There is a persistent tendency amongst many clergy today to place doubt on something of a pedestal – to speak of it as being almost essential to the life of faith, and to make agnosticism something of a virtue. This stems, I believe, from a misinterpretation of the highly sensible pastoral imperative to ‘meet people where they are’ as instead leaving people where they are – an often sincere desire to reach out to a generation that finds it hard to believe Christian doctrine tries so hard to appeal to and reach out to unbelief that it ends up adapting its own teaching in the process. It is good to recognise that many people doubt – including those who believe the doctrine – and to reassure them that this is a perfectly normal part of human nature; but to then confirm people in this state by not presenting them any alternative is to fail in pastoral responsibility.
Doubt is, as they say, a part of faith, in the sense that it is something natural to us all and thus part of the process of growing in discipleship. However, to truly grow in discipleship, it is necessary to recognise that we are called to move past this purely natural state of affairs and at least try to place our trust in God and His will for us. To enshrine doubt as a permanent aspect of Christian faith, as many clergy are unfortunately wont to do, is to deny that Christ has any power to raise us up to another level, beyond the purely natural, or that He can deliver us from our doubts, fears and anxieties. Nevertheless, I am confident that this common tendency to present doubt as a permanent and necessary aspect of Christian faith does at least have its origin in a genuine desire to reassure us that doubt is something present in us all and not an abnormality.
It is this latter way of looking at doubt that John Betjeman observes so well in many of his poems – a recognition of its commonality and persistence within the life of faith, but alongside an equally persistent striving to believe in the teeth of nagging uncertainty (c.f.; Mark 9:24). In a radio address given on Boxing Day 1958, Betjeman was asked to read some of his own poetry on air, and chose Before the Anaesthetic, or A Real Fright, a poem that he had written in Oxford’s Ackland Home prior to being operated on many years before. In the wait before he went through to receive the anaesthetic, he could hear the bells of Saint Giles church tolling in the distance and wrote that:
‘I am a practising Christian like a good many people are but of course, like all practising Christians, these moments of doubt in one’s faith keep coming along and to me it’s an eternal struggle whether there’s an afterlife. I would rather there were an afterlife and that I should go to Hell than there should be extinction. That’s how I feel about it. And I have an awful feeling too, and I expect a lot of people do who believe in an afterlife, that they will go to Hell…
…And while I was waiting that half hour, the bells of St. Giles’s church were practising and the overwhelming loneliness of it rather got me and I wrote it down afterwards, when I’d recovered from the operation, lying back comfortably and happily, knowing that I wasn’t going to die for a bit, in the Ackland Home.’
taken from Trains and Buttered Toast (2007), pp.339-340, John Murray.
The extent to which Betjeman was prone to dwell on his own death, and on a perceived likelihood of damnation, is not of course common to all. But, the doubts he entertains above are, I think, universal – that what we have believed may not be true, or that it may be but that we’ve taken it all for granted and never developed true faith at all, having instead built our houses on shifting sands (c.f.; Matthew 7:26-27). In the poem itself, Betjeman goes on to place his particular feelings of habitual guilt and fear of death in this larger, more universal context, presenting the feelings of doubt in the Faith and oneself with those small but persistent strivings after God that continue to give one hope.
And all the while the ‘mellow bells’ – the sound of which Betjeman so loved, and in which he found so much symbolic scope for uncovering emotional insight and portraying different psychological tempers – toll in the background, reminding the poet and the reader of the loneliness that springs from doubt, but also of the hope that will not let us go and which continues to bring us back to faith and away from fear. Amidst the familiar sound of tolling church bells, we are consoled in the knowledge that doubt is normal, and also that others have experienced the unhappy feelings it produces; but more importantly still, we are gently reminded by those very same bells that it is not the only option – there is a way out from our fears, and into Life:
Intolerably sad, profound
St. Giles’s bells are ringing round,
They bring the slanting summer rain
To tap the chestnut boughs again
Whose shadowy cave of rainy leaves
The gusty belfry-song receives.
Intolerably sad and true,
Victorian red and jewel blue,
The mellow bells are ringing round
And charge the evening light with sound,
And I look motionless from bed
On heavy trees and purple red
And hear the midland bricks and tiles
Throw back the bells of stone St. Giles,
Bells, ancient now as castle walls,
Now hard and new as pitchpine stalls,
Now full with help from ages past,
Now dull with death and hell at last.
Swing up! and give me hope of life,
Swing down! and plunge the surgeon’s knife.
I, breathing for a moment, see
Death wing himself away from me
And think, as on this bed I lie,
Is it extinction when I die?
I move my limbs and use my sight;
Not yet, thank God, not yet the Night.
Oh better far those echoing hells
Half-threaten’d in the pealing bells
Than that this “I” should cease to be –
Come quickly, Lord, come quick to me.
St. Giles’s bells are asking now
“And hast thou known the Lord, hast thou?”
St. Giles’s bells, they richly ring
“And was that Lord our Christ the King?”
St. Giles’s bells they hear me call
I never knew the Lord at all.
Oh not in me your Saviour dwells
You ancient, rich St. Giles’s bells.
Wide screens and decorated quires-
All these I loved, and on my knees
I thanked myself for knowing these
And watched the morning sunlight pass
Through richly stained Victorian glass
And in the colour-shafted air
I, kneeling, thought the Lord was there.
Now, lying in the gathering mist
I know that Lord did not exist;
Now, lest this “I” should cease to be,
Come, real Lord, come quick to me.
With every gust the chestnut sighs,
With every breath, a mortal dies;
The man who smiled alone, alone,
And went his journey on his own
With “Will you give my wife this letter,
In case, of course, I don’t get better?”
Waits for his coffin lid to close
On waxen head and yellow toes.
Almighty Saviour, had I Faith
There’d be no fight with kindly Death.
Intolerably long and deep
St. Giles’s bells swing on in sleep:
“But still you go from here alone”
Say all the bells about the Throne.