit to talk to!  His wife did understand. She smiled at  me and  I suspect kicked him from under the table!  When  he gained his Master's Degree a few years ago I was the one non-family member invited to the ceremony! I felt so honoured and I loved going!

You say 'everything that is good comes from God and eveything that comes from God is good'. That lets God off the hook from everything that does not feel good. One thing I   noticed in Rahner's questions was no concern at all with theodicy questions. In my reponse to Professor Komonchak I mentioned John Stuart Mill's father.One of the things I love about his writing is how complimentary he is to Christian believers - i.e.  most of them are so much nicer than the God they assume they worship! [If I had the confidence that I could write then copy and paste this I would quote some of him to you]. 

At an individualised level such ideas can,  I admit, turn me to great anger. For example, I have read Theresa of Lisieux's 'spiritual journal' in which she says [of her15-year old self] that God knew that  a fragile little flower like her could not bear harsh winds so he sheltered her. So the rest of the girls slung into orphanages, out on the streets, used as prostitutes, trafficked etc are just hardend little tarts in his eyes instead of fragile little flowers? And can put up with it, be strong enough to take it? I would have ten thousand times more respect for her if she had said -' I was lucky'. But no, God did it.  That story alone makes her  God unspeakable to me. I can bear far more easily an impersonal, 'statistical' universe than one ruled in such a way.  I could dismiss her as a silly, self-centred little girl,   but she is a 'Doctor of the Church' who did not look back on her own immaturity or give  a thought to those others.  She sent down no roses to me or to  anyone else I know personally or vicariously.    Yes,  I know about  the loss of her mother- so did tens of thousands of others who lost at the same time all they knew of family and ended up in ghastly institutions or on the streets.  

I do not share your view of aloneness or loneliness.  Such moments seem to me quite sane .  It is how we deal with them that matters.  I do believe a richly filled mind can help  - and the examples of others.  The typical saint story seems to have to have a 'dark night of the soul' episode  but only if one comes 'back' safely.  But one can also look on the darkness and learn not to be afraid.  Non-believers have for centuries been deprived of those  kinds of end-of-life stories. They are growing in number now through being more often told, even  of famous people such as  David Hume.   [Did you know that Keats also died of tuberculosis and at virtually the same age as Theresa of L.?  He was  not even mentioned when her 'relics' were brought here].  

Anne: this system does not  seem to allow me to get back to  your words, I'm terrified of losing what I have already written   and I do not want  to misquote you, so forgive me if I do: you wrote about "an apparent refusal of grace.... never having noticed calls to a transcendent reality"  It reminds me of a moment between the Chief Rabbi and Richard Dawkins.  The Chief Rabbi quoted Isaiah Berlin as saying that he was 'tone deaf where God  was concerned' and suggested that that was the expression for RD as well:- tone-deaf.  You can almost  see and hear Dawkins gulp - and then he says    "Yes, I suppose I am  tone deaf, but I'm not sure that there is anything there to hear."  Now, I know many people will immediately stand up; and shout  "Aha, told you so - no sense of beauty, transcendence" etc.    But he goes on to talk of poetry, of music, of awe before the universe.  I felt from the things quoted from Rahner that 'trascendence' was being used to mean almost  anything that most people would assent to in order to prove that they 'believe in God really".  This is how my Concise Oxford Thesaurus sets out 'transcendence": acknowledge his transcendence: excellence, greatness, magnificence, superiority, supremacy, incomparability, matchlessness. 

transcendent - excellent, excelling,magnificent, supreme, unsurpassed incomparable, matchless, unequalled, unparalleled.

Then it moves to  transcendental: mystical, mystic, mysterious, preternatural, supernatural, otherwordly, transmundane.

It is feelng themselves shifted from one into the other that I think many people don't like and then get accused  of  'apparent lack of curiosity.  How, for goodness sake, can scientists especially be accused of 'lack of curiosity'?!  And who claims atheists have not 'asked questions about God' - but maybe rejected most of the responses they hear?  Your own   Pew Research has shown that atheists tend to know their  Bible better than most Christians! Many also know their Classics well and  considerable amounts about other religions. 

