Believing requires a great deal than mere assent. A kind of dynamic actuality, a reservoir of positive energy, a strength to pierce beyond the very limits of credi-bility, is demanded. Faith may fall on evil days, exhaust itself, and what once sustained us then becomes a heavy burden we are forced to carry. Our believing fluctuates as mysteriously as a candle flame in a gusty wind.
Certainly there is nothing more devastating than the experi-ence of faith suddenly gone empty. It becomes a torment, a vain and irritating thing. Few times in his ministry did Jesus speak with such disgust as when he said, “ You are the salt of the earth” and then continued with ruthless candor, “but if the salt have lost his savour, it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and trodden under foot of men.” As the country priest complains in Bernanos` novel: “my parish is bored stiff; no other word for it. Like so many others! We can see them being eaten us by boredom. . . . It is like dust. You go about and never notice, you breathe it in, you eat it and drink it. It is sifted so fine it doesn`t even grit on your teeth. . . . To shake off this drizzle of ashes you must be for-ever on the go. And so people are always `on the go.`”1
1 Georges Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest, trans. Pamela Morris(New York: Macmillan Paperbacks, 1962), pp. 7-8.
We have felt times when faith has gone flat, its ritual a boring routing, its aspirations worn and thin, its tradition dry and sterile, its very scriptures of salvation a sound far off in another tongue, and its promise of redemption vacuous. Indeed, the whole business of believing becomes dull and deadly.
Truth is, we have seen more than faith go flat and tasteless. Life itself dwindles, darkens and falls apart, blots out the glory spots and no longer makes sense; it exausts our pa-tience, mocks our sanity, and leaves no solid ground for our wayfaring feet.
Many men in our time have endured this dark eclipse of their soul. Gauguin grew sick of materialistic civilization and renewed his vision, his aesthetic believing, in the primitive world of the south Seas. Rimbaud left France ad wandered an exile and stranger through the sunlit lands of Africa. Albert Schweitzer, in reverence for life and in protest against the massive ambitions of war and power, built with his own hands an outpost in Lambaréné for the nurture of believing. As far back as 1908, Masaryk pointed out that this collapse of life`s vital meaning and satisfaction was the primary disease of our era. To it may be ascribed the suicides of Stefan Zweig, F.O. Matthiessen, Ernest Hemingway, and many others. Be-lieving is not a luxury; without it, life becomes unbearable. As Cherea says in Camus` Caligula, “Here is what frightens me. To lose one`s life is a little thing, and I will have the courage when necessary. But to see the sense of life dissipated, to see our reason for existence disappear: that is what is un-supportable. A man cannot live without reason.”
One of the telling parables of our age, Graham Green`s Burnt-Out Case, describes the flight of Monsieur Querry, an architect of international fame, who has built his career to fantastic heights only to find it tasteless and flat. He turns his back on everything, fame, family, honor, wealth-to seek anonymity and forgetfulnesws at the heart of dark Africa. His desires are spent, his feelings exausted, his passions nil. He seeks nothing so much as nothing. His believing, his confi-dence, his hunger are at zero. He finally arrives at a native compound where some Dominican brothers are caring for the victims of leprosy. For the most part, the lepers move about on stumps and carry on as best they can with hands without fingers or arms without hands. They are mutilated, but they are no longer in pain. After the first destructive onset of the disease, when the damage is done, there is no pain. They are simply the “burnt-out cases.” Querry soon recognizes that he, too, is a burnt out case, burnt out by the ravages of civilization, by its furious passions and besetting fires of ambition. No emotions are left, no ecstacies desired.
We might well ask ourselves: Why is it so hard for us to respond, even the most dramatic events or occasions, except tentatively, cautiously, superficially? Why de we see tragedy in the street, before our very eyes, with so little feeling of none. Why do we pull down the shade and shut the windows when a woman is stabbed to death within earshot? Why do we go to church with so little feeling? We go sincerely enough to pray, to worship, but where are our feelings? Indeed we play the part, smile as if we meant it, say nice things as if we meant them, kneel and pray as if we really confesses our sins, as if we really adored God and wanted to be redeemend-but for the life of us, we can`t seem to put our hearts into it. We haven`t been insincere-God knows that-but we haven`t been all there. We can`t feel it very much. We too are muti-lated-no fingers to feel with, only dull stumps! We are burnt-out cases, too!
One is reminded of the grandmother`s story in Wozzeck. The little girl wanted to go to the sun and was granted her wish, but when she got there, all she found was a dried-up sunflower from last summer`s garden. Then she wanted to see the moon, and her wish was granted, but all she found was an old dried-up stick. Again she desired to visit the stars and had her wish, only to find them nothing but the glitter of light on a vast spider web hanging in the dark of space. And when she finally returned to earth, she found it to be only an upturned flowerpot, empty and desolate. Some of us live in that kind of world, where everything turns out to be far less than we supposed. Some men go from job to job, from wife to wife, from the east coast to the west, from the city to the country, and always ask whether it is so because the world is so empty or because they themselves are burnt-out.
