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Love, hope and faith

This post was first published on September 19, 2010

There as been a great deal of discussion recently concerning faith. Numerous members here have expressed their scorn for those who adhere to any religious beliefs or hold some sort of faith in there being a supernatural entity and a purpose to life that extends beyond the laws of nature. I often think the critics are being too harsh in their judgements. Faith is not an object that can be selected from the shelf like a grocery item to place in a shopping trolley. You cannot choose faith; faith chooses you, just as you cannot choose to love or choose to hope. They are all as much a part of human nature as is the desire for life itself.

It is a shame that the three greatest virtues, have in a sense, been hijacked by Christianity. Scholars describe them as the ‘theological virtues’. St Paul in 1st Corinthians 13:13, writes very eloquently about them, though most of what he says concerns love. But  I maintain, however, that they do not belong purely to the realms of theology. They are human characteristics. Their presence in all of us, to a greater or lesser extent, help define us as humans.

I have recently read, ‘The End of the Affair”, by Graham Greene. Greene, it is readily acknowledged, was one of the greatest English novelists of the 20th century. Like a number of great intellectuals, he was a convert to Catholicism. Many of his books deal with conflicts of faith. The End of the Affair, which is to some extent autobiographical, is no exception.

The protagonist is a writer by the name Maurice Bendrix. Through various means he learns some of the intimate thoughts of Sarah Miles, his former lover. In her diary he learns, how following a bomb landing on his house, (the novel is set during and after the War) she believes that Bendrix had been killed. Although a committed atheist, she makes a pact with a non-existent God, that if he returns to live, she will leave Bendrix and commit herself to believing in God. It is quite obviously an act of desperation born out of shocking circumstances. She has seen the body of her lover, whom she loves with all her soul, lying senseless under the rubble. In her mind, she knows that he is dead, though in reality she is mistaken. Bendrix recovers consciousness and goes to find her. She, upon seeing him alive and well, is horrified by the enormity of what she had vowed and leaves him. He is understandably confused by her behaviour though he has always dreaded that one day the love affair would end. His love turns to hate.

She too turns to hate, but hate for God. The only thing that God had done since the moment she discovered Him, is to forbid her from seeing the man she loves. She tries desperately to disprove His existence but is unable to do so. She is confused and miserable and becomes very ill. The more she fights against her growing belief in God, she even seeks help to achieve this, the more she comes to believe in Him. Eventually she begins to receive instruction from a Catholic priest.

In a letter written to Bendrix immediately before her death, Sarah describes her faith. She admits it is totally illogical. “One day I will meet you on the Common and then I won’t care a damn about Henry (her husband) or God or anything. But what is the good, Maurice? I believe there’s a God – I believe the whole bag of tricks, there’s nothing I don’t believe, they could subdivide the Trinity into a dozen parts and I’d believe. They could dig up records that proved Christ had been invented by Pilate to get himself promoted and I’d believe just the same. I’ve caught belief like a disease. I’ve fallen into belief like I fell in love.”

Her faith is an emotion. It is important to her as her love she has for Bendrix. It is as important to her as the hope that a mother has for her sick child. Sarah has to believe in a purpose, a reason, a cause, a denouement.

Once Bendrix discovers that he is still loved by Sarah, he tries desperately to win her back. Although she refuses contact with him, he longs for her to relent. Though his hope is more realistic than the hopes of many, in this instance it is rendered fruitless by her death.

It is a curious thing about human nature how so many of our hopes and dreams are completely unrealistic. Every week, millions of people all over the world buy lottery tickets in the vain hope of winning a fortune and securing their future. And to all intents and purposes it is a vain hope. The chances of winning are so vastly remote as to be nigh on impossible.

But where there is the remotest of possibilities, hope will exist. Thus it was an ostensibly vain hope that kept many Jews alive in the concentration camps, though they knew their deaths were a certainty. And it was hope that enabled Ernest Shackleton and his team, under extreme circumstances, to cross the southern ocean to fetch help. Much of what we hope for is demonstrably unobtainable, but it does not stop us from grasping. Hope provides us with ambition for ourselves and our children. Hope drives the entertainment industry and the celebrity culture that goes with it. After all, what is fantasy, but hope in another form?  Reality shows are evidence of that.

I am sure that from time to time we all look at various couples we know and wonder how it is that one or the other, or even both, see anything that is worth loving in their partner. So many people appear to us to be totally unappealing and yet they manage to find someone who loves them. There is no logic that can explain, why, where and when love can exist.

Though love is universal, it is more apparent in some than in others. While all the world loves a lover, there are people who seem incapable of love and we deride them for it. We call them ‘a cold fish’ or a cynic. We may even say that they suffer from Aspergers or autism or go so far as to say they are psychopathic. Equally we are derogatory about people who despair; we despise them for it and call them faint-hearted cowards or quitters, while we admire those who inspire hope. In Churchill famous speech to the boys at Harrow he siad:

‘But for everyone, surely, what we have gone through in this period – I am addressing myself to the School – surely from this period of ten months this is the lesson: never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never-in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy. We stood all alone a year ago, and to many countries it seemed that our account was closed, we were finished. All this tradition of ours, our songs, our School history, this part of the history of this country, were gone and finished and liquidated..’

We sing songs of love and hope. We write poetry and tell tales. We admire those great virtues and talk about them with pride and conviction. In a secular environment they are acceptable topics of conversation. Why, therefore, is faith unacceptable? Is it so difficult to acknowledge that millions of people need faith in order to face the struggle of their lives and justify their existence. The huge void created by an absence of faith is too frightening for them to deal with. Is it fair to deride those who believe in something different to what we believe ourselves? One might just as well make fun of somebody for marrying the person they have. Imagine an acquaintance saying, ‘My goodness, your husband/wife is ugly/stupid. How on earth can you be in the same room as him/her, let alone the same bed?’ Few of us respect a person who at the first sign of difficulty says, ‘it’s all over mate, the Krauts/Poms have got us by the short and curlies, we have lost the war/Ashes. Let’s surrender now.’

I grant you that a zealot who shoves his faith in your face is extremely irritating, but so is a lovesick girl who bores for England about some spotty youth or a fame-seeking no-hoper who tortures a guitar in the room upstairs. But outside of the church, mosque or synagogue, should we not show the same amount of respect and understanding for someone who has faith as we do for someone who loves or is filled with hope?

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