Faith in things unseen

The last act is bloody, however fine the rest of the play.  They throw earth over your head and it is finished forever.

–Pascal, Pensee 165

There’s believing with your head, and then there’s believing with your gut.  Your head believes what logic tells you is the best argument.  Your gut believes whatever possibility is most vivid in your imagination.  If someone were to force me to go sky-diving (someone would have to force me), I would know intellectually that my parachute would probably open, but looking out that airplane door at the distant ground, my gut would tell me that jumping out of the plane would mean certain death.  The idea of falling to my death would be so much more vivid; it would seem so much more real.

The Christian religion demands faith.  Faith of the head can be commanded.  If I have decided that there is good reason to accept that Jesus is Who he says he is, then reason tells me that anything he tells me must be true.  Faith of the gut, however, cannot be commanded.  When present, it is a blessing.  When absent, its absence is a cross to bear, not a sin to repent.  Many people, I know, struggle with the Church’s moral teachings.  Here I am blessed with a discerning gut:  the Christian way strikes me as beautiful, the utilitarian way mean and ugly.  I am also lucky to have no problems with my faith’s metaphysical claims, many of which I presume to believe I can establish with my independent reason.  Even their mysteriousness feels right to me; the world has a mysterious element to it, and one feels that its ultimate explanation should too.

One thing my gut does not believe is that there is a life after this one.  My head believes in heaven, hell, and purgutory–for surely it is not logical to doubt the Son of God and his Church in such a matter–but my gut feels convinced that death means oblivion.  Heaven and hell are too unreal, too repugnant to the imagination.  (Purgatory is actually the easiest to believe–its striving, its dynamism, its purposeful suffering have the feel of reality.)  Of course, we can’t really imagine oblivion, either:  not only to not think or feel, but to not be, for the background hum of sheer existence to stop, for there to be no “me” to say “so this is what it’s like to not exist”.  You can’t imagine it, but for a terrifying instant you almost can.  Belief in heaven and hell used to be natural for me.  Then one day–I think I was an undergraduate–I decided to try to imagine not existing.  I said to myself, “imagine time continues, but my consciousness does not”.  And for an instant, I did.  I think it was the most terrifying moment of my life.  Any existence, even the existence in hell, would be better than that nothing.  (Interestingly, no everyone agrees with me here.  I once remarked to my mother what a terrifying thought oblivion is, and she answered “Why? You wouldn’t be able to feel anything.”  Roger Scruton also once threw out an argument that we shouldn’t be afraid of death because we won’t suffer afterwards.)  And then, of course, I thought to myself, “This isn’t just academic.  I’m really going to die someday.  No matter what happens, I will face this possibility.”  From then on, my gut became an atheist on the matter of the afterlife.

Some people would say that this means I had a crisis of faith, but that would give the gut too much importance.  The fact that my image of oblivion was scarier than my image of hell doesn’t even begin to make an argument against the existence of the latter.  It just says something not too interesting about my imagination.  The only thing that matters is what the head believes.  Of course, not feeling the existence of the afterlife would be a worrying thing if it kept one from a proper concern with one’s impending judgment.  I don’t think that’s a problem for me.  The image of Christ calling me to account someday is very vivid.  (You see how there’s no consistency to the gut’s beliefs.  Logic is not its strong suit.)  It might also mean added anguish when the moment of death is near.  Since I don’t think about my death much, this isn’t an issue yet.  When death comes, I suppose this might be an added cross to bear.  Not an awful one, though, and I sometimes fancy–I know it doesn’t make sense–that I’m being given a chance to take someone else’s fear of death onto myself.

Many people give far too much weight to their gut sense of plausibility.  They use it–just to invent an example–to justify doubting that lying is always wrong.  It can just as easily be used to “disprove” Christianity itself, or quantum mechanics.  What seems plausible to a person at a given minute is determined by psychological quirks and social pressures.  (As a conservative, I think we should be working hard to make the latter a channel toward truth rather than away from it.)  “You’ve got to be kidding me” is not an argument.

5 Responses

  1. I think you’re leaving out a very important part of spiritual life – the possibility of actual, direct revelation or paranormal experience that can best be explained in spiritual terms.

    The man who has no faith in things unseen can still encounter an angel, or a devil. At that point, he doesn’t need *faith* because he has had experience.

    See also G.K.Chesterton’s comments on his experiments with the ouija board.

  2. Thanks for the post. My sentiments are much the same.

    Where, incidentally, does Scruton provide that argument?

  3. I think I saw this in “Modern Philosophy: An Introduction and Survey”.

  4. […] included, it’s quite the reverse.  My continued existence after death is the one doctrine I can’t make myself really, viscerally believe.  I accept it for the sake of the others, the doctrines about God, morality, and the sacraments […]

  5. […] my own included, it’s quite the reverse. My continued existence after death is the one doctrine I can’t make myself really, viscerally believe. I accept it for the sake of the others, the doctrines about God, morality, and the sacraments that […]

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