COME HOLY SPIRIT! – ULTIMATE QUESTIONS
“Everyone who knocks will have the door opened.”
As we approach Pentecost, I want to write about Bryan Magee, a philosopher and broadcaster, who died in 2018. You can listen to him on YouTube – search under “Men of Ideas” and you will be able hear him interviewing various thinkers of the late 20th Century.
The fascinating thing about Magee is this: from his earliest years he yearned, with a passion I have never encountered before, to know the truth about our existence. His every waking hour was seemingly haunted by the big questions- Why is there something rather than nothing? Does God exist? What is time and space? Can we be certain about anything? Is there life after death? Yet alongside this bewilderment was an almost overwhelming sense of wonder, of how marvellous existence was, of how extraordinarily fortunate he was to be alive and conscious. As he says in “Confessions of a Philosopher”, life for him was “a feast”. Indeed, he spent his whole long life thinking, writing and broadcasting about what we can know and what we can’t.
So, if you want a definition of a seeker after truth, you need go no further than study Magee’s life. Yet his conclusion was that it was highly unlikely, though not impossible, that God existed, and he eschewed all religious belief.
“I would choose, if I were to merit a tag, to be known as the agnostic. What I find myself wanting to press home more than anything else is that the only honest way to live and think is in the fullest possible acknowledgement of our ignorance and its consequences, without ducking out into a faith, whether positive or negative, and without any other evasions or self-indulgencies”
Magee was in many ways a most admirable man – ruthlessly honest, truthful, open-minded, sincere and generous with his talents. The central question for us is, despite his unremitting quest for truth, why did the door of belief never open to him?
He regularly mentions the fact that he had a profound terror of death and of the prospect of oblivion and, particularly during a mid-life crisis, he undertook a long and exhaustive study of the world’s major religions, including of course Christianity. He longed to believe. He reminds me in many ways of a close relative of mine – a good and caring person who, as he says, “just has no faith”. What is the meaning of this?
Perhaps the answer lies with the approach taken by St Augustine in his famous counter-intuitive saying Credo ut intellegam – I believe in order to understand. To Magee this would be a straight betrayal of intellectual integrity – how can you justify believing something you do not consider to be true in a desperate attempt to understand? In rational terms it does indeed seem madness and fraudulent. Yet St Augustine had one of the greatest intellects of all time, and centuries later, another man with a towering intellect, Blaise Pascal, agreed with him. His advice to agnostics was “if you do not believe, act as if you do, and belief will come”. Again, this seems a betrayal. But there is a deep wisdom beyond human reason in operation here.
St Augustine of Hippo
The difficulty is, the approach advocated by these two giants requires “a little death”. We need to die to our unconditional trust in the power of reason and reach out to something, or someone, we do not know or understand. We need to pray. In essence, we need to say “Help!” to God. I do not know whether Magee ever did this, but I suspect he didn’t.
That beautiful passage in Luke about knocking on the door is unambiguous- “If you then, who are evil, know how to give your children what is good, how much more will the Heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.” But we have to ask, and go on asking. We have to make that supplication the supreme quest of our life. I hope Bryan asked. This is the essential lesson for us all – we must every day, indeed many times a day, ask for the Holy Spirit. That great Benedictine Bede Griffiths said rather shockingly: “Jesus did not leave us the scriptures, he left us the Holy Spirit!”
The great thing is, however, Magee never stopped hoping against hope that it might be the case that God exists. And hope is a theological virtue. As Aquinas says of these virtues:
“(they) have God for their object, (and are) infused into our souls by God alone, (and) we come to know of them only by Divine revelation in the Sacred Scriptures”
I imagine him in death, opening his eyes in wonder and joy as he sees the face of the Father, who tells him that he will now have the whole of eternity to marvel at the glories of absolute truth. I recall the words accredited to Thomas More in the film A Man for All Seasons. He is on the scaffold and Archbishop Cranmer calls out – “you seem very sure Thomas you are going to God”.
More replies: “He will not refuse one who is so blithe to see his face”. Magee spent every waking moment seeking the truth – imagine how blithe he will be to see the face of the Father.