My final  point to anybody still listening [thank you if you are!]  is about 'bullying' and linguistic forms  - namely questions. Series of questions in long monologues are about power. Think of police interviews, barristers, interrogators, inquisitors, or even just angry parents .  They alone ask the questions and by them put onto others their pictures, however just or unjust. They work with their  own assumptions about what is 'obvious' and 'relevant'.    I was as uncomfortable with single words such as "Really?' and "Never?" as I was with the surrounding  questions. Try it as a drama exercise.  Read some of those questions and words with different intonations. Try reading the whole sheet of them in such a way.   Do you really not hear the danger of sneering, disbelief, contempt, negative judgments, battering people into the ground with words? Why was  he writing  this stuff in this form if addressing only ' the converted'?  

I had a terribled dilemma when I was young : I loved poetry of many  kinds [still do] ; I loved the theophany in the Book of Job [Chaps 38 & 39, 40 & 41].  Fabulous stuff  -  as poetry.  What I couldn't bear was what he  was doing - basically, batting Job into the ground with questions to which he wanted no answers except submission.  He's a bully.  Now I picture him raving away like that,  looked at by thousands of abandoned ,abused,  overworked children, dirty, unkempt, malnourished, who just look at him with round grave eyes and thumb in mouth. Or by women, married too early, made to bear children with immature bodies, abused, raped, used as war trophies, just silently looking at him,  till he begins to hear himself.  I keep reading that God wanted to suffer alongside human beings:he did not choose to be anyof these people,did he? 

I discovered Jung's commentary on the Book of Job- so ignorant I pronounced the poor man as beginning like 'junk' and ending as rhyming with 'bung' which  brought about great laughter! I  tried to describe a bit of it as I understood it - and was forbidden ever to speak in 'Scripture Lessons'again!!  I;m sure most of you will sympathise! But with whom..?!

 

 

  I am conscious of time and beauty,  brought home in landscape and sky, especially night sky, expressed to me in poetry and in music; loving the idea that they were there before me and will be afterwards.

You see, that's the abyss between believers and atheists. We look at the same sky but have different experiences. You gaze at it and love the idea that the sky exists beyond your life. I gaze at it and give thanks to God. Once, right after a brief moment spent full of awe of the Creator, poof! - a shooting star streaked through the sky, as though He was winking at me "yes, I am here". 

I'm not into Theresa of Lisieux either. You know her better than me. I suppose I might read her some day as a penance, but not as long as I can avoid it. 19th century devotional piety is not my cup of tea.

I make a big distinction between being alone and being lonely. I was only talking of loneliness, not aloneness.

 I keep reading that God wanted to suffer alongside human beings:he did not choose to be anyof these people,did he?

Wait a minute. He became man to be with us, live and suffer alongside us. He was betrayed by his friends, beaten, left on a cross to die a shameful death, abandoned by all, even, as it felt to him, by the Father. He lived a human life just like the rest of us, and he had his share of suffering. I must object. You're not being fair to him.

Series of questions in long monologues are about power.

When I read Rahner's questions, in my head I imagine them being said in a pleading tone of voice. He is searching for common ground. "Never? Have you never had those experiences? If you have, then we're not so alien to one another. We have something in common, and that's a starting point for dialogue." That's my read.

Lorna --

 

Here are some preliminary thoughts about the meanings of the words "transcendent" and "transcendental" , and I would add the word "transcendence" .  A closer look at their meanings in philosophy might help see where we get their many different ordinary meanings.  Luckily, there seems to be a common note in all the meanings -- the notion of going "beyond" ("trans-" in Latin) the things in our most basic experiences (whatever those experiences might be).

 

Aristotle realized that there are certain words which seem to describe things in  all the various sorts of beings (the "genera").  Those the words are  "being", "one", "true", "good", and "beautiful".  They can be said of  *all* kinds of things, and they have a sort of super-universality.  The logical/semantic problem is that those words don't seem to  signify some one quality or set of qualities which are common to all the things called "one", "true", etc,  as do ordinary generic words such as "color", "cow" and "car".  These words are peculiar  in that they are not definable in the ordinary sense of "define".  They are mysterious.   

