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Music of the Week — August 5, 2007

Sunday Night Journal — August 5, 2007

The Sixty-Forty Ratio

…just as the believer is choked by the salt water of doubt constantly washed into his mouth by the ocean of uncertainty, so the non-believer is troubled by doubts about his unbelief, about the real totality of the world which he has made up his mind to explain as a self-contained whole…. Both the believer and the unbeliever share, each in his own way, doubt and belief. [Doubt] saves both sides from being shut up in their own worlds…it prevents both from enjoying complete self-satisfaction…. It opens up the believer to the doubter and the doubter to the believer; for one it is his share in the fate of the unbeliever, for the other the form in which belief remains nevertheless a challenge to him….

Faith can only mature by suffering anew, at every stage in life, the oppression and the power of unbelief, by admitting its reality and then finally going right through it, so that it again finds the path opening ahead for a while.

The man who is now Pope Benedict wrote these words when he was a university professor. Upon reading them a few weeks ago, I immediately ordered a copy of the book in which they appear, Introduction to Christianity. Because the year 1967 is significant to me both personally and historically, it intrigues me that the book was substantially written in that year, based on lectures given at the University of Tubingen in the summer of that year.

It would be an exaggeration to say that I haven’t stopped thinking about this passage since I read it. But it would be no exaggeration at all to say that I’ve thought of it every day, and more than once. I don’t know how many Christians experience faith as Ratzinger describes it here, but he paints an accurate picture of own spiritual life, and also sheds light on why I sometimes, or often, feel closer to some people who don’t believe than to some who do. Many of my fellow Christians seem far more certain that the faith is indeed true than I do. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Catholic say this, but one often hears from Evangelicals the assertion that the believer knows that he is saved—“if you died tonight, would you be certain of going to heaven?” is a question often put to potential converts, meaning “Come join me in this certitude.” And it implies that he also knows that the basic teachings of Christianity are true.

Of course one wonders how much of this is bravado or even self-deception. In any case, I don’t understand it. Never mind the theological proposition about the assurance of salvation, which of course is in error from the Catholic point of view: I can’t understand the psychology of it, the level of confidence. On an average day the ratio of faith to doubt in my mind is probably somewhere around 60-40. On a bad day it might be 51-49 (and in the occasional dark moment 1-99).

But never let it be said that I am not entirely committed to the faith. Commitment and confidence are not the same thing; a soldier can be 100% committed to a mission in which he has very little confidence. The commitment might come from a sense of duty, of fidelity to an oath, or from a desperate conviction that no other course of action offers any hope at all. Both are operative in me.

I should be more confident. I would certainly like to be. I can offer an explanation for my high level of doubt: a congenital melancholy and pessimism, reinforced by one or two events in my life that put me in the habit early on of thinking that in the end one is most likely to be disappointed. It’s rare that I contemplate the possibility of heaven without a voice in my head saying it’s probably too good to be true, you know.

And yet I can say with as much certainty as one can ever have about one’s future behavior that I will never abandon the faith. That resolve only becomes more firmly fixed as the number of years I have already lived outstrips the number I can expect to have still before me. I used to think Pascal’s wager a rather shallow and perhaps cowardly thing, but no more. Now it seems a grave and worthy argument.

Of all religions and philosophies, Christianity provides the most thorough and complete explanation of the facts of the human condition, and is simultaneously the answer that most satisfies my sense of the fitness and order that ought to be. My pessimistic temperament says that it is probably not true. But my ability even to have such a concept as truth must arise from the existence of a real external world and my consciousness of a possible gap between what I believe about it and what is in fact the case. I’m certain that truth exists; why not Truth? And must not the explanation that best accounts for the facts be true, or at least more true than others? Christianity, then, the most wildly improbable of systems, remains, paradoxically, the most reasonable, and (therefore) the one that commands my assent.

This is all I can offer the unbeliever. I have no miracles or direct communication from God to which I can testify. I can think of a number of events in my life which seem providential, but it’s in the nature of these that their origin and meaning are ambiguous. This leaves me, as Ratzinger says, open to the unbeliever—not, any longer, to unbelief itself, in the sense of any real possibility of exchanging faith for denial—but to the unbeliever’s heart. And sometimes I see there a reciprocal openness, and hope. I was touched when a friend who does not believe asked for my prayers regarding a situation about which she was gravely anxious. I don’t think this was an attempt to cover all possibilities but rather an instinct of the heart, in conflict with the judgment of the head: a natural impulse to hope and to ask for help from something or someone who is capable of giving it. And although she didn’t believe she asked someone who did to serve as an intermediary to the not-impossible God. (Although she didn’t say so I expect she also made prayers of her own.)

I prayed as requested, of course. The outcome of the situation was as she hoped, and not as she feared. Whether my prayers had any influence on that outcome, neither she nor I will know in this life. We share the fate, to use Ratzinger’s phrase, of not knowing.



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