Intellectual Curiosity, Hope, and Charity; or, The Humanist’s Progress

In my memories, my childhood of not-belonging is characterized, above all, by my atheism. Raised in a household which celebrated Christmas with Santa, Easter with the Easter Bunny, Hannukah with candles, and Passover with a heavily edited Haggadah that removed all mention of God, I had no qualms about announcing to a series of classmates and teachers in a series of schools in reasonably conservative and religious areas of America that I did not believe in God. I remember shocking and awing third-grade classmates who told me I was surely going to Hell, a sixth-grade English teacher who didn’t understand how anyone could be “just coldly rational,” and person after person after person who denied the possibility of my living a just and moral and good life without faith, who wondered why, although I sometimes stood and sometimes did not for the Pledge of Allegiance, I never, ever said the words “under God.” I was bullied for a variety of reasons at school—my cleverness, my unorthodox (read: weird) dress sense, as time went on my gender nonconformity. But above all I can remember having to put forth complex intellectual arguments to defend my atheism to all comers, long before I was in high school. As history tells us, there is seemingly nothing so threatening to many people as to tell them you deny their articles of faith—and I can attest to this from a life of being told I was going to Hell, not for my sexuality or my gender nonconformity, as the “It Gets Better” videos might suggest, but for my atheism.

Of course, though, I was raised an academic brat in an upstandingly, old-fashionedly humanist family which always, always educated. When I was a child I read the illustrated Children’s Bible along with D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths and illustrated versions of the creation myths of various non-western cultures; as I grew older, I came to cherish the intricacies of a Bach fugue or a stanza of Miltonic verse, to respect a tradition which seeks “to justify the ways of God to man” even if I felt as though I could never understand the intellectual position which might compel a Milton, or a Bach, to do so. I entered churches for concerts, played my violin and viola in a string quartet for weddings. I went to bar and bat mitzvahs. Once, I attended a Catholic funeral mass; another time, I stood at a graveside and heard a priest intone the Anglican funeral liturgy. Through the rituals of life in which people are born, reach adulthood, marry, die, I have come to have the familiarity we all have with the words of ceremonial religious services. I have phonetically memorized the Hebrew of some of the primary Jewish prayers; I can say the Our Father in English and in Latin. And because I am an intellectual historian, I have become conversant in the language of spirituality and spiritual doubt, and have come to have the greatest sympathy with those of my Victorians who sought to reach an understanding of God, the Church, and Jesus’ teachings that would allow them to integrate science and faith, or else to reach an understanding of virtue and morality and the call to live a good life that is both virtuous and moral without needing to use Jesus’ death and resurrection as a guiding light.

Because I am a visitor in Oxford, I have been going to many Christian services, to see inside the college chapels and the city churches and to hear the music, which is of an impressively high standard. Because I am studying more than anything else the intellectual history of this university community, and the time in which it became a secular rather than a faith-based place of intellectual inquiry, I have been paying close attention to aspects of the services beyond the architecture and the singing. I have been engaging intellectually with the language of the liturgy, and I have been mentally and spiritually joining in when the priest intones a prayer for peace, or for the continued health and good fortune of the university community. I have been noticing a combination that speaks to the recent history of religion in this university: the High-Churchiness of the pageantry, the vestments and the singing and, once in a while, the incense; but also the fact that every sermon on a text is a practice of close-reading, a search for unapparent meaning that takes as its guiding force the understanding that, as Benjamin Jowett once controversially contended, the Bible is a literary text, which speaks in the language of metaphor. One does not need to be a Christian to hope for peace, and one does not need to be a Christian to take lessons of individual self-development from the beautiful words of the King James Bible. One knows one is not a Christian when one stands quietly while those around one intone their belief in the Trinity, in Jesus’s death and resurrection and future return, in the promise of salvation, in Heaven and in Hell; one knows one is not a Christian when one sits quietly while those around one move to kneel before a priest who places a piece of wafer and a drop of wine in their mouths, which we are to understand, either literally or metaphorically, as the body and blood of the God-man who died to save us. One knows, full well, that one is not a Christian when one finds oneself unable to make this leap of faith.

But this is Oxford, this is one of the more liberal homes of the already-liberal Church of England, and these are no longer the days of primary school, when I had no choice but to take pride in being hellbound. No one here will shun me if I come for the words and the music but not for Communion, and if I take from Jesus’ teachings the call to better oneself but only the loosest, most absolutely metaphorical understanding of the promise of salvation. No one will cast me out if I choose to say the responses to some parts of the service but not to others, and there are always more besides me—as there must always have been, to a certain extent, in these churches and chapels—who are not believers. And it is in this context that I have found myself growing up, and growing more credulous of what religion can do to supplement—though not to supplant—the moral compass of those of us who were raised with no belief in God, but who have come to believe in the goodness in all of us, calling us to be better.

