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Church-going is the first step on the road to faith

Madeline Grant’s transition into a church-going atheist calls to mind Saint Augustine and his theory of the restless heart. Painting by Philippe de Champaigne, 1650

February 27, 2020 - 2:27pm

There was an interesting omission from Madeline Grant’s beguiling piece for The Telegraph about her religious conversion (of a kind) earlier this week.

She described her journey from being an atheist a-bed every Sunday morning to an atheist who without fail, rain or shine, now takes herself to church. Pushed by personal troubles and a need for psychological comfort, and pulled by the beauty of St Bartholomew the Great’s in Clerkenwell, Grant has abandoned a life of Dawkinsian stridency for evensong, hymn-singing and even the chatter of post-service coffee sipping:

Am I a fraud? After all, church isn’t supposed to be a mindfulness retreat. I hope not. The community cuts across the barriers of class, race and culture which govern our daily lives – poor widows worship alongside the squire, the student, the squaddie, the computer geek, the vagrant and the scientist. Some, I suspect, are closet unbelievers like me, or imbued with what Tennyson called “honest doubt”
- Madeline Grant, The Telegraph

Curiously though she doesn’t entertain, or indeed even acknowledge, the possibility that such a pattern of atheistic church-going, of being a “closet unbeliever” finding equilibrium while secreted among the faithful, might be a staging post on the way to another more bracing destination: belief itself.

Perhaps she deliberately drew a veil over this point for no more reason than keeping a short piece cohesive. Or maybe the position she currently finds herself in seems quite far-fetched enough already. But in any case, Madeline Grant’s church-going atheist calls to mind Saint Augustine and his theory of the restless heart: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” Might this be a case study in the early stages of Augustinian restlessness?

The fact that beauty is what drew Madeline back into some kind of relationship with the church is also significant. It has long been the case that the gateway presented by beauty has provided a wider path into faith than, say, theological argument; many more have edged their way into the church (or indeed back into church) under the influence of seeing and hearing things not wholly of this world than by going the full twelve rounds with Saint Thomas Aquinas.

In an era such as ours, one that is arguably starved of beauty, the Christian churches, thanks to their unmatched inheritance in architecture, art, music and liturgy, may find themselves as the leading suppliers of something that is increasingly in demand.

Beauty may be embattled Christianity’s last hope of a trump card, but the chances to play it are probably multiplying.

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