CHRISTIANITY AND YOUNG PEOPLE
I think that before I speak of Christianity and young people I should say a few words about the notion of the young. It is much more than a platitude to say that the notion of the young people has changed a great deal, and particularly since the last World war, from a sociological point of view.
There was a time when a French writer could facetiously say that youth is a passing stage which unfortunately is entrusted to people too young to enjoy it and make use of it. Indeed, in a certain sense, youth as period of time, a moment, an age, is given to everyone and passes by. But the phenomenon which we observe now is not simply a difference of age.
In more primitive civilisations, and in other sociological surroundings from our present-day ones, the young, the old and the middle-aged lived together. The young went to school; those who were half-way went to work; the older ones stayed at home; and the pattern of life was basically the same from generation to generation. The changes were not so radical that a man was completely out-dated. The changes that occurred in life were not such that the experience of life of one generation became totally irrelevant, and justifiably so, to the other generation. So that, between one generation and another, there was a continuity. The younger had something to learn from the older. Factual knowledge decreased but the experience of life remained useful, and therefore there was a sense of respect for the older, a sense that the older had learned from life something which was relevant, and almost definitively relevant, this exchange of experience, this growing into the experience of an older generation, was part of the cogency and the solidarity of the generations, and even when, as always happened, there were crises between two generations which followed each other, there was still a sense of belonging together.
What has happened in the last fifty years perhaps, but more particularly since the last war, is first of all that life has changed in an extraordinary way, and experience of life gained seventy years ago is irrelevant in solving the problems of young people who are twenty now, irrelevant, that is, until one comes to basic essential human problems like life and death. But these problems are not those which are met everyday. These problems are met from time to time as climaxes of human experience. But, in between, there are vast areas in which the experience gained, even by a man of my generation, between the two wars, is of no help in solving the inner and outer problems of the younger generation.
There is also a sense of bewilderment, greater or lesser according to individual cases, on the part of the older. The present day attitudes, the sense of the world, the way in which the world-life relationships are perceived by the young are vastly different from what was thought between the two wars, and before the first world war. And the result is that even the sharing of an experience that could be useful is at times very difficult because the problem is not seen in the same way.
Again there is another problem which makes the situation complex. The fact that the younger generation has arrived at the point of saying that the older generation have failed, not in every respect but from time to time, to achieve what was spoken about and hoped for. And therefore they see little reason to turn to them for advice. Why should people who have made a desperate mess of their personal lives, or of the political life of their country, or of social relationships be those who give advice to young people who search for new ways in those situations?
And, lastly, thanks to the educational system and the segregation of people in age groups, for the reasons I have indicated and for other reasons, there is a separation between the older generation and the young. The young do not lead a common life with the older generation. They feel that the experience of life gained by their elders is not directly relevant to their lives. They are aware that they know about the world in which we live a great deal which the older generation does not know — and this is factually true, — even in terms of objective science. (I was trained in physics by a nephew of Curie who, in 1931 being a specialist in the structure of matter and the atom, said to us that the atom would never be split. Every little boy of eight knows that this great scientist was a fool. And that applies a great deal more to lesser scientists than Curie.) And the result is that there is now not only an age group but a sociological unit which has cogency, which has got a more or less unified perception of life, which has in common a certain estrangement from the conception of life and the world view of the previous generation. And this exists now as a body of people, perhaps a segregated body.
So, when we speak of young people and Christianity, those of us who are older and wish to convey their knowledge or experience to the young cannot resort to memories. We cannot go back to the ways in which we discovered and perceived things fifty years ago, or even forty years ago, because the way in which things are perceived, the background against which they are projected, the words in which the young think now are not ours and when we simply convey experience, we convey facts which may have a historic interest, and which may be objects of curiosity. Some may discover in them inspiration, or an intimation that will give them a way of moving somewhere, but they do not answer their questions in their terms, in the way in which questions could be answered by one generation to the other in their own terms before the first world war, and even, to a very great extent, between the two wars.
We must take that into account, because the older have always a tendency to think that they are not understood, while what is true is that very often they are not understandable, and that is not exactly the same thing.
