'Paradiso' by Artist Giovanni di Paolo via Wikimedia Commons

A Language to Hope In

In his new book, "Beyond Consolation," John Waters examines how modern cultural attitudes toward life and death have reached a point of despair. In describing this trajectory, he criticizes the confusion in the use of language, reason, and freedom.
John Waters

Sometimes, as I have explained, I feel great sorrow at the prospect of the loss of the beauty of this world, however qualified this may have been or may yet become by virtue of the pain inflicted on me by reality and the absence of a consistent and central sense of meaning. I have in recent years felt such an acute increase in my sense of this pain of impending loss that I wonder if I will be able to bear it all if it increases to any significant extent. My intellectual and sometimes emotional acceptance of the reasonable probability that there is more to existence than what I encounter here can sometimes be eroded by a sudden incursion of despair, or a sense of pointlessness, or even occasionally a sense that, no matter what happens in the next life, it cannot be better than this one is, right here, right now. When I think about it in such moments, I too am unpersuaded by the versions of the afterlife on offer, not necessarily by their probability, possibility, or even plausibility, but by the detail of them, the sense of–to take the most crude and banal example–walking around on clouds for ever, being nice to everyone in a rather bland and, frankly, sickening way. I can imagine worse things, but still none of the standard tableaux seem to me to be worth the trouble of achieving them.

I wonder if, in heaven, I will be able to tell someone to fuck off if they are annoying me, or if I will be past annoyance and will be able to tolerate the kind of people I am now moved to cross the road from when I see them drawing near. Or, I think about Saint Peter manning the gate and imagine him like one of those guards you see at Dublin airport who stop people with black skin but give me a wink because they recognise me from the telly and nod me on without even glancing at my passport.

All this, of course, is nonsensical. I know that, whatever comes after, it will be nothing like what I know now, and nothing like the mind I have now is capable of contemplating, and nothing like any of the things the words I am capable of using are capable of evoking for myself or anyone else. I sense that my present thoughts are like the caterpillar in comparison to the butterfly. If there is a language in heaven, it will not square up to or bite into reality in the way our languages do in this dimension.

Words are all we have. But, trapped in my earthly logic, I have enough sense by now to sense that if I allow these undoubted facts to govern my relationship with my ultimate destiny and its meaning, I will come to conclusions that fall far short of what my humanity at play in reality tells me is possible without showing me how.

So, all these words are pointless? Perhaps, perhaps not. At the very least you have to admit that words are all we have. We cannot know God, if He exists, if He is the right word. Our attempts to invoke or describe this reality must necessarily be worse than pathetic, but we have nothing else to work with.

Words are pretty much all we have to think, to imagine with.
I do not think the words exist to say the things my mind is incapable of formulating about God and the meaning of human existence. I am caught with my desire on the one hand and on the other the sense that in order to create a harmonious connection between this desire and all earthly reality, I need to construct something that might be termed a set of beliefs. I cannot even think about my own total reality because most of the language I can locate to do it in has already been colonised and/or discredited.

I need a language to hope in. I need words to express my infinite longing that do not make me sound mad, superstitious, reactionary, or stupid. It’s not that I care what people think of me. I really don’t, or at least not as much as I did once. When I was younger (there I go again!) I used to care what my peers thought of me, mainly writers, artists, left-wingers–all people who had the best of reasons for taking up certain stances against the way things used to be. There was a time when for me the scorn of such people would have been among the worst things imaginable. But now I care less and less, because the questions concerning my place in reality and what my ultimate destination might be are much bigger than any consideration of fashionability or acceptability.

To the fullest extent. I ask these questions not because I have suddenly capitulated to conservatism in middle age (perhaps I have, but if so it is an unrelated phenomenon) or because I am terrified of the Last Judgment or preparing for the next life. No, I ask them because I have to, because the need to understand myself to the fullest extent that I can before it is too late exceeds any other consideration, even the friendship of those whose love I still crave. I wish it were otherwise, but that’s the way I find myself.
This is as frightening as anything about death. It seems I am destined to step out of the culture, or, even worse, to remain in it while seeing through its insubstantiality, but still unable to make out what lies beyond.

