Anyone who reads this column regularly knows that I frequently write about the philosophy of secular humanism. At St. John’s University, in every course I teach I begin the course with two or three lectures explaining secular humanism. I think that the predominant view of reality in our society among many intellectuals is secular humanism.
By “intellectuals” I mean those who create the movies, write the plays, have their books on the best-seller lists and perhaps appear frequently in the editorial pages of newspapers and magazines. I want the students at St. John’s to know that the vision of the human person that I present in my courses is really countercultural in reference to the wider culture that surrounds us.
Reflecting on my thoughts about the atheism or agnosticism which is at the center of secularism, I wonder if my thoughts have been too impersonal and academic. I realized recently that what I have rarely if ever written about or even thought about is the secular humanist who was once a believer in Christianity but who has lost that faith. What must the experience of such a person be like? I recently was reading about the American playwright, Eugene O’Neill, my favorite American dramatist. His reflections on losing his Catholic faith touched me deeply. They almost moved me to tears.
In a book entitled O’Neill and His Plays: Four Decades of Criticism (New York University Press, 1961), in an essay entitled “The Black Irishman,” Croswell Bowen wrote the following:
“The black Irishman…is an Irishman who has lost his faith and spends his life searching for the meaning of life, for a philosophy in which he can believe as fervently as he once believed in the simple answers of the Catholic Catechism. A black Irishman is a brooding solitary man, too — and often a drinking man, too — with wild words on the tip of his tongue. American letters are richer for black Irishmen. And of the lot of them, and the list includes F. Scott Fitzgerald, James T. Farrell, and John O’Hara among others, O’Neill is the blackest of all.” (pp. 64, 65).
O’Neill stopped practicing the Catholic faith when he was about 14 years of age. His mother was a drug addict, and when his prayers for her did not seem to be answered he stopped attending Mass and announced he was never going again. Judging from his plays he never seemed to stop searching for some answer to the mysteries of life. In one of his letters, O’Neill wrote:
“The playwright today must dig at the roots of the sickness of today as he feels it — the death of God and the failure of science and materialism to give any satisfying new one for the surviving primitive religious instinct to find a meaning for life in and to comfort its fears of death with. It seems to me anyone trying to do big work nowadays must have this big subject beyond the little subjects of his plays or novels, or he is simply scribbling around on the surface of things and has no more real status than a parlor entertainer.” (Louis Scheaffer, “O’Neill: Son and Artist,” (Boston, Little, Brown and Company, 1973, p. 306).
In a book entitled “Down the Nights and Down the Days: Eugene O’Neill’s Catholic Sensibility” (University of Notre Dame, 1996) Edward Shaughnessy quotes from a letter that O’Neill wrote to a friend, Sister Mary Leo Tierney, O.P.:
“There is nothing I would not give to have your faith — the faith in which I was born and brought up (as a good O’Neill should be) — but since I may not know it, since belief is denied to me in spite of the fact that my whole adult spiritual life is that search for a faith which my work expresses in symbols, why then my thwarted search must have its meaning and use, don’t you think whatever God may be? Perhaps they also serve those who only search in vain! That they search — and not without knowing at times a black despair that believers never know — that is their justification and pride as they stare blindly at the blind sky? The Jesus who said, ‘Why hast Thou forsaken me?’ must surely understand them and love them a little, I think, and forgive them if no Savior comes today to make the blind to see and who may not cure themselves.” (pp. 386-87)
How O’Neill must have suffered from his apparent loss of faith. I write “apparent” for a few reasons. One is that no one can prove that a person does or does not have the faith. The other reason is that I wonder if anyone could write such a letter without having faith. I have no difficulty believing that Jesus loved Eugene O’Neill.
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.