Sophie’s Philosophy and Christian Faith

sophia Sophie’s faith was a reflection of her mind’s beautiful (and unusual) combination of logic and poetry. Analytical thought and the poetic sensibility tend not to go together, but Sophie united these two disparate ways of seeing the world in one mind. It made her a sensitive historian, an acute reader, a born storyteller, a profoundly metaphysical poet—and a person of deep faith.

Logic made her consider the existence and nature of God. Logic led her to develop a concept of an ultimately moral universe unfolding towards a transcendent end. Logic convinced her of the need to ground personal ethics in non-contingency (in other words, in an absolute morality). Logic also drove her to analyse the core conundrum of human suffering, and Sophie followed that logic to its unalterable and ineluctable conclusion. It was an implacable logic that could include her own death, and she confronted it with total clarity.

During her illness, Sophie never asked “Why me?”—“Why not me?” she said. The universe is both contingent and material. Disease and death unfold within it. This is the nature of our reality. This is what it is to be alive. As Sophie says in one of her last poems, death “…too is a dancing partner”. She accepted it. It wasn’t that she was quietist in her belief, meekly acceding to divine power. It was that she understood it to be the inherent logic of our universe (these are the probabilistic parameters of earthly existence, necessary to allow human consciousness and will), and Sophie was too clear-eyed in her logic to deny it.

Ever since she was a small child, for example, whenever she had to have a blood test, nurses would say to her, “Look away darling, shut your eyes”, but Sophie never did, even though she disliked needles and despite the fact that they probably hurt her more than they did most people (given that her underlying condition affected her blood vessels). She always looked directly at whatever was being done to her. Truth was to be faced—even at the worst of times, especially at the worst of times.

And Sophie faced the truth. She always faced the truth. She faced the truth of suffering in an imperfect world. She faced the truth of the possibility of her own death at the age of 22. Faith for her wasn’t a pretty story, dressed in fanciful notions. It was based on a complex and nuanced understanding of the real world (Sophie was an historian, and there is a certain realism to the historical worldview—as Sophie wrote when she was just 13, “History is a charnel house/ Where they sweep the bones away”), and it was developed with an intellectual precision that one suspects even Richard Dawkins would appreciate.

Sophie was interested in religion from an early age. She was brought up with respect for both the Jewish and Christian traditions, but she grew up in an intellectual and cross-cultural household, with the expectation that the choice of any religion or none would be her own. Her father, Michael, was Jewish. Her much-loved aunt, Kaye Pitman, was one of the first women ordained as a priest in the Anglican Church in Australia. Members of the wider family came from Japan, bringing with them awareness of Japanese culture and its complex religious syncretism. Sophie, however, had a strong attraction to the Christian faith from the first. Our trip to Italy when she was four had had a powerful effect on her. There was something in the nexus between art and religion permeating Italian culture and society that touched her deeply (in a 4-year-old, it was even a little uncanny—as if she had somehow just been discovering things she already knew). It began a lifelong fascination with religious art and iconography, and underpinned her developing personal theology—and Sophie’s theology genuinely was personal. Even as a small child, Sophie never meekly accepted authority or conformed to peer group pressure. Ideas were weighed according to their logical merits not their popularity; people according to their morality not their status. Sophie’s life was a process of the considered building of a belief system—a process that for Sophie was on fast track, accelerating particularly from the age of 12, when she began studying world religions and mythology in a serious way, ploughing through academic texts and journal articles. At age 16 she began university studies in ancient history, and this (along with her extensive reading in philosophy and literature) reinforced the careful scholarship that underlay her beliefs. Sophie’s faith at the age of 22 was thoughtful, learned and (sometimes unnervingly) wise.

Sophia Nugent-SiegalWhen she was 13, Sophie had been baptised, at her own request. Her aunt, Kaye, was the officiating priest, as she was for the rites of Sophie’s death—in this way, Sophie truly was lovingly held, as she would have wished, in the arms of the Church. But her congregation was one that included figures such as Plato, Aristotle, St Athanasius, St Augustine, Thomas Aquinas—and also those to whom she thought forward, born to a future she would not see, perhaps on worlds far from our own. Sophie’s faith was thus not narrowly focussed, it was instead deeply informed by the long perspectives of the historical point of view.

It amused Sophie that the contemporary iteration of atheism seems to think that questioning the existence of God is a modern invention (as if the ancient Greeks, for example, a people who could conceive of an atomic structure to reality, were incapable of formulating such a question)—but it also irritated her that many of the greatest minds in history (who were not only quite capable of considering the abstract concept of a universe without God, but had consciously rejected the notion) were seen as being either credulous or ignorant. Sophie thought that contemporary atheists themselves seemed to be ignorant, not just of the history of religions and of theological thought, but also of philosophical reasoning itself (the self-contradictory nature of the reductive materialism of so many modern atheists being a case in point, given that it makes their own system of thought literally “unthinkable”). The structural imperatives of logic remain inherently consistent, connecting searching minds across time, thus according the philosophical thought of the past continuing relevance. In an article Sophie wrote about the vitality of the middle ages she says that:

“The eleventh century argument between Anselm and Gaunilo about whether God’s existence is logically entailed because the universe is (or is not) inconceivable without Him, is hardly a sterile investigation of an unimportant intellectual corner (it actually strikes me that the pious Gaunilo playing devil’s advocate came up with rather more convincing arguments for atheism than a great many modern true believers in the notion!)”.

