A reflection on EM Cioran's Tears and Saints, by Tim Summers

This week's reflection starts from a passage from Tears and Saints, a 1937 discussion of medieval mysticism by the Romanian philosopher EM Cioran.

Theology is the negation of divinity. Looking for proofs of God's existence is a crazy idea. All the theological treatises put together are not worth a single sentence from Saint Teresa! We have not gained one certitude since the beginning of theology until today, for theology is the atheist's mode of believing. The most obscure mystical mumbo-jumbo is closer to God than the Summa Theologiae, and a child's simple prayer offers a greater ontological guarantee than all ecumenical synods. All that is institution and theory ceases to be life.

There have always been, for me, competing reasons to be religious (for I reject the evangelical rejection of that excellent word). But the original impulse was based more in experience than reason. Frost in the fields above the village, lamplight on a flagstone floor at the end of term: the sheer magic of life suggesting something more than material. It is quite possible (and data may show) that peak experiences and feelings of transcendence are an evolutionary byproduct, or are actually useful to survival, but I am choosing not to buy it.

Such things are what brought me to faith, inchoately in my childhood village and then in London at university. My early faith had the atmosphere of my beloved Eng Lit; most of all TS Eliot and his wispy, wistful Four Quartets.

Then for a time this was knocked out of me. Having decided that all the other "serious" Christians were to be found in big noisy low churches (I won't name names but those in the know can fill the blanks) I spent a few years reading their literature. Most of this is what Cioran calls "looking for proofs of God's existence". Who Moved The Stone? Evidence That Demands a Verdict. Forceful phrases! According to the apologists, Christian faith can be proved on rational grounds and only the intellectually proud and wilful refuse to believe.

The problem is that these people set the bar so high. They want to argue not in the warm generalities of CS Lewis or GK Chesterton, whose work I knew from before, but to show that the Bible is without error. They are (without even being aware of the fact) shipwrecked in debates with Christopher Hitchens et al. Eventually one settles for a more moderate, centrist apologist; and finally, being unsatisfied with the arguments of Wright and McGrath, one meets the liberal bishop and textual critic. And then at last (if one's faith is still intact at all) one loses interest in arguments altogether. This is not how one came to faith, so why pretend that it was? The honest explorer is led back to the starting point.

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

In middle life, in a twist worthy of Four Quartets, I have returned to my first kind of faith. I have arrived where I started. The reason that I believe is experiential and based on longing. So EM Cioran is right; the mystics are right, CS Lewis is right. (Bookish, I grant; but my faith is based first on this experience of magic found in frosty fields and flagstone floors, backed up by authors and poets.)

It is longing for the eternal. This is CS Lewis' concept of "joy": an almost painful longing, such as I experienced in the frosty village, for a something that cannot be named. Lewis argues that any desire for something must serve a purpose and be capable of satisfaction. For hunger there is food, for erotic attraction there is sex. Perhaps the feelings of desire that constitute peak experiences are a longing that can be satisfied by a life that lies beyond our material life. For what purpose would they serve otherwise? Mere biology is strangely silent.

Yes, this is itself an intellectual argument of sorts; but really it is just agreement with the mystics and EM Cioran. It is choosing to believe that my experience, my longing, means something. To make such a choice is, as I said last time in relation to my "Schopenhauerian Christianity," a sort of wager; a leap of faith.

But perhaps that's a topic for another reflection.

The image is a portrait of St Teresa of Avila, referred to by Cioran above.