Again, if we want to convey something we must understand first the people to whom we are conveying it. This is probably a platitude as far as you are concerned, for many of you teach, but it is quite obvious that it is not a knowledge of the subject alone, but a knowledge of the subject and of the person to whom you convey it, which makes a teacher, and we are in a situation in which we need, probably, more understanding. Now, when I say more understanding I do not mean that we must consider the new way as better or even as right. The recognition of ignorance, of prejudice, or error, is also a way of knowing. If we are aware that certain approaches are wrong we are entitled to say so and to take a stand. It is not the function of the older generation simply to accept that it is out-dated, irrelevant, and without anything to say. It is our business, as an older generation, to understand that problems are new, that they are set in new terms, and that if we want to convey our experience, if we have any, we must convey it in the new terms. That applies to Scripture. If you read the Bible you will easily see that the terms of one prophet are not the terms of another, and that the various books of the Bible reflect not only the eternal truth of God, but also the people to whom this truth was announced; because one does not speak in order not to be understood, but preferably to convey a message.
After this introduction which you may have felt is too long I would like to say a few things concerning the faith. One of the characteristics which I find in the young people whom I meet — obviously it is a limited number, much smaller probably than those you meet – is an exigency that things should be experienced, and not only known objectively, that is an outer object, irrelevant to one’s life; and secondly, that experience should be authentic and not just emotional or imaginary. I think that there is both something positive and something negative in this approach.
Indeed God, and the realm of the Spirit, man, and the realm of human relationships, must be part of a lived experience; it cannot be part of what one of our Russian theologians of the nineteenth century called the realm of the bad things, which would be simply the acceptance, both uncritical and indifferent, of statements and assertions concerning God, men, the world, which remain irrelevant and are simply objects of knowledge which affect in no wise our lives. Indeed, there is a point in claiming that unless God is an experience He is irrelevant, and unless Man and a relationship is an experience it is irrelevant. In that sense to speak of the Resurrection as being part of life is essential. We believe in the Risen Christ and His resurrection is relevant because it makes a difference to us. If it was simply a happy event that occurred in Christ’s life and had no part in our lives it would simply be stored in the archives of church history. But it is the life of men.
So there is some point in this claim that life, God, the mystery of men should be an experience. But there is also a danger in this, because there is always a danger in the search for experience. There is always a danger of letting the stress move from the object to the subject. What I mean, is, that it is very easy to treat God as an occasion for a religious experience, rather than to have a religious experience because there is a God. The difference is immense, because there is in the search for experience, mystical or other, a self-centredness which may rule God out ultimately. On a lesser level than God Himself, there are many people for whom the Church is a religious experience because they like the organ, or ceremonial, or because they are moved by clouds of incense, or icons, or “the Russian choirs”, or whatever else may appeal. From that we can see that neither God nor the Church are relevant, they are simply a convenient occasion to go through a variety of emotional, cathartic motions which make a difference as long as they last and leave us high and dry a moment later. So that the search for experience, however essential it is, is something that we must approach with great sobriety. This is the problem of drug addiction versus the experience of God.
To be very short, I would say this — that every person, young or not, for it is not the privilege of the young to be addicted to one form of drug or another, (smoking is addiction, drinking is addiction, and I would say that the organ or church ceremonial is also an addiction, for there are many ways in which we are addicted to things; one does not need to be subject to marihuana or LSD to have the ways of addicts). In this search for experience, experience is real, but its object may be real or not.
When a person takes drugs or goes, thanks to church ceremonial, through a variety of emotions the experience is there, authentic and real, what is not real, very often is the object of it. When I see a hallucination after taking drugs I see it — it’s a fact — in that sense the experience is there; what is not there is its object. I remember a patient of mine when I was a doctor who was lying in her bed and who began to move her hand in a certain way, and when I asked her what she was doing she said that she was stroking her ethereal lion who had come to pay her a visit.
Well, the experience of this person was real, but there was no lion. And the same applies to our bread, or our hosts in religious experience.
