A Masterwork of Doubting-Belief
A master-work of Doubting-Belief
At the meeting on 4 November, Nigel Jones talked about the poet-priest R S Thomas, as described in a book by John G McEllhenney, one of the few people to have long meetings with him.
Thomas insisted that God is Being, not a Being and liked Paul Tillich’s phrase ‘The Ground of Being’. Thomas accepted the Scientific thinking about our world, though refused to accept that Science is the whole truth and also rejected the gross materialistic attitude that science has helped to bring about. The brain, he said, is not the only determiner of what is true; we are a mixture of thoughts, intuitions and feelings. A human being is a hyphenation of cognition and emotion. When thinking and feeling are working like a team pulling in the same direction then one is functioning as a complete person. Then it is possible that one’s being can overflow with God as a chalice would with the sea.
Thomas was a ‘land, sea and sky’ person writing over 1500 poems, often using experiences of the Welsh landscape, through which he said passionately, he experienced the Holy Spirit.
On the thinking side alone, belief must accept the absence of God; this is clear in some of his poems, though absence does not mean non-existence.
“We are a whole believer when we are a doubting-believer”. Thomas identifies 4 sources of doubt. Bad personal experiences such as loss of a loved one in a disaster, or moments of depression raise serious questions. Science does not need God to explain the world and also reveals those viruses under the microscope that kill people. History shows how bad human behaviour can be, including by those who vociferously claim belief in God. The Bible too can convey a God who speaks, often in contradictions, is unpredictable and unknowable in human terms; then in Jesus it is claimed God is known, but different writers in the New Testament give different views of Jesus, so even that does not rid people completely of doubt.
Thomas says these do not prove God does not exist, but “doubt purifies belief by helping the believer cast off flawed ways of understanding and presenting God.”
God is there, somewhere, within us and all around us, yet elusive. God is both absent and present, as shown in the poem ‘The Absence’. In another poem he seems to pick up on the Old Testament reference to God being found in the still small voice, but takes it further into silence. See his poem ‘But the Silence in the Mind’.
Thomas believed the proper response to God is awe. John Wesley said it should be “speechless awe” and like him Thomas rejected people’s use of human language that suggests a close familiarity with God. However, both liked to sum it up in the theological phrase ‘God is Love’.
Finally, his poem ‘ALIVE’
It is alive. It is you,
God. Looking out I can see
no death. The earth moves, the
sea moves, the wind goes
on its exuberant
journeys. Many creatures
reflect you, the flowers
your colour, the tides the precision
of your calculations. There
is nothing too ample
for you to overflow, nothing
so small that your workmanship
is not revealed. I listen
and it is you speaking.
I find the place where you lay
warm. At night, if I waken,
there are the sleepless conurbations
of the stars. The darkness
is the deepening shadow
of your presence; the silence a
process in the metabolism
of the being of love.
In the discussion, we heard that God is simply a human construct and really at the heart of the universe is just creative energy.
We also questioned the use of the word ‘intuition’ because people so often base conclusions on simple speedy intuition which turns out later to be proved wrong.
However, there was general recognition of the point about intellectual questioning of statements of belief, while continuing to feel the presence of God at least occasionally in life’s experiences. Faith, it was said, is not certainty, but trust and that is what works in life.
Nigel Jones (19 Nov’18)