In a pivotal scene in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, the agnostic narrator and main character Charles Ryder interrogates his friend Sebastian Flyte about the latter’s Catholic faith. Charles is incredulous about the religion to which the Flyte family subscribes and the peculiar ways that various of them respectively assent to it.
“I suppose they try and make you believe an awful lot of nonsense?” asks Charles.
“Is it nonsense?” responds Sebastian. “I wish it were. It sometimes sounds terribly sensible to me.”
“But my dear Sebastian, you can’t seriously believe it all,” accuses Charles. “I mean about the Christmas star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.”
“Oh, yes, I believe that,” Sebastian replies. “It’s a lovely idea.”
“But you can’t believe things because they’re a lovely idea,” Charles exclaims.
“But I do,” answers Sebastian. “That’s how I believe.”
Charles thinks he is testing the reasonableness of Sebastian’s personal belief. In fact, however, he is imposing a rationalist conceit on the Catholic faith to which Sebastian adheres. In doing so, Charles confuses the tenets of the faith with the means by which one embraces it. And by using Christmas motifs in the dialogue, Waugh illustrates his own acute understanding of the difference.
Unique among sentient beings, the human person has the capacity for transcendence. This means, among other things, that we have the faculty to contemplate things outside physical sense experience. We can abstract from the concrete experience of tangible things, and draw conclusions that cannot be reduced to those things. We have the capacity to believe – to be open to contemplation of another person and of God himself. Wonder is a means of discovering and embracing truth that cannot be reduced to scientific precision or mathematical certitude.
At least at this point in the novel, Charles Ryder did not understand this. He was a rationalist for whom knowledge was increased and legitimated to the extent that belief was eliminated. He wasn’t criticising merely what Sebastian believed, but rather the very notion that faith can be a kind of knowledge at all. If one believes something because it is a “lovely idea”, one is irrational – being made “to believe an awful lot of nonsense”.
Sebastian understood something that Charles did not, namely that faith is not a bridge between things we cannot know and things we can. Rather, faith is a kind of knowing. It is knowing that is rooted in wonder – in embracing lovely ideas that speak to the transcendent nature of the human person and bring him to knowledge that is more enriching than the conclusions drawn from mathematical formulae or scientific experiment. Faith is not the absence of knowledge. It is instead knowledge of those things that are too wonderful – too lovely – to be reduced to our physiological senses, even while those senses may lead us to the wonderful things.
And when we trade wonder for certainty, we lose the very genius of the mystery of Christmas – God becoming man so that we can know God. He who transcends all things became incarnate in a being who, by physiological sense observation, transcends nothing. Jesus the human being was observable by the human senses. He could be seen, touched and heard by anyone who came in proximity to him. But while these sensible faculties could “know” the incarnate person of Jesus, wonder is the means by which we come to know the transcendent person of the Son of God. The happy fault of Adam is subsumed by the lovely idea of Jesus.
To understand the incarnation as mystery is not to say that we cannot believe it, but rather to affirm that mystery itself can be embraced as knowledge consistent with our capacity for transcendence. And the astonishing “incarnational” accoutrements that accompany the Christmas narratives – the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass – comprise the lovely idea by which that transcendent knowledge is acquired. It is, at least in part, how we believe.
Later in Brideshead Revisited, Charles has a similar conversation with Sebastian’s mother, Lady Marchmain, in which Charles alludes to “a camel and the eye of a needle”. In reply, Lady Marchman says, “But of course it’s very unexpected for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, but the gospel is simply a catalogue of unexpected things. It’s not to be expected that an ox and an ass would worship at the crib… It’s all part of the poetry, the Alice-in-Wonderland side of religion.”
Thus, Christmas. It is a time to celebrate the Wonderful Exchange through the lovely ideas of unexpected things.
Kenneth Craycraft is a licensed attorney and the James J. Gardner Family Chair of Moral Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and School of Theology, the seminary for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. He holds the Ph.D. in theology from Boston College, and the J.D. from Duke University School of Law.
This article is from the December 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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