 

The medievals called those words "the transcendentals", and the medievals realized very clearly that their meanings are most important yet most elusive when applied to God Who, as spiritual, is beyond this physical world..  But just what does it *mean* to say that He is "infinitely beyond" anything we know in this world?  Insofar as they describe God their meanings are "beyond" us and spiritual and most of those other things that the dictionaries mention.   

 

In the middle ages the word "transcendence" was contrasted with the word "immanence".  The former meant God's being *beyond* His creation, including being beyond the spiritual levels of man and angels.  His "immanence" meant His "presence in* this world.  In other words, for the medievals, God is both in this world and beyond it, immanent and transcendent.   It might be noted that some philosophers think that God is wholly *beyond* this world and not concerned with it.  In other words, they think that God is not a "personal God".  Aristotle was one of them, as I remember, but I'm not quite sure of that.  If I'm not mistaken, many of the 18th century philosophers thought this too.

 

Kant's consideration of the terms was quite different from the medievals.  His meaning of "transcendental" implied a reality (or, more accurately, a possibility) whose reality we cannot prove but which we must assume so that we can view the world and the things in it as coherent.  I'm not sure how his meaning has affected current non-philosophical meanings.  Kant did not deny the reality of "the transcendent" (God), but said belief was only belief, not knowledge.  

 

There are also later philosophical meanings of "transcendental", e.g., the name of the American movement "transcendentalism", which was a certain kind of "nature mysticism" which often seems pantheistic.  In this view nature *is* God, so He is immanent in a special sense.  It seems to me that Wiman might be influenced by them.  He thinks that the notion of God as transcendent in the old sense of beyond this physical world is "rotten".  (He doesn't tell us why he thinks that.) 

Dear Lorna:

With regard to your comments on 23 November:

About what you call “hi-jacking”:  Believers, or at least Christian believers, believe that the universe makes sense, that is, that it holds together, that, for example, all things, from atoms to galaxies, were created by God and continue to exist because he wishes them to, and that, further, his purpose for creation, and especially for human beings, was revealed in Jesus Christ. It would be very odd if such believers did not try to make sense of everything, most particularly the human condition, by reference to God and to Christ. The miseries and grandeurs of the human condition (Pascal), they believe, are illumined by revelation, and it is natural for them to try to understand them.

If a-theists also try to make sense of the universe, among the things that they may try to understand is the existence of believers. It would not be surprising if they tried to figure out why some people believe in God or to disabuse believers of their mistaken beliefs, doing so perhaps by explaining (away) the experiences on which some believers rely for their belief. In doing so, would they be “hi-jacking” such experiences?

Some believers think that they can prove the existence of God; other believers don’t think you can.  A-theists, of course, are not convinced by any proofs so far advanced. 

I cited the remark about the “field guide” simply because that is how he introduced the paragraph in which I was interested.”

An obituary can provide you with information about Anthony Levi. The book from which I quoted must have been written while he was still a Jesuit.  http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/professor-anthony-levi-6155...

I do not understand how from your experience in those courses in 2007-2008 you can conclude that Richard Dawkins “could take honours degree papers in those subjects and pass them well.”  I don’t know “how many science papers Eagleton could take and pass. Suppose he’s quite ignorant of modern science: osn’t the point that Eagleton hasn’t written a book to debunk science?

With regard to your comments on 26 November:

Rahner’s questions were designed to help believers recognize that their religious relationship with God was not a matter simply of external impositions of Scriptures, creeds, rites, etc., but has also an experiential dimension. Roman Catholics have often been told not to trust their experience.  You can’t read the great theologians and mystics of earlier centuries without noticing what a role inner experience had for them, but the idea that grace might be experienced was largely absent from the theology textbooks of the modern period-- in response to Protestant emphasis on faith as fiducial trust and Modernist efforts to reduce dogmas to articulations of inner experiences. Rahner’s questions hoped to draw attention to experiential referents for the language of grace. To repeat: he was not appealing to them in order to try to prove the existence of God–nor even of grace. He was trying to show that “grace” refers, in part, to events within people's experience.

