Cognitive Dissonance

by The Very Revd Hugh Dickinson

In The Spirit 

Although I have been dabbling in the shallows of prayer for eighty years I know that I am still only a beginner. I feel a bit of a fraud when people ask me how to pray, which hasn’t happened very often. Maybe they pick up by instinct that I am not much of a role model for spirituality. But I do recognise that the pattern of my praying and my modes of prayer have changed a lot over the last fifty years. The odd thing is that I have gone on trying to pray somehow or other, even when it seems an entirely unrewarding and pointless activity. Reading the writings of the Wise has made me aware that all of them have periods of total blankness sometimes lasting for years. There have been occasions when I have been conscious of God’s presence and love, and times when sitting in silence has been a delight. Even in times of complete drouth [drought?] I have found that if I missed my morning silence I was aware by mid-afternoon that something was missing, perhaps like failing to brush my teeth before going to bed. It seems to be imprinted in my life.  

For the praying heart an equal problem to the abyss of Space is presented by the abyss of time … The One before whom I pray is not just the Ancient of Days, but in truth the Ancient of All Time.

Nevertheless all along the way I have been haunted by three persistent areas of cognitive dissonance. The first is the problem of scale. I suppose most people have got used to the notion, first introduced to the general public by Hubble, that planet Earth travels round a star of medium size which moves very slowly around the centre of the spiral galaxy we call the Milky Way. Recently the aptly named Hubble telescope has beamed down pictures of deep space littered with many billions of other nebulae each containing billions of stars, most of which have exoplanets, which may or may not have rational life forms on them; we are having to accept the theologically perplexing truth that the whole of the Christian salvation myth is set on what in effect is one grain of sand in the Sahara. Where the Scripture says that God is Lord of all the earth we now have to write God is not only Lord of the whole  Cosmos but also of the Multiverse.  Julian of  Norwich spoke of seeing the whole world like hazel nut in the palm of her hand. The cosmos is a sizeable nut in God’s hand, and the Hand that holds the Cosmos is proportionately unimaginably vast. The Heart that moves that Hand is impossible to imagine, yet this is the One with Whom I am trying to have face-time when I pray. I keep on ringing Him but the screen remains blank most of the time. At least He will know that I have been trying to get in touch. It’s like a flea trying to chat up Leonardo da Vinci, only on a cosmic scale. 

For the praying heart an equal problem to the abyss of Space is presented by the abyss of time and the slow evolution of a rational species which is capax Dei on this tiny blue planet. Scriptural time is only 4004  years.  Galactic Time is 13000,000.000 years and still counting. The One before whom I pray is not just the Ancient of Days, but in truth the Ancient of All Time. 

The second cognitive dissonance is the problem of intimacy. I have learned from the writings of the Wise that when they finally surrender their self-centred autonomy to the Silent Other it is a transaction that takes place at that inner nodal root of their being, a kind of self abandonment out of which they move into the Realm of the Resurrection and the New Creation. But that intimate surrender can only take place in the absolute assurance for human souls that they are enfolded in an unconditional love of total intimacy and truth. But how can the human endure the close presence of the God who is the ultimate black hole? For Christians it is only possible if the Other with whom we are trying to establish face-time wears a human face and then lives a life which spontaneously wins our hearts, as a beautiful girl wins a man’s heart or a Schubert quintet wins all hearts. What ultimately wins our hearts in this tormented world is the love of a self-sacrificing intimate friend who tells us that we are more precious than life itself. This intimacy (“I call you friends”) is spelled out  in the “Last Discourses” of John 13-17 and the proof and cost of it is enacted on Calvary.  

What values or tasks do I choose to live by and, if necessary, die for, because I intuitively respond to a calling which feels like a summons?

The Divine intimacy is what we believe is the give and take, the life blood of the Heart of God, a surrender of self as a total gift, and the acceptance of that priceless gift as total joy. If we are to breathe that ecstatic air we have to allow ourselves to be remade. The image that comes to mind is one of felling an oak tree to provide the material for a stunning masterpiece which the sculptor saw hidden inside the tree trunk. (That is an image which also illuminates Paul’s distinction between Flesh and Spirit.) The Risen Christ is concealed inside the man Jesus, but can only be released into the world through the doorway at the far end of the tomb. So in order to touch our hearts God “lyttles” himself (as Julian puts it) yet remains quintessentially himself as Agent of his action. 

The third and most troubling cognitive dissonance, which is like a rat gnawing at the root of all religious faith, is the perennial “Why” – the agonising horror of so many human lives, not only the colossal waste through  earth-shaking natural disasters, which have killed millions of men women and children, but on top of all that, the endemic cruelty and violence of the human race. The 20th Century has been called “The Century of Slaughter”. More than six million people were exterminated in the Shoah.  Many more died in Russia and China. As civilisation has progressed, more and more sophisticated weapons of destruction have been invented.  The first two cognitive dissonances may be disarmed by deep theological reflection, but this one seems  irresistible, and most persistent. 

The only stance which can stand up to it is an act of blind faith. That is not an assent to a series of propositions which we would like to be true in the face of all the evidence to the contrary. It is a life choice, a matter not of the head’s but of the heart’s integrity. What values or tasks do I choose to live by and, if necessary, die for, because I intuitively respond to a calling which feels like a summons? The issue was recently highlighted for me by the physicist Professor Brian Green who was a pioneer of String Theory. It is only towards the end of a very distinguished academic career that he admits to feeling an “awful hollowness” inside himself. This was at the point when it really came home to him – apparently for the first time – that the final state of the universe will be total heat death when time itself will stop. He has spent his life with heroic dedication pursuing the elusive final equations which will unlock the theory of everything. But why bother, if all pursuits and all answers end in frozen oblivion?  Now, tentatively, he is talking of “looking inside”.  Is it possible that the pursuit of mathematical truth is in itself a noble enterprise,  a summons to the heart, even if there is no answer – not even 42 as the Hitchhikers Guide suggested? The ultimate destination of all human endeavours ends in a vertiginous black hole, but the summons to which our heart is responding is not to the horizontal End of Time, but to the apogee of its trajectory on a vertical axis where we come close to the magnetism of the Transcendent, which includes Beauty, Truth and the Holy.  They have the same kind of  magnetism that Number Theory had for Gauss, or design had for Leonardo, or music for Mozart. All these “drawings”, which is the word Julian uses for Christ’s love, ultimately converge in the One, but each requires a kind of “death”, like the felling of the oak out of which Grinling Gibbons carves his masterpiece. I believe that ultimate encounter will be able to reconfigure all the spiritual moral and intellectual cognitive dissonances which gnaw at our lives. Perhaps that is what Brian Green was groping after when he speaks of “going inside”. The Wise in the traditions of mysticism have explored that inner landscape and forged a language for it and  maps to navigate it. That is the blind intuition that keeps the saints praying and calls me into a daily time of  silent unknowing. Saints and mystics and ordinary holy men and women keep alive the possibility of Light in our dark world. The Light shines in the darkness and dark will not extinguish it. 

The Very Revd Hugh Dickinson is a former Dean of Salisbury Cathedral.

This image of a spiral galaxy is Messier 100 in the constellation Coma Berenices, captured here by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope

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