by David Driscoll,
from Signs of the Times No. 48 - Jan 2013
A few years ago I wrote an article for Signs of the Times in which I made the suggestion that emotion ought to be placed alongside scripture, tradition and reason as a fourth pillar in classical Anglicanism.
The article was in response to the criticism that Modern Church, in stressing the importance of reason as a component to faith was in danger of missing out on its mystery. A further criticism highlighted the possibility where faith was concerned of not being sufficiently in touch with one's emotions. Francis Spufford's Unapologetic might just help here, especially given the book's intriguing strapline, 'Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense.'
Francis Spufford achieved early fame in literary circles when his first book I May Be Some Time won the Writer's Guild Award for the best non-fiction book in 1996 and in the following year became Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year. Other books of his, The Child That Books Built, Backroom Boys and Red Plenty, also achieved critical acclaim. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and teaches writing at Goldsmiths College.
What I like about Unapologetic is that it is written in non-technical language and therefore may well reach an audience outside the institutional church, yet at the same time displaying a considerable grasp of theology. As the title suggests, the book isn't intended to defend the Christian faith in the way apologists like C.S.Lewis and Dorothy Sayers were doing in the immediate post war period. Neither was it written as a riposte to critics of Christianity such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, although Dawkins certainly gets a mention. Having said that, there is a whiff of apologia about his book, especially when he begins with the observation that most people today consider church going to be a bit weird. This is an opinion he wishes to challenge in his book. Christians, he claims, are not so different from anyone else; after all they experience exactly the same range of emotions. Spufford therefore wants to show that the practice of the Christian faith is a worthwhile exercise of the imagination because it enables us to make sense of the emotions we experience.
Early on in the book Spufford draws our attention to the advertisement, you may remember seeing on the sides of buses,
'There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy yourself.'
He has no difficulties with the first sentence; it's the second sentence that he finds problematic, especially the word, enjoy, as if enjoyment is the primary emotion we experience in everyday life. Spufford maintains that a key obstacle to true enjoyment is sin, which he defines as the
'human propensity to fuck things up'.
This isn't the typical definition that you are likely to hear in a sermon but it did ring bells with me! Spufford abbreviates his definition to HPtFtU which frequently reoccurs throughout the book.
Spufford's discussion on sin is followed by a moving passage in which he describes the experience of being alone in a church as he reflects on the constantly recurring of his own HPtFtU. However, after a number of twists and turns he eventually experiences a sense of the divine presence that somehow he, Francis Spufford, matters to God. Of course this feeling may be an illusion and in any case his HPtFtU doesn't suddenly disappear. He then goes on to speak about God and human misconceptions about him plus the fundamental problem of the inconsistency of a loving God and a cruel world. Spufford fully tackles the latter but freely admits there's no solution to this problem, except for a connection with Jesus, whom Spufford prefers to call by the non-Latinised form of his name, Yeshua. He probably wants his readers to approach Jesus as if they are coming across him for the first time, thereby leaving behind the usual baggage they've inherited about him. Spufford does make the point that his version of Jesus is bound to be oversimplified and in any case a true record of the details of his life is impossible. He illustrates this with additional descriptions of Jesus that come from outside the New Testament beginning with Gnostic writings and finishing with Philip Pullman. He also makes comparisons with writings from other faith traditions. When Spufford writes about the death of Jesus he is not putting forward a fresh theory of the atonement, simply saying that God 'can only overwhelm HPtFtU with grace'.
He expands on this statement with a chapter which has the intriguing title, The International League of the Guilty Part 2. He doesn't mention a Part 1 which is presumably contained in what he has written thus far. Part 2 is actually a description of what it means to be forgiven which he acknowledges is far from straightforward, in fact quite disconcerting. This section reminds me a little of Bonhoeffer's observations on cheap grace. The implications of feