When I was twenty the one true
free spirit I had heard of was Shelley,
Shelley, who wrote tracts advocating
atheism, free love, the emancipation
of women, the abolition of wealth and class,
and poems on the bliss of romantic love,
Shelley, who, I learned later, perhaps
almost too late, remarried Harriet,
then pregnant with their second child,
and a few months later ran off with Mary,
already pregnant herself, bringing
with them Mary’s stepsister Claire,
who very likely also became his lover,
and in this malaise à trois, which Shelley
had imagined would be “a paradise of exiles,”
they lived, along with the spectre of Harriet,
who drowned herself in the Serpentine,
and of Mary’s half sister Fanny,
who killed herself, maybe for unrequited
love of Shelley, and with the spirits
of adored but often neglected
children conceived incidentally
in the pursuit of Eros—Harriet’s
Ianthe and Charles, denied to Shelley
and consigned to foster parents; Mary’s
Clara, dead at one; her Willmouse,
Shelley’s favorite, dead at three; Elena,
the baby in Naples, almost surely
Shelley’s own, whom he “adopted”
and then left behind, dead at one and a half;
Allegra, Claire’s daughter by Byron,
whom Byron sent off to the convent
at Bagnacavallo at four, dead at five—
and in those days, before I knewGalway Kinnell, “Shelley”
any of this, I thought I followed Shelley,
who thought he was following radiant desire.
“Oh cruel, cruel!” I wailed. “Is it nothing to you that you leave me here alone? Psyche; did you ever love me at all?”
“Love you? Why, Maia, what have I ever had to love save you and our grandfather the Fox?” (But I did not want her to bring even the Fox in now.) “But, Sister, you will follow me soon. You don’t think any mortal life seems a long thing to me tonight? And how would it be better if I had lived? I suppose I should have been given to some king in the end—perhaps such another as our father. … Indeed, indeed, Orual, I am not sure that this which I go to is not the best.”
“Yes. What had I to look for if I lived? Is the world—this palace, this father—so much to lose? We have already had what would have been the best of our time. I must tell you something, Orual, which I never told to anyone, not even you.”
I know now that this must be so even between the lovingest hearts. But her saying it that night was like stabbing me.
“What is it?” said I, looking down at her lap where our four hands were joined.
“This,” she said, “I have always—at least, ever since I can remember—had a kind of longing for death.”
“Ah, Psyche,” I said, “have I made you so little happy as that?”
“No, no, no,” she said. “You don’t understand. Not that kind of longing. It was when I was happiest that I longed most. It was on happy days when we were up there on the hills, the three of us, with the wind and the sunshine…where you couldn’t see Glome or the palace. Do you remember? The colour and the smell, and looking across at the Grey Mountain in the distance? And because it was so beautiful, it set me longing, always longing. Somewhere else there must be more of it. Everything seemed to be saying, Psyche come! But I couldn’t (not yet) come and I didn’t know where I was to come to. It almost hurt me. I felt like a bird in a cage when the other birds of its kind are flying home.”
She kissed both my hands, flung them free, and stood up. She had her father’s trick of walking to and fro when she talked of something that moved her. And from now till the end I felt (and this horribly) that I was losing her already, that the sacrifice tomorrow would only finish something that had already begun. She was (how long had she been, and I not to know?) out of my reach, in some place of her own.CS Lewis, Till We Have Faces
I was repelled by the fact that these people’s lives were like my own, with only this difference—that such a life did not correspond to the principles they expounded in their teachings. I clearly felt that they deceived themselves and that they, like myself, found no other meaning in life than to live while life lasts, taking all one’s hands can seize. I saw this because if they had had a meaning which destroyed the fear of loss, suffering, and death, they would not have feared these things. But they, these believers of our circle, just like myself, living in sufficiency and superfluity, tried to increase or preserve them, feared privations, suffering, and death, and just like myself and all of us unbelievers, lived to satisfy their desires, and lived just as badly, if not worse, than the unbelievers.
No arguments could convince me of the truth of their faith. Only deeds which showed that they saw a meaning in life making what was so dreadful to me—poverty, sickness, and death—not dreadful to them, could convince me. And such deeds I did not see among the various believers in our circle. On the contrary, I saw such deeds done by people of our circle who were the most unbelieving, but never by our so-called believers.Leo Tolstoy, A Confession
And I began to draw near to the believers among the poor, simple, unlettered folk: pilgrims, monks, sectarians, and peasants. The faith of these common people was the same Christian faith as was professed by the pseudo-believers of our circle. Among them, too, I found a great deal of superstition mixed with the Christian truths; but the difference was that … the whole life of the working-folk believers was a confirmation of the meaning of life which their faith gave them. And I began to look well into the life and faith of these people, and the more I considered it the more I became convinced that they have a real faith which is a necessity to them and alone gives their life a meaning and makes it possible for them to live. In contrast with what I had seen in our circle—where life without faith is possible and where hardly one in a thousand acknowledges himself to be a believer—among them there is hardly one unbeliever in a thousand. In contrast with what I had seen in our circle, where the whole of life is passed in idleness, amusement, and dissatisfaction, I saw that the whole life of these people was passed in heavy labor, and that they were content with life. In contradistinction to the way in which people of our circle oppose fate and complain of it on account of deprivations and sufferings, these people accepted illness and sorrow without any perplexity or opposition, and with a quiet and firm conviction that all is good. In contradistinction to us, who the wiser we are the less we understand the meaning of life, and see some evil irony in the fact that we suffer and die, these folk live and suffer, and they approach death and suffering with tranquility and in most cases gladly. In contrast to the fact that a tranquil death, a death without horror and despair, is a very rare exception in our circle, a troubled, rebellious, and unhappy death is the rarest exception among the people. And such people, lacking all that for us and for Solomon is the only good of life and yet experiencing the greatest happiness, are a great multitude. I looked more widely around me. I considered the life of the enormous mass of the people in the past and the present. And of such people, understanding the meaning of life and able to live and to die, I saw not two or three, or tens, but hundreds, thousands, and millions. And they all—endlessly different in their manners, minds, education, and position, as they were—all alike, in complete contrast to my ignorance, knew the meaning of life and death, labored quietly, endured deprivations and sufferings, and lived and died seeing therein not vanity but good.
And I learned to love these people. The more I came to know their life, the life of those who are living and of others who are dead of whom I read and heard, the more I loved them and the easier it became for me to live. So I went on for about two years, and a change took place in me which had long been preparing and the promise of which had always been in me. It came about that the life of our circle, the rich and learned, not merely became distasteful to me, but lost all meaning in my eyes. All our actions, discussions, science and art, presented itself to me in a new light. I understood that it is all merely self-indulgence, and that to find a meaning in it is impossible; while the life of the whole laboring people, the whole of mankind who produce life, appeared to me in its true significance. I understood that that is life itself, and that the meaning given to that life is true: and I accepted it.
To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis of solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fires, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services.Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries
[S]uppose I, a hobbit-like American writer sitting in my armchair, became suddenly curious about the geography around and under 1980-something Piccadilly Circus, which in the intervening decades has been completely remapped. It’s not as easy as you might think to recover even this recent piece of history, even in 2021. Now imagine instead that I am a Greek writer in the late first or early second century, hoping to fabricate a convincing memoir of the pre-70 A.D. life and times of an itinerant Jewish peasant. Wish me luck in this hypothetical, because I’ll need it.Esther O’Reilly, “What’s the truth about John’s Gospel?”
There is nothing more “humble” about saying that the evidence is insufficient to determine historicity than about saying that the evidence is sufficient. There is an epistemically objective fact of the matter. If you assert that the evidence is insufficient to tell, you should be prepared to defend that just as much as if you said that we can be confident that the event happened or that it didn’t. Downgrading the probability of the proposition that Jesus historically said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” to .5 is just as much a mistake if the evidence is strong for its historicity than upgrading its probability to something high if the evidence is weak. … Agnosticism needs to be proportionate to the evidence just as much as affirmation or denial. Do the work to decide what the evidence itself really says.Lydia McGrew
Full quote here.
When it comes to religion, saying “I don’t know” sounds wise and refined, because agnosticism about matters of faith is fashionable. And after all: There are so many different religions, so many arguments for and against each of them, so many (legitimate!) reasons to be skeptical of religious authorities—who are we to say one path is right and the others all wrong?
But notice: Agnosticism about many other matters is decidedly unfashionable. Expressing skepticism about climate change, the 2020 presidential election, “systemic racism,” etc. doesn’t make you sound refined; it makes you sound ignorant—or even hateful. And yet there are so many different views on political and scientific matters, so many arguments for and against each one, so many (legitimate!) reasons to be skeptical of political and scientific authorities…
So: The air of sophistication which surrounds (religious) agnosticism is no more than a mirage—a contingent cultural artifice. It is not, in the main, the product of honest reflection. It is much oftener the product of a deeply solipsistic fear.
Of course, sometimes agnosticism is called for. And sometimes it is not. How can we tell when it is and when it isn’t?
McGrew has the answer: “Do the work to decide what the evidence itself really says.”
Gratitude is a social emotion, the response we feel when we’ve been given a gift. And where there is a gift, there is a gift-giver. As I say in the book, you can’t feel grateful for life and creation and be an atheist, not emotionally. Being awed at the cosmic odds is different from saying “Thank you.”Richard Beck, “Pascal’s Pensées: Week 17, At Home in the Universe?”
[B]ack behind and underneath Job’s calculus of guilt and innocence; deeper than tit-for-tat human schemes that would supposedly sort out all the rational, moral reasons for why things happen in the world the way they do; beyond all this, at the heart of everything there is an unending, un-endable generosity, a light that can never be extinguished, an unfathomable source of life and goodness and wisdom. This isn’t merely some impersonal source of inspiration or fortitude that will get you safely through grief and out the other side; this ceaseless gift comes from the presence of the LORD Himself, the God who addresses Job, who speaks with Job, who seeks Job out precisely in his pain and loneliness. Beyond all deserving or undeserving, the LORD comes to Job. The LORD reveals Himself. Job is not given a platitude; he encounters a Person. The LORD is there—in majesty and mercy. And ultimately, in repentance and trust and hope, Job says to God, “I had heard You with my ear, but now my eye perceives You. Therefore, I recant and relent, being but dust and ashes” (42:5-6, NJPS). Job has not had his questions answered, but he has met the One who made him—the One who will open a future for him beyond all deserving or comprehending, the One who asks not for comprehension but for humility and trust.Wesley Hill, “The Voice from the Whirlwind”
Nature never taught me that there exists a God of glory and of infinite majesty. I had to learn that in other ways. But nature gave the word glory a meaning for me. I still do not know where else I could have found one. I do not see how the “fear” of God could have ever meant to me anything but the lowest prudential efforts to be safe, if I had never seen certain ominous ravines and unapproachable crags. And if nature had never awakened certain longings in me, huge areas of what I can now mean by the “love” of God would never, so far as I can see, have existed. … And not, on the Christian premises, by accident. The created glory may be expected to give us hints of the uncreated; for the one is derived from the other and in some fashion reflects it.CS Lewis, The Four Loves
It is easy enough to make a plan of life of which the background is black, as the pessimists do; and then admit a speck or two of star-dust more or less accidental, or at least in the literal sense insignificant. And it is easy enough to make another plan on white paper, as the Christian Scientists do, and explain or explain away somehow such dots or smudges as may be difficult to deny. Lastly it is easiest of all perhaps, to say as the dualists do, that life is like a chess-board in which the two are equal, and can as truly be said to consist of white squares on a black board or of black squares on a white board. But every man feels in his heart that none of these three paper plans is like life; that none of these worlds is one in which he can live. Something tells him that the ultimate idea of a world is not bad or even neutral; staring at the sky or the grass or the truths of mathematics or even a new-laid egg, he has a vague feeling like the shadow of that saying of the great Christian philosopher, St. Thomas Aquinas, ‘Every existence, as such, is good.’ On the other hand, something else tells him that it is unmanly and debased and even diseased to minimise evil to a dot or even a blot. He realises that optimism is morbid. It is if possible even more morbid than pessimism. These vague but healthy feelings, if he followed them out, would result in the idea that evil is in some way an exception but an enormous exception; and ultimately that evil is an invasion or yet more truly a rebellion. He does not think that everything is right or that every thing is wrong, or that everything is equally right and wrong. But he does think that right has a right to be right and therefore a right to be there, and wrong has no right to be wrong and therefore no right to be there. It is the prince of the world; but it is also a usurper. So he will apprehend vaguely what the vision will give to him vividly; no less than all that strange story of treason in heaven and the great desertion by which evil damaged and tried to destroy a cosmos that it could not create. It is a very strange story and its proportions and its lines and colours are as arbitrary and absolute as the artistic composition of a picture. It is a vision which we do in fact symbolise in pictures by titanic limbs and passionate tints of plumage; all that abysmal vision of falling stars and the peacock panoplies of the night. But that strange story has one small advantage over the diagrams. It is like life.GK Chesterton, The Everlasting Man