Paul Johnson

Reason to believe

In a world beset by evil, we are universally compelled towards good – surely proof of the existence of God

Reason to believe
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My belief in God is not philosophical. It is not rooted in metaphysics or reason. It springs from the heart and the senses. It is practical. Every Sunday I attend the 11 o’clock Mass at the Jesuit church in Farm Street, Mayfair. I have been doing this, intermittently, for decades. For me, Farm Street is the centre of English Catholicism and brings back memories of my boyhood at Stonyhurst, the ancient Jesuit boarding school in Lancashire. The Mass is in Latin, and is sung to music written mainly in the baroque centuries. The sermons are brief and sinewy in the Jesuit manner. The congregation is a cross-section of Catholicism in England today, from old recusant families to Poles and Irish.

Among these people I feel at home, happy and safe. They share my view of life and what is likely to happen to us after death. After Mass we have coffee in the hall, and talk. They are not saints or martyrs. But they are good, charitable, above all thoughtful. We have a fellowship, we commune together. I imagine it was not so different, two millennia ago, among the early Christians in Rome. They recognised and greeted each other by making the sign of the cross. We still do so, and feel distinctive as a group. The first Christians were under constant threat, and faced the possibility of a horrific and public death. They drew strength from each other. We, unlike the embattled Christian communities in the Middle East and Africa, have no such fears. But we live in an alien world of pagans and materialists, who trumpet their ceaseless worship of hedonism in print and over the air, and whose deafening voices draw us together. We, too, reinforce each other’s faith. I feel nourished by spending an hour or so among my fellow Catholics, and a little more ready to move around the world of incomprehension and ridicule, even hostility, which surrounds us. Among the good people I meet in church, my faith flourishes, it raises its head proudly, I feel the sursum corda, the lifting of the heart which is the essence of the happiness Christianity brings.

So my first reason for faith is communal, and it is a very powerful reason. But even stronger is the assurance I get from prayer. I am not talking of public prayer, which is the essence and reinforcement of the communal spirit, but private prayer. This is an activity in which I engage every day, wherever I can. I try to follow the practice of the late Pope John Paul II, who when he was not actually obliged to do something else which occupied his mind, prayed. It is a habit I am acquiring, now I am well into my eighties and nearing the close of life. Prayer is the most remarkable — I am tempted to say sensational and spectacular — activity in which a human being can engage. For in prayer, however insignificant and lowly a creature we may be, we address privately but directly and intimately the most powerful creature in existence, the architect of the entire universe. Prayer, I believe — and this is what I practise — is a direct contact with God, which makes all the spine-tingling immensities of space completely irrelevant. We can talk to God, directly, secretly and whenever we wish, and on whatever topic which causes us concern. We can use whatever words or tone of voice we choose, but we do not need words at all, merely to articulate or just convey our thoughts. This ability to communicate with God is a reflection of the fact, and to me it is a fact, that in some indefinable but definite way we are created in his image, and thus can share our concerns with him. We know that he hears, registers and records, and that what we say in prayer has consequences, even though we do not, strictly speaking, conduct a dialogue with God, for we are more in the nature of petitioners than interlocutors. For God to speak to us is exceptional, though by no means unknown. There are many instances recorded by trustworthy persons, such as St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross.

All prayer is ultimately addressed to God but we pray to the saints and the departed faithful, and we pray for particular intentions and persons. At night, when I kneel by my bed, I pray for between 40 and 60 individuals, living and dead — family, friends, people I meet and feel sorry for or want to help, or who have asked for my prayers. Most of course get a mere mention, or I would never have done. A few get a separate, short prayer. This is a nightly ritual which I find satisfying, a relief and, in a curious way, enjoyable. It is part of the profound pleasure my religion affords. I also pray to named individuals, especially my patron saints, Paul and Bede, my father and mother and my elder sisters, all now (I trust) in heaven and listening. There are saints to pray to for particular purposes, like St Anthony of Padua, who finds things. And there are many departed souls, not necessarily Catholic or even Christian, whose sanctity I presume, and who can help. Thus, since I wrote a book on Socrates and came to admire him, he is a recipient of my prayers, and so are certain authors whom I have learned to love as my friends, especially Jane Austen and Dr -Johnson.