Rahner had a particular philosophical view to the effect that all human knowing involves a “movement-beyond," that is, a transcending.  A question is itself a movement beyond present knowledge and towards further knowledge, which, once reached, often enough prompts a new question and a further move beyond.  There is no fixable limit to such “moving beyond”.  To move beyond is to transcend previous accomplishment or achievement. And Rahner was of the view that the ultimate goal of such movement is somehow “pre-apprehended” in all particular instances of knowing.  So that is a first meaning of transcendence for him.  His questions were attempts to get people to recognize this self-transcending movement in particularly striking moments.

You ask: “How, for goodness sake, can scientists especially be accused of 'lack of curiosity'?!” Well, for example, scientists–and there are many of them–who don’t think one should ask, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” can be accused of “lack of curiosity.”

With Claire I too do not read Rahner’s questions as bullying. I imagine it would make a big difference, if they were “performed” dramatically, as you suggest, with what voice they were read, whether they were read rapidly or aggressively, etc.

From what I read about contemporary Great Britain it does strike me as odd to speak of a-theists as an oppressed or bullied minority.

Lorna -- 

 

Sorry for the length of all this, but you raise so many important questions.  Here's my two bits.

 

As I understand the original problem of this thread it was whether or not God is immanent in this world in such a way that we can experience His presence directly  Beyond this question is the question:  IS there a God in the first place?  And now you raise the question:  is a loving Creator of pain even possible? It seems to me that those are three very distinct questions, though the answers, depending on what they are, can be relevant.

 

I agree that the problem of evil is the great stumbling block to belief in a loving Creator.  "A being which causes pain in an innocent being" obviously is inconsistent with "a being Who is just".  This implies that a just Creator of pain in innocents is impossible.  But I have been wrong in my arguments before, so I think I have to look at whatever counter-evidence there might be. 

 

As I see it, there is one huge kind of counter-evidence:   the sheer abundance of unearned goodness and beauty in this world.  So where does all this goodness come from?  These good and beautiful things cannot cause themselves because  things which come into being  cannot have caused themselves . (Principle:  you can't give what you haven't already got).  And there might even be an infinite series of causes of beauty which caused the next in line, but -- and this is crucial -- the whole series is a series of derived value, so there must be something *outside of the series* from which the series derives..  In other words, there must be something outside of the series which causes the beauty and goodness in the series.  In other words, derived beauty and goodness must be derived from something whose beauty and goodness is not derived but is intrinsic to itself, i.e., God.  (This is based on Duns Scotus' argument for the existence of God which is a variation of Aritotle's and the other Scholastics' arguments.)  

 

So we have a *conclusion of an  argument* (that there is no just God) contradicting the *empirical experience* that there is unearned goodness and beauty which must be caused by uncaused beauty and goodness.  

Some of us think that the empirical experience of the gratuitous  goodness and beauty tips the balance against  the abstract argument about the unjust God, though honesty requires that we admit that as the argument stands there is a serious contradiction between some of our beliefs.  They must  be improved.  (But how?) 

 

Add to the good things in the world, many of us have found within our own interior lives what can be described as a sort of "spiritual energy" which strengthens us to do what is right and good even when we  are inclined NOT to do what is right.  In other words, even though we don't seem to have *earned* this help  an energy which seems foreign to our natures' helps us to do what is right and good.  I interpret it is a "grace of God", a gratuity from God.  Truth to tell, we often *don't want* these so-called "gifts".  And,yes, we often succeed in choosing to ignore these empowerments so we can then choose our dearly beloved evils.  Might they be the products of some unconscious force inside our own souls?  Well, maybe, but what evidence is there that such is the case?  They often seem to go against our nature.

 

One of the main questions in this thread, I think, is whether or not non-believers are aware of these graces, indeed, whether or not non-believers are given such graces.  Many non-believers tell us of their "consciences" impelling them towards doing good.  I wonder exactly what they mean by that.  How do you describe "conscience"?  (Yes, I suspect the graces of God are within you too!) 

