“True religion? All the religions are true insofar as they make those people who profess them live spiritually, insofar as they console them for having been born to die, and for each people the truest religion is theirs, the one that has made them.” –Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr, Miguel de Unamuno
Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr is the spiritual magnum opus of Miguel de Unamuno, a Spaniard who explored almost every style of writing at the beginning of the 20th century. It is a breathtakingly profound and heart-wrenching account of the author’s own struggles with Catholic faith, told through the character of Saint Emmanuel.
Emmanuel is the priest for the small village of Valverde de Lucerna, wholeheartedly dedicated to the spiritual, physical, and emotional well being of the people. He hides his secret of persistent existential doubts behind a paradoxically genuine façade of faith and direction. His agonizing struggles represent those of people raised in a religion to which they no longer prescribe, and his martyrdom comes down to his unbelievable commitment to the good and a thorough understanding of the cliché “ignorance is bliss.”
The novella is a beautiful story of faith and doubt. Emmanuel’s hidden despair contains quite sinister undertones of the desolation and solitude of a world without religion, leaving his religious readers with a somewhat nauseating discomfort in the face of doubt and his irreligious readers with the pervasive loneliness of the material world.
I don’t think it’s too presumptuous to say that science is propelling new generations in an increasingly atheist direction. It is undeniably a product of parents wanting to give their children the right to choose their own spiritual paths and attempting to avoid forcing kids into a religion the way society has functioned for a couple millennia. The problem with this ideal is that most children clearly do not understand the value of religion and faith at a young age, and will therefore have very little natural interest in exploring and choosing a religion. The result is that an overwhelming majority of these kids will grow up to be atheists.
One of the major problems linked to atheism relates to mental and spiritual health. We are undoubtedly a generation of lost, tired souls. There are countless articles about millennials having their midlife crises in their 20s, and a surprising number of young adults have a seemingly inappropriate world-weariness that should belong to the elderly. I believe that this is directly related to the atheism of our generation. As hard as atheists may argue for their contentment without religion, the truth is that they have nothing besides that which the human world can provide. Their world, in all its riches and beauty, is still undeniably one-dimensional.
What a spiritual upbringing provides is the ability to comprehend and meditate upon abstract, universal principles. What spirituality entails, regardless of the name, the god(s), and the specific morality, is the necessity to see human life from some outside perspective, and the ability to relativize human existence to something greater than ourselves. Those without faith, however, are forced to relativize the universe and all that it contains to humans, which is an extremely fragile state of mind. If they ever venture away from human relativity, they quickly find that everything loses meaning. Thus we arrive at San Manuel’s existential crisis.
It ultimately becomes the responsibility of caregivers to introduce children to spirituality. The church, faith, and religion do not necessarily matter; it is more a matter of opening the door to spirituality so that the individual can decide whether or not to walk through it later on in life. This issue carries a certain urgency about it, as the hinges to that door seem to ossify over time, until it becomes completely impossible to open, leaving the individual to wander the material world, utterly alone and insignificant in the silence of the godless cosmos.