The following is the first offering from Charlie Demers's new Substack online initiative "Charlie Don't Tweet". It is by subscription and all are encouraged to subscribe. Charlie was kind enough to share this first blog with diocesan communications. Please consider subscribing by followin this link.
Charlie is a member of the St. Brigid's congregation located at Christ Church Cathedral.
I started doing stand-up comedy 16 years ago, but my first time on-stage was as Jesus Christ, in the winter of 1980, in the Christmas pageant at All Saints church in South Burnaby. Though I was nearly six months old that Advent, I had the cheekbones to play a newborn, and since we were a fairly low-church Anglican parish there was no fog of incense to cover the smell of cigarette smoke which likely clung to my forward-facing front-passenger baby carseat where it sat lovingly placed in the middle of the manger scene. The shepherds may have been afraid, but not afraid enough.
My second ever appearance on CBC radio’s The Debaters — without a doubt the most important, consistent platform in my comedy life — was arguing for belief in God. I made the case as a depressed atheist who wished he could believe. Well, to quote Joaquin Phoenix in last year’s (last year!) urgently fretted, now forgotten Joker: “no one’s laughing now.”
In the slow migration I’ve made over the past few years from non-belligerent atheist to guy who tries to find the best cartoons about St Francis of Assisi on YouTube to show his daughter (truly I tell you, it will be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for you to find a good cartoon about St Francis of Assisi on Youtube to show your daughter), the death and funeral of my family’s priest at the time of that pageant, a scholar-activist who was always a big part of my life even when I wasn’t remotely thinking about God or church, was the proximate catalyst for my return to the billowy folds of faith. But the groundwork had been laid over the course of several years, on Christmas Eve visits to that church in South Burnaby, which began for reasons I’m really not sure I could articulate.
Or maybe I could articulate them: I came to the services through death, and the fear of death. The morbidity isn’t entirely misplaced given that, in the words of the biblical scholar Raymond E. Brown, “the Christmas crib lies under the shadow of the cross.” All Saints parish turned 100 years old in 2012, and as a congenial-if-secular well-wisher, I attended the centenary celebration of the church of my baptism, where I had been a server (the rough Anglican analogue of a Roman Catholic altar boy, with less complicated robes & slightly fewer things to light on fire), and in whose consecrated memorial garden my mother’s ashes had been interred shortly after her memorial service, in that same church, when I was ten years old.
Ironically, rather than convincing me of All Saints’s stolidity and permanence, the centenary celebrations made me acutely aware of just how much smaller the parish rolls were than they had been when I was growing up in the neighbourhood, or since I had been a member of the mystical body of Christ in good standing.
I was deeply saddened by even the possibility of a South Burnaby without All Saints; it was an infinitely more personal version of what I’d felt just a couple of years earlier when it had briefly looked as though Vancouver might lose its ballet: sure, I don’t go, but I still like the idea of there being a ballet that somebody can, theoretically, go to. I say infinitely more personal, of course, owing to the fact that the shuttering of the ballet wouldn’t have involved disinterring the garden which provided my mother’s eternal resting place, and moving it to slightly more solvent Anglican real estate. So I started showing up, once a year, for ‘midnight mass’ (scheduled for shortly after supper time) to sing Christmas carols, tell a few grey-haired parishioners how my dad (former member of the choir, now transplanted to Halifax, Nova Scotia) was doing, leave something festive and seasonal in the garden for Mom, and put a hundred bucks or so in the collection plate so that I could tell myself — if the lights ever did go out — that at least I had done something. When I casually took part in the Lord’s Supper, sharing the Communion of wine and small, dry, round wafer, there was a tug at something inside me — much as there had been in 2009, at my Granny’s funeral, which had been my first opportunity to revisit the green Book of Alternative Services with its somehow-still-familiar language in a decade and a half — that I mistook for for something nostalgic, or cultural. I didn’t realize the pull was liturgical. It was Holy.
There were any number of things that kept me from acting on that impulse as soon as I recognized it, all of which probably deserve their own proper piece of analysis, but let’s concern ourselves with what might be in some ways the simplest and, I imagine, for many people the most relatable: I didn’t want to look stupid.
When I was an atheist, I blithely swore allegiance to science, whatever I imagined it was, from a position of nearly immaculate ignorance of anything more complicated than grade eleven biology that wasn’t contained in the odd Stephen Jay Gould essay or particularly compelling piece of crossover non-fiction magazine writing. I wanted, very much, to be someone who was into science and understood it, because it was a trait that I deeply admired, and still do — and besides, in the world of Marxism, where I spent and still spend a great deal of my ideological time, the Scientist is (to a large extent justifiably) held in an ecstatic and revered esteem bordering on the clerical. But if I’m honest, I just didn’t have much of a head for it, and seeing as I’m the kind of guy who’s inclined to go along obediently with what the bulk of scientists say on the important issues (catastrophic climate change is on the way if we don’t shape up? I’ll take your word for it. GMO foods are safe? Who am I to argue — I don’t even understand why cheese tastes different when it’s melted) it didn’t seem that pressing to me to sort out the details myself.
Stephen Jay Gould famously wrote, in his book Rock of Ages, that science and religion were “NOMA” — non-overlapping magisteria; in other words, they cover different things (the famous distinction between, in the phrase alternately attributed to Galileo or Cardinal Baronius, “how the heavens go” versus “how to go to heaven”). Gould got a lot right in his generous distinction, which was generally constructive, but still not quite on the money. Religion and science can deal, sometimes, with the very same facts — to which they will nevertheless be oriented in entirely different ways.