 

i don't think that Dawkins et al are aware that many of us religious folk do indeed think that we have evidence for our beliefs that go beyond Scripture.  He doesn't seem to realize what we're talking about when we say "grace of God".  Yes, grace is "beyond" our ordinary empirical experience -- it is spiritual, not sensory.  But he doesn't seem to admit even the possibility of such realities.  (Again, Nagel's "Mind and Cosmos" is relevant here.)  Dawkins denies it because he is convinced that the problem of evil makes God in the usual sense of "a loving, just Creator"im possible.  But we believers can only reply:  There must  be something wrong somewhere in your argument, Professor, because we find this empowerment, this grace, and a loving God is the best explanation for it.

 

As to Job, I have always been most impressed that at the end God blesses who --  Job's friends?? No, he punishes them for not telling the *apparent truth about Him*, and He *blesses* Job  for telling the truth about God, even when it is anything but flattering.  Just what I'd expect from a loving, just God.

 

These are just some of my  thoughts about the main points which I think are at play here. Maybe we should split them up into a number of different threads.

 

Let me just add that I too often get angry at God because He causes the innocents to suffer.  How can I accept that?  Emotionally I can't.  He Himself has *made me* to be the sort of thing that gets angry at such apparent injustice.  All I can think is that the injustice is only apparent, that someday every little suffering creature, every little cricket and mouse and child, will be compensated to such an extent that they will be thankful to have lived, even with the suffering.  So, yes, there must be at least one sort of Heaven, some place(s) of compensation.  

 

And then, perhaps most important of all, there is the fact of Jesus, the most innocent of all Who suffered and died that we might live.  I don't understand that business about "atonement" at all. at all, but it seems to me that there has to have been a misinterpretation by the writers of Scripture about the reason for the Crucifixion.  But we do know that *He accepted it* for some good reason.  

 

I also believe that God the Father must have (as all good Fathers do) suffered with His Son, indeed He suffers with all His sons and daughters.  Somehow this suffering is not an imperfection in Him but a perfection, a something to admire. 

 

Is what I'm saying what Wiman is saying?  Much of it certainly isn't, but he is very interesting when talking about the greatness of God.  And what about what Rahner says?  I'm not entirely sure what he's talking about either.  But I also think there are many roads to God.

 

As to Therese of Lisieux being kept safe, she was indeed psychologically particularly fragile -- quite paranoid among other things.  But she persisted in loving those whom she was convinced were "against" her.  At the end she was tortured by the thought that that she was so evil that she was damned.  Yet she loved God.  What must she have known?   

I begin with  lots of contrition. When I wrote before I had no idea who Wiman was or what he said about anything.  I've now read  two articles by him in the American Scholar: one written in 2007 and one in 2012. Also an article on him by Clive James  whose writing both funny and serious I have loved  for years. That included extracts from his poetry. Somebody - I'm afraid I've forgtten who - said, "Tell me your names and I will tell you your life".  I share two names with Wiman: one is Simone Weil, the other is Robert Frost. I have to love anybody to whom  those names matter.  I do not know if Monica Furlong was ever published  in America,  but her collections of essays, Travelling In, Christian Uncertainties, and Contemplating Now reached me in the same kind of way that Simone Weil did and I  would like to have known if he had known of her. He says of a service "it seemed to tear all wounds open - and was profoundly comforting ...seemed the only possible balm".

My reading  of Simone Weil and  Monica Furlong had a similar  effect on me: unbearable; necessary, read a few paragraphs, throw  the book  across the room, go and pick it up,read a bit more...

I had hoped here to copy and paste quotations from Wimans autobiographical essays  that 'speak' to me and try to explain why they do,  even if on the surface we seem to inhabiit different intellectual planets [ dare not say say spiritual] but I have the same tecncal problem as before - I cannot find a way to do it. He says for example that he is aware that Christian forms and  language have clearly '' 'shaped' his imagination.  True for me as well. I do not see how  it can be otherwise especially for people here raised  in 'the authorised version'. Like Shakespeare, we quote it without even knowing it,  its melodies and rythms go so deep. When  I walk in certain landscapes I still  hear certain hymns  - 'before the hills in order stood or earth received her frame'; 'time like an ever rolling stream bears all her sons away" ... and will you  be pleased to know that I also  in excesses of delight,  quote e.e.cummings - "i thank You God for this most amazing day" [and the first four lines of "all nearness pauses while a star can grow" - my favourite evening poem conveys more of a sense  of  holiness to me even than Wordsworth's "It is a beauteous eveing, calm and free".  

