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A searching for something transfiguring and infinite

In a letter of 1916 to Colette O’Niel, the English philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell wrote, “The centre of me is always and eternally in terrible pain ... A searching for something beyond what the world contains, something transfiguring and infinite. The beatific vision - God, I do not find it, I do not think it is to be found - but the love of it is my life ... It is the actual spring of life within me.”

Fans of the German industrial metal band Rammstein will be familiar with the term Sehnsucht. Not that it is easy to translate into English; something like ‘longing’. This concept of yearning for ideal alternative experience operates at a deeply emotional level, arguably in all of us at times in our lives. For some it characterises a life long quest and much is made of it by those who write about C.S. Lewis in particular. He wrote of Sehnsucht as the “inconsolable longing for ... we know not what.” In his case, he eventually discovered the answer to his longing in the God who pursued him to the point where, as “the most dejected and reluctant convert in England” he gave in and admitted that God was real. His later reflections on his conversion include a passage in Surprised by Joy in which he offers a cautionary note to the unbeliever. “Really, a young atheist cannot guard his faith too carefully. Dangers lie in wait for him on every side.”

As one who also travelled from a decidedly evangelical form of atheism to Christian faith, I can relate to this. I really should have avoided going along to a lecture by Professor MacKay on ‘Science and Atheism’ as an undergraduate Natural Scientist looking for ammunition for the cause. He systematically dismantled most of my well used arsenal, in a little over an hour! This was both a disturbing and necessary prelude to later coming to acknowledge that God was in Christ reconciling not only the world to Himself, but me too. Maybe that is the point of disturbing challenges to what we have always taken for granted. Augustine’s famous quote about our hearts being restless until they find their rest in Thee, encapsulates what I suspect may be a universal experience. The unsettled state of being that remains unfulfilled until creature meets Creator. This anxiety can be distracted in many ways - the Bible calls the palliatives idols - but the experienced nagging, the ‘something missing’ that tugs at our hearts is the gentle call to reconnect and discover the source of both the anxiety and its remedy.

Adrian Brown is a trustee at The Stapleford Centre

Adrian Brown is a trustee at The Stapleford Centre. A speaker at national and international conferences, his publications include Skills Challenge (1992), Skills Challenge II (1995), God Talk, Science Talk (1997), articles in many educational anthologies, numerous book reviews and articles in journals ranging from the Journal of Education and Christian Belief, RE Today, to Science and Christian Belief and The Swedish Journal of Religion. He was a major contributor to Test of Faith: Science and Religion Meet: Resources for Schools (2010).

Grove Books most recently published his Reassessing the Culture of Assessment: Weighing Pigs Does Not Make Them Heavier (2011).


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