Joy seems a long way away this week as I prepare myself for, amongst other things, the funeral of my dear friend of 35 years, Jon Driver. Midwinter seems particularly bleak this year. So it was a welcome distraction at the Grassmarket Community Project staff christmas meal to find myself seated between two people who shared my interest in the work of Hegel and of Kierkegaard. As anyone who has been in my company when either of these names has arisen I’m liable to get more than usually animated when this happens.
This made it seem to me that one possible approach to relieving the gloom for me was to “give a testimony”, something I have never consciously attempted before. This kind of personal statement regarding one’s experience of God or of the impact of faith on one’s life isn’t really part of the church tradition in which I have been nurtured, although it has, in a way, been an aspect of the testing of my call and my formation for ministry within the United Reformed Church. This testimony, in affirming the link between faith and joy is about faith in joy rather than joy in faith. Sometimes one’s faith can’t be joyful (I’ve blogged about lament ) but it always points towards joy and away from despair.
The first thing to say about my faith journey is that I had no childhood experience of the Church or of religious belief (unless one chooses to regard Marxism as a religion, which is by no means a ludicrous decision). My father was peripherally involved in the increasingly lunatic Workers Revolutionary Party through the 1960s and 70s and I was myself briefly a member of what by then was a fully-fledged cult in 1979 before realising the full extent of the madness that had possessed it. I was then involved in the much less crazy Socialist Workers Party until 1985 by which time I was thoroughly convinced of the futility, emptiness and moral bankruptcy of organised far-left politics. (I could write about this but it’s pretty well worked ground and I no longer feel strongly enough about it to need to add my version of an old story.)
By then I had completed a first degree in philosophy and embarked on a master’s degree in social and political thought. As I moved away from political Marxism I retained the strong sense it had given me of the enormous gulf between the world as it “should” be and the actual world we inhabit. This found expression in a “Critical Marxism” derived from the thought of Theodor W. Adorno which combined a total rejection of the current social and political order with a despair about the possibilities of practical politics into an all-encompassing “Negative Dialectics”. I embarked on doctoral research under the supervision of the brilliant and charismatic Gillian Rose.
The intended subject of my thesis was the exploration of some suggestive remarks in Adorno’s Minima Moralia about the prefiguration of a redeemed world in erotic love. The idea was to argue that this provided one route out of the impasse of a Marxism that has lost faith in the revolutionary proletariat.
As I began this task Gillian was beginning to explore the religious aspects of her Jewish heritage and also to begin really serious study of Kierkegaard. I, on the other hand, began by looking at Rousseau, who would, I hoped enable me to get a handle on what I meant by the term “politics” while also reading Nietzsche, who was the most important direct influence on Adorno that I was totally unfamiliar with. These two would, with help from Kierkegaard, prepare me for the encounter with Christ that would transform my life completely.
I found Rousseau’s profound exploration of love and gender in relation to ethics and politics so absorbing that my PhD thesis was eventually based on a study of his blockbusting eighteenth century bestseller of a novel La Nouvelle Heloise (I would recommend everyone to read it if it wasn’t so very long and boring).
Thus for the next 5 years crazy Jean-Jacques was my constant companion and I got to know him so well that after the first few lines of any new text of his I began I could be pretty certain of where it was going to go (although he was, of course, so clever, imaginative and thorough that he never stopped surprising and disconcerting me). What became increasingly clear was that Rousseau’s thought made no sense whatsoever without its sincere, if unorthodox, religious faith and that the contemporary commentators who tried to make it do so were doing something very strange.
At the same time Nietzsche was convincing me that humanistic ethics, ethics without and after the death of God, were simply a step on the way to the nihilism he feared was the inevitable destination of the social and intellectual processes he observed in the late nineteenth century (whether I was right to be so convinced is another question I have no space for here). The prospect of a life without ethics, of the Nietzschean step into the abyss where one becomes responsible only to oneself was a terrifying one and I was plunged into despair.
Into this darkness came light in the shape of Kierkegaard. Anticipating Nietzsche he had already discerned the groundlessness of ethics, or rather its grounding only in a free and undetermined choice. His response to this, though, was to turn back to Christianity and to faith. He recognised the reality and legitimacy of the despair I was feeling but pointed towards a life beyond despair, a life in which the world as we have it became suffused with value not because of anything inherent in it, or in human beings, but because of its relationship with the God revealed in Christ, a God who participates fully in the world through the paradox of incarnation.
This process of working through politics and ethics to the very bottom and finding God there was only the beginning of a journey of faith. I was finally baptised in 1998 five years after the I completed my doctoral research. And of course there is a personal biographical element to this journey that doesn’t quite fit here. The story of a marriage, of a family, of a career, all of which played its part.
The point of this testimony, though, insofar as I know and can control what it is, is to say that the “arational” (rather than “irrational” a distinction I might wish to develop further some time) can, and in my case did, come about through the rational and careful exploration of the possibilities of atheism. We people of faith need not and should not be afraid of science, of rationality, of atheism, because these can be and should be means of preparation for the adventure of faith.