Two major criticisms have been levelled at the ‘New Atheism’ movement since it peaked around a decade ago. The first is that its polemical style was a poor fit with its subject matter: to get at the lived reality of religious belief demands nuance and even a degree of tenderness. Second, the movement tended to assume the superiority of a certain kind of knowledge, to the exclusion of others. A detached, schematising rationalism has traditionally been considered essential for doing credible science. It is achieved through discipline: suppressing or at least carefully managing other elements of everyday ‘knowing,’ which might be detrimental to scientific inquiry — empathy, emotion, personality and personal history, intuition, moral sensibility and imagination. New Atheist writers tended to regard this disciplined knowing, developed primarily within and for the benefit of the modern sciences, as the best means of arbitrating any intellectual dispute, including religious questions.
We might call this, in the words of the philosopher John Cottingham, an ‘epistemology of detachment’ (‘epistemology’ meaning theories about what we know and how we know). He likens this approach in evaluating religious belief to looking a picture in an art gallery: you stand in front of it, assess it, and then you may decide to walk away. But religion isn’t like that, he suggests. To understand it, you need an ‘epistemology of involvement’: you enter into it in some way, experience the world from that perspective, and feel your way from there — allowing ‘knowing’ in the broad sense to unfold.
Spiritual autobiography reveals this second kind of knowing in action. Augustine’s Confessions is regarded as the genre’s founding work. For once the cliché of ‘timeless classic’ seems justified: here is a brilliant piece of sustained introspection, on a subject — the self and its relation to the ultimate — whose psychological essentials haven’t much changed in the millennium and a half since it was written. Still, the broader context in which this kind of introspection plays out has changed in important ways, from the make-up and preoccupations of modern societies through to the sorts of philosophical and scientific questions we ask. Modern spiritual autobiographies have a particular value as a result, and Bede Griffiths’ The Golden String (1954) is a great and generally overlooked example.
Griffiths was born in southern England in 1906. In common with many people in his era, he felt that English Christianity had little any longer to offer. Amidst the rich excitement of modern literature, the achievements of science and the technology and barbarity of the Great War, it seemed natural to Bede to dismiss as wholly implausible and irrelevant a worldview premised upon supernatural claims and represented in his own generation by dusty church pews and childish hymns.
But one evening, while still at school, Bede went walking in the countryside. Amidst birdsong and blooming hawthorn bushes, something started to build inside him:
I came to where the sun was setting over the playing fields. A lark rose suddenly from the ground beside the tree where I was standing and poured out its song above my head, and then sank still singing to rest. Everything then grew still as the sunset faded and the veil of dusk began to cover the earth. I remember now the feeling of awe which came over me. I felt inclined to kneel on the ground, as though I had been standing in the presence of an angel; and I hardly dared to look on the face of the sky, because it seemed as though it was but a veil before the face of God.
Unsure what to make of this experience and the powerful emotions it stirred in him, Bede found himself reading more and more of the English Romantic poets. This wasn’t simply a case of developing a fresh appreciation for poetry, after tasting for himself something of the inspiration found in nature by the likes of William Wordsworth. Bede had sensed a ‘presence’ that day that ‘seemed to be drawing me to itself.’ This was strange, unexpected territory; so foreign to the religion with which Bede had grown up that it left him feeling more distant from Christianity than ever. It was of vital importance to Bede that he was not alone in being grasped by this experience, and the Romantics suggested he was not: their poetry appeared to be a record of precisely the kind of thing that had happened to him. Important, too, was the fact that poetry seemed to offer a record of a genuine experience without, however, being capable of generating that experience in a reader — at least not in all its fullness.
For Bede this meant that life became a series of experiments over the years that followed, in the realm of ideas and in the realm of real life — the latter including a period spent living in a Cotswolds village and trying to do without any of the trappings of modern life, from newspapers to motorised transport.
Bede came to appreciate along the way that he couldn’t predict or map out progress in religious belief ahead of time, any more than one can develop a relationship with someone by creating and following a blueprint. In both cases, you can only go step-by-step, making new discoveries and reaching fresh vantage points, and deciding from there where to go next. As with poetry, so with the religious or spiritual life: one can then offer readers a record of one’s own experiences, but never a map or a how-to for their own lives. Religious commitment, one might say, is rationally defensible but not rationally demonstrable — although that spiritual autobiography comes closer than almost anything else.
This insight about religious knowing, at once obvious and yet counter-intuitive when set alongside other forms of knowledge, led Bede to liken that schoolboy moment in nature to the ‘golden string’ of a William Blake verse:
I give you the end of a golden string; Only wind it into a ball, It will lead you in at heaven’s gate, Built in Jerusalem’s wall.
I leave it to readers of The Golden String to take up Bede’s journey with him from here, as it winds through Oxford University, C.S. Lewis, philosophers old and new, and fresh experiments in living. Suffice to say that Griffiths’ ability to breathe fresh life into religion for a great many of his readers helped him to become, by the time of his death in 1993, one of the most influential figures in the ‘New Age.’ The Golden String covers only half of that remarkable life, but all the essentials are there: an ‘epistemology of involvement’ at work, pursued in vivid, sometimes excruciating fealty to that first experience of presence, and offering a valuable antidote to any lasting effects of the New Atheist phase in our thinking about religion.