If you want a parallel between religious experience and drug experience — where they meet and where they part — I think I could put it really very shortly in this way: both are provoked, induced; in the case of a drug it is induced by the taking of the drug, in the case of a mystical experience it is provoked by an act of God. They last as long as the inducing cause lasts — LSD, marihuana, drink or anything else on the one hand, or the overwhelming Divine presence on the other hand. That is where, I believe, they part. The experience of drugs leaves hunger and addiction; the true mystical experience, (I am not speaking of the false one which I lumped together with the rest) leaves a sense of amazement and wonder and of humility, in the same sense in which the discovery that one is loved is a humbling experience, is not something that will make you say that you want more of it but will make you say ‘What a wonder that I should have been granted that much’. Remember Peter on the day of the great draught of fish, said ‘go away from me, O Lord. I am a sinful man’. This is something that no drug addict will ever say, either a church addict or a drug addict. This is something that can be said only if we have touched the fringe of the garment of God and say that even that is too much, how could it have happened to me?
So here is the point where hunger in seeking addiction leads to saying that one wants a repeat of the experience and more of it, where on the other hand the soul which has come into contact with the divine will say ‘This is not an ordinary place, this is the gate of paradise, I have touched the divine,’ and will retire, ready to receive, if such is God’s condescension, never capable of claiming or of fighting for the conquest in an artificial way. Then the result of the hunger of addiction always leads to an increasing self-centredness and imprisonment in self. Hunger leads us back to ourselves. We perceive our hunger more and more desperately. When our hunger is satisfied we perceive our relief passionately but it always increases and the more it does so the more we become prisoners of ourselves, our self-centredness. Real genuine religious experience leads to forgetfulness of self, adoration of God, point of love which ultimately is forgetfulness of self, the pouring out one’s life for the beloved one, no longer existing because the only one who exists is the one whom we love and worship.
And the final difference is that there is a hard self-centred claim which is set forth by the addict: ‘I have a right to — I want it — Give’. I am at the centre of an increasing coldness and mercilessness as far as others are concerned in order to provide for my own satisfaction; while the genuine religious experience corresponds always to this attitude of increasing forgetfulness of self, veneration, adoration, love of the other and a sense of wonder and humility. This parallel is, of course, a quick one, it does not account for many things but I am not now lecturing on drug addiction but on all experience.
Well, this differentiation is very important because whenever we meet any person, young or old, who is in search of a religious experience, of the experience of God, the first thing we must ask, the first challenge we must offer is this: ‘Are you searching for God, whatever the cost to you, because God matters, or are you searching for God because it would be so nice to have God in your panoply of delights?’ and if the answer, implicit or explicit, is ‘No. I would like to have God because it is one further way in which my ego can develop, can expand, as another way in which I can become more than I am’, we should say ‘Then don’t search. I am not giving you a key, fight until you come to a point of despair when you will need God or when you will love God. But God cannot be used as one more item in the range of experience which one can enjoy.’
I have also said that there is this ring of authenticity which the young now claim from experience, and here the notion of authentic is a little bit hazy and should be made a great deal more precise if it is to lead anywhere. For very often authenticity is played against lucidity, sobriety, truth, reality. Authentic is what has really happened — I can be authentically wrong. Authentically mistaken, I can be in an authentic state of hallucination. Authenticity in itself is not enough. There is more to an experience than subjective authenticity. It must be authenticated as far as something outside of me is concerned. A mystical experience may be authentic and of the devil. We know perfectly well from St. Paul that the powers of darkness can appear to us in the form of angels of light, and it has happened throughout history and it is happening now. Lopsidedness is a form of delusion, heresy is a form of delusion, error of judgement is a form of illusion, and emotion, which is self-centred instead of being God-centred, is a form of delusion. All that is authentic, from a subjective point of view, and yet untrue to its object in a more real sense.
