Christ, The Hold Steady, Ignazio Silone, and Us

Christ, The Hold Steady, Ignazio Silone, and Us

Alan Johnson: Silone and The Hold Steady

?Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, [religion] no longer offers an explanation of anything important.”
-Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great.

Weren?t there once more interesting ways of talking about religion than this? Don?t we need a different language to discuss the complex relation between assent and apprehension that lies at the heart of the response to our baffling human condition that is faith? The Victorian clergyman John Henry Newman, the “apostle to the doubtful,” argued in a famous 1870 essay that the “grammar of assent” had, in his strange phrase, an “illative sense.” He meant that the act of faith was not an act of intellectual apprehension. It was not the same kind of thing as thinking and saying “two plus two equals four” but it was also not akin to a belief in fairies. Yes, it involved a leap of faith, but that leap was based in real experience: the experience of grace.

And what is the experience of grace? It is to experience the extraordinary lying just on the far side of the ordinary and to read in that the presence of the divine. It is to be seized by a truth about the world. Many will have switched off at the talk of “grace,” I guess. Well, give me a minute, please.

Some of the most moving contemporary expressions of the sacramental imagination are found in the songs of punk-pop Catholic geniuses The Hold Steady. One example is Citrus: “I feel Jesus in the clumsiness of young and awkward lovers / I feel Judas in the long odds of the rackets on the corners / I feel Jesus in the tenderness of honest, nervous lovers / I feel Judas in the pistols and the pagers that come with all the powders.”

John Henry Newman put the same idea in more complicated terms:

Can I attain to any more vivid assent to the Being of a God, than that which is given merely to notions of the intellect? Can I enter with a personal knowledge into the circle of truths which make up that great thought? Can I rise to what I have called an imaginative apprehension of it? Can I believe as if I saw?

Since such a high assent requires a present experience or memory of the fact, at first sight it would seem as if the answer must be in the negative; for how can I assent as if I saw, unless I have seen? but no one in this life can see God. Yet I conceive a real assent is possible, and I proceed to show how.

When it is said that we cannot see God, this is undeniable; but still in what sense have we a discernment of His creatures, of the individual beings which surround us? The evidence which we have of their presence lies in the phenomena which address our senses, and our warrant for taking these for evidence is our instinctive certitude that they are evidence (emphasis added). By the law of our nature we associate those sensible phenomena or impressions with certain units, individuals, substances, whatever they are to be called, which are outside and out of the reach of sense, and we picture them to ourselves in those phenomena. The phenomena are as if pictures; but at the same time they give us no exact measure or character of the unknown things beyond them;?for who will say there is any uniformity between the impressions which two of us would respectively have of some third thing, supposing one of us had only the sense of touch, and the other only the sense of hearing? Therefore, when we speak of our having a picture of the things which are perceived through the senses, we mean a certain representation, true as far as it goes, but not adequate.

Now one can be persuaded by Newman. Either one feels that “instinctive certitude” or one does not. I do not (though some days I think myself to be “waiting” in the sense used by Protestant theologian Paul Tillich). But I know what he means. I too see something in “the clumsiness of young and awkward lovers” that is more than mere matter in motion. In short, while I may not see Newman?s category of the Divine, I do see Primo Levi’s category of the exquisite. I can?t make Newman?s leap, but I see the value of trying to live as if I had leaped.

Our own tradition offers one particularly powerful example of living “as if” one has made Newman?s leap of faith. In Ignazio Silone?s novel Bread and Wine, set in Italy in 1938, the socialist revolutionary Pietro Spina is in hiding from the fascists and forced to live as a priest. The result is something beautiful, a Spinian Christianity, as I think of it: “denuded of all religion and all Church control” and focused on striving to be “free, loyal, just, sincere, disinterested,” as Spina says at the end of the novel. Spina (like the English ethical socialist tradition) comes to understand socialism as sacramental; an overflowing of love, not of History.

In 1977 doctors told Silone he had not long to live. He wrote a note to his wife Darina:

I feel that I have sincerely expressed, at various times, all the duty I feel towards Christ and his teachings … It was through Christ, and his teachings, that I recovered … But the ?return to the fold? has not been possible, even after the ?modernizations? of the recent Vatican Council. I have already given an explanation for failing to return and it is sincere. It seems to me that over the course of centuries there has been constructed a theological and liturgical elaboration?historical in origin?upon essential Christian truths that has rendered them unrecognizable. Official Christianity has become an ideology. It would be a violation of my deepest beliefs and nature to declare that I accept it; and if I did, it would be in bad faith (in Stanislao G. Pugliese?s Bitter Spring: A Life of Ignazio Silone).

The depredations of organized religion have been many indeed, and they continue today. No one can object to Christopher Hitchens pointing them out. But to imagine that the telescope and microscope have exhausted all the religious impulse was responding to is to miss the point on a pretty spectacular scale, I think. As Terry Eagleton points out “Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It is rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.” I think Silone understood that, so even when he could not assent, he knew he had to find ways of being “as if” he assented. So, perhaps, do we.