They threw the lion to the sea:
patiently bowed his forehead he;
the billows hid his mane
with their own;
and he alone, and they alone,
his bitter tears gave he
to the bitter tears of the sea,
and then the lion drowned, because to swim
was so unknown to him.
Miguel de Unamuno, 1929; translated by Edita Mas-Lopez
There’s something I don’t understand about Unamuno’s point of view, and that’s leading me to not understand very well most of what we’ve been reading so far. It’s clear that personal, physical immortality is extremely important to him, and also that he has difficulty believing it true, because faith is “contra-rational,” but nearer to the “wellspring of life.” So he goes through outlining how St Paul, St Athenasious, and writers of the Nicene Creed, Spinoza, and so on talk about the question of faith, truth, and immortality; probably he doesn’t like any of them, except perhaps Paul. The Catholic Church, which ought to be preserving the Faith, is instead dabbling in rationalism as a prop to that faith – implying that faith is not trustworthy on its own, and so undermining its own foundations.
There’s something missing in all this – something that seems quite fundamental and obvious, but which never gets mentioned, either by Unamuno (or at least he gives it no weight), nor by former Christians, or people who find Christianity to be “logically flawed,” or simply a very silly thing. It has to do with what we consider to be evidence.
Crackpots of enlightenment philosophers aside, most people accept as evidence of physical truth the witness of the senses – I know that my neighbor Joe exists because I’ve seen, spoken to, and shaken hands with him. If I’m a normal sort of person I’m not going to try to test his existence, either empirically through experiments, nor logically – even though it’s logically possible that I’m simply having a very realistic hallucination. That works for most things that we can actually sense. Things become less certain and more difficult when we’re dealing with forces and processes – we bring in experiment, microscopes and telescopes, mathematical equations, and so on, and prove, perhaps not the thing itself, but a likely explanation or description of the thing.Then there are the things that we haven’t seen ourselves, but other people have – events of history, for instance, or foreign places; in those we rely on the veracity and agreement of those who say they know what happened – preferably primary sources.
So where am I going with this? Well, it seems very important, when speaking of the rationality or lack thereof of believing in a particular understanding of spiratual reality (in this case the Christian one), what kind of evidence is appropriate to knowing that reality. Some people say that God is like a force; we prove him logically, through nature and principles. Some people say that he’s a person – and we know about him because we know him; as one of my favorite quotes says, “a theologian is one who prays” – and then comes back and describes that which he has experienced. Unamuno acknowledges that way of knowing: “faith proceeds reason,” but only quoting the doctors of the Church – for himself he says only that it is a difficulty.
But why disprove rationalism with rational accounts? Why not stories, songs; U. is also a poet, and that’s for the best – why not a search, not for ideas, but for God-bearers? And this question is what I’m trying to account for. I’ve been reading another book, The Gurus, the Young Man, and Elder Paisios, wherein the author goes out and looks for people who have some experience with the supernatural; he talks to a very good and wise elder, with great spiritual powers, and also other less gifted monks on Athos; then he visits highly “advanced” yogis, one of whom is reverenced as a god; and he deals in hypnotism, occult practices, psychological techniques, white magic, and so on. The book is about what he finds to be going on, and the things he experiences. As it turns out, what he’s doing is very dangerous, but apparently it’s what’s needed for him to come to the truth; he can’t otherwise have, as U. calls it, “the faith of a charcoal burner,” based on authority alone.
As it happens, I don’t disbelieve in Christian claims of eternal life, but if I did, I don’t imagine arguments would especially help. What might help is visiting people who are reputed to be very close to God, and praying, and see what comes of it. If nothing came of it – if a person were sincerely seeking, asked the most holy people they could find, prayed as well as they could, and still found everything to be distorted and superficial – then that really would be evidence against the truth of Christianity. Of course, not everyone’s in a position to go touring the world in search of holy and wise people – but everyone’s probably in a position to go to some trouble to find someone who knows God better than himself; to at least try to encounter the Church, and God, on their own terms – and not through argument and reason. And yet, while citing all these people who knew God by experience, Unamuno seems to suggest that we have been so thoroughly immersed in scholastic theology that we have no choice – we must see immortality through the lens of rationalism. Why?