As the conclusion of my talk, I would like just to touch on something that I would like to speak about in my next talk: that when we talk of our faith, at times we do not sound authentic because we speak in the same breath of things which we know for sure within our experience and things which we do not know within our own experience. That is very important, because each of us has got a core of religious experience, personal which may apply to one thing or another. If you ask me what my personal central, basic experience is, it is the certainty that I have met the living Christ, crucified and risen, of that I am prepared to say ‘I know within my personal life’. But there are other things which are part of my experience but which I do not possess directly, but possess in common with the Christian community to which I belong. They are greater than my experience, they outgrow my experience, they are beyond the boundaries of my smallness. I can say that I am sure of these things because I share them with others, and I have an incipient knowledge of them, while others, whom I see around me, have a clear and full knowledge. The little knowledge I have allows me to be certain of their knowledge but I cannot speak of their knowledge with the same ring of truth and of certainty which I can put into my experience.
And again, this range of ecclesial experience goes beyond this. We remember that the apostle John said ‘We speak about what we have seen, what we have heard, what we have touched’. Their witness rang true. We speak about what they have seen, they have heard and they have touched. We can do it with certainty only to the extent to which we share part of their experience and therefore proclaim the whole of it. But even beyond that there is a realm of knowledge, of certainty of which we can speak but which is neither ours nor theirs. When Christ says ‘no-one has seen God but the Son of God who was in the vision of the Father has revealed Him’ we speak of the knowledge which Christ has of God because we have a knowledge of Christ which allows us to proclaim His knowledge of God with certainty, but, if we try to speak of it as if it were our own, everyone will sense that it is not true. We do not speak in the same tone of voice, with the same depth of certainty because what we say is convincing not in the words which we use but in the revelation of the Kingdom of God come with power, and the power of the Spirit manifested in and through him who speaks, and that can be done only if we have a sober and worshipful balance with regard to what we speak about. It must be sober and worshipful because when I repeat what God says of Himself, I must do it with awe, with a sense of the fear of God, with a sense of amazement conveying to others more than I know myself and that must be perceived. If it is, it is credible. If it is not perceived, it is not credible because our person, our voice, our manner gives the lie to His message.
The question was concerned with the authenticity of religious experience. How can one say that experience is authentic, for instance people speaking in tongues.
Let me speak in limited terms, that is as a Christian and from a definite point of view, and not try to embrace Christian experience in all its vastness and confusion.
First of all, the question of speaking with tongues and the whole of Pentecostalism is too much to answer in a few minutes. May I suggest that the speaking in tongues and these extraordinary manifestations are a secondary element in the action of the Holy Spirit — if it is the Holy Spirit, or let us say, when it is the Holy Spirit. What we know about the Holy Spirit is that He is the Spirit of truth, the Spirit of Christ, and I would say that the touchstone for me is this: if an experience which a person traces back subjectively to the Holy Spirit does not lead him back to Christ, to the integrity and absoluteness of the Gospel, and when it proclaims anything that is beyond Christ and beside Christ, the spirit that has spoken is a spirit of darkness; because Christ says quite clearly that the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father, who is sent by Him into the world, will take of what is His (Christ’s) and will reveal and make sense of it to the disciples. Anything which is a new gospel is of the devil. That, for me, is one thing.
The second thing, is that apart from this basic thing, which I think is more basic than what I am going to say now, there are the fruits of the spirit (Galatians and Colossians). And these fruits are more of an authentic proof that it was God’s spirit than any kind of extraordinary manifestation. Truth, peace, joy, forbearance, humility — all these are touchstones. Then the gifts of the Spirit in Isaiah again can be taken as touchstones. Now, as far as the other manifestations, that is the more spectacular, are concerned, I have great misgivings and I would be very careful, simply because unless the other things are there, unless the spirit has brought us to Christ and made us more faithful to Him, unless the claims of the Gospel have become more absolute to us than they were, there is a doubt about it. Now St. Seraphim of Sarov, a Russian saint who died in 1833 who is not a contemporary but a modern saint, gave, in two or three of his very short writings, indications which I should like to bring together concerning the discerning of the spirit which comes close to us. He says that when it is the spirit of God who speaks or acts, or comes close to us, overshadows us let’s say, he brings with him a sense of profound peace, that peace which the world cannot give, of joy, of humility, of light of the mind, and a glowing of the heart, a concern for God and others, and forgetfulness of self. Here are, I think, six points he makes. When he says we have a darkening of the mind, a coldness of the heart, a lack of joy, a loss of the sense of peace, a sense of fidgeting, of unquietness, of worry, when we feel that our ego is boosted up, that we assert ourselves in a new way, that we become central and others periphery it is the spirit of darkness: reject it.
