A friend, whose plain-spoken wisdom I adore, recently reaffirmed her rejection of religious faith.
She is plainly right. Beyond the moment of creation, the supernatural is superfluous in the purely material world. Cats, brilliant as they can be, appear to have no need of it. Nor, if we are to believe Stephen Hawking et al, do the stars. Saint Paul, too, confirms that it is the law written on our hearts and forming our consciences that makes us “good people” without even knowing the scriptures.
The critique of religious superfluity, however, lacks one thing, and that is the reality of superabundance. The human religious sense is more than a product of human need. It is a response to human desire. I need to eat. I desire to taste. I need to see. I desire beauty. I need to understand life. I desire life with God.
The need to exist can be satisfied by the plain material things of existence, e.g., cats and stars. But the desire to live as fully as humanly possible opens up the opportunity to move beyond the superfluous to the encounter with the superabundance of God’s love.
Need and desire are a beneficial counterbalance. We must not, in the beautiful words of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, “follow too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.” We need to follow a path that is not of our own creation yet, paradoxically, leads us to the truest truth of ourselves.
We may find it superfluous to have the “thing in the sky” tell us to be good. But we need to attend to that which is above and beyond our individual hearts to find our way to the desired superabundance of love that is God. We must discern our desires.
The sheer process of developing such discernment reveals one of the myths of religious life, which is that it is a path for dupes shuffling gape-mouthed from cradle to grave. On the contrary, as both the Gospel writer Matthew and the poet T.S. Eliot remind us, it is an arduous journey that begins with a call, requires our gifts to complete and ends with all the certainty of a dream.
In Matthew’s Gospel, the Magi are called from the east and follow the “thing in the sky” to Jerusalem, then go to Bethlehem where, filled with joy, they leave their gifts. Discerning they have almost been duped into Herod’s murder plot, they return “to their country by another route.”
It is left to a poet of Eliot’s imaginative gifts to satisfy our desire for something more: the galled, sorefooted camels lying down in the snow on the journey, the angry camel men grumbling and wanting liquor and women, the night fires dying in the deep cold, the regret at leaving behind “the summer palaces on the slopes, the terraces/And the silken girls bringing sherbet.” Above all, “the voices singing in our ears saying/That all this was folly.”
Only a religious yearning pushes the Magi across the gulf between need and desire, past the voices singing folly, to the place where the very act of leaving their gifts opens them to a gift of infinitely greater richness: the newborn face of the Salvation of the world. It is the recognition that this Salvation is not a “thing in the sky” like the star they followed. It is a baby, born in human humility into the material world, superfluous to Herod’s needs, yes, but the Incarnation of God’s superabundant love for creation.
It is entirely possible to adore the wisdom of the world without bringing to our daily needs the gift of religious yearning, or seeking in return the gift of seeing the face of Salvation. But desire for full humanity moves us, I think, to that difficult crossing, that “cold coming (in) the dead of winter.” It is, admittedly, a journey superfluous to a good life lived from cradle to grave. But Eliot, following Matthew, evokes the Epiphany of supernatural superabundance:
“I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death, But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.”