Back in December of 2014, I told Terri Stewart, our editor-in-chief for Beguine Again, that – as I said at the time, “for obvious reasons” having to do with my atheism — I would not submit a “Skeptics Collection” post for Christmas Day, Thursday, 25 December. I said that in good faith. At the time, I really didn’t intend to do so.

Well … as it turns out, I was wrong. Obviously. I changed my mind for two reasons that take a bit of telling, one a matter of principle; the other, a matter of an Aha! moment of experience.

As a matter of principle, I realized that one subject that had thus far escaped critical examination is my own stance of skepticism. Everyone has an ideology, a grid through which they view the world. Nothing wrong in principle with ideologies. Without such, we would have no means of organizing experience, which would perforce consist of William James’s “blooming, buzzing confusion”. But it is important that we be aware of the principles that underlie our ideology and that we be willing to examine those principles critically. So far, I had not done that, at least not publicly. Hence this column.

“Crossing of the Red Sea” ,,, Jan van Orley and Augustin Coppens … Public domain

The experiential Aha! moment occurred when, on Thu 4 December, my wife Diane and I attended the Tallis Scholars’ luminous performance of medieval sacred choral music at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church. Listening to the Scholars turned out to be a powerful emotional experience for me. In one way, this is certainly not surprising. I am a music junkie. (If you want to avoid being a music junkie, never feed your habit by buying a car with a high-end Bluetooth stereo system … and then discovering how cheap music is on iTunes.)  Diane has a hard time keeping me from twitching rhythmically in my seat whenever we go to a performance of the Seattle Symphony and they play, e.g., Bach’s Second Brandenburg Concerto. Ditto certain jazz pieces by Kenny Davern or McCoy Tyner or … well … not to belabor the point. You get the picture.

“The School of Athens” … Raphael Sanzio of Urbino … Public domain
Brain and question mark … Artist unknown … Public domain

But when the music I am listening to evinces an explicit religious theme, especially the music of the great masters of 16th- and 17th-century liturgical choral polyphony, there is an element in addition to aesthetics. There is what I can only call a certain nostalgia – in particular, a certain nostalgia for faith. Even more particularly, I feel a piercing, bittersweet pining for the lost country of the Christian myth that music has – for me – a unique power to evoke, what Wordsworth called “spots of time” in his poetic autobiography The Prelude. (I mean here “myth” in the “technical” sense of a story that is revelatory of the depths of the human condition, regardless of the story’s literal historical factuality, e.g., Abraham Lincoln’s assassination is a myth. Myth in this sense is never “mere”.) And not just the music of Bach and Handel and Palestrina and Josquin DePrez and Thomas Tallis. Sometimes, the old bluegrass and Gospel – often even fundamentalist — hymns I grew up with in church are equally powerful: “The Way of the Cross Leads Home”, “Camping in Canaan”, “There were Ninety and Nine”, etc., etc. In fact, there is certain music, usually Baroque or pre-Baroque, but also many of the old-time-y “camp-meeting” songs, I simply dare not listen to while driving … like Antonio Allegri’s great Miserere or virtually anything by composers of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, et al. On a rational level, I am skeptical. But such music, bypassing my discursive intellect, just grabs my guts and glands, notwithstanding.


The facile answer, perhaps true as far as it goes, is to say that such music appeals to the limbic system, the “reptile brain”, which subsists, both historically and physiologically, “beneath” or “behind” the cerebral cortex. Problem is, this answer doesn’t go far enough. Or rather, it goes too far by explaining (away?) too much. Debunking religious nostalgia by reference to “higher” brain functions, if followed with lemmings-over-the-cliff consistency, would also debunk my marriage, in fact, all of Diane’s and my friendships, even the closest. Also all the works of art that dazzled us in the British Museum in London and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Allegri’s “Miserere” … Photographer unknown … Public domain

Besides, the “limbic system” response skates over the issue of the substantive truth value of what the feelings refer to. Even if my gut-level response to, say, Palestrina’s Tu Es Petrus does originate in the “reptile brain”, that in itself does not impugn the presumptive truth of that to which the Petrus  points. If a hungry tiger escaped from the zoo and invaded my house, my limbic system would kick into “fight or flight” mode – hopefully, the latter! – but the origin of “fight or flight” says nothing about the reality of the threat I am being prompted to fight or to flee. If I were to infer that the tiger were not real, I would be lunch.

As far as I can tell, there are only two generic types of responses that confront the issue head-on of what I was responding to in the religiously themed music. I say “generic types of responses” because you encounter variations on these themes, but the themes themselves are pretty constant and consistent, whatever variations you may encounter. Accordingly, I will use two writers to exemplify the two fundamental answers.

