Thinking Anew – Spiritual progress means moving on from where we feel secure

In tomorrow’s liturgy we are reminded that uncertainty and questioning are part and parcel of a living faith. In the Old Testament reading, Abraham is in a state of confusion, concerned that he has no heir. God intervenes, promising a future full of promise, but Abraham must move on from where he is relying on God to deliver. In the gospel reading, Nicodemus is invited by Jesus to take a step, to be born ” from above”. He doesn’t get the message at that time and disappears from the text but re-emerges later to play a key role after the death of Jesus.

In each case we are shown that spiritual progress means moving on from where we feel secure. No one finds that easy.

In the early 1990s, the distinguished scholar and writer AN Wilson was known for his anti-religious views. In reaction to the troubles in Northern Ireland, he published the pamphlet Against Religion. Another of his publications was God’s Funeral: The Decline of Faith in Western Civilization. He compares his conversion to atheism to Paul’s dramatic conversion to Christianity on the road to Damascus. “I realised that after a lifetime of churchgoing, the whole house of cards had collapsed for me – the sense of God’s presence in life, and the notion that there was any kind of God, let alone a merciful God, in this brutal, nasty world. As for Jesus having been the founder of Christianity, this idea seemed perfectly preposterous.”

With this newfound certainty, Wilson felt comfortable with his own generation. He answered their questions with confidence: “‘So – absolutely no God?’ ‘Nope,’ I was able to say with Moonie-zeal. ‘No future life, nothing ‘out there’?’ ‘No,’ I obediently replied. At last! I could join in the creed shared by so many (most?) of my intelligent contemporaries in the western world – that men and women are purely material beings.”


But the questioning temperament that lead Wilson away from religious belief to atheism persisted and when a number of friends died over a short space of time, he began to feel uncomfortable with the purely materialist explanations offered for human existence. They simply did not add up on an intellectual level. For him certain phenomena – of which love and music were the two strongest – suggested that human beings are very much more than collections of meat. “They convince me that we are spiritual beings, and that the religion of the incarnation, asserting that God made humanity in His image, and continually restores humanity in His image, is simply true. As a working blueprint for life, as a template against which to measure experience, it fits.”

Fr Peter Lemass was one of those clergy who gave us the Radharc documentaries broadcast by RTÉ many years ago. Peter believed that Christianity had a good story to tell and should respond to a questioning generation. He saw this need as he recalled being told as a youth not to ask questions about religion; all that mattered was that he be “a good Catholic”. He would go on in his communications role to ask many questions and more importantly seek answers.

Most thinking people live with questions about life and its meaning but that is not a bad place to be, given that troubled Abraham, often referred to as the Father of Faith, set out “not knowing where he was going”. Or Nicodemus who, while he found it difficult to fully comprehend the teaching of Jesus, knew enough to stay with him in the dark days of the crucifixion and beyond.

In his poem “In Memoriam”, Tennyson, holds on to his faith, albeit a faith tested by the death of a much loved young friend: “I falter where I firmly trod, / And falling with my weight of cares /. . . I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,/And gather dust and chaff, and call / To what I feel is Lord of all, / And faintly trust the larger hope.”