Without horse or God

“‘Perhaps’ was the first word I spoke from the pulpit.” This was the defining statement of a man who may well have become my father-in-law were it not for another perhaps. He had an easeful charm that made him head of the table wherever he was, wherever he sat. Statements like this one, delivered epigrammatically in the middle of a discourse, were definitive in their ambiguity. “The question is not whether the Bible is true, but whether there is truth in the Bible.” That one caused his Christian-but-wavering daughter to spin her head and say, “You really are quite Christian, aren’t you.” The clearing out of his book cases, when piles of theology were discarded — he was, as well as being a solicitor, an ordained priest, and spoke five languages — caused, among other things, books about faith to be thrown out. What could a man like this be taught about faith from a book. That was something akin to what I realised as he was speaking. Faith predominated him. Mystery and magic denuded the pontifications of scholars and atheists alike. While he was an admirer of Don Cupitt for pinning his flags to the mast, and while he was non-doctrinaire (and a disestablishmentarian), he maintained a strict position of perhaps, perhaps, and was undoubtedly the more affirmed for it. What use is dogma and the catechism to a man who can look at a rational secular world and reply, perhaps.

Perhaps was where atheism ended for me. Disbelief didn’t undo itself; but I realised that while I felt the trappings and suits of mystery and God, I did not feel the perhaps. Nothing inside me swelled to the call of faith. No amount of Baptist wonderment or Tractarian tracing could bring me into sympathy with the perhaps. So I became less of an atheist in the sense that I was no longer convinced of being right, no longer persuaded so hotly of my logic. But more certainly an atheist because I felt unable to see the perhaps. Just as this lawyer-priest held faith in his vision, so I began to hold faith in mine. And it was sad.

A similar feeling occurred years later, when the priest was going on with his priestly life, and I was going on with mine, in an old stables at a stately home. Carriages and chases and traps were lined up and open for inspection. The family had been mad for horses, and the old dowager who just about made it into this century had maintained a daily habit of riding into the town with a horse and trap until extreme old age prevented her. How far into my lifetime this had been going on astonished me. How sensible it seemed of her not to stop riding horses, like a reader today who had no use for a kindle, not as a protest, but an indifference.

With the smell of wood and leather and hay, arranged like the smell of bread in a supermarket no doubt, around us and the stirrups and leathers and brasses on the walls, I got the sense of this old world, the strange world of horses and carriages that I had assumed died long before me, and I suddenly felt, as if it were an egg forming inside me, how strange it is that after thousands of years the human connection with horses has been lost. Imagine if within the course of a generation humans severed their connection with dogs. Social change might make this natural, but how weird it would be.

And then nostalgia played its heady trick. I started to feel sad for the loss of horses, just as when I had felt atheism cool from a reaction to a reality I had felt sad that I was unable to find the sense of God or faith again. The regret I feel in a church became the sort of regret I feel about horses. It is over and gone. There is no perhaps. There is no way asking not whether it was right, but whether there was rightness in it. Change has visited us and we are different. The progress is splendid, but the loss is magnificent. Perhaps to those who lost the horses, it never felt like this. Cars, after all, are so much more convenient and more comfortable; horses require a lot of hard and dirty labour. The opportunities of a life lived on a horse may well be more limited than those lived with a car.

However, this is all normal conservative feeling. It was a deep and lasting bond between man and animal and though it has lost its dominant place in society, it survives. But the question of God is more difficult. That regret is more imminent, more personal and more dangerous. And isn’t it odd to feel sad about the loss of something I don’t really believe was ever there. I want to be religious, but never felt it naturally the way Evelyn Waugh or James Lees-Milne did. Perhaps a lot of people feel like this. The question is asked whether you can be a real conservative without religion. Perhaps you can. Perhaps today a conservative would regret the loss of the being able to be religious. A fine distinction, but an important one.

It leaves open the respect for religion that men like Churchill held. But it goes further. It leaves open the respect and deference to the institutions of religion that forms such a strong part of religious and conservative belief. But it also makes conservatism less appealing, less relevant and more antiquarian. Will we be a generation of conservatives who not only regret the loss, but suffer it? This question shows us the dilemma of the modern conservative atheist (once we stop suffering that loss, what else can be left to us other than the eternal note of sadness, the acceptance of other moral systems, the loneliness of man without horse or God) and can only be answered in a word. Perhaps.