What passes for theology nowadays has had gratifyingly little effect on the religious lives of people. Many dissenters, angry that it resists their efforts at redesign, portray the Bark of Peter as having sprung so many leaks that submersion is imminent. Yet one tempted, like Lord Jim, to jump ship and leave the pilgrims to their fate, would find the leaky old tub safely in port when he at last got there, pilgrims safe, his own perfidy plain. Indeed, he would find many new passengers had come aboard en route, faces not there at the time of his defection. One way or another the Church survives its unofficial reformers.
Not only survives but thrives. The stream of converts continues, and on all levels of society. Is there any campus in this country where students do not come to the door and knock, hungry for Christian life as it can only be lived with the fullness of the sacraments? Theologians may be confused about the sacraments but converts never are. Above all, what they want is the Eucharist, and there is only one place where it can surely be had.
Departures are not rare. Richard Gilman, Anthony Kenny, the former a convert, the latter a cradle Catholic, have written of what Kenny called the path from Rome. Kenny suggests that his faith wobbled over the Eucharist, but he gives no indication of what study or prayer he engaged in when doubts came. This most vivifying sign of Christ with us is, as it has always been, a difficult doctrine. With Gilman the difficulty was sex. The unfashionable demands of Christian morality also seem to lie behind a recent, somewhat excited screed from A.N. Wilson.
Wilson is, in my estimation, the best British novelist of his age. He is a consummate craftsman, creator of unforgettable characters and scenes, a writer whose graceful handling of themes that matter has rightly won him acclaim. His stories stick in the mind. And he is a biographer of power. His Belloc is magnificent, his Tolstoy impressive, his C.S. Lewis refreshing and balanced. The themes of his novels, the subjects of his biographies, would of themselves suggest his interest in the Christian faith. But he has explicitly and prosaically written of it too, from within and now, alas, from without. Only half-a-dozen years ago, in How Can We Know?, Wilson gave an account of his very ambiguous relation to Christianity. Was it true or not? Did he or did he not believe it? In the end he characterized his outlook as sentimental agnosticism. He wanted to believe. All in all, it is a tentative book, one that moves warily but with awe around its subject, appealing to the Gospels and the writings of the saints. Wilson is struck by all the marvelous things that arise from faith. “It would be bold to dismiss it as a delusion.”
A. N. Wilson has grown bold. For a series called Counter Blasts published by Random House in England, he has written a little book called Against Religion. I know it only in a longish excerpt published in the Observer Review a few weeks ago under the title, “Why I Have Given up Religion.” It is a shrill, vulgar piece in which Wilson seeks to stir up his fellow citizens against the menace of the believers in their midst. The reflective, modest tone of the earlier book is totally absent. Instead we have childish stuff like this: “We cannot stop the pope appearing on his balcony and telling us how to think and behave, any more than we can stop fatwas being issued from the ayatollah. But we can do more than turn a deaf ear to them when they do so. [This troubled syntax is wholly uncharacteristic of Wilson the artist.] We can cheer when their own people have the spirit to rebel against them, and we can boo whenever these religious bullies open their mouths. It is true that they are frightening, particularly when they issue threats of death. But it is a definition of cowardice that we should feel frightened of saying boo to a goose. The pope is a very powerful goose.”
It is difficult for one who has enjoyed Wilson’s creative work to believe this voice is his. Anyone who likens the pope to the ayatollah and hears death threats issuing from the papal balcony, does not invite serious discussion. Nonetheless, Wilson’s book, despite its puerility, is important, as are Gilman’s Faith, Sex and Mystery, and Anthony Kenny’s The Path From Rome—both written in styles commensurate with their contents. Such books are the counterparts of those which recount the mystery of conversion or reconversion. Pascal’s Memorial, the document in which he recorded the experience which made him a fervent believer, can baffle us if we expect it to set forth some argument or consideration that will make Christianity compelling to anyone who reads it. No more does Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua lay out a route which will take any reader into the Church.
Wilson is reminiscent of those figures one encounters in reading about Newman, men who became High Church, Anglo-Catholic, went over to Rome, and then came back only to drift on into unbelief. The British have a thing about Catholicism, responses ranging from Digby Dolben’s to Baron Corvo’s. Wilson himself went over to Rome from Anglicanism, and came back again. Now he is apparently washing his hands of every version of the Christian faith. I find it difficult to believe that his journey is over. One who feels a compulsion to make his departure public continues to kick against the goad.
The issue Wilson raises actually has little to do with religion. It is rather the besetting problem of a liberal democracy. Are there limits to tolerance? Wilson suggests that Christianity is losing, if it has not already lost, a claim on liberal tolerance. This is why he has to paint it as a menace, even a physical menace, since the loosest of libertarians will check your freedom at the point where you wish to harm others. Pornographers, libertines, militant homosexuals, cultural chaos, the pervasive materialism of contemporary British society—none of these strikes Wilson as sapping the bases of the liberal society he professes to champion. It seems not to occur to him that it is precisely claims to unmeasured freedom that are causing liberal society to become unglued. Ah no, the real threat is Pope John Paul II. Clearly, Wilson’s quarrel is not with the pope. The Holy Father preaches a truth which truly sets us free and must always appear hostile to the false freedom that enslaves us to our own wills.
Accounts of gaining or losing faith share a similar mysteriousness. The reasons given never suffice to explain the movement from point A to point B. The considerations, experiences, arguments, authorities, analogies, make sense, up to a point, but they never convince of themselves. At one extreme is Andre Frossard, who in God Exists tells us of a conversion without preamble. Nothing in his upbringing, background, or interests explained what happened to him when one day, for no conscious reason, he stepped into a Paris church. He emerged a believer. It was something that happened to him, seemingly without cooperation on his part. Other converts, like Thomas Merton, can trace the beginning of the process—reading Gilson’s The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy—but there was a difficult road to negotiate before the grace of faith was given.
Unless something is seen, belief has nothing to spring from, but what is believed is never just what anyone can see. One thinks of all those who heard Jesus and saw him perform wonders yet did not believe. But others did. Obviously what was seen did not compel belief. Does that mean that some are just lucky and others aren’t, that the gift is randomly given to some and withheld from others? But those who see and do not believe are blamed for it. Those who believe are congratulated and called blessed. Perhaps that is why accounts of conversion, while they don’t portray believing as something one simply accomplishes or brings about by one’s own efforts, are nonetheless stories of what someone did. So, too, the gift of faith is not just taken back, lost like our hearing or our hair. The books I have mentioned show us ways in which it can be lost.
I do not mean to condescend when I express my thanks to Wilson for his intemperate blast. It is difficult not to think that anyone who can see John Paul II as the Grand Inquisitor is restless in a way that may prove beneficial to him.
Furthermore, he has given us two warnings he may not have intended. First, that the faith must be cherished and made to grow lest it be lost. He puts us in mind of all those parables that tell us this. But Wilson’s anger with the Christian message gives another warning, too. Christ continues to be a sign of contradiction. To listen to Him is to stand under judgment. There are growing numbers who are infuriated at being told that the way of the world leads to perdition. The inner rot of contemporary society, if it is not traced to its true causes, must be blamed on something. The decadent Romans sought to blame the fall of the empire on Christianity. Killing Christians became a way of letting off steam. Acting up in St. Patrick’s may be only the beginning.
Meanwhile, I look forward to A.N. Wilson’s next novel.