The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence
'One cannot believe impossible things', said Alice. 'I daresay you haven't had much practice,' said the Queen. 'When I was younger I did it for half an hour a day. Sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.'
From Alice in Wonderland, as I expect you know. A whimsical piece of writing which humorously describes a topsy-turvy world to hold up a mirror to the real world, reminding us that in real life we are often asked to believe what seem to be impossible things. Scientifically, we're asked to believe that this life-supporting world has come into being through a balance of gravitational forces and carbon constituents so fine-tuned that its probability of actually having happened randomly is indeed almost unbelievable. Or we're asked to believe that the extraordinary complexity of our thought processes, the whole range of subjective experience of our minds, has arisen just from chance physical interactions in the circuitry of the cerebral cortex of our brain. Or we're asked to believe that every human life has unique meaning and value even though each one of us is only the outcome of an accidental collision of atoms in a vast universe destined to extinction anyway.
These things are indeed hard to believe. Small wonder, then, that religious faith still thrives alongside these scientific accounts. Not to deny them, but to offer further, deeper, complementary explanations for these difficult mysteries of life; as a relief to our baffled minds…
Or is it? The trouble is that religious faith can present its own bafflements to our minds, its own apparently impossible things to believe. Yes, God can replace chance as the ultimate cause of all life, but then how can God exist without himself/herself being caused by something else—which would mean God is not an ultimate explanation after all? And anyway, how could a good God be the ultimate cause of everything when everything includes so much sadness and suffering?
Religious faith also asks us to do difficult things, not just believe them. Apparently impossible things! This, too, can baffle the mind. One of the most repeated commands in scripture, for example, is 'do not be afraid'. Over eighty times we're told: do not fear death, illness, failure, disaster; do not fear anything. But how can we stop being afraid in such a world as this? We might be able to live with our fears bravely, but that's not the same as having no fear. Or there is the equally difficult command to love all people unconditionally, even though we know we cannot. There is even a command to be perfect. There is also the command to believe and help create a perfect kingdom of God—perfect justice on earth as it is in heaven. There is precious little sign of that being a realistic hope to vast swathes of earth's inhabitants in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere. Before and or after breakfast, all these things are hard to accept. The world considered only in scientific terms may be baffling. But it sometimes seems that faith only makes it harder still for our minds to grasp…
So, what do we do with our bafflements? In this series of address I have been exploring what true wellbeing of the mind is: how in much current culture it has been reduced just to ease of mind, securing some spurious serenity or static certainty in our mind. And that, of course, would lead only to either a formless sort of spirituality which has no beliefs at all, or to a closed fundamentalism, neither of which really deals with these bafflements.
However, I have also been suggesting that there is this quite different wellbeing of mind to consider. There is the sort of mind found in the great biblical figures of faith, like Paul and Jesus himself, who were formed less in serenity and static certainties, and more by the journeying of their minds and spirits; key figures of faith whose integrity lay in having minds open, honest, humble enough to engage with the difference and difficulty they encountered, not retreat from it. And it's in that Spirit, surely, that we see the better response to our own bafflements, the apparent impossibilities of faith and belief we encounter. Instead of seeking to dissolve them, or escape from them, try staying with them in the journey of faith—see where they lead. Let these commands to believe or do or feel things which sometimes seem impossible, keep playing creatively on our mind. Not so much as normative claims, but as formative: that is to say, let them work in our minds and hearts not as arbitrary bludgeons to force us to think or feel things we just cannot, but as nourishment for our imagination to help us look beneath the surface, to help us see deeper truths to which they may still be pointing us; the truth that a good God may indeed be at work in everything, even in the bafflements of life we face, but perhaps in a wider frame of history and eternity than we had first thought. Let the very difficulty, sometimes, of seeing and believing this, be an invitation to our imagination to conceive different ways it might be true. As Plato did, when he conceived a perfect world in the making behind the appearances; as St Paul did, when he conceived the perfect purposes of God being unfolded through the interweaving of our unbelief as well as our faith, through our best efforts even when they fail to reach perfection.
Let me say again: this is not closing our minds; it is not pretending dishonestly to believe or feel what we cannot honestly believe or feel. It's the exact opposite. It's precisely a willingness to keep our minds honestly open which helps us stick with and explore these difficulties of faith rather than just dispense with them or deny them for the sake of an easy life.
And, if we can do this? Paradoxically, perhaps we shall after all find peace of mind. Not the peace of superficial serenity and total clarity—it's a peace which may still pass all understanding. But real peace nonetheless, because it has integrity. The integrity of a mind and heart which has been willing to journey…