In fact, Sophie thought that atheism was ultimately intellectually indefensible. She said that, on purely logical grounds, you could make a good case for agnosticism (absolute knowledge being, of necessity, beyond human understanding), but not for atheism, which not only requires data we do not (and cannot) have, but also leaves things like moral law and personal ethics tethered solely to legalistic and purely temporal social structures.

The step beyond agnosticism for her was rooted in her poetic sensibility, that capacity for imaginative possibility which enabled her to consider a reality beyond the mere material. Thus if logic provided the essential intellectual toolkit for her faith, grounding it always in the search for truth, it was poetry, her soaring creative potency, which made it possible for her (despite the world’s, and her own suffering) to trust in God. It was poetry that powered her conviction.

The intersection between logic and poetry for her lay in the concept of beauty itself. Science and mathematics too recognise beauty as an integral part of the conceptual landscape of their fields. The elegance of an equation or of a mathematical model is something a scientist or mathematician knows as surely as a poet does an apt metaphor or the musicality of a line.

For Sophie, the philosophical logic that laid out the relationship between God and the universe had a necessarily terrible, and terribly necessary beauty—and she perceived it with breathtaking lucidity (in full awareness of the cruel fact of her own mortality).

In her poem, Beauty is a Joy, composed in the last months of her life, Sophie writes:

And we stand alone on the skinned plain
The stars are everything

The stars are everything. However, beauty doesn’t just happen ‘out there’—but also ‘in here’, in our apprehension of it, within the spiritual space, the longing, that makes us more than mere matter, that makes us human. Sophie’s poem (a deceptively simple riff off the millennia-long conversation about time and mortality, referencing not just Keats, but a standing-room-only cluster of philosophers and poets) ends in the acceptance, the assertion almost—yet with an inward sting—of human finitude. “Pomp’s beauty,” she says, “lies in its extinction/ Gold-leaf blurring forever under the thumb”.

In fact it is the very frailty, the vulnerability of human existence in the face of the vast forces of the universe that makes our perception of beauty, our contemplation of the eternal, both necessary and terrible—caught as we are in an essential irony, contingent beings yearning towards eternity.

Sophie believed in the immortality of the soul. She believed in the luminous transcendence embodied in the narrative of Christ’s death and resurrection. She believed in a God who could conceive of beauty, of eternity, and set it within us like a seed, so taking us beyond the limits of our own small existence into encounter with the eternal.

And she believed that we have to live out this beauty in our intellectual, creative, spiritual and moral lives, in our relationship to the larger world and more intimately in our relationships with those we love, so giving significance and moment to all our acts and decisions, even the smallest of them, even those unseen. One of her favourite thinkers from the ancient world was the Stoic Philosopher King, Marcus Aurelius, who, in his Meditations, writes: “No, you do not have thousands of years to live. Urgency is upon you. While you live, while you can, become good.”

This was a precept Sophie sought to live out in her too short life. Not because she thought herself perfect—far from it, Sophie was very demanding of herself. Like Marcus Aurelius she had to deal with having a quick and agile mind, a passionate nature, and a strong will in an often sluggish and sometimes foolish world; but like Marcus Aurelius too, she believed that rigorous self-analysis was the first step to a disciplined moral life. On the rare occasions I had call to chastise Sophie as a teen or young adult (always for one of those moments of social ineptness that characterise youthful intensity), she would say to me, in her self-deprecating, funny-serious way, “I’m working on it!” Each day for her was thus important, each day was lived consciously, seeking to “become good”.

Ours is a narcissistic age, where the trumpeting of apparent virtue has often become more important than the real thing. There was no audience of thousands for Sophie’s heroic battle against death, no ticking taximeter of Facebook “likes” to mark her existence (Soph had no interest in it). Sophie lived a quiet, scholarly and thoughtful life, unremarked by the giddy world.

Her fierce courage, her moral integrity, her determination to live and die in terms of what she believed in (including seeking always to protect those who loved her, even as she faced her own death) didn’t need an audience. It wasn’t about seeming to be good (as Hamlet states, “These are actions that a man might play”), but about being good.

On the last day of Sophie’s conscious life, mere hours before the medical crisis that led to her death, Sophie told me that she loved the Church (which she interpreted in the broad sense), she loved her faith—she loved it not in spite of its flaws, but because of them, for in its beautiful brokenness it represents everything so profoundly human about our muddled and wonderful species. We talked about Sophie studying for the priesthood. She wanted to become a theologian, to speak to people about God, to share her conviction that all this is not some distant irrelevancy, that it matters terribly, that we must seek to “become good” not in a sanctimonious fashion but in terms of living out our moral choices in full spiritual self-knowledge.

For Sophie, life mattered, and how we live it matters. This was how she lived her life. This was how she confronted death.

Sophie was funny, brave, fierce, wise, and deeply, beautifully good.

Sophia Nugent-Siegal

“Jesus didn’t lay out a grand plan for a Christian social system. He came to speak to individual men and women to lead them to faith. By busily searching for the mote in the eye of political institutions, one risks failing to see the beam in one’s own. Moreover, the conflation of Christian theology and political thought into a set of legislative benchmarks is failing to feed the hunger of a generation of young people who need something more than a collection of sociological adjectives to define their existence. The really radical message that Jesus gave us is one which sets before a Christian’s feet the arduous path of love and forgiveness. Christians can change society by preaching the Gospel, that is, by loving their fellows and, by such love, opening others’ hearts to grace. By doing so they will help to increase the number of good people in the world—and that, more than anything, is what the world urgently needs.”

Sophia Nugent-Siegal

(From Christian Mission Today: A Young Person’s View. St Mark’s Review, No. 217, Aug 2011: 112-115)