December’s festive mood usually allows for some wider reading, and this year I was lucky: Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense is without doubt my favourite book of the year. Written by Francis Spufford, a word guru who teaches writing in London, Unapologetic is many things: a crusade, a pilgrimage, a meditation, and its one of the best books on religion I’ve read.
Spufford makes the case for why he believes in a god, why that God is the Christian God and, to a lesser extent, why he is a member of a Protestant church. The book is not a scientific response to the popular work of Richard Dawkins and others that claim there is no God (“because how could anyone know that – or indeed its opposite”); it’s what Spufford calls an emotional one:
Starting to believe in God is a lot like falling in love, and there is certainly a biochemical basis for that. Cocktails of happy hormones make you gooey and trusting; floods of neurotransmitters make your thoughts skip elatedly along. Does this prove that the person you love is imaginary? It does not. The most the physical accounts demonstrate, where God is concerned, is that He isn’t necessary as an explanation. Which I feel does not really amount to news. I kind of knew that anyway, my philosophical starting-point for all this being that we don’t need God to explain any material aspect of the universe, including our mental states; while conversely, no material fact about the universe is ever going to decide for us whether He exists. God’s non-necessity in explanations is a given, for me. For me, it means that I’m only ever going to get to faith by some process quite separate from proof and disproof; that I’m only going to arrive at it because, in some way that it is not in the power of evidence to rebut, it feels right.
It is a very different argument to Dawkins and his disciples. It’s also, probably, not new (what ever is?), but what makes this book a treat is that it’s not written by the classic Christian crusader: a virtues priest, preacher, or philosopher. It’s written by someone with a self-declared “human propensity to fuck things up”. Actually, as Spufford notes, “human beings all exhibit different varieties of fuck-up”, which is at the core of his message that Christianity is for everyone: “Christianity isn’t supposed to be about gathering up the good people (shiny! happy! squeaky clean!) and excluding the bad people (frightening! alien! repulsive!) for the very simple reason that there aren’t any good people.” We are all losers, he says, but we “are engaged in the impossible experiment of trying to see each other the way God sees us”. Thus, Christians are realistic optimists (or “kind pessimists”), hopeful that things will go better, but with the knowledge, too, that we will – inevitably and repeatedly – fuck up and fail in our attempts for perfection. Which is very different from the superficial way the Christian life is often portrayed:
Take the famous slogan on the atheist bus in London. I know, I know, that’s an utterance by the hardcore hobbyists of unbelief, the people who care enough to be in a state of negative excitement about religion, but in this particular case they’re pretty much stating the ordinary wisdom of everyday belief. The atheist bus says, ‘There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’ All right then: which word here is the questionable one, the aggressive one, the one that parts company with actual recognisable human experience so fast it does’t even have time to wave goodbye? It isn’t ‘probably’. New Atheists aren’t claiming anything outrageous when they say that there probably isn’t a God. In fact they aren’t claiming anything substantial at all, because really, how the fuck would they know? It’s as much of a guess for them as it is for me. No, the word that offends against realism here is ‘enjoy’. I’m sorry – enjoy your life? Enjoy your life? I’m not making some kind of neo-puritan objection to enjoyment. Enjoyment is lovely.
Enjoyment is great. The more enjoyment the better. But enjoyment is one emotion. It makes no more sense to say that you should feel the single emotion of enjoyment about your life than to say that you should spend it entirely in a state of fear, or of hopping-from-foot-to-foot anticipation. Life just isn’t unanimous like that.
Human emotion is varied, and Spufford shows why Christianity’s appeal may by so strong: it nurtures our emotions rather than simply our thoughts. (In 2004, Alistair McGrath published The Twilight of Atheism, arguing that contrary to the popular opinion, Christianity is on the rise across the globe.) Even if you don’t take religion seriously, you’ll enjoy this book. (I wish I could just quote the first 10 or so pages, which is brilliant and entertaining.) The book is surprisingly funny (like laugh-out-loud funny), but there’s also irritation in his voice, as the frequent but accurate use of ‘fuck’ attests to. (By the way, it’s not often that you would find references to blow jobs and Viagra in a text on religion, or references to God as a sky pixie or the Spaghetti Monster). Unapologetic is light reading, but it is filled with deep insight and profound one-liners. Prediction: Spufford will soon replace Henry Nowen as the quintessential sermon quote – bar the one-liners with ‘fuck’, of course.
What Spufford does best is to show that Christianity is not, firstly, loony (the belief that “our fingers must be in our ears all the time – lalalala, I can’t hear you – just to keep out the plain sound of the real world”) and, secondly, embarrassing. Christianity is not awkward church society meetings or handing out pamphlets when everyone else is partying. It’s not talking in strange languages or singing centuries-old songs or drinking wine and eating bread or pouring water over one’s head. It’s not conservative right or liberal left. It’s not anti-evolution, anti-abortion or antipathy towards anyone. In fact:
…there may well not [be a God]. I don’t know whether there is. And neither do you, and neither does Richard bloody Dawkins, and neither does anyone. It not being, as mentioned before, a knowable item. What I do know is that, when I am lucky, when I have managed to pay attention, when for once I have hushed my noise for a little while, it can feel as if there is one. And so it makes emotional sense to proceed as if He’s there; to dare the conditional. And not timid death-fearing emotional sense, or cowering craven master-seeking sense, or censorious holier-than-thou sense, either. Hopeful sense. Realistic sense. Battered-about-but-still-trying sense. The sense recommended by our awkward sky fairy, who says: don’t be careful. Don’t be surprised by any human cruelty. But don’t be afraid. Far more can be mended than you know.