I don’t “believe.” I can’t. If believing is just gritting my teeth and adhering to some proffered concept of what is and might be, I cannot do it. If a “faith” is merely a collection of people, a club, in which everybody affirms everybody else, and together they affirm a set of dogmas that have been agreed long before by others, then count me out. Unless my “faith” accords with the knowledge derived through my own existence, it is not faith at all, but blind acceptance of an ideology. Faith is knowledge.

The paradox of this is that, somewhere along the way there must be a leap of something–I almost said “faith” but that would be a tautology, a short in the circuit of reason. But then I know, too, that I cannot reason my way to certainty, or heaven, or the certainty of heaven. I cannot reason myself into the arms of Christ. There will always be a gap between my train of thought and my sense of a destination. The question is: do I take this gap as absolute, in the sense that my capacity to think in a straight line of logic is unable to cross it, or do I simply come to rest alongside it and wait for something to happen? My life has been not a line but a circuitous journey, which brings me back to where I began. After all my voyaging, I lie down in the spot on which I was baptised, the spot on which I cried and kicked at the coldness of the water.

For all the difficulties and horrors associated with this, the fact is that Ireland has long been a Catholic society, which means that it depends for its very life on the tradition, however imperfect, that we know as Catholicism. The language we depend on to perceive ourselves in our totality is therefore a language forged in the culture of Catholicism. We, as Christians, are bequeathed a belief that the Mystery, in a disposition of mercy, became flesh and presented Himself as the answer to death and despair. It is all but impossible, in conventional discourse, to separate this from the debris of piety and power-play and see it for what it is: our most vital guiding idea, the source of the hope-beyond-hope that, as human beings, we most desperately crave and depend on.

Catholicism, then, comes after the fact of my religion. I am not religious because I am a Catholic, but Catholic because I am religious. My need for religion is like my need for air, and comes from approximately the same region of my body: my heart, nestling beside my lungs.

Part of infinite time. Religion has to do with my natural structure, my created-ness/creature-ness, my intrinsic desires, my dependence, my mortality, and my relationship with reality, pregnant with evidence of the Mystery that defines me. I call myself a Christian because for me this Mystery has at its centre the Presence of Christ, Lord of History. I am not an incidental phenomenon, randomly arrived and soon to depart, but an intrinsic part of infinity reality, my identity unbounded by the three-dimensional impediments or the laws and principles that govern this physical realm. That I am part of infinite time and space is a description of my very nature.
There is a hope inside me that is bigger than what the world thinks of as me, that overwhelms me with confidence and optimism and that rests its heavy expectation upon the light that it has placed just beyond my sight, beyond the horizon of human understanding. My desire tells me of the promise Christ made, a promise that something is always coming, something is always happening, something is always waiting for me just as I am always waiting for it. Nothing I can see, hear, touch, or smell comes near to satisfying this desire.

Catholicism comes into this because I was born a Catholic and, after years of running away, I decided that the specificity of this cultural experience is vital to my sense of Christ, the Mystery incarnate. Because there is this distance, this disproportionality, between what I hope for and what I can find in this dimension, I have in the past tended to shift around the place, mooching for a correspondence. Belatedly, it came to me: the optimal position resides in what is, in the specificity of what is there, which implicitly has been given for a reason. Our culture seduces us to think of what might be elsewhere, or different, or other. But the Other is already here, where we are, right now. (…)

There is another virus in our culture today, equally deadly to the human spirit, which separates believing from knowing. This became manifest in the idea that religion comprises the action of going into some room, even a very big room, getting on your knees, scrunching up your brain in an attempt to “believe” something, and then entering a hostile world holding this quality of “faith” in front like a shield. But faith is not an irrational leap in the dark: it is the reasonable response to the real.

Visible answers. Reality is God-given. It therefore cannot be hostile to God, except in a superficial sense usually arising from the operation of man-made elements of reality. For example, modern man’s inability to accept the limits of his own structure has created conditions of thought in our cultures which are hostile to the idea of a God. But reality per se is neither antagonistic nor neutral towards someone seeking to connect with the infinite dimension of being. If I stay for long enough in reality with the questions that come teeming from my heart, the answers become visible. Reality cannot, by definition, be other than sympathetic to my essential condition, which is religious. Faith, then, is the force that animates my total humanity, that allows me to stand up straight against gravity and wait in hope for what is promised. “Believing” doesn’t come into it. Faith is knowledge, which derives from experience of the promise with which reality is pregnant. Faith is no more than honesty before reality. What do I see? Where did it come from? And then, where did I come from? What or who made me? What makes me now, in this moment, if I do not make myself? Sooner or later, the true intelligence arrives at God, because God is what intelligence derives from.

