Today is Christmas, the second most important day in the Christian calendar. [The first is Easter, contrary to the faux religiosity of Jon Kyl and his ilk, who haven't a clue about real religion. Christmas, of course, is just an old pagan Winter Solstice festival taken over by the early Christian missionaries to northern Europe.] On this blog, I rather belligerently announce myself as an atheist, but one cannot be a lifelong student of the history of Western Philosophy without having spent a good deal of time with texts that treat religious faith seriously. Since nothing of note is happening in the world today [save the threatened collapse of the roof of Terminal One at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, and the evacuation of hundreds of stranded travelers sleeping in the terminal on cots], I thought I might spend a little time describing what I understand genuine religious faith to be. Those of you who cannot stand God talk even from an atheist can return to opening presents, watching football, and overeating.
What is it "to believe in God?" Well, from a Christian perspective, the one thing that it definitely does not mean is believing that God exists. One can ask whether unicorns exist, whether the Abominable Snowman exists, whether King Arthur ever existed, even whether Sarah Palin's brain exists, but belief in God is not belief in the existence of some very odd sort of thing. To understand what the phrase "belief in God means," we must invoke a different sense of "belief in," namely the sense of trusting in God, relying on God, or believing that God will keep His word. At the simplest and most literal level, the Old Testament is the story of a compact made between God and His chosen people -- a "testament." God will make them multiply and be fruitful if they keep His laws. The message of the New Testament is that sinful man, who has proven incapable of keeping God's laws, may nevertheless be saved if he will but believe in the free gift of God's salvation. To believe in God is thus to trust in Him to keep His promise of eternal life.
This belief is called faith, and it, like the ability to keep God's laws, is impossible for man unaided by God. To trust in God's promise, to have faith in the face of all the contrary evidence, is possible for man only with the God-given ability, a gift called grace.
That is the Christian story [and I confess that no other religious story holds any interest for me], but what is it like to have faith? This is not so easy to describe or explain, and to make an attempt at it, I must, rather unexpectedly, speak for a bit about the experience of reading a novel.
A novel is nothing more than a collection of words by which the author, the novelist, calls into being a world - a fictional world. The ontological structure of the world of a novel is fundamentally unlike the ontological structure of the real world. The real world is, as the physicists say, anisotropic. That is to say, each place in the world [and each time] is like each other place [and time.] There are no privileged places, hence no standpoints [in the literal as well as the figurative sense] from which one can gain access to a privileged point of view.
But the fictional world of a novel is isotropic. The world exists from a point of view, that of the narrator. Hence there are privileged places and privileged times. A novel has a beginning, a middle, and an end, but the human world simply fills time and space. A novel can end with the words "and they lived happily ever after," and by the writing of those words, the novelist makes it so, but nothing resembling that occurs in the real world.
A novel has in it only the people and things that the words of the novelist call into fictional existence. In THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER, a town is conjured in which there are very few adult men. But it would be a logical error to say "Mark Twain chose only to write about a few of the men in the town," as though the men exist independently of his words, and simply failed to get honorable mention. In the novels of Edith Wharton , thresholds have a special meaning or valence -- objectively so. This is not merely a statement about Wharton, but also about the worlds she creates through the words of her novels. ETHAN FROME is narrated by a nameless engineer who has come to a northern Berkshire town one winter on a job. His tragic story of Ethan and Matty begins as his foot begins to cross the threshold of the Frome household, and ends as his foot comes down inside the door. The examples are endless. The ontological structure and the moral valence of fictional worlds are perspectival -- they exist from the point of view of the narrator.
Now, as best as I can understand religious faith, being myself devoid -- or should I say bereft -- of it, to have faith -- thus to believe in God -- is to experience the real world in which we live as existing from the perspective of a divine Creator, in whose story we live out our lives. Every part of that world, not just churches or creches or Sunday services or monasteries or convents, exists from that divine perspective. This is, I take it, what it means to say that the world is infused with a Divine presence. In the world as thus experienced, there will be privileged times -- Easter, Christmas -- and privileged places -- Bethlehem, Jerusalem -- toward which I will be oriented. [this, I take it, is the central meaning of John Donne's great poem, "Easter Sunday 1613 Riding Westward."
I do not experience the world in this manner, and so I do not have faith, I do not "believe in God." Thus, I am an atheist. But I think I can at least imagine in some measure what it would be like to have faith, to believe in God, to experience the world as existing from a divine perspective.