Sunday, July 29, 2012

Bruised and bemused

I've just finished reading Richard Holloway's stirring memoir, Leaving Alexandria (Edinburgh & London: Canongate, 2012). A friend in Australia posted some reviews of it on Facebook and I found I had to read it. I don't read a lot of memoirs, but this one sounded important, so I got myself a copy. To tell the truth I'm not sure I would have bought it in a bookstore, with its blurbs from Alexander McCall Smith, Philip Pullman, Karen Armstrong, Alain de Botton and others; I'm glad I did.

Holloway has been a hero, perhaps a martyr, for liberal Christianity - though he wouldn't put it that way. He was a bishop, finally Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, but gave it all up because of the intransigence of reactionary voices within the Anglican Communion (especially on questions of sexuality). He threw his mitre in the Thames at the Lambeth Conference in 1998, and resigned as bishop in 2000. In the last few years he's pretty much given up Christianity, or, perhaps, given up on it. Was religion a lie? Not necessarily, but it was a mistake. ... The mistake was to think that religion was more than human. (343)

But while he prefers the company of (non-evangelical) atheists to that of Christians who claim certainty, Holloway seems happiest in the company of poets, and would like to find a way to sustain the poetry of religion without its prose. This poetry works with experience of absence more than presence, and its central motif is pity - for others, and for oneself. These experiences are something churches - especially dark old churches which are open at all times - make possible. Philip Larkin had a name for it in his poem Church Going: "ghostly silt." Silt is the perfect word. It suggests the slow silent accumulation of pain and regret, and their distillation into memory and mercy. (252) We'd be better off without church hierarchy, but not without churches.

Part of what's fascinating is that this is not a simple losing-faith story. As Holloway eloquently describes, he struggled with doubt from the get-go. His faith journey was characterized by it. And, indeed, his preferred form of Christianity - humble, compassionate, engaged, Episcopal/Anglican - is characterized by it too.  

Let us suppose that God exists and Jesus is his revealed meaning and live in faith as though it were true. We cannot know any of this for certain, but there is beauty in the choice and it will give our lives a purpose, and maybe pay the universe a compliment it does not deserve. Care to join the experiment? Care to do the insane and lovely thing? (185-86)

But if there's ebb and flow along the way, the larger story is of ebb, uncovering what in retrospect seems an inevitability. He was never cut out to be a believer, or to be loyal to institutions. Part of the pity he learns for himself is to recognize that we are not the masters of our fate, or even of our characters. Accepting this would make us better, and better to each other, but religion, in denial of its own uncertainty, gets this wrong in terrible ways, especially Christianity, which has lost sight of Jesus. The parable of the good Samaritan, Holloway reminds us, isn't about the problem of religious hypocrisy. It's about the problem of religious believers whose piety blocks pity.

I don't any longer believe in religion, but I want it around: weakened, bruised and bemused, less sure of itself and purged of everything except the miracle of pity. I know that the people who will keep it going will have to believe in it more than I do. Who could be persuaded by my whisper? Who could even hear it? (349)

I hear it, but I'm not sure what kind of persuasion it's hoping for. There's no "argument"! I'm not poetic enough, I think, not yet.

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