I am no longer a communicant in the Episcopal Church or even a professing Christian, though for aesthetic reasons I retain affection for the forms and rituals of the Anglic an service. In this way, I resemble the agnostic novelist Thomas Hardy, who was enamored of church liturgies, and the atheist philosopher John McTaggart, who defended the established Church of England. You might say that I am a cultural Christian in the same way that Freud was a cultural Jew. Christianity, irrespective of its truth, must be appreciated and understood as an inexpungable part of Western culture.
I was baptized in 1946 in the church of St. Andrews in Darmsden, a hamlet in rural Suffolk, England. Curiously, the church had been consecrated exactly eight hundred years earlier, in 1146, though the current building dates from the Victorian era. The decision to have me baptized there was not an expression of personal piety on the part of my parents. It was simply a matter of custom, and the location of the church was convenient. Though my maternal great-grandmother was a strict Wesleyan Methodist and my paternal grandfather twice removed was the great Baptist preacher Charles H. Spurgeon, my immediate family was not religious. My mother attended church regularly, mostly for social reasons. My father, a confirmed agnostic, did not.
I accompanied my mother to the Congregationalist church, which was doctrinally liberal and pastored by Unitarians. The sermons (more accurately, lectures) were all sweetness and light and gave no excuse for rebellion. I did not give much thought to religion, though I was somewhat preoccupied with the question of God’s existence, which had something to do with my decision to pursue a course of philosophy in college. While there I remember Max Wilson, a professor of philosophy, admonishing me not to get involved in religious philosophy.
However, in the late 1980s, while pursuing graduate work, I encountered some evangelical students of divinity. And under their influence (I am embarrassed now to admit it), I gave my life to Christ. Afterward, I attended services in the Episcopal Church with regularity, recited and prayed the Daily Office in the Book of Common Prayer, and undertook a systematic study of Scripture.
And then, the doubts began crowding in on me. As I prayed, I often wondered whether there was anyone out there listening. Worship services consisted mainly of praising God. I asked myself, what was the point of praising him? What kind of being, I thought, demanded constant praise? To meet this crisis, I decided to intensify my doubts to the breaking point. I began to read the classic religious skeptics and atheists, thinking that if I could answer their doubts my faith would be strengthened; if not, it would be lost. Needless to say, my faith did not survive a month of this regimen of critical inquiry.
I had an epiphany of sorts. One Memorial Day weekend, I went on a church retreat at a North Carolina beach. During an open-air service on the oceanfront, I saw the metallic backs of dolphins arched and glinting in the sun and pelicans diving into the waves, and I heard gulls chorusing in the air against the roar and hiss of the breakers. I thought to myself: there is truth! How this spectacle of the sea contrasted with the church service, with its dull liturgy and the insipid songs of praise accompanied by guitars and tambourines! I was reminded of an episode in the life of Ralph Waldo Emerson. In his “Divinity School Address,” he recalls sitting in a church while a blizzard raged outside: “A snowstorm was falling around us. The snowstorm was real; the preacher merely spectral; and the eye felt the contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow.” This was exactly my experience on the seashore.
With the abandonment of faith, my doubts quickly evaporated. Apparently, the French composer Camille Saint-Saens, popularly known for his orchestral piece Carnival of the Animals and his opera Samson and Delilah, was also plagued with serious doubts about his Catholic faith, only to have them vanish when he left the church. The loss of my faith, which I had had for but a few years, was liberating. Like Saint-Saens, I was free of those doubts that persistently gnawed at me.
By converting to the Christian faith and entering the Episcopal Church, I was guilty of the unforgivable sin against the spirit of truth—the sin of intellectual dishonesty. I had not really thought through the matter of faith to determine whether it was worth receiving, whether there was any truth in it. It was only after I received it that, prompted by doubt, I undertook my critical inquiry into its truth. I remember the case of John Ruskin, the great art critic and defender of J. M. Turner, who underwent a similar de-conversion from his evangelical Protestant faith after attending a service in Turin. As he describes it in Fors Clavigera, “I went away to a Waldensian chapel, where a little squeaking idiot was preaching to an audience of seventeen old women and three louts, that they were the only children of God in Turin; and that all the people in Turin outside the chapel, and all the people in the world out of sight of Monte Viso, would be damned. I came out of the chapel, in sum of twenty years of thought, a conclusively un-converted man.” As Emerson was distracted by the beauty of the snowstorm, Ruskin was lured away by the beauty of art. Afterward, as he states in Praeterita, he went “up into the gallery where Paul Veronese’s Solomon and the Queen of Sheba glowed in full afternoon light. The gallery windows being open, there came in with the warm air, floating swells and falls of military music, from the courtyard before the palace, which seemed to me more devotional, in their perfect art, tune, and discipline, than anything I remembered of evangelical hymns.”
So, what of my “faith” now? I suppose it might be called a “mystic pantheism” with elements drawn from Lucretius, Spinoza, Goethe, and Emerson—no mean company! I regard myself as nothing more than nature become conscious of itself and overwhelmingly conscious of its staggering beauty and sublimity, which fills me with wonderment. Nature is nothing less than the Apostle Paul’s god, the one “in whom we live, move, and have our being.” The fundamental belief to which I now adhere is something akin to what John Dewey described as natural piety. It is more than enough.
Richard Hall is professor of philosophy at Fayetteville State University and the author of The Ethical Foundations of Criminal Justice and The Neglected Northampton Texts of Jonathan Edwards: Edwards on Society and Politics. He also edited and contributed to The Contribution of Jonathan Edwards to American Culture and Society. In addition, he has published articles on the history of American philosophy, aesthetics, and the philosophy of art, ethics, and religion.