Two books take up this writer’s down time these days. One is a compendium of spiritual writings by the Catholic convert and mystic Adrienne von Speyr (1902-1967), compiled by her confessor and fellow Swiss, then renowned theologian and cardinal-elect Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988). The book was first published in German in 1951, titled Die Welt des Gebetes or The World of Prayer in its 1985 English edition from Ignatius Press, available at the Claret School religious bookstore in U.P. Village, Diliman.
The other book cannot be more different: British historian of ideas and journalist Peter Watson’s 13th and latest work, The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God. It was sent to this writer’s Kindle reader on his phone-tablet device yesterday. “Synthesizing nearly a century and a half of recent history, The Age of Atheists is a stunning, magisterial celebration of life without recourse to the supernatural,” writes one reviewer provided a pre-publication copy.
Needless to say, these writings expound upon extremes of the human experience of God, from total immersion in Him through the heights and depths of prayer and mysticism, to the His utter absence, at least in the minds of great secular thinkers, writers, artists, and other worthies chronicled by Watson’s historical opus. And reading the ponderous pair cannot but pose the question: To believe or not to believe.
To be sure, no one should answer that question purely on the basis of two books, or even an entire library. Faith is a decision of the entire human person, taking in not just what one reads or hears from others, but the entirety of one’s life and consciousness: mind, heart, body and soul. Still, insights and information from great thinkers should no doubt be given serious thought, especially if they help elucidate one’s experience of life.
Predictably, the Speyr and Watson books proceed from diametrically opposed ways of knowing. Speyr’s musings issue from the contemplation of spiritual realities and religious scripture and doctrine, with little resort to empirical and historical data. Watson, on the other hand, as a rationalist historian and journalist, searches for truth and insight from the tangible evidence of scientific and historical research.
However, though coming from opposite ends of the spectrum of human perception and thinking, both the Swiss mystic and the British writer seem to agree on one thing: that the human person feels a need for transcendence reaching beyond his or her present life and being.
For Speyr, of course, that is nothing less than the yearning for God which, according to many Christian theologians, is the immanence of the Divine, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and the image of God in man seeking oneness with its heavenly Source.
As the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner explained, there is a desire in every human being for perfection—the whole truth, the fullness of justice, total love and union—and that is the divine spark in man seeking the God that it mirrors.
All that may be hogwash for Watson, of course. Yet in the introduction to his new book, he cannot but acknowledge the views of several agnostic or atheist thinkers that man does feel a need for meaning beyond what one can see, measure and quantify.
Watson cited the writings of New York University philosopher Thomas Nagel, the German thinker Jürgen Habermas, and Nagel’s compatriot Ronald Dworkin, whose Religion Without God was published just last year. The British historian relates:
“The significant factor, for now, is that these three philosophers—on either side of the Atlantic and each at the very peak of his profession—are all saying much the same thing, in in different ways. They share the view that, five hundred and more years after science began to chip away at many of the foundations of Christianity and the other major faiths, there is still an awkwardness, as Habermas puts it, or a blindness and “unsufficiency” (Nagel); a mystery, thrilling and numinous, as Dworkin characterized it, in regard to the relationship between religion and the secular world.”
Here’s the kicker:
“All three agree with [English philosopher] Bernard Williams that the ‘transcendent’ impulse must be resisted, but they acknowledge—ironically—that we cannot escape the search for transcendence and taht, as a result, many people feel “something” is missing. This is, in effect, they say, is the modern secular predicament.
“It is in many ways extraordinary that these three individuals—all hugely respected—should within a few months of each other, but independently, come to similar conclusions: that, depending on where you start counting—from the time of Galileo and Copernicus, four or five hundred years ago, or Nietzche, 130 years ago [when the German philosopher declared, ‘God is dead’], secularization is still not fitting the bill, is still seriously lacking in … something.”
For Christians through the ages, what’s missing is the profound relationship with God, indeed oneness with Him, for which man was created. And that yearning should not be resisted, as Williams counsels, but satisfied in communion with the Almighty. As the Fourth Century Church father Saint Augustine declared in his monumental Confessions, “Our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in Thee.”
Future columns will discuss the Speyr and Watson books. But for now, all we can say is amen.