Friday, July 19, 2013

To Doubt is to Exist: A Review of Honest Doubt

Music to accompany article: Miserere (Friedrich Nietzsche)

Honest Doubt: The History of an Epic Struggle was originally broadcast in twenty 15-minute episodes in May/June 2012 by BBC Radio 4. It was written and presented by writer and former Bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway, and produced by Olivia Landsberg at Ladbroke Productions. Reading the transcript allows one to stop and think, and above all to revel in the state of unknowingness. The series is concerned with religious but also existential doubt. Tennyson’s poem, In Memoriam, was the inspiration behind the series’ title:

                                                   “There lives more faith in honest doubt,
                                                    Believe me, than in half the creeds.”

   Apart from Holloway, who deals with some of the profound questions of humanity with ease, modesty and sincerity, there are other formidable contributors to the debate such as Karen Armstrong, Prof. Richard Dawkins, Prof. Chris Janaway, Sir Anthony Kenny and Sir Andrew Motion.

   It is doubt - not certainty - that has made humanity what it is. In the hands of great poets and writers (e.g. Tennyson, Keats, Dostoyevsky), thinkers (Voltaire, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein) and scientists (Copernicus, Newton, Darwin), doubt is elevated to the summit of human thought. The ‘golden calves’ of certainty have had a paralysing effect not only on religion but also on science, the latter laden with an air of awe-inspiring ‘evidence’. Rigid certainty is the hallmark of delusion, a state of mind typical of the earlier stages of humanity. It temporarily calms the anguish of the unknown, but it also closes the door to the yet not known and the unknowable. Richard Holloway explains in the Preface: “Trouble only happens when we think words are nets to capture the mystery of the great absence that haunts the universe. We hate a vacuum and the uncertainty it provokes. We want something solid to hold on to and if it’s not there, we’ll manufacture one we fancy and call it truth.”

   It is very tempting to rush to judgement about unknowable mysteries; such judgement then turns into certainty, a thought becomes solidified and a holy dogma is born. The riddle of existence no longer excites and no longer unsettles us. The thought has reached a dead end and so have we. Holloway recalls prayers of his youth when he was asking God to give him a sign that he was there. Being alone in the universe was a disturbing thought. Like a traveller in Walter de la Mare’s poem, he was knocking on the moonlit door with the words: “Is there anybody there?” The traveller received no answer and rode away from the silent house discontented; he had to continue his journey in loneliness, not knowing. We are such travellers.

   Doubt has often operated as a means of purifying faith and Richard Holloway stresses that “doubt is coactive with faith - they are two sides of the same coin.” Gods seem to have been dying almost as soon as they emerged at the twilight of humanity's consciousness, yet their creation was a pivotal event in recognising the Other (as Feuerbach cogently argued). Perhaps honest doubt is that indispensable Other of faith? As God remained silent, we could only guess his requirements and intentions; we thought that he wanted child sacrifice and that human suffering was a punishment for our sins. And then we began to doubt that. Holloway puts it poetically: “doubt was the cloth we used to wipe out dirt off the window of faith through which we looked at God.” And the thought gradually dawned on man that perhaps there wasn’t anything on the other side of the window pane. The realisation thereof produced a horrendous crisis among the most thoughtful and spiritual people of the 19th century, and as God died on them they became mourners at his funeral. We meet some of these audacious thinkers in episode 14 God’s Funeral. In the poem of the same title, Thomas Hardy laments the loss of “what we had imagined”, whilst Fyodor Dostoyevsky captures the anguish of our existential loneliness in his last and greatest novel The Brothers Karamazov with the plangent cry, “God, if you do not exist, everything is permitted.” Friedrich Nietzsche, the son of a Lutheran pastor and once a fervent believer, despairs about humanity “straying over an infinite nothing.”

   The question arises whether we can sustain morality without God. And can we sustain love without God?

   Richard Holloway and his collaborators have impressed me greatly not only with their humility towards the mystery of existence, but also with their sincere respect towards the listener/reader. They communicate thoughts in a clear yet poetic language, without a shade of patronising or hubris. In their hands, doubt is not only honest, it is also modest and beautiful. And their sublime
choice of music, which includes Miserere by Nietzsche, transports the listener to an even higher aesthetic plane.