Put in other terms, why are we so inwardly dead? Why is our believing so sterile, so lifeless, so dry? What has happened to us that we live so indifferently? On the one hand we are frenzied; but despite the fury of our ways, we get so little out of it. Everything in our inflated vocabulary is “terrific,” and yet it doesn`t amount to anything. We have something that passes for faith, but without fascination; we manage to conform, but lack the slightest passion; we “attend” worship, but we celebrate nothing; we are not wanting in respectability, but we know nothing about holiness; we are beyond criticism as far as propriety is concerned, but there is no real repentance in us.
One of the reasons why life loses its savor and goes dead is simply the unlimited hammering which our nerves get in the kind of world we have built. If we put together the impact of TV violence and hepped-up huckstering, the news-paper headlines of political revolution and social catastrophe, and then add the sensationalism of movies, we would have a hammerblow sufficient to turn our inner life black and blue in a few hours. No wonder our nerves are reduced to pulp incapable of reaction. The incessant pounding of unlimited sensations leaves us punch drunk.
But strangely enough, we like it that way. We want excite-ment. We insist on screaming headlines, even if there isn`t anything to scream about. We make our signs bigger and our commercials louder and our novels more shocking. Cecil B. DeMille`s great desire fairly well characterizes us as a people. He wanted to make a movie which would begin with an earthquake that destroyed the world and the move up to a great climax.
Our method is simply to hammer away at people`s nerves and keep them jumping. The fact that they are already ex-hausted by the continual impact of noise, violence and excite-ment on all sides means that one has to work harder to get any reaction out of them. We become blasé, deadpan, burnt-out. Advertising becomes senseless exaggeration. Art goes mad trying to attract attention, and resorts to pop art and the visual violence of op art. In a sensationless world, one has to work awfully hard to achieve a sensation. No subtlety is possible, no modesty or awe or excellence. Only a pile driver could elicit some sign of life from us.
A long time ago Wordsworth called attention to this coming flatness:
The human mind is capable of being excited without the appli-cation of gross and violent stimulants. . . . It has therefore ap-peared to me, that to endeavour to produce or enlarge this capability is one of the best services in which, at any period a writer can be engaged; but this service, excellent at all times, is especially so at the present day. For a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the dis-criminating powers of the mind, and unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor. The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing accumulation of men in cities.
A facet of this excess stimulation-it is difficult to say whether it is cause or effect, for in all probability it is both-is the lack of penetration. We tend to live in shallow soil and make up for the loss of depth by the speed of our living. Our rootlessness and our restlessness rise from the same ground. If the medieval world tended to be vertical, with everything being valued in terms of heaven and eternity, then the modern world tends to be horizontal, concerned largely with speed and immediate utility. The traveller who visits seventeen cities in sixteen days; the student who covers eight subjects in one semester; the sightseer who “does” the conti-nent in six weeks; the technique of fast reading; the cinematic vertigo of the movies; the montage of art where everything is thrown together for the general effect-all these are exhibits of a way of life which, as Tillach has said, has lost its depth. We actually lose eternity by fearing to waste time!
In such a climate, believing tends to be shallow, episodic, now this, now that. It is the product of a mood, and the mood is manufactured synthetically-either with candles and high mass, or with the hypnotic evangelist and nostalgic clichés of a vanished pietism. Activism takes the place of believing; programs succeed one another rapidly in order to hide the absence of true peace. The basic reason faith goes dry and becomes flat and boring is the failure to achieve and profound reflectiveness on the nature of life itself.
The lack of reflectiveness, generated by the excess speed of our habits, leads to a third source of exhausted meaning. We inherit the forms of our religion but fail to inhabit them. The symbols, myths, and rites which constitute the articula-tion of profound mysteries which logic and reason cannot explicate are treated out of the obscure and refractory experiences of our own lives the necessary ore to give content and weight to those shapes and formulas of ancient wisdom. We either use them as magic in themselves, expecting them to work on us without our working on ourselves, or we simply don`t expect them to do anything for us any more than wwe expect to do anything for them. In both cases, faith is dull and deadly. Believing involved a dynamic relationship between the great forms of faith established by prophets and saints throughout the ages, and the intimate mysteries of our mortal life, how-ever undramatic, meagre, and misshapen we may think our-selves to be. When we travel too fast, or live at a shallow depth, or regard the symbols and myths of religion as object-tively sufficient or merely as reminders of ancient events, then our believing, having no real roots, will surely wither with the rising sun.
Having touched on three aspects of our life which drive us toward a condition of deadly unresponsiveness, I should like to turn the matter around and ask in positive terms how we can recover the savor of the salt, the taste of life, the intrinsic verve of believing.
