A Literary Festival Fringe Event at the LSE Faith Centre
Faith Centre Coordinator Jacob Phillips reflects on the LSE Literary Fringe event – Foundations of Faith – held at the LSE Faith Centre.
A few weeks back, the LSE Faith Centre hosted a conversation between Graham Ward (Regius Professor of Divinity in the University of Oxford and author of Unbelievable: why we believe and why we don’t), and the critically acclaimed novelist Sarah Perry (author of After Me Comes the Flood). The discussion centred on the role of faith and belief in life and literature, chaired by the LSE chaplain and interfaith adviser James Walters. A breathtaking range of topics were covered, including how faith and knowledge can be unsettled and disrupted, how such experiences might serve to uncover hitherto unacknowledged dimensions of belief as fundamental to human experience, and – if belief is of such foundational importance – how it can take shape in unexpected forms beyond the explicitly ‘religious’. One striking example of this mentioned by Sarah Perry is Gerald Manley Hopkin’s ode to the beauty of the natural world in The Windhover. Perry spoke of reciting this masterpiece from memory at certain moments in life, leading her to reflect on language as a sacrament, to which she is ‘utterly, utterly enthralled in a way that’s slightly indecent’. The vision of faith and belief which began to emerge through the course of this discussion reminded me of another of Hopkins’ poems, his ode to human artifice in To What Serves Mortal Beauty?. This seems apt because Graham Ward described belief as an intrinsically human activity from earliest times, which suggests it is linked with what humans form in the pursuit of beauty. What sprang to mind here was Hopkins’ comment that human creative beauty ‘keeps men’s wits warm to things that are’, which seemed to resonate with the understanding of belief as grounding our apprehension of reality in this discussion. In this sense, we might understand faith and belief as – similarly – keeping our ‘wits warm to the things that are’.
In the first place, both Graham Ward and Sarah Perry offered stories from their own writings relating to different ways in which belief can be shaken or unsettled. Graham Ward spoke of a strange night at Peterhouse in Cambridge which begins his book Unbelievable, involving a close encounter with an as-yet unexplained entity, with all the hallmarks of the traditional ghost story. Ward related this encounter as ‘deeply challenging’, lead him to inquire into ways in which ‘believing is deeper’ than ‘mere conflicts of interpretation or rationality’. Sarah Perry spoke of the lead character in After Me Comes the Flood, Elijah, whose entire existence has been based on a straightforward religious belief which unravels, thus leaving him deeply disorientated. With Ward’s example, confidence in rational knowledge is unsettled leading him to inquire into belief, and with Perry’s example an uncritical or unexamined faith commitment is unsettled leading to a reassessment of that worldview. For Perry’s Elijah, there is a strong autobiographical element, as she spoke candidly of a fundamentalist Christian upbringing, in which people saw the King James Bible as a basic ‘Instruction Manual for the Human Being’. When such faith is disrupted, claimed Perry, the results are ‘terrifying’, for ‘when you have a faith paradigm you don’t have a back-up plan’.
So if faith can deaden and stultify (in the case of Perry’s Elijah), or enliven and vivify, as with Ward’s ghostly night at Peterhouse, in what sense can we think of the faith and belief as giving foundations for living? Interestingly, here Ward and Perry chimed with each other, both being concerned to describe how the unsettling of belief and/or knowledge leads into a deeper apprehension of reality, or what Hopkins calls: the ‘things that are’. For the former, Unbelievable draws on contemporary neuroscientific research, to offer a view of belief as undergirding human cognition in a way that far exceeds what has previously been thought. In this sense, belief is much more than subscribing to a religious worldview, or feeling confident that one can deny the existence of ghosts. It is closer to structuring the very possibility of subscribing to anything, or affirming or denying the existence of anything. Ward talked about his discussion of the origins of belief, which can be tracked back to Neanderthal activities many millennia before our own, to argue that there is no ‘either/or’ or ‘black and white’ when it comes to belief and unbelief, but that believing and unbelieving configure the possibility of existing humanly in and of itself. In this connection Ward stated that ‘we never see something, we see something as’, meaning there is no observer-neutral perspective devoid of believing, but always some layer of believing assent rooted in the knower. This led him to claim, ‘if we only ever see as, we never see, then we are always dealing with our beliefs, not something called knowledge’.
Sarah Perry spoke further on being moved from a straightforwardly prescriptive set of beliefs, to being unsettled into a more complex view of reality. It was therefore surprising to hear how she, like Graham Ward, saw faith and belief as still foundationally important, even if taking different forms to that experienced in her childhood. She spoke boldly on faith as a form of ‘insanity’, building on Walters’ observation that Elijah is assumed to be mad by other characters in her novel. However, she was clear that issues pertaining to faith and belief are deeply intertwined with her thinking to this day, in that she claimed that ‘I would dispense with what faith I have if I could, but I can’t’.
So both Perry and Ward saw that belief could function in a naïve foundational sense, or arise through liberation from such foundations, and they agreed that in both cases it serves as a foundation or structuring influence beyond what one might choose to subscribe to. So if belief can be wrongheaded and yet conditions the possibility of seeing ‘things that are’, how best should we understand it? The answer to this perhaps comes from applying Hopkins’ comment on mortal beauty, to faith and belief, as things which ‘keeps men’s wits warm’. That is, authentic faith and belief do not merely bring ‘knowledge’ in the sense of corresponding to reality, but open us to wonder, warming and vivifying experience so that naïvely conceived foundations are enthused and set free by wonder. In this connection we saw some of the most interesting comments of the evening, with Graham Ward expounding at length his amazement and wonder at the findings of neuroscience, which is surprising to those familiar with his work in recent years. He offers an view of contemporary science which no longer portrays a deadening, disenchanted world, but re-enchants our world through disclosing bizarre, surprising and counter-intuitive facets to the brain. Sarah Perry spoke about the writing fiction as ‘an act of worship’ and ‘devotion’, of ‘adoration, of wonder, of almost disbelief and of pain, very frequently, of frustration – but there are moments when you perceive something out of the corner of your eye’ and ‘suddenly it blooms vividly and really in front of you’. She went on to state that she finds writing ‘as extraordinary as any other faith experience’.
This event thus disclosed an understanding of faith and belief which showed that, although they might be misappropriated and stultify experience, they also fundamentally undergird our perception of reality – keeping our wits warm to the things that are – however that might take shape in surprising and unexpected forms at the current time.