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Religion has too often tended to fight its battles on the wrong ground. Luther’s emphasis on justification by faith alone focused attention on belief in a series of propositions to which we must either intellectually assent or else risk eternal perdition. The Enlightenment encouraged a universal recourse to reason by which, despite various baleful outcomes, we are guided still. The tendency of fundamentalist religious sects to defend their corner as if they were advancing empirically provable scientific propositions adds grist to the materialist mill. But we need only think about how we approach important parts of our lives such as the appreciation of nature and art, or our relations with our loved ones, to realise that it is indeed often rational to forego pure reason. This suggestion has been put forward with lucidity in a book which is not about religion, Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary, a work of exceptional importance which — from the starting-point of examining the different ways in which the two brain hemispheres make sense of the world — argues a persuasive case that we rely too much on the essentially verbal, lifeless, static, Platonic perceptions of the left hemisphere and should restore the equal validity of the right, which experiences the world in interactive, living, dynamic, pre-Socratic terms (for as Heraclitus said, “Everything is in flux”). On this view, we should not conceive the world in terms of verifiable certainties within our own minds, but recognise that man, far from being the intellectual centre of existence, is a “privileged listener and respondent” to it.

There are those who seek to approach and justify their own faith in a spirit of rationalist inquiry. Science and maths themselves have inspired people to see God through the purity of numbers and the architecture of the universe. For others — and no less productively — the religious life has to start with an inclination. There are those, such as Crane, who speak in terms of a religious “impulse”, deriving from the mere sense that (as he puts it) “there must be more to life than this”, but the notion of an inclination better conveys the sense of responding to a gradient, as it were of falling into a relationship with God. To the atheist who offers the knock-down response that he feels no such inclination, the answer is simple. Someone who decides that he has no appreciation, say, of music should pursue the things that he does enjoy; meanwhile, his deafness to the appeal of music is simply irrelevant to those who take pleasure in listening to it. Neither position invalidates the other; each is a choice about how to live in the world and what to characterise as important. It is pointless to try and persuade towards belief a person who lacks the religious tendency. There is nothing reprehensible about not having such a tendency; but there is nothing reprehensible about having it either. The poets have traditionally understood the nature of the inclination towards belief better than the scientific materialists (as is indicated by the fact that many scientists would dispute the very existence of poetic truth). In his great spiritual meditation Little Gidding, Eliot quotes from the 14th-century text The Cloud of Unknowing to convey the sense of God’s gravitational pull: “With the drawing of this love and the voice of this calling.” Many respond to the beauty of this idea without knowing other than intuitively what it means — but they respond with a sense of recognition.
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