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Questioning Faith: Books that changed my life

by Andrew Dunning 

Growing up in a Christian family, faith was always a given for me. Certainly over the years I heard from many of my friends on why they wished to avoid religion, and respected that – but I don’t think that I really understood the thoughts and feelings that make up that mindset. For that matter, I had yet to fully comprehend what crossing the border into faith entails, not only intellectually but emotionally. That changed when I read Augustine’s Confessions and C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces.

The Confessions (c.398-400) are thought to have been composed as an answer to the rumours swirling about concerning Augustine when he was made a bishop. Now in his forties, he admits all the failings of his youth in an autobiographical form. Amongst other things, he was a thief, fornicator and narcissist, caring for nothing but diversions and promotion in his career. Though Augustine’s mother was a Christian, he did not at first embrace her faith, instead falling in with Manichaeism (a dualistic sect that gained some popularity in this period). The reformed Augustine laments his earlier attitude towards life, regretting most of all his self-imposed separation from God.

Augustine’s book demonstrates the importance of serious thought and argument in faith, but also highlights its emotional aspect. He admits, for example, that he was unable to gain anything from reading the Bible, not because of any particular logical argument with it, but because the Latin translations available to him had a very stilted style (what might now be termed “translationese”). For someone accustomed to reading Cicero and Virgil, this was a major stumbling block. He vividly characterizes the hurdle of openly admitting the error of his former way of life, and the implications this had for his friendships, career and public standing. The book also recognizes the power that sheer habit has over us, proving to be more of an obstacle than we could imagine when we attempt to throw it off. Overall, it is a very honest consideration of how we each live our lives in relation to God, whether in rejection or acceptance, and the impact of our worldly context upon this journey.

The Confessions are available in many English translations, not all of them good. I would recommend that of Henry Chadwick, published by Oxford University Press, as eminently readable. It also includes an introduction that, while scholarly, is accessible to the general reader.

Jumping into the modern period, Till We Have Faces (1956) offers another perspective on unbelief. It is said that C. S. Lewis considered it his best work of fiction; I am inclined to agree. Even so, the book has never found as wide an audience as many of his other works. It is, perhaps, not as easy to “get into” as are some of his other novels: the first time I read the book, I failed to finish the first few chapters. When I made another attempt several months later, I was captivated by this retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche.

This book, set in classical Greece, presents itself as an accusation against the gods by Orual, the elder sister of Psyche. Why have the gods -- if they exist and have anything but malevolent intentions -- not clearly manifested themselves to her? Why do they play games with this thing called “religion”? What right have they to take her beloved sister from her?

Without giving away too many details of the plot, this story is firstly an imaginative and vivid reworking of the classical myth, and could be enjoyed by anyone on this level. Yet it is much more than this: it is also a sympathetic depiction of how an outsider from faith deals with the divine. In doing this, Lewis clearly draws on his own experience as a one-time atheist (described in his autobiography Surprised by Joy). This book was, for me, extremely helpful in bringing to life in a cogent manner the many complaints one often hears concerning God and the church, though neither is explicitly mentioned. Though it is one thing to hear and understand the issues people have with faith, it is quite another to imagine how these problems play out in their lives.

Both of these books help us to understand the questions of faith that we have dealt with for countless generations. They also remind us that there is always hope: however long we may doubt God’s existence, our own faith, or the possibility of knowing the divine, there is no one too steeped in sin, no mind too hardened for God to reach.

Andrew Dunning is a graduate student at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Medieval Studies.

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