Dear Donagh,

A friend of mine put me on to your website.  He thinks you’re a regular guy, you’re his hero.  I've been going into it fairly regularly for the last few months.  I thought it would put me off, but I have to admit I like a lot of things about it, especially the photos in the Facebook page….  So here’s my question.
I'll be honest, I don’t believe in religion, I think it’s a thing of the past.  I used to be interested enough to read articles and occasionally a book on it.  But no more.  What I can't understand is why so many people still believe in it.  Nobody in their right mind could believe all that… in this day and age.  It doesn’t stand to reason. It’s irrational.  At the same time, a lot of what you say makes sense.  What I want to know is, are you covering up the cracks?  What are you really doing?  Do you believe all that stuff yourself?  I hope this doesn’t give you a brainstorm!  Steve

Dear Steve,

Thanks for your forthright question.  I appreciate that. 

No, I'm not having a brainstorm, and no I'm not papering the cracks,  and no I'm not entirely irrational.  I should add a few qualifications such as ‘not yet anyway’ or ‘as far as I know’.  We can never know what’s down the road – because no, neither am I a hero. 

Religion tends to get squashed into an unfeeling rational mould.  It is presented as an explanation of the world.  When you think about it, this is quite strange.  God couldn’t be the explanation of anything.  God isn't the explanation of the world.  Why, because God is even more mysterious than the world.  I remember a professor who said one day, “Take the Trinity, for example….”  Students instinctively laughed – because the Trinity is not an example of anything.  It is unique and beyond all our webs of rational thought.  The trouble is that when people reject this rationalism they think they are rejecting the faith.  It strikes me that in the gospels Jesus consistently refused to explain anything.  When Nicodemus asked him how someone could be “born again,” he didn’t say, “Well, let me explain it to you in simple terms.”  Instead he said, “Unless you are born again…” (Jn 3:5).  Another time when people asked, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ he didn’t say, “Sit down there now and I'll explain what I mean.”  He said, “I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (Jn 6:52-53). So much was this his style that scholars are convinced that explanatory passages (for example, Lk 8:11-15, which ‘explains’ the parable of the sower) are not ‘Jesus material’, but were contributed by disciples.  I talked with three or four atheists recently, and I agreed with almost everything they said.  They were holding on, with a sort of blind faith, to a caricature of the faith; and nothing I said could penetrate to that blind spot.  It confirms something long suspected: atheism is a kind of faith.      

So, is religion irrational?  Is faith completely separate from reason?  No.  Think of them as partially overlapping circles: like Venn diagrams.  There are many common areas, many ways in which they critique and clarify each other; many ways in which they help and illuminate each other.  But faith is not reducible to reason: there is an irreducible overlap, and even when they cover the same ground they do so in contrasting ways.  Faith is perfectly at ease with the language of poetry and story and myth.  And it isn't tormented when it comes to paradox: what is a stumbling block for reason is often a starting point for faith.  If you are familiar at all with Zen you will know about koans.  Christian faith fattens on such things; they are much closer to the language of the New Testament than any form of rationalistic theology.  You find many koan-like passages in the New Testament.  “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Mt 10:39).  “The first will be last, and the last will be first” (Mt 19:39).  And St Paul could say, “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10)….  

The trouble with professors of theology and preachers is that they are not usually poets.  They are people who never recovered from early exposure to rationalistic theology with its fixation on proofs and explanations.  An exclusive diet of koans over a long period would do them the world of good. 

No, I'm not interested in papering cracks.  I'd hate to think that I might do it unconsciously at times; perhaps I do.  But really these very cracks, these points of rupture and impasse, are far too interesting to cover up.  They prevent us from giving hackneyed responses, they force us to remain alert, they challenge us to remain seekers. 

What you refer to as ‘stuff’ – even more unattractively described as ‘dogma’ – is badly labelled.  On the outside, those bundles look like… stuff – dry goods, all finished and packaged, fixed positions, final answers…. Who could love them?  But on the inside they are a captivating world of insight and intuition, expressed by every possible means of expression: story, parable and legend, law and wisdom literature, letters and prayers, poetry and every kind of prose, history, myth and fable … all of it reflecting shimmering lights, as from moving water, into the human mystery, focused in the face of Christ.  The New Testament itself told us to take a wide view: “God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways” (Heb 1:1).    

You could do worse, Steve, than look in the section called ‘Wisdom Line’ in this website.  There, over the years, I have reproduced short passages of Christian literature from ages past.  One or other of those ancient (and recent) writers may speak to you, in the way that one stranger in a crowd might come over to say hello.  He or she may then introduce you to others in the family. 

Take care, Steve, and thanks again for your question.


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