It was in this spirit today that I attended the first Sunday-morning church service of my life, which I did because Philip Pullman was giving the University Sermon at the University Church of St Mary the Virgin. The University Sermon is of longstanding tradition in this university which began life as a seminary; in the 1820s, Newman launched his theological career from the St Mary’s pulpit. It is thus remarkable that the leaders of the church and of the university had invited a noted atheist to preach to them, and it was worth attending this service only for that reason: to watch a secular-humanist sermon mingle with prayers of faith, and to watch the vicar come rather awkwardly to the lectern after Pullman’s sermon to say the prayers that the preacher is traditionally meant to, but in this case would not, say. But the thing is, Pullman’s sermon was only out of joint with the liturgy if you (as, I imagine, many do) consider the core of religious worship to be faith in God. No doubt that faith is the reason why many of the people who come to St Mary’s every Sunday do so—but when Pullman, in white tie and bands and academic gown, expressed his skepticism about the meaning of faith, it seemed right and proper and in the best traditions of the theological history of Oxford that he should do so. When he spoke about the cardinal virtues; about the greatness of Charity, or Love; about the faith in the laws of physics as a more sense-making, but no less inductive, humanist’s faith; about the necessity of a superstructure, like concert orchestras and institutions of learning and the National Health Service, which can help us to enshrine virtue in our society; and about, finally and gloriously, the proposal that Intellectual Curiosity replace Faith in the canon of virtues; I was in awe, grinning and nodding right along, even though I knew that no one around me was seeming quite so physically engaged, and I found myself wondering if it was all right to express such enthusiasm in church. Pullman began by stating his lack of belief in God, the incongruity of his appearance before the Oxford congregation; but by the end of his piece, in the course of which he’d cited as higher authority not only the Bible, but also William James and John Ruskin, he’d articulated a vision of morality, in adhering to which I think we all ought to consider ourselves good and Godly.

Though it seems as if St Mary’s posts the texts of past University Sermons on its website, it of course has not posted Pullman’s yet. So I hope you will take my word for it when I say that the shape of Pullman’s speech seemed to me to resemble so much my own trajectory of religious understanding, from up-front apostate to Ruskinian; from rhetorical rationalist to believer in the value of good works. Though this belief has been enhanced recently in light of all the Victorianism, all the Oxonianism, I have been absorbing, and all the Anglican services I’ve sat through and in my own funny way believed in, I think it was set in motion the day I matriculated at Princeton, just shy of two and a half years ago. That day in the middle of September the freshman class filled the University Chapel and heard a service which had all the form of a religious convocation (bespeaking the seminarian history of my home university, too!), but consisted of a mix of prayers, blessings, and songs of which as many were secular as were grounded in a religious tradition of a belief in God or gods. I shall never forget that, instead of the prayer to God which graces every Oxford service, asking Him to protect the university, its faculty and its students, the Princeton Dean of the College, Nancy Malkiel, offered up a prayer to Wisdom, asking that loosely pagan deity to grant to that university all the good that is done by the spirit of teaching and learning and (in the words of Pullman) intellectual curiosity. I think it was at that moment that I became interested in, and in a certain sense convinced by, the language and the form of a religious tradition to help us to understand the good, the true, and the beautiful—whether they inhere in God or in ourselves.

It is for this Platonic reason that, when Pullman said somewhere in the middle of his sermon that he considered himself something of a Greek or Roman pagan, I smiled as broadly as I did. For Pullman was drawing on a tradition I have known since I read D’Aulaire’s alongside the Children’s Bible; which I sensed I could consider myself a part of when I was moved for days, and for years, afterwards by Dean Malkiel’s prayer to Wisdom; which I have become conversant in since reading Matthew Arnold’s articulation of the relationship between Hellenism and Hebraism; and which (it must be said!) characterizes John Addington Symonds’ vision of an ethics given us by ancient Greece, with which we can live in accordance in our own times, adopting as our creed Goethe’s exhortation, Im Ganzen Guten Schönen/Resolut zu leben, “To live with steady purpose in the whole, the Good, the Beautiful.”

So Philip Pullman is a Hellenist, and so am I; if Pullman calls himself an unbeliever, then so am I. I still cannot, and have no desire to, make my leap of faith in the direction of the man in the sky. But to be honest, I don’t think either of us are unbelievers full-stop. The devout Christian organizes her devotion around her faith in God; Pullman and I have a creed which calls us to revere—if not to worship—intellectual curiosity, or Wisdom. What is this but another inductive precondition for an ethical and virtuous life, another belief (we needn’t call it a Faith) in something Better?

7 thoughts on “Intellectual Curiosity, Hope, and Charity; or, The Humanist’s Progress

  1. I’m just curious: what have you got to lose by believing in God? I’m not, of course, referring to having membership in an organized religion whose principles might conflict with your own–rather, I’m wondering why it doesn’t make logical sense to have a personal belief in some greater power that loves you unconditionally. Between Pascal’s [perhaps antiquated] Wager and reassurance that comes from His love, you really only have nothing to lose by believing in God. Again, I’m not suggest you take up with some religion that undermines your belief system, but there’s nothing to lose and everything to gain from having a fruitful personal relationship with Him.

  2. Hello, and thanks for your comment. I must construct my grounds for belief differently to yours; for me, belief isn’t just something that I decide to do. I’ve not grown up thinking of the world spirit in personified terms, so to me it doesn’t seem natural to relate interpersonally to someone I’ve never met nor had a relationship with.

  3. Pullman: “And these religions I visit and learn about differ greatly. Some are more plausible than others, some more kindly, some more austere. I disapprove pretty firmly of those that overstep the boundaries of taste and propriety, and claim that their god is the only god, and all unbelievers will suffer. That seems to me bad manners. It would be a matter for regret, I think, in my Greco-Roman-pagan way, if a religion of that sort ever gained power.”

    Isn’t that what has happened?

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