C. S. Lewis … Photographer unknown … CC BY 2.0

o The response of bittersweet nostalgia, of longing, of pining, of Wordsworth’s “spots of time”, is prima facie proof that that which is longed for does exist. This is C. S. Lewis’s response — often termed “the Argument from Desire” — in several of his works popularizing Christianity. In fact, Lewis himself cites the example of physical hunger: the very fact that we experience hunger, argues Lewis, is prima facie proof of the existence of food. Now, continues Lewis, the type of food for which we hunger may not be in the vicinity at the moment we desire it. (Trying to get really good, fresh sashimi in Kansas or Iowa is a fool’s errand.) And if you are shipwrecked on a desert island and don’t know how to fish and are not fleet enough to catch the odd seagull, you may starve to death for lack of any food. But neither of those practical limitations implies that food per se is not real. For, concludes Lewis, the fact that we desire it, hunger and hanker for it, proves conclusively that food at least exists. The problem with this argument is that the reason I hanker and hunger for, e.g., chicken vindaloo is because I have eaten chicken vindaloo before. This is the gastronomic equivalent of David Hume’s rebuttal of Rev. Paley’s “Divine watchmaker” argument for intelligent design: we know that Rev. Paley’s pocket watch is the product of intelligence, says Hume, because we have seen (or at least heard tell of) pocket watches being made. But we have never seen (or heard tell of) a universe being made. An entity that presumably does not eat or drink – say, a rock – would for that reason never know hunger or thirst, and would never even think of the question “Do food and water exist?”

o The response of bittersweet nostalgia, of longing, of pining is prima facie proof that human beings inhabit an absurd universe which does not respect human longings for meaning, purpose, and value. In other words, desire does not entail existence, even in a per se / generic sense.. This is the response of Albert Camus, especially in books like The Myth of Sisyphus, The Rebel, and novels like The Stranger. Camus does not say so anywhere that I am aware of, but a corollary of Camus’ thesis is that evolution went “a bridge too far” by raising up from the primal slime a being whose intellectual and cognitive faculties are fatally susceptible to the development of longings that are literally un-fulfill-able. We desire meaning, Camus argues in Sisyphus, and since we find no meaning assigned to us by the cosmos, we undergo experiences – like the death of the apartment manager’s daughter Camus alludes to – that rub our noses in the sheer randomness and gratuitousness and indifference of life, driving many of us to suicide.

Albert Camus … United Press International … Public domain

So, as I sit in the pew at Blessed Sacrament listening to the Tallis Scholars, which do I choose? The odd, though perhaps to-be-expected, thing is that the environment itself is powerfully persuasive. Sitting in the shadowy, vaulted, dimly lighted interior of Blessed Sacrament, votive candles flickering all around in the tenebrous side chapels, listening to liturgical choral polyphony sung in High Church Latin with the lapidary clarity the Tallis Scholars are renowned for made “clinical” questions of objective truth and reality almost laughable. Within the sacred space of Blessed Sacrament, Diane and I seemed to inhabit one of the “thin places” Celtic mystics like Arthur Machen and W. B. Yeats talk about, and which seems to comprise the entire western half of Ireland, liminal zones of near-transcendence where the veil between this world and … whatever … ? … is tantalizingly (and perhaps terrifyingly) diaphanous. Sitting there, in that dim church interior, listening to that music from the other world sung in this one, I touched the trailing hem of the emotional garment Moses must have worn when he stood atop Mount Pisgah and gazed into the Promised Land – knowing he could never enter. One cannot “un-lose” one’s cognitive virginity. There may be a “second naivete,” but the first is irretrievable.

On the other hand, I have experienced the opposite sitting in Chicago and New Orleans jazz joints listening to some virtuoso musician wailing a tenor-sax riff worthy of Stan Getz or Coltrane. That music speaks emphatically, even militantly, of this world, of the possibilities of human creativity in this world – the jazz-like improvisational possibilities, and even the reality, of the next being whatever they may. In fact, under such conditions, the latter seems … superfluous. If I recall times like the Tallis Scholars performance at all, it is with the sensation of waking from a dream that, while pleasant, was nevertheless just that: a lovely dream. And I recall T. S. Eliot’s haunting lines late in his poem “Preludes” as the narrator awakes to another day in The City of Man:  “Wipe your hand across your mouth and laugh; / The worlds revolve like ancient women / gathering fuel in vacant lots”.

So I continue my perpetual game of spiritual table tennis: celebrating Christmas as a time when the Manger held the Christ Child as a sign of the Divine Presence – and simultaneously as the Manger comforting all human children resting in the Divine Absence. Not in spite of being a skeptic, but because I am a skeptic, I am willing to entertain either one. But which of the two is real? Which of the two is true?

I don’t know.  And one of the things I don’t know is whether that is even the right question to ask.

© 2017,  James R. Cowles


One thought on “Christmas Reflections on Skepticism … and a Confession

  1. Being a cultural Christian at the least, and a professional Christian for a time as well, I am quite familiar with the nostalgia that music evokes. Looking deeper into my consciousness through a Buddhist perspective, I realize that attachment and habit plays a huge part. The Presence that abides is my own, and there is Divinity in that Presence as well.


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