Lapsed Agnostic

A modern Irishman struggles to make sense of his boyhood faith again and succeeds.
Brenda McGann | Jan 30 2008 | comment  



Many things have changed in Ireland in recent years but, in our house at least, certain customs die hard. So I was making mince pies in the kitchen just before Christmas, when my attention was taken by a radio interview with local writer John Waters. Waters has just published a book, Lapsed Agnostic, telling a little of his journey from being a believer as a child and youth, to a non-believer in his 20s and 30s, and the journey back to faith in his 40s. He is now just 50.The interview was particularly good, with excellent questions from the interviewer Ryan Tubridy which received thoughtful and straight answers.

Waters, who is also a playwright and newspaper columnist, is always interesting, sometimes provocative, often controversial, but always blisteringly honest and not afraid of the consequences of his ideas. He thinks deeply about social issues and analyses them with a refreshing independence from politically correct standards.

'In some ways, it seems to me, Irish society's searching (for meaning) has tended to parallel my own.'

I bought the book with the idea of giving it in a Christmas stocking but decided to read it myself first. It did not disappoint me. Now I am holding on to it to re-read parts, especially the final chapter which has many thought-provoking insights into the secularist cultural phenomenon that we are in the grip of here in Ireland and, to a greater or lesser degree, throughout the western world.

Lapsed Agnostic is a slim volume at just under 200 pages. The early chapters deal with Waters' childhood, lived close to his father who clearly was a big influence in his life. Their spoken exchanges were scant, and in that way typical of the era and place they lived in -- the west of Ireland in the 50s and early 60s. Love was lived but not spoken of then.

Waters senior had a strong faith which manifested itself mostly in private piety and dedication, where it seemed "he lived an existence in the utter conviction of another reality". He worked very diligently as a driver for the postal authority and provided carefully for his family. However, there was an asceticism in his lifestyle that did not explain itself to his son.

The book chronicles the typical progression of a thoughtful youth from adolescence into adulthood in an environment which did not explain very well the reasons for the taboos it practised. In the chapter entitled, "Pan's People", detailing the lure of rock music and the sense of "freedom" it brought, there are interesting insights into the wider spectrum of change that has galloped through Ireland and its cultural habits in the last couple of decades. As Waters says, "In some ways, it seems to me, Irish society's searching (for meaning) has tended to parallel my own".

He recognises that, "unlike other European societies Ireland never had a clear moment of social rebellion…but that the same thing occurred on a piecemeal basis". He suggests that Ireland, being a young country in terms of its own political independence, is now at the middle age of its modernity, manifested in the cultural habits of the generation inspired by the revolt of the 1960s. In this he sees a parallel with his own chronological age.

This cultural phenomenon Waters calls the "Peter Pan Syndrome" -- the reluctance to grow old, the neurotic clinging to confidence in a modernity that has very shallow roots. This chapter has much to ponder in it, at once worrying and encouraging -- if faced up to. The notion that Ireland is at a crossroads is both a challenge and an opportunity to see beyond rationalism and individualism and connect with the deeper yearnings of the human heart. We could learn something to our advantage from Pope Benedict's recent encyclical letter on hope -- if we were listening.

The temptation to escape from such serious business by recourse to the demon drink has long plagued the Irish. Waters has surprised his peers by revealing his former reliance on alcohol. It says something about our drinking culture that they never thought of him as an alcoholic, while Waters himself confesses that, "I was incapable of functioning without it". He worries about the over-consumption of alcohol in Ireland and the effect it has on emotional and social maturity.

His own recovery was greatly assisted by AA. Waters describes how it went hand in hand with "crawling back" to tentative belief in God, in words reminiscent of what the ombudsman Emily O'Reilly has called "tiptoeing back to Church". It was at this stage in his struggle for meaning that he recognised "you need to kneel down to understand your relationship to reality". This, for Waters, was a "mind-blowing idea" which more and more helped him to see he "was abdicating from the throne I had stolen from God".

In the chapter humorously entitled, "The Hole in the Doughnut", he notes how the aggressive secularism which dominates public discourse in today's Ireland would dumb down "the religious dimension inherent in the human being and confine religious belief and practice, at best, to the private and personal domain with no place in the public square". He has much to say from his own experience about "the agnostic cast of mind" being the most comfortable to function with in this climate.

Getting on his knees was only the beginning of Waters' recovery. He had to start praying without yet being able to believe (his advice to those asking how to have faith is to fake it until you get it!) and that experience is behind his enigmatic observation that "perhaps the smartest of all people are those who can overcome their intelligence to an extent that allows them to believe".

A corrective to this potentially dangerous view came in the form of an invitation to speak at a rally in Italy for the Communion and Liberation movement. There he was introduced to the writing of Father Giussani, their founder, and specifically to his book, The Religious Sense

And it is the main concern of his final chapter, "After Don't", where Waters offers some solutions. For example: "Irish Catholicism simply tells us that sex outside marriage is immoral but stops short at explaining why." (It seems to me that this is an invitation to explore the "theology of the body", Pope John Paul II's great catechesis on human sexuality).

Again, says Waters: "The primary difficulty with the alleged rationality of our age is not that it denies God the belief and loyalty of humanity, but that it denies humanity the knowledge and protection of God." This insight suggests a way of talking up the practical benefits of belief to a generation that is well used to dealing with pragmatic solutions.

While the author does not explicitly say so, the growing realisation graphed in this book is that God is his loving Father and that he is both "of" and "for" God. This gives a completely new dimension to his existence which is very liberating, changing the lens through which he sees life and all its joys and sorrows while in no way changing his circumstances or even lessening his efforts to deal with them. He remains the same person with the same tendencies and reactions. He says his faith has nothing to do with being "good…it is much more radical than any of that. It is, you might say, a technology for living".

This book is well written, very personally wrought and courageously told. While I am not altogether happy with some of the bleaker diagnoses described in Lapsed Agnostic, there are some very provocative insights and analyses which make it a worthwhile contribution to public discourse as well as to private journeying along the path of faith and reason.

Brenda McGann is the mother of a grown up family. She has taught science subjects in girls' schools in the U.K. and Dublin. She writes from Monkstown County Dublin where she lives with her husband.

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