Religion involves not some esoteric engagement with the mystical, but the prosaic process of going into the great outdoors knowing what I am engaged in and open to seeing what is there. I cannot “believe” in God by looking at reality–I can only know that He is. This is a reasonable inference–the only reasonable one–from reality and my deepest experience of it.

I cannot merely hope. That alone would not sustain me. Hope must be connected to the processes of reason, or it cannot survive. Hope without reason is like a bucket with a hole in the bottom. It holds nothing.

What is hope anyway? Hope is the force within me that keeps me going, the light that must never go out or else I’m halfway to being dead.

What then? Knowledge. I don’t “believe.” I know. I know there is a force that equates to my concept of creation, and I am happy to call this God. I know there is a Beyond, which I am happy to call heaven. I know Jesus came from this Beyond and I feel fairly sure He was who He told us He was. He didn’t lie about anything else. He wasn’t confused about anything else. His words remain, every one, as clear and vital as in the moments He uttered them. In the “modern” world, with its sense of perpetually “going forward,” all this seems increasingly plausible. But if it is, any use of my deeper intelligence must alert me to the problems with the thought process which have arrived at this sense of implausibility, because nothing else I have heard has seemed to offer the answers this story does.

Such thinking seems an affront to “rationality.” Perhaps it is. But the false rationality our cultures conventionally employ presents us with a false choice: belief in things that are demonstrable only, or superstition. The problem is that believing only in what is demonstrable leaves vast gaps in my knowledge and self-understanding. And no matter how much I “know,” in “rational” terms, there is still the Mystery, not least the mystery of myself. I can sit here writing and take myself for granted: a machine-like entity performing the obvious and banal task of making marks on a page. Or I can detach myself from this, and indeed from what I think of as myself, and observe the astonishing nature of what is happening. I step outside my body and contemplate myself. Who is this strange but familiar figure crouched over this white machine? Where did he come from to arrive here? Why? No matter how often these questions are rubbished or otherwise disposed of, they remain as the core and most vital thoughts of my being. No matter how much I distract myself or bury myself in the logics of the man-made world, they continue to jump up into my consciousness when I least expect it. Either God made the world or He did not make the world. There are no other possibilities. If I decide He did not make the world, I have to come up with a better explanation, and this has for millennia taxed more practised minds than mine. I need, just to exist, a working hypothesis of reality in its totality, and only the God hypothesis gives me that. Without the concept of God, then, I am disconnected from reality, from my infinite circuitry, and am, by definition, unfree. If I know, which I do, that there is more to reality than what I see, hear, and touch, I need some affirmation, some structural entity that will make that relationship real. In the culture that I live in, this means the Christian proposal.

The Christian event is not a story, not history, not a morality tale, but an event of this very moment.
The Resurrection happens moment to moment before our eyes, but in our pessimism we look and see nothing but randomness. Christianity cannot really be transmitted by theologians, only by witnesses who see clearly and describe what is there.

Towards my destination.This is where Catholicism figures in my life. The Church is where I go to be educated about my deeper structure and nature, and where I find companionship for the journey towards my destination. The Church fails me most of the time, as I fail myself most of the time, but without it I might be alone in a culture that denies my nature at every turn. The trouble is: if I am disposed to place my faith in the Great Hope, then the shopkeepers and innkeepers and prostitutes have a problem selling me things that may momentarily strike me as the answer to the question my humanity exudes.

Most people cannot even approach this fundamental truth about themselves because the initial access from our culture needs to be achieved through language, which has been booby-trapped by an ideological war waged on the one hand by a faction too “modern” and “intelligent” to give any credence to the idea that that man is fundamentally religious, and on the other by those calling themselves religious-minded, who have fuelled what is called secularism by holding faith up as a moral shield against the world. Between these two warring sides most of us have to find the true essence of our humanity.