Hymns, sculpture, stained glass windows, reproduced great paintings, the greetings cards of Christmas and Easter, even compulory  religious education have  seared these images into us however adrift  they  have come  from knowlege and belief. But then, it is possible to stand  in awe of the Parthenon or Delphi without belief  in the religious beliefs they once expressed.    I think large numbers of people in Britain are struggling with this one. [ That includes Richard Dawkins!].  

Wiman writes that he realises that 20 years of his poetry  have had 'one constant'   God, "or rather, his absence".  I smile in recognition, but not  for me the ' first person of the trinity" but the second whether I explicitly mention him or not.

Lorna.

 

 

 

I had to stop writing, editing had become impossible , I was losing letters for each 'correction'.

Concerning Dawkins:  people need to realise how deeply bound up he is in the scientific world. Frankly, it does not bother me whether people accept evolution or not - but I have not given my life to science. Also , the impact of '9/11' was enormous here, let alone what it was like in America itself.  His life is also greatly bound up in America and American friends and colleagues.  He and the other 'three'   - you will know  who I mean, felt they had to question the automatic respect given to 'religion which  keeps so many people so silent and  which can so effect school curricula and political apirations. 

2001 was my penultimate year of teaching. I can assure you from my contact with thousands of students over 15 years that that phenomenon of respect  for religion kept many miserably silent if they found themselves in groups of committed believers, even if there were only one or two of them.  "Tolerance" and 'respect' flowed  almost totally in one direction, at least in public places.  I do not think it would be like that now.     For far more than the first half of my life a-theism was associated wih lack of morality, values etc. It was stil in 2009 even on the day of the publication of the Ryan Report. 

I remember being asked,scornfuilly , "And what will you do when you come to the end of yourself?"  I cannot even imagine me asking such a question of anybody. Nor did it occur to my questioner that perhaps I had come to an end of myself and she had not even noticed. I know  that  Christopher Hitchens was aware of vultures hovering almost in glee over his death-bed -would he panic, cry out,  repent, etc.? ! 

Someone in this correspondence said they did not   get the impression that  atheists were a bullied minority in Britain.   I would agree. Now. It took centuries.  It feels now  more a steady drip drip of negativity. Religious power-holders still hold great monologic public  power. The word 'atheists' rarely occurs without being prefaced by "strident "and 'aggressive'. Our most beloved broadcaster about te natural   who has filled our screens  with beauty  for virtually all my  life - when  he dies there will be public mourning - has no belief in God . To attach the words 'strident and aggressive' to him would be ludicrous.  I suspect most people have no idea what he  thinks or why [the sheer cruelty of nature, nothing to do with human sin.] He does not fit the stereotype the media needs.  It can also come  unexpectedly. I  Iive a long way from London. It costs to get there. I went down to the exhibtion of Leonardo da Vinci. On the way  back to my train  I picked  up a copy of the  London Evening Standard.  Inside was a large headline and article written by the editor.  t was so full of scorn and hate for atheists and why they wouldl come to see Leonardo at all  that I panickd that som madman had tried to throw acid or attack the paintings with a knife or something  and claimed it on behllof  atheism.  Of course nothing happened, no nasty  atheist had  done anything just as at the moment it is not atheist wh lock people in churches and burn them or behead people for some kind of thought-crime. I was 70,alone, the trip had cost me dear, the journey was exhausting. I fet I had had something thrown  over me in buckets that I cannot name here. This was  the editor of the major newspaper of our capita city.  She would not have dared to have written it of any other group  of people.    

Lorna

Lorna --

Sounds to me like there has been a lot more anti-atheism in Britain than here.  Yes, in some areas it's an issue, but I don't think it is typical of most Americans.  My parents, for instance, were orthodox Catholics but they chose to name me after my mother's atheist physics teacher who was apparently a remarkable woman -- utmost integrity and concern for others.  Her atheism just wasn't an issue, apparently.

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About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.