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Lessons from Bertrand Russell – by way of his daughter

Among the pantheon of world-famous atheists of the 20th century we must admit two of the most intellectual were Anthony Flew and Bertrand Russell. Both were trained in philosophy from Britain’s best universities. Dr. Flew studied at Oxford while Russell was a Cambridge man. Flew renounced his atheism and Russell remained steadfast in his unbelief until his death in 1970. I don’t know much about Flew’s personal life but Russell produced an autobiography in 1975. His daughter, Katharine Tait, told her side of the story in her book, “My Father, Bertrand Russell”, also published in 1975.

It is to her story I’d like to turn. She seems to have a very mature understanding of her life with her father and his four wives. Though we tend to distort of our own past by selective memory, she realizes this tendency and balances her initial judgments with more balanced introspection.

I’ll not bore you with the details of their relationship and her memories of her father. Rather, I think you can gather from her thoughts how things went down. I am specifically interested in her recollections of how God played into (and out of) his and her life.

Bertrand Russell and his wife established the Beacon Hill School in 1927 and their two children, John and Katharine, were among its students. It was a progressive education fostered by Bertrand’s belief that children should be presented all the options of a subject and be left to determine their own minds about it. Stuffy textbooks were not to be found at Beacon Hill (the math text was the only exception).

She recalls, “Besides being difficult, the material was often controversial. My father did not intend his education to be propaganda; he always wanted us to consider both sides and then make up our minds… In practice, at Beacon Hill, ‘making up our own minds’ usually meant agreeing with my father, because he knew so much more and could argue so much better; also because we heard ‘the other side’ only from people who disagreed with it. There was never a cogent presentation of the Christian faith, for instance, from someone who really believed in it.”

Regarding her father’s four marriages, she offers:

Tongue in cheek, my father later claimed his four marriages as proof that he approved of the institution of marriage…All his life he sought perfection: perfect mathematical truth, perfect philosophical clarify, certainty of God’s existence, a perfect formula for society, a perfect woman to live with in a perfect human relationship. And although he never found them anywhere, he never stopped looking.”

Her thoughts on good and evil:

I believe that good and evil are essential to one another, that neither of them can exist alone and that there is envy, fear, anger, resentment, in every human heart, no matter how well brought up. My father did not believe this. Though these ugly things exited in our hearts, their existence was always denied in our family relations and they were left to fester like hidden wounds.”

Later, while in college at Radcliffe, she was asked by a fellow student about her thoughts on God. She remembers the incident and recalls:

One day I sat in he library talking to a handsome young man who was a fellow student in one of my German classes. ‘Don’t you believe in any kind of God?’ he asked, knowing who my father was. ‘No,’ I said, ‘I don’t. It doesn’t seem to me necessary. ‘Then what is the point of living?’ ‘Well, I’ve been born now. I have little choice. Might as well go ahead and make the best of it.’ ‘That seems so bleak. How can you bear it?’ ‘Does it? Maybe. It’s just the way life is, the way the world happens to have developed. Not much use wishing it were otherwise.’ My godless world looked as desolate to him as a lifeless world would to me, but I was used to its impersonal freedom, never having known any other. At the same time, I was well aware that my existential despair was mere self-indulgence and that, God or no God, I would have to return someday to the humdrum world of doing good, helping individuals and mankind to the full extent of my rational benevolence, as I had been taught.”

On her marriage and nagging frustration with life’s big questions:

I was the fortunate wife of a promising young civil servant with two charming children. I had everything I wanted, yet I was not happy. What was wrong with me? In those years, the constant mental dialogue I carry on with my father took the form of reading The Conquest of Happiness,in the hope that it might help me.

The book promised a cure for ‘the ordinary day-to-day unhappiness from which most people in civilized countries suffer, and which is all the more unbearable because, having no obvious external cause, it appears inescapable.’ It seemed made to order for me, until I discovered that he considered puritan morals the cause of such unhappiness and their rejection its cure. What help was that to me, who had been brought up without this burden? How was I to explain or excuse my steady misery?…I must be a sad failure as a human being. Either that, or my father was mistaken… What could my father tell me about the purpose of living?… I read [my father’s] Sceptical Essays and Unpopular Essays, In Praise of Idleness and Marriage and Morals, but they all offered the same solutions: reason, progress, unselfishness, a wide historical perspective, expansiveness, generosity, enlightened self-interest. I had heard it all my life, and it filled me with despair.”

On her father’s religious upbringing…

In Grandmother Russell’s religion, the only form of Christianity my father knew well, the life of this world was no more than a gloomy testing ground for future bliss. All hope, all joy, were centered on the life after death and were to be achieved only by unceasing warfare against evil in oneself and others. My father threw this morbid belief out the window…

I believe myself that his whole life was a search for God, or, for those who prefer less personal terms, for absolute certainty…Somewhere at the back of my father’s mind, at the bottom of his heart, in the depths of his soul, there was an empty space that had once been filled by God, and he never found anything else to put in it…

The religion my parents had grown up in was a dry morality without grace, a series of impossible demands that left them defeated and depressed. They escaped from it joyfully into a free life that affirmed their own goodness and expected their children’s. And yet they passed on to us the same impossible demands from which they had suffered…

On her conversion to Christianity (Surprise, surprise!)

Before I started going to church, I had been running about the world, like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, looking for a way to escape the burden of my sin, and neither my father nor psychiatry had been able to help me…I remained ‘weary of earth and laden with my sin,’ just like my father in his youth.”

She and her husband began going to church and “as we went on going, Sunday by Sunday, I listened attentively to the hymns, the prayer book, the words of the Bible, even the sermons. As I listened, I began to think that what I heard made sense out of everything…And I found it easier to believe in a universe created by an eternal God than in one that had ‘just happened.’ For me, the belief in forgiveness and grace was like sunshine after long days of rain. No matter what I did, no matter how low I fell, God would be there to forgive, to pick me up and set me on my feet again. Though I could not earn his love, neither could I lose it. It was absolute, not conditional…

On her desire to share her faith with her father:

I would have liked to convince my father that I had found what he had been looking for, the ineffable something he had longed for all his life. I would have liked to persuade him that the search for God does not have to be vain. But it was hopeless. He had known too many blind Christians, bleak moralists who sucked the joy from life and persecuted their opponents; he would never have been able to see the truth they were hiding…All I could do was trust him to God’s care, knowing that God loved him more than I did and would do what was best for him.”

Wow. Powerful stuff. No commentary needed. As Jesus said, “He that has ears to hear, let him hear.”

For more of her story, you can find her book on Amazon.