Obviously, “faithful” living is not hasty living; frenzy such as we know in our contemporary habits of headlong com-pulsiveness is akin to insanity. Nor is it unreflective living; the righteous man of the first psalm meditates day and night, and then sends his roots down like a tree beside the rivers of water. Neither is it nonliturgical, in the sense that it can afford to dispense with the archetypal designs of human mystery; or unredemptive, in that the living offering of the self can be withheld. In all of these areas, believing requires poise and sanity, unhurried attention to the meaning of one`s existence in the light of great metaphors of the past, and finally the painful ecstacy of fitting the ancient form and the inner content of life together until they reflect each other`s reality and truth.
How does one achieve faithful living, this vitality of believing? There must be some affirmative guides to set up against the forces of dissolution which we have noted. If there is a level of sanity, a gospel of glad news, a path of salvation, one ought to be able to point out some of its salient features.
The first guide comes straight out of the gospel. The abun-dant life-that is, the life lived to the full, realized in all dimensions-is to be reached through the narrow gate. In-significant events may have infinite meaning, inexhaustible possibilities. In contradiction to modern opinion, the fullness of life is not achieved by the quantitative accumulation of experiences. This is the tragic fallacy of romanticism at its worst, and it infects the restlessness of modern man. We may be smothered by too many experiences, lost in them, swept away by too much happening. One of the silliest passages in contemporary literature us Thomas Wolfe`s lyrical desire “to ride in all the trains, read all the books, and sleep in all the beds.” Under such pressures we do not exhaust events; they exhaust us.
Our need is to pay attention to fewer things, to penetrate their mystery, to enter deeply into their reality. Vitality is in depth, not in quantity. We nee to regain modesty ap-propriate to the human being, to be poor and meek, and then by ways already known to saints and poets, to plunge into the fullness through the narrow gate.
If we follow this basic method of believing-that is, con-fidence in the eternal ground of common things-we shall come to the second source of excitement and vitality, namely the essential mystery of things, even the smallest and most commonplace. What covers up this mystery are the stereo-types of faith, the clichés of ecclesiastical tradition, the rou-tine of habit and custom, everything which makes it possible for the eye to see and yet remain blind and for the brain to be busy without thinking. Down under the surface, beneath what we have always seen and always expect to see, there are meanings and realities waiting to be born, to be revealed in the larger dimensions of a fresh vision and in terms of un-expected implications. We need to cast awayour precious securities, our carefully learned reactions, our much repeated certainties, in order to see what is happening for the first time, at a new level, with all the fresh vigor of creation`s first morning. To say that there is nothing new under the sun is just as true and just as false as saying that there is nothing old. God`s eternal activity renews the world wherever the mind of man pushes beyond the safe limits of what it has already known and has to that degree exhausted, in the inter-est of a deeper depth, a more startling reality. God stands forever at the breakthrough between what is dead and what is being resurrected from death, between the comfortable but life-exhausted hells and the uncomfortable but life-giving power. All of us need to stop playing Bach and Beethoven now and then in order to listen to Bartok or anyone else we may not understand. Creation is still a reality, but only where we are able and willing to stand face-to-face with its disturb-ing mystery. It is mystery which constitutes the climate for believing; without it faith is a bore.
The third way to retain the salty flavour of faith and the verve of life itself is to invite the primordial metaphors of religion to awaken in us the largest possible magnitude of self-consciousness. From the abysses of our buried and dor-mant depths, and from the distant hinterlands of hidden in-timation, the vast and often monstrous myths may elicit complexities of truth and of reality we are hard put to ac-knowledge as belonging to us. Yet these are our very own, whether they seem hidden or distant; they are the ground from whence the streams of vital excitement flow.
There is an extraordinarily moving passage in one of Lionel Trilling`s essays in which he tells of the books that had moved into his consciousness, in a strange fashion on reversal, with such dynamic force in irrefutable demands that he could only say they forced questions on him, forced him to ask questions of himself-very personal questions as to whether he was damned or saved, satisfied or desperate, reconciled or alienated. Even so, one ought to be able to open oneself to the magnitude of mysterious truth articulated in the myths and symbols of religion, and thus to awaken the self at levels hard to reach-in a sense to tap the obdurate rock of our humanity and release live-giving waters.
Many a man may be burnt-out spiritually, his believing caught in a deadly stupor, without knowing that he may be renewed or, in New Testament terms, redeemed. It may re-quire new habits, a new discipline, a new direction, but the marvel of this humanity is its openness, its ability to be reborn, and well-nigh inexhaustible possibilities of grace.
Three things may avert the dry rot of faith: first, to recover the great simplicities, the appropriate dimension of the rela-tions which connect the self to the world; second, to pene-trate the stereotypes of tradition and of our own experience in order to see deeper and feel more of the ground of mystery in which all things subsist; and last, to put our particular humanity, the specific character of our experience with all its peculiarity, up against the monumental shapes of man`s eternal dreaming until, by a kind of induction, we are awakened at every level of our being, resurrected to be a new creature, born of the eternal.