John Henry Newman: Atheism or The Fall – the choice that lies before us

I have often considered the nature of belief, particularly with respect to my own reasons for believing. My usual conclusion is approximately this – that it is utterly basic to our experience that there is a ‘bigger picture’ of some sort, and that it is very difficult to go through life and not be struck by a sense of wonder at our being here (or of anything being here) at all, and this inevitably leads to pondering the ‘why’ of our existence; but also, that much of life is characterised by trial, tragedy, suffering and a feeling of sheer futility. Thus, one is faced with the choice of either a.) A good God does not exist, or b.) God exists and is indeed good, but something has gone wrong with the world, and we thus see His purposes through a glass darkly.

Whilst it is sometimes tempting to go for the first option and deny the existence of a good God during periods of intense suffering or frustration, in doing so one ends up throwing the baby out with the bath water, so to speak. If you deny meaning and purpose to the world because bad things happen, you deny meaning and purpose to the good things as well – beauty, love, acts of kindness, sacrifice and bravery. Furthermore, as I have written before, with reference to the writings of C. S. Lewis on this topic, if, out of a sense of injustice, one denies God, one ends up denying the source of all objective justice and goodness as well – the shouting at the heavens and complaining to God is a sort of validation that there is something to shout and complain about.

Blessed John Henry Newman, in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, artfully expresses this choice we face by relating his own experience in reflecting upon the nature of the world. He also concludes that at the end the choice comes down to the two options I outlined above:

Starting then with the being of a God, (which, as I have said, is as certain to me as the certainty of my own existence, though when I try to put the grounds of that certainty into logical shape I find a difficulty in doing so in mood and figure to my satisfaction,) I look out of myself into the world of men, and there I see a sight which fills me with unspeakable distress. The world seems simply to give the lie to that great truth, of which my whole being is so full; and the effect upon me is, in consequence, as a matter of necessity, as confusing as if it denied that I am in existence myself. If I looked into a mirror, and did not see my face, I should have the sort of feeling which actually comes upon me, when I look into this living busy world, and see no reflexion of its Creator. This is, to me, one of those great difficulties of this absolute primary truth, to which I referred just now. Were it not for this voice, speaking so clearly in my conscience and my heart, I should be an atheist, or a pantheist, or a polytheist when I looked into the world. I am speaking for myself only; and I am far from denying the real force of the arguments in proof of a God, drawn from the general facts of human society and the course of history, but these do not warm me or enlighten me; they do not take away the winter of my desolation, or make the buds unfold and the leaves grow within me, and my moral being rejoice. The sight of the world is nothing else than the prophet’s scroll, full of “lamentations, and mourning, and woe.”

To consider the world in its length and breadth, its various history, the many races of man, their starts, their fortunes, their mutual alienation, their conflicts; and then their ways, habits, governments, forms of worship; their enterprises, their aimless courses, their random achievements and acquirements, the impotent conclusion of long-standing facts, the tokens so faint and broken of a superintending design, the blind evolution of what turn out to be great powers or truths, the progress of things, as if from unreasoning elements, not towards final causes, the greatness and littleness of man, his far-reaching aims, his short duration, the curtain hung over his futurity, the disappointments of life, the defeat of good, the success of evil, physical pain, mental anguish, the prevalence and intensity of sin, the pervading idolatries, the corruptions, the dreary hopeless irreligion, that condition of the whole race, so fearfully yet exactly described in the Apostle’s words, “having no hope and without God in the world,”—all this is a vision to dizzy and appal; and inflicts upon the mind the sense of a profound mystery, which is absolutely beyond human solution.

What shall be said to this heart-piercing, reason-bewildering fact? I can only answer, that either there is no Creator, or this living society of men is in a true sense discarded from His presence. Did I see a boy of good make and mind, with the tokens on him of a refined nature, cast upon the world without provision, unable to say whence he came, his birthplace or his family connexions, I should conclude that there was some mystery connected with his history, and that he was one, of whom, from one cause or other, his parents were ashamed. Thus only should I be able to account for the contrast between the promise and the condition of his being. And so I argue about the world;—if there be a God, since there is a God, the human race is implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity. It is out of joint with the purposes of its Creator. This is a fact, a fact as true as the fact of its existence; and thus the doctrine of what is theologically called original sin becomes to me almost as certain as that the world exists, and as the existence of God.

from Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1994), pp.216-218, Penguin Classics.

            Whilst Newman’s passage is a little pessimistic – his account of the world seems to me a little one-dimensional in that it ignores the many good and beautiful things about this life – he certainly captures the way we can see it in our darker moments. Also, by paying more attention to the futilities and evils of existence, and layering them on so thickly, he makes the choice we face even starker – when the world seems like a terrible place (and sometimes it does), what sort of universe will you remain committed to believing in? The choice must be made – a world created by a good God, spoiled by Original Sin, or no God at all.

This is the choice of faith: whilst we come to believe based on reason, experience, information and advice received from authoritative sources, reflections on our consciences, and many other things that, taken together, make a persuasive case for the world seen as through the eyes of the Holy Catholic Church, when the chips are down, what sort of a universe will we commit ourselves to seeing as the most reasonable? It is not a case of one hundred percent certainty here – one cannot prove the case conclusively. It is rather that we must weigh up the alternatives and decide which has the most explanatory power – which makes most sense of the world, which gives the best account of the greater part of my experience? Newman saw this, and saw that we have to make a choice – this choice, once made, we must also hold onto, through faith, during times of trial. The choice Newman himself made seems to me to be by far the most consistent, the most reasonable, and the most beautiful. My only hope is that I remain faithful to my choice during any times of trial that come my way, as he did in his.

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