The habit of prayer accordingly puts one in touch with an array of individuals, living and dead, in an intimate and, I find, delightful way. It is particularly valuable as one grows older, and one’s circle of living friends contracts. By prayer, death is overcome and friends merely change their form and address, prayer becoming an indestructible link and even, in certain cases, a more intimate one than anything possible in life. This is an important point. Prayer is more powerful and versatile than speech. It is a form of contact more ubiquitous and subtle than anything imaginable on the internet or any conceivable miracle of electronics. It is unlimited by space or time or mood, disability or illness. One may be totally paralysed, with only the mind and its animating spirit still working, however feebly, but prayer is still possible, radiating to infinity.

You may say — but these are mere statements of your beliefs. You may be, indeed are, praying simply to yourself in a closed circuit of egoism. Everything you have written so far is assertion. Nothing is proved, or susceptible of proof. Let us have some reasoning! It is true I speak from the heart, and you may not accept Pascal’s view, la coeur a ses raisons, que le raison ne connaît pas, though it has always seemed to me a statement of the obvious, which everyone knows from experience. I admire but cannot identify with the great reasoners of history. As a young man I read much of St Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, but this impersonal work did not warm me to God; chilled me rather. I preferred, and still do, St Augustine’s Confessions, a marvellous outpouring of insight and imagination and intellectual adventure, presided over by the loving spirit of his mother, St Monica. With its great leaps into the unknown, and contortions and honestly admitted ignorance, it is an incandescent explosion of genius. I too am an ignorant person, and write books in despairing attempts to push forward the frontiers of my knowledge an inch or two. I distrust those who are sure — I have known some giants of certitude, rajahs of reason, leviathans of logic. Three in particular pop up to remind me of the fallibility of the human intellect — Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre and A.J. Ayer. Wonderful entertainment value, brilliant, sparkling, diamantine, but one would not turn to any of them, let alone all three together, for practical advice on a serious problem. And the existence of God is a serious problem, in the end the only one that matters.

What deters most sensitive and intelligent people from believing in God, or undermines the faith of those who once did, is their inability to vindicate the notion of divine providence in a world full of evil. An innocent child dying in agony is a potent argument for atheism. Life teems with triumphant monsters, unpunished crimes crying to heaven, cynical success stories. Leibnitz called this problem theodicy, and did not, in my opinion, solve it. I am not sure it is soluble by human agency. My own humble answer is that none of us, with our enormous, rapidly expanding but still minute knowledge measured against the mysteries of the universe, can have the temerity to question God’s wisdom. Divine providence is a colossal fact which is indefinable, immeasurable, and beyond our powers even to conceive in its potency. We cannot set our puny selves against it. We accept countless complexities of nature, and the increasing achievements of mechanistic science, having learned to trust human wisdom and its power constructs up to a point. Why, then, should we distrust divine wisdom, which is so infinitely more profound? I am content to go to my grave with many mysteries unsolved. Indeed I am not unhappy with mysteries, confident we now see through a glass darkly but ultimately will be face to face with the truth of all things. The most valuable of virtues, I increasingly feel, is patience.

The world we inhabit is an enormous and complex combination of good and evil, and all of us are under a moral compulsion to strive so that the balance rests, however precariously, on the side of good. All of us feel this compulsion: why? If there is no God, who or what is compelling us? An inherent instinct? Then who put it there? As Thomas Carlyle eloquently insisted, in his weird, thunderous rhetoric, we may dismiss the idea of a personal God — he did himself, after much internal torture — but that silent, invisible, indefinable force within us continues to push us to the side of good. What is it? We do not know. But we can all agree: thank God it is there. Without it, the world would be abandoned to indescribable iniquity. Who put it there? We do not know and, as Wittgenstein says in his Tractatus, ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’

Silence — that most precious commodity in our world of noisy doing and building, of raucous getting and spending. Most of my life I have begun the day, usually about 7a.m., with a visit to church, silent and empty at that time. Alas, shortage of priests now makes it difficult. Most churches are locked until 10 o’clock on a weekday, and that is too late for me. Still, occasionally I like to visit a church later in the day, if I can find one open. I almost invariably experience that huge silence, almost palpable, in such tremendous contrast to the hubbub outside. I only stay a minute or two. But it is nourishing and reassuring. I fill my lungs, and emerge restored. My faith is a very physical thing. But it is every-thing else, too.