What I believe

Stephen Spender

When asked the question ‘What do you believe?’ I suppose it to mean, first and foremost, ‘Do you believe in God?’ My mind is a blank with regard to this, as to similar questions. ‘Do you believe in life after death?’ ‘Do you believe that life has any meaning other than that which we put into it?’ I am incapable of thinking that there is an eternal being whose existence has neither beginning nor end, because I cannot think a beginning which has no previous beginning, an end which has no subsequent end. Equally, if scientists tell me that the universe began with the Big Bang, I find myself asking: ‘How did the forces begin that began the banging?’

Attempts to rationalise metaphysical beliefs seem to me to lead to absurd conclusions by trying to make sense of what is beyond our power of reasoning and, indeed, the reach of language. The idea of the resurrection of the body has a kind of logic, in that it explains how after death we might recover our organs of perception – without which life, as we know it, seems unthinkable. But it makes nonsense if you try to work out the logistics of it.

Before the modern age of scientific proof, religion provided answers to unanswerable questions about God, man, eternity. What mattered more than the answer was that the question should express with finality man’s predicament on Earth, in time, after death. When men lived by visions, the negative questions projected the positive affirmative answer. To ask ‘Is there a God?’ showed that the questioner already had in his consciousness the idea of God, and he did not have to look further for proof.

Biblical religion is prophetic vision affirmed by revelation and equated with literal truth. In replacing astrology with astronomy, the Book of Genesis with Darwin’s theory of evlution, science set up an alternative standard of truth: facts which, if tested against empirical observation, could be proved. After the failure of Biblical fundamentalists to win the battle against the scientists, later apologists of the Bible have often argued that Old and New Testament stories, from that of the Garden of Eden to the Resurrection of Christ, should be taken as myths. Doubtless these stories have great symbolic meaning, but to argue that they are not intended in some sense to be taken literally is to put the sacred texts on the same level as epic poetry and to equate them with the ‘fables’ which make up the sacred texts of other religions.

In the West, there is a tendency today for established religion to dissolve or disintegrate into religion treated as world literature and comparative religion – with all creeds embraced either on account of their anthropological interest or because all the myths have something ‘symbolically’ true about them. In contrast to this, there are some religious people – especially intellectuals – who insist on the literal truth of those miraculous events which the religion asks them to accept as dogma. Credo quia incredibile. It is difficult for me, though, not to think that when they insist on the literal truth of the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, it is the dogma rather than the fact which they believe in.

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