Monday, 2 September 2013

Unapologetic

I love it when people recommend good books to me, especially when they make it easy for me by sending them to me.  Like Tricia, who sent me a copy of this lovely book, Unapologetic: Why despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense, by Francis Spufford.

As its title suggests, this is sort of a work of apologetics, but not quite.  Nor is Spufford your usual earnest Christian apologist a la Dinesh D'Souza or Alister McGrath.  Rather he is a professional writer and master of engaging prose.  You won't find yourself wading through Unapologetic wondering how many pages there are to go. 

He also largely avoids the fraught questions which dominate modern apologetics - has science disproved God?  Is the Old Testament God a monster?  Is the probability of God's existence so low as to amount to an impossibility?  Such questions are relegated to pithy, entertaining footnotes in which he refutes the standard atheist arguments in a few well-chosen words.

Instead, he starts his argument with two popular pieces of atheist rhetoric.  The first is the "atheist bus", the London bus with the huge sign on the side that says "There probably is 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 doesn'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 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.  The only things in the world that are designed to elicit enjoyment and only enjoyment are products, and your life is not a product...Only sometimes, when you're being lucky, will you stand in a relationship to what's happening to you where you'll gaze at it with warm approving satisfaction.  The rest of the time, you'll be busy feeling hope, boredom, anxiety, irritation, fear, joy, bewilderment, hate, tenderness, despair, relief, exhaustion and the rest....To say that life is to be enjoyed (just enjoyed) is like saying that mountains should only have summits, or that all colours should be purple, or that all plays should be by Shakespeare.  This really is a bizarre category error. 

So it goes on.  Life is a grab-bag of the good, the bad and the downright terrifying, and a lot of the time enjoyment is simply impossible.

So when the atheist bus comes by, and tells you there's probably no God so you should stop worrying and enjoy your life, the slogan is not just bitterly inappropriate in mood.  What it means, if it's true, is that anyone who isn't enjoying themselves is entirely on their own. 

Which brings him to John Lennon's "Imagine", which he describes as "surely the My Little Pony of philosophical statements".

Imagine there's no heaven.  Imagine there's no hell.  Imagine all the people, living life in - hello?  Excuse me?  Take religion out of the picture and everybody spontaneously starts living life in peace?  I don't know about you, but in my experience peace is not the default state of human beings....Peace is not the state of being we return to, like water running downhill, whenever there's nothing external to perturb us.  Peace between people is an achievement....

These two little reflections set the tone for what follows.  One of the problems Christianity has, he says, is that there is a growing gap between the language and practice of the church and that of the wider society. 

Caught in this gulf is the word "sin", which in our society has come to mean something pleasurable but a little bit naughty, like eating chocolate cake.  The notion of restraining sin therefore seems cruel and unnecessary.  Instead Spufford proposes a new term, the Human Propensity to Fuck things Up, or HPtFtU for short.  This propensity, he says, infects all our doings - our work, our marriages, our political life, our ecological record, our international relations.  If you can say you've never made a major fuck-up in your life you're either a certifiable saint or a consummate liar, with the odds firmly in favour of the latter. 

It is this that provides the "surprising emotional sense" that Christianity makes for Spufford.  In the face of his own monumental marriage fuck-up (for which he takes full responsibility, although he doesn't describe it in any detail) a chance hearing of a Mozart concerto gave him a profound sense that he could be forgiven, that God's grace was extended to him in his darkest hour.  He experiences the same in church, in prayer, in the exercise of his spiritual life.  This is the hope that the message of Jesus provides, and although its precise details and the language in which it is expressed may change over time, the core need and the core response remain the same.

What he propounds is kind of a Christian counterpoint to (not refutation of) the Atheism of Suspicion discussed by Merold Westphal.  Spufford does not seriously attempt to demonstrate that there is solid evidence for Christianity.  He is not very interested in that.  What he cares about is that in Christianity he finds an answer to the very problems Westphal's suspicious atheists present to us.  He finds hope and forgiveness for his and all our fuck-ups.  He finds a way to keep moving when it would be easier to give up.  He's not apologetic about this.  He's just telling it like it is. 

I think the main reason I enjoyed this book is because he says what I would have liked to say if I was clever enough.  I don't believe because of the evidence.  I don't think there is an ironclad case to be made for the Christian faith. or that one day I will miraculously stumble upon an apologetic strategy that will demonstrate its truth beyond all doubt.  I believe because Christianity provides a framework in which I can make sense of my own life, of my society and of what I should do next.  If you want me to give it up you will have to provide me with something better, and so far I haven't seen anything that even comes close.

2 comments:

Steve Isham said...

Great review Jon.
It's in the difference between freedom from ... and freedom to.
Enjoyment is above all a by product. A by product of engaging with people and things outside ourselves. Turning inward is bankruptcy. "The surest way to be miserable is look for happiness."

Antonia Rolls said...

I know Tricia, and I enjoyed this review very much. I am now going to get the book. Thank you, Antonia Rolls