Friday, June 4, 2010

Approaching Belief Naturally (Part III)

Alfred Lord Tennyson was the son of an Anglican clergyman; he grew up with a sturdy faith in God. But his earlier idealism crumbled under the weight of life’s disappointments and disillusionment. The untimely death of his close friend (and his sister’s fiance) Aurthur Hallam (which gave rise to what was perhaps his greatest poem, In Memoriam A.H.H.); the staggering quantities of human and animal suffering; his observations of corruption in the church; these and other experiences tested his faith. Some would argue they destroyed his faith.

But no one will argue that Tennyson lived much of his life in the twilight regions where faith and doubt intersect. Much of his philosophical poetry found its source in these shadowy lands.

One such poem, my personal favorite, is The Ancient Sage. Penned in 1885, toward the end of Tennyson’s life, the poem decries certitude, and extols the virtues of healthy doubt. But the real theme is hope. Hope that does not demand certainty at the outset. Yet, hope that, in the words of the Apostle, does not disappoint. Hope that sets its bearer upon a search that will, in Tennyson’s view, prove fruitful.

The Ancient Sage speaks a profound message to me, particularly in light of my two previous posts on Natural Theology. I posted this poem in its entirety last year; today I reproduce only the final stanza:

Thou canst not prove the Nameless, O my son,

Nor canst thou prove the world thou movest in,

Thou canst not prove that thou art body alone,

Nor canst thou prove that thou art spirit alone,

Nor canst thou prove that thou art both in one:

Thou canst not prove thou art immortal, no

Nor yet that thou art mortal—nay my son,

Thou canst not prove that I, who speak with thee,

Am not thyself in converse with thyself,

For nothing worthy proving can be proven,

Nor yet disproven: wherefore thou be wise,

Cleave ever to the sunnier side of doubt,

And cling to Faith beyond the forms of Faith

She reels not in the storm of warring words,

She brightens at the clash of ‘Yes’ and ‘No’,

She sees the Best that glimmers thro’ the Worst,

She feels the Sun is hid but for a night,

She spies the summer thro’ the winter bud,

She tastes the fruit before the blossom falls,

She hears the lark within the songless egg,

She finds the fountain where they wail’d ‘Mirage’!

The seeds of faith can prosper in the ground of doubt. Their germination requires no certainty of persuasion. I accept a starting place for faith which demands no proof. Cleaving ever to that “sunnier side of doubt”, clinging to a faith “beyond the forms of faith”, I choose to seek rewards the skeptic has already ruled out. I choose to hope that what looks like an oasis actually is. I choose to savor the promise of fruit, to listen for the lark not yet hatched.

Wail “Mirage!”, if you will, and linger in the waterless waste. I’m off to find the fountain!


Steve said...

Brilliant. Thanks, Cliff.

Cliff Martin said...

Thanks, Steve.

I'm coming to Atlanta next month. I'll let you know more as plans finalize. Hopefully we get together!

Steve said...

Please do let me know!

Tom said...

She brightens at the clash of ‘Yes’ and ‘No’

I have always loved the gray, but this phrase seems quite a bit more poetic of saying that, if I have interpreted it correctly.

BTW, I am just now getting around to reading Dennett's "Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon". While I find his philosophical voice a bit condescending to believers (who he says he is trying to address) and like other books of his, his general style is a bit prolonged, he is organized and clear in his presentation. I applaud his efforts at actually trying to evaluate or describe cultural memes that Dawkins proposed and then largely ignored scientifically. I'm only half way through the book, but I'm gathering that Dennett is proposing how various cultural memes operate and how religion has hijacked those mechanisms. (Despite the title and his ardent atheism, he is baby-stepping toward his conclusions so I cannot determine his final stance).

I use the word "hijacked" here (my term, not his), because in a sense, we atheists see religion as harnessing aspects of human psychology/behavior for its own purposes. And to be clear, Dennett's subtitle is "Religion as a Natural Phenomenon" and not "Theology as a Natural Phenomenon". Nevertheless, I thought it might be interesting to hear your perspectives as you explore Natural Theology. By describing our evolutionary history biologically, and the history of culture and belief, Dennett provides a rational argument for information transmission and practice. In this case, I would suspect that a believer could replace the "hijacked" word with "harnessed". This is, after all, the word used by Progressive Revelationists (if I'm getting that term correct) who say that God used the existing ancient near eastern (ANE) beliefs as his conduit.

In summary, read Dennett's book, and while you do, ask how God used/uses the components of biological evolution and culture to transmit his message and relate to us.

Cliff Martin said...


Yes, I think you are reading Tennyson correctly, though I suspect we would need a 19th century British dictionary def. of “brighten” to confirm it. Linguists? Steve Douglas?

Clearly religion is a natural phenomenon, and its net effect on mankind is a mixed bag at best. But from my perspective, a line of demarcation must be drawn between “religion” and “Truth”. Of course, Dennet will draw no such distinction because he sees no Truth in the realm of theology. Because I do, I anticipate having no problem with many of Dennet’s conclusions. But I would likely find some of those conclusions overreaching.

I will try to pick up and read the book. Will you, in turn, read David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions which I reviewed here? Hart addresses this very issue, masterfully I think, far better than I could.

Far from a fundamentalist, I’m not even sure Hart would identify himself as a believer. But he is a scholar who has identified the underlying cultural conditions which make writers like Dennet so popular today, and exposes the vacuity of many of their arguments. I’d be interested in your response.

For me, the jury is still out on memes. I’m not sure they offer anything new to the conventional study of developmental cultural sociology.

Steve said...

I am not aware of any other derivation for "brighten" that would give it a meaning besides "brighten" beyond "make/become more bright".

Thomas said...

You make me want to read Tennyson. Being in a place of doubt is very frightening at first, but either I am getting used to it or God is giving me peace.

Moses said...

"The seeds of faith can prosper in the ground of doubt". Love this post and the Tennyson poem.

Rich G. said...

This reminded me of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's writings.