As far as the concrete manifestations of which we spoke are concerned, the dangers which I see in them are double. On the one hand when we lay ourselves open to the influence or intimations of whoever will speak to us, we do not know who will in fact speak to us. If, to begin with we believe that there are no powers of darkness, then the problem is simple but if we believe as a Christian normally should that satan exists, that powers of darkness exist, that indeed they are active, then to lay ourselves simply open to an influence is a risky thing. It is a risk one may take but one must be aware that there is one. And one must have criteria to discern the result either in the person of someone who has more discernment than we have, because it is difficult to be a judge in one’s own case, or objective criteria which will allow us to say after this alleged spiritual experience what I discover in myself is of the realm of darkness the dire response which I have given instances of.
From a purely practical point of view I have met two cases which impressed me very much, one in the United States. It was a Japanese woman who had come to a Kansas family, without any knowledge of Japanese of course, and she had no knowledge of American, and she was in great distress and the two hosts, the husband and wife, who were Pentecostalists in a general sense, decided to pray with her. They started praying in English and suddenly the husband began to speak out incomprehensible words which proved to be Japanese and which conveyed a message of peace to this woman. We can surmise, at least, that that was an act of God. But I know also of another case which I did not observe but which was reported to me of a man at a Pentecostal meeting speaking in tongues, incomprehensible both to himself and others, but who spoke with great warmth and with devotion that impressed the whole meeting and set up a mood of prayerful reverence, until a man walked into the meeting, stopped, and then began toshout: ‘Stop him! Stop him!’ and it proved that the speaker had been using the Basque language, which was known to the man who had walked in, and all that he had been saying in this tone of devotion and prayerful reverence was a stream of blasphemy and pornography. Well, the tune was one, the words were another; and that must make us reflect.
THE REALM OF FAITH
I would like to define faith a little and to indicate perhaps the ways in which one can enter into this realm.
Faith is very often understood in a completely wrong way, particularly in societies in which Christianity or the faith has been present for centuries. The faith can be discovered in its newness and its freshness, in its real essential meaning in those places where people are still emerging out of godlessness into it and they discover where it begins and what happens.
May I first say that faith does not consist in credulity. Faith is not the uncritical, indifferent, irresponsible acceptance of what others assert as truth. I may say it is even less what Dr. Eric Maskall says of it. In one of his writings, he describes a child, whom I suspect he invented for the occasion, who, being asked what faith is, answered that it is the extraordinary ability which grown-ups have to say something is true when they know well that it isn’t. Faith does not exist unless it is rooted in a certain amount of experience. Faith which is simply the ability to accept as truth something that someone else has accepted on the same terms as handed down by a string of generations, is not faith. The content of it may be perfectly valid, but the experience of it is null.
Faith is not something which applies only to the religious experience. It applies to a variety of realms of life: we have faith in men; it is faith which moves scientific research; it is faith ultimately which is the beginning of our relationship with God. Leaving aside faith in men, which would be too vast to discuss and which could almost coincide with what I have to say about faith in God, I would like to attract your attention to the fact that any kind of scientific research is based on faith, if you define faith in the terms of the Epistle to the Hebrews “certainty of things unseen”. Research, by definition is a quest for what hitherto is unseen, unknown, invisible, not yet possessed. It is not an act of credulity, it is an act of certainty. The scientist engages in research because he is certain that there is an objective reality around him which has been studied and unveiled up to a point, and which is very rich in possibilities that can be disclosed. At the root of scientific research there is an act of faith that there is something to find. The exploration of Central Africa, as much as mathematical research or research in physics, chemistry or other branches of science are rooted in the same basic principle. There is a reality which is greater than my knowledge and which I can discover.
