Issue #242 / June 2023
I just listened to your interview with the Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury. I can’t work out whether you believe or not. Did you have a conversion?
JOSH, CHICAGO, USA
I feel like hell. Any words of help?
SHARON, MARSEILLE, FRANCE
Dear Josh and Sharon,
I have never experienced what one might call a ‘conversion’. At times I wish I had, as it may have made things a little easier. What I have experienced is a slow and gradual flowering of a religious impulse that has always been inside me, in my blood and bones. What this amounts to is a heightened receptiveness or susceptibility to the strangeness of things – the mysterious, the holy and the absurd – combined with an instinctive resistance toward what often feels like the ploddingly rational. I am quite happy to admit that this nostalgic and aesthetic attachment to something that may not exist might be a kind of sentimental softness of mind, or worse, ‘emotional’. But I must also acknowledge that this feeling has always been with me – God as a destination as strong and real as love – and it would seem perverse to deny it or not follow it where it wishes to take me.
This is not to say I am ever completely free of the grip of my unbelieving self, far from it, in fact as my belief grows stronger, so to do the stabilising demons of doubt. And I would say that it is this wild dance between belief and doubt that is the very essence of religiousness – and creativity too, for that matter. I have found, within its push and pull, an extraordinarily fertile and imaginative betweenness, where the interesting work gets done.
Still, Josh, I live for the moments my disbelief loosens its hold and allows me to experience that lovely lightness of spirit – that elevated oneness with things, that feels like God, that feels like love.
Maybe, in the end, my disbelief will win the battle for my soul. But I hope not. That would feel like a terrible diminishment, like relinquishing the most interesting part of oneself and so, like art, like love, I attend to that religious impulse in order to keep the spiritual flame alive and vital.
And, Sharon, I am sorry to hear you are struggling, perhaps these most beautiful words from Numbers will be of some comfort.
The Lord make his face to shine upon thee
And be gracious unto thee
The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee
And give thee peace.