Imagine the difference between asking the questions “Is this house a good investment?” against “Does this house feel like home?” (pretend, for this thought experiment, that I’m not writing from Vancouver, where all homes are by definition good investments, especially if they can be torn down). These two questions are entirely different ways of approaching reality, and fail to overlap in the kind of thing they’re trying to discern — even if the answers to them might draw from identical data:
Yes, this house is a very good investment. It’s quite close to a good school. It’s safely insulated from any major streets by several blocks on all sides. All three bedrooms are on the second floor, at the same end of the house.
Oh, yeah. We used to walk to school even in the rain — I had a huge crush on the boy who lived on the next block and we would pass his house on the way there and back and my brother would laugh because I’d turn beet red. We played road hockey almost year round. And whenever I had a nightmare, I would run across the room into my mom and dad’s bed. We were only there for seven years, but it’ll always be home to me.
The difference is between a method of empirically accounting for the universe and, in the words of the philosopher Keith Ward, a way encountering it.
Once I started going to church again, I became so terrified that my ass was showing, intellectually — that I was signing on to medieval superstitions that were incompatible with what we knew to be materially true about our physical world — that I started looking into some of the stuff I probably should have learned about as a public school student. What I found were myriad physical descriptions of the universe that presented just as enormous a host of challenges to most of the secular beliefs I’d built my life around as to beliefs about anything divine. To begin with, I was flabbergasted to discover a serious and significant segment of naturalist materialists whose both expertise and faith in physics convinced them that everything in the universe (including human thoughts) were not only reducible to brute physical facts but that these physical phenomena were set in motion, governed, and therefore entirely predetermined by the initial moments of the Big Bang. Yes, including that I typed this sentence; including that you read this sentence; including that you thought, ‘I think he must have misunderstood that.’ Other scientists insist that this Einsteinian twist on Calvinism is made a nonsense by quantum indeterminacy, but as a scientist friend pointed out to me, when I hopefully brought him this nugget whilst trying to cling to the possibility that free will was still physically possible, there is nothing inherently more free about a life determined by random chance than by physical predetermination. Even those who don’t necessarily see free will as compromised by physics may see human freedom as rendered essentially an absurdity by the limitations of our deeper, neurobiological selves, which are always truly in control of the paper thin (and maybe, according to the Daniel Dennetts of the world, somehow fictitious?) concept we think of as ‘consciousness.’
For whatever reason, as a newly re-minted Christian, I felt like I had to account for this seeming contradiction of my confessional beliefs. But why shouldn’t it be just as much an affront to my convictions as a secular socialist? Or as anything else? A dad, or someone who likes playing bocce? In this view of the world, we’re essentially barnacles with nicer faces and music that we have, if I understand the gist of what Dennett is saying, for the purposes of evolutionary advantage illusorily convinced ourselves is beautiful (after convincing ourselves that there is Beauty; after convincing ourselves that there is a Self…) If everything anyone does, from catching a baby thrown from a burning building to lacing the water supply of a major metropolitan area with Dr. Pepper to thinking about whether the success of “Tubthumping" ever presented any challenges to Chumbawumba’s anarchist principles is merely the result of the impersonal physical forces governing the brute idiotic stuff that makes up the totally accidental universe, then what’s the point of feeling any way about any thing? It makes as much sense to be angry, or demoralized, or analytical about the murder of Rosa Luxemburg or the invasion of Iraq as it would be to offer a rebuttal to a prairie fire started by a lightning bolt.
In listening to Dr. Michael Shermer discuss free will with the philosopher Christian List on his podcast, you can hear Shermer (who, like List, does believe in free will) trying valiantly to present the anti-free will beliefs of his friends like Sam Harris in the strongest light possible. Ultimately, though, he arrives at the same place that I think any sane and sensible person needs to cop to: that even if, against every intuition that I have, my free will is illusory, there is no meaningful sense in which I can live my life as though that were the case. So I will carry on as if I have free will.
He is proposing, in other words, an act of faith, not altogether dissimilar from Pascal’s Wager. And I think he’s right to do so.
I don’t for a moment want to claim Shermer as a proponent for religious belief (he isn’t one), and I’m sure he’d be inclined to point out that belief in human free will is a proposition with a much lower threshold for believability than faith in God — in other words, it’s more plausible going in. I haven’t considered that too carefully, but my instinctual assessment would be that that’s probably true.
But I do think that the act of faith in free will, the decision to believe and to carry forward with one’s life in harmony with that belief, is analogous to the act of choosing to place faith in a loving providence that wants you here as a way of making sense not only of your own life, but of everyone else’s. To reorient oneself to the idea of existence as something given to us lovingly is not only a philosophically or metaphysically plausible way of looking at the world, but an existentially liberating one. It frees us from the need to make life worthwhile merely as a function of the sum of its parts — were there more “good” moments than “bad”; did you experience more pleasure than pain? This is why materially privileged people and social groups (the ones who, theoretically, have the most to be thankful for) tend to feel the least need for God, and why the oppressed and suffering, to the great chagrin of middle-class leftist intellectuals always and everywhere, tend always to keep the language of the divine in their mouths. It’s how we human beings can know that when there’s no way to make the accounting work, even when life has brought unspeakable pain that seems to have far outweighed the moments of relief or release, it’s somehow still better that we were here than if we hadn’t been.
That’s why it’s okay for me to have arrived at Christmas through death; because then a baby is born, and though that baby’s “crib is under the shadow of the cross,” in the language in which I was brought up that cross in turn is defeated and redeemed by living love. As the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams points out, “believing in God” isn’t an act of assenting to a factual accountancy. It’s more, Williams says, like trusting in God. Having faith isn’t something you have like green eyes or a heart murmur. It’s something you do, in choosing to see your existence, and everyone else’s, as a sacred gift.
I guess what I’m saying is, next time some holier than thou type tells you that Christmas isn’t really about presents — tell them from me, they don’t know what they’re talking about.