Now, this discovery, this act of faith, is not rooted only in the fact that everything is invisible. It is rooted in the fact that I have already got an incipient knowledge that teaches me that more knowledge can be acquired. A thing of which we have no notion whatever cannot become an object of research or of investigation. We must have touched the fringe of something to become aware that it is there and make an attempt to discover more. In the realm of religious faith, for one moment only, there is a joke running round in a very impious way in Russia: A tourist asks an Intourist guide if they fight against evils in Russia. ‘Of course we do!’ ‘So there are evils in Russia?’ ‘O yes, there are a few.’ ‘Do you fight against drunkenness for instance?’ says the tourist. ‘O yes.’ ‘So there is drunkenness in Russia?’ ‘Yes!’ ‘Do you fight against juvenile delinquency?’ ‘O yes.’ ‘So you have juvenile delinquency. Do you fight against God?’ ‘O yes!! ‘ ‘So there is a God?’ Quite obviously that is not an absolutely earnest, philosophical statement, but what I mean to say is that there can be no fight when there is no notion, and no search where there is no incipient knowledge. So that the realm of faith is characterised by two things: an incipient knowledge which allows us to believe that there is more to find; and a realm which is the invisible, (here the word invisible covers not only what cannot be perceived with one’s eyes, but what is not yet within the grasp of our experience — it may be gadgets, eyes, ears or any other way of discovering it.)
The two things are important and further, when we say that faith is certainty of things unseen, we must lay the stress on ‘certainty’ and not only on ‘unseen’, for many believers lay the stress on the word ‘unseen’ and leave the certainty extremely uncertain. What I have said about the faith of a scientist I should like now to project a little upon religious faith and the way in which it is perceived as a possibility and eventually found as reality. A major way, the original, basic experience is an overwhelming meeting face to face with spiritual reality, with God. The type of it is quite obviously St. Paul on the way to Damascus. It requires no particular commentary: a man who was out to destroy Christianity finds himself face to face with Christ, crucified and risen, and now knows that all that he has heard in the name of Christ is true.
But this kind of sudden, spectacular experience is not given to everyone and is not necessary for everyone. There are other ways in which we come into the realm of faith. One of the ways can be defined in the terms of an Orthodox monastic saying: no-one can renounce the world unless he has seen on the face of at least one person the light of eternal life… We cannot turn away from the visible if through the visible one has not perceived the shining of the invisible. One cannot abandon one’s only reality in order to search for something that may not exist at all. But one can abandon all that is a physical reality, the emotional, intellectual reality of life if one has seen the shining of the life divine.
This shining again, in the terms of major imagery, can be found in Exodus — Moses coming down from Mount Sinai with a face so shining that the Jews could not endure its resplendence, and compelled him to veil his face. In minor ways we have this experience all the time. We see at moments a human face transfigured in the sense in which the Gospel speaks of the Transfiguration, that is eyes shining with a new light. I met a man last year in Russia who had spent 36 years in prisons and concentration camps and with eyes shining with serenity and something really that was beyond human joy, and he said to me ‘Can you imagine the goodness of God. No priest was allowed into a prison or a camp and God chose me to perform the function of a priest there for 36 years,’ and his face shone and his eyes were resplendent with gratitude to God. Well, when one has seen that, you may imagine that one can turn away from a great deal because that is proof and evidence. It is not always the blinding light of the road to Damascus. It may be the quiet joyful light which one can see in the eyes of love, in the eyes of prayer, in the eyes of deep inwardness.
Again, we may not always perceive things in this visible way of which I speak. My first meeting with the invisible — and then I could not read the sign, I understood it only much later, years later — occurred when I was in my early teens. I met a priest who to me was as old as the hills (he must have been at least thirty), and I found in him a quality which I had never found in any human being. I knew what it meant to love someone and to be loved in terms of a family relationship for I was loved by my parents and I loved them back. I could understand that one loves one’s friends, but what I met in him was a man who had love to spare for everyone and anyone; and what was more impressive, his love never faltered and when we were horrid, and we were quite horrid, his love became acute suffering, and when we were good, and that was rare, his love became joy, but it never became less, it could only become more. When we were really at rock bottom of evil then his love was incredible. Really where sin abounded, grace abounded even more. I was puzzled. I could not understand it. I could not see where it came from. I understood later that he was like a stained glass window through which the light beyond came like a stream, like a flood and reached us. This is also the way in which you can be made aware that there is something more to a man and that this something is not human and not of the created realm. The discovery may be sudden, it may be immediate, it may be slow, it may be an increasing discovery and a sense that indeed there is this realm of the invisible, more real, sustaining, supporting, carrying.
Then there is perhaps a more incipient way, that may be extremely dramatic, but which is much less obviously related to the realm of faith. When man looks around himself in this world, vast, in this ever-expanding universe, in this world which is dangerous, aggressive, he may feel that he is like a speck of dust, so small, so helpless, so desperately vulnerable, but when he turns inward he discovers in himself a vastness, a depth, a dimension, a scale which makes him greater than the world in which he lives. His intelligence can grasp all the visible and remains free for more. His heart can be filled by all that life can give of human relationships, of love, of emotion, and remain empty. He discovers that however much he pours into himself of the visible, of the created, of the human, whether in form of beauty or of truth or of love, his vastness is not filled. All the created falls into his extraordinarily deep, abysmal depths like a pebble and when we listen to hear whether it has touched rock bottom and echoes back, in amazement and at times, with deep fear, we discover that it has not yet reached the rock bottom, that there is no response from the deep, that the deep is too deep. When this discovery is made by one completely unaware and unhelped, he may perceive this deep in himself as no mean terror of a naught which will swallow him and bring him to naught after his death. It may be the moving abyss of final annihilation. When we are aware of God, when we have the notion that He may exist, then we may look into these depths and see in them, at least surmise, or tentatively accept as a working hypothesis that it may be that depth of which the Archbishop of Canterbury has said once that everyone of us has got within himself an emptiness which is as vast as God and shaped in the image of God. But whatever the case, the discovery that I, this minute speck of naught, in this world so vast, am vaster and deeper than the whole world, is already the beginning of the realm of faith. What I have said could have been said much quicker had I simply quoted to you the words of Angelus Silesius who in one of his mystical writings said: ‘I am as great as God; God is as small as I. I am as great as Him because nothing less than God can fulfil me and fill me to the brim. He is as small as I. The fullness of Godhead can abide in a human person.’
At that point we are faced with a problem. We can either approach life in a varied way, in the manner in which a scientist approaches the mystery of reality, of life, or else in a calm way which is more frequent in the realm of faith than we imagine. Because at the moment when we are confronted with the realm of faith, we are at a point where reality both is there and is no longer there.
I will explain it by an image. In the first century a Christian writer, called St. Macarius of Egypt, describing the emergence of faith gives the following example: he says, imagine a man who has suddenly become aware of the overwhelming presence of God, has been engulfed completely in the experience of God; at that moment he and his experience coincide so completely that he is the experience and the experience is him. He cannot step outside of the experience to watch it. He cannot observe what is happening to him. At that moment he is nothing but an experience in process. If, says Macarius, God had no concern with anyone but the seer, the saint, the hero, the spirit, he would leave him in that condition because this condition is life eternal. But God has concern for those who are not yet at that point, and He needs witnesses who will come into the world and say ‘I know from experience that that is the fulfilment of reality.’ And he steps back. The image Macarius gives is that of the sea moving away from the shore having carried a little boat and left it on the sand. A moment ago the boat was on the sea, then it was just carried by the last wave, and now it is on dry land. At that moment when we emerge out of experience, still full of it, as it were, but at the moment when experience is no longer the actual experience, we enter into the realm of faith. The certainty of this experience is absolute: we have got it! But the experience is already the invisible. Certainty of things invisible.
Now, that is very important because the realm of faith begins when we emerge out of an experience, sometimes an experience which we have gained gradually, as I have said before, not in the immediacy of a spectacular occurrence, but there must be an experience at the root. When the young tell us that our faith lacks credibility it is because they do not perceive that we are speaking of an experience which is at the root of our faith and allows us an extrapolation perhaps, that is to say more than I have sensed myself, but an experience that is certain and which I recognise in others who are greater than I, which allows me to integrate more than I know into my certainty. I have said at the end of my last talk that there are three concentric levels of experience in oneself what I know within my own flesh and bones and soul; what I know because I share with others a basic experience and become possessed in trust, as it were, of what they also possess; and ultimately because we share what the Son of God, become the Son of Man, has shared with us, and indeed not only in words but in that mysterious way which we call the sacraments, in which He communicates to us eternal life, divine life beyond our capability of reaching out towards it, it descends to us, comes down to us even when we cannot ascend to it. And the credibility will remain certain, solid, only if we allow within this realm of faith a realm of doubt, but doubt understood not as a negation but as a challenge of reality and to truth. What I mean is this: reality is all there is, visible and invisible, the created and God himself; the truth is all that we can say about reality, whether it was revealed by God or discovered by human endeavour and experience.
Only once in history have truth and reality coincided absolutely — it was in the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is reality because He is God, and He is truth because He is supported, proclamation, expression, or vision of God ‘who has seen Me has seen the Father’. But otherwise truth is always an approximation and is never adequate to the reality of which it speaks.
A scientist is in exactly the same position as a believer, with regard to reality. Reality is both visible and invisible. When he makes a new discovery the scientist tries to hold together all the data which science has given him in the form of a hypothesis, a theory, or a model, but he never imagines that any of these are coincidental with reality. They are an approximate mirroring of it, but they are not it. And once it has been done, once the model is constructed, the first thing a scientist, who is honest and daring, will do is to look for the flaw in his model, or a new fact which will explode his hypothesis, his theory, or his model in order to compel himself to create something more adequate for vaster and truer reality.
He can do that because he does not doubt reality and he does not put his trust and faith in his model. He is prepared to accept the challenge of reality and to doubt his model because he has faith — and not because he lacks faith. Unfortunately the believer, from lack of sense because of an error of judgement which seems to have been handed on from generation to generation, projects the doubt from the model on to its object. My God seems to be inadequate — therefore God does not exist.
This is an extraordinarily stupid statement and yet it is the way in which religious doubt proceeds.
Instead of which what we could say is that all the experience which revelation has given me, which centuries of human experience have acquired, have placed before me an approximative model of God. I have outgrown it. I have found new elements which do not fit in this poor human vision. How wonderful I what I knew before is true; what I know now is truer. And doubt is not a moment of anguish, but a moment of discovery. And if we used doubt that way, if we did not tell the young and ourselves ‘How dare you doubt!’ (And then we would quote a document which would be more or less convincing according to our temperament or denomination). Then we would be able to say ‘Oh, the God you have worshipped proves to be nothing but a miserable little idol. Thank the real God, the living God; He is removing an idol to put you face to face with His own mystery.’
That applies to people also. You know how we approach a person with a preconceived idea. We go to see the Headmaster, or the Captain, or the Boss, or the Doctor, or the Vet., whoever we go to see, we go to a function. Unless we can discard the function we shall never discover the person, and unless we discover God in personal terms, not as the Almighty, the All-wise, the Something Else, which are just functions as being the policeman or some other thing, we shall never discover Him with all the complexity and richness of a personality, we will never discover in Him Some One, we shall be brought back to some Thing.
Already in the first century St. Gregory of Nazianze said that if we take all that Scripture has revealed — that is that God himself has revealed about Himself — if we add to it all that the Church has experienced and possess concerning God, make it into a coherent picture and imagine that this is God, we have made an idol and we have betrayed the real God, who is all life, all dynamic, unseizable, cannot be frozen down to a static picture.
I think that if we approach our selves in this way we could probably convey to younger people, who are full of perplexities, not ready-made answers but ways in which one can live in the intimacy and discover the Living God.
Then there would be credibility in what we say because there would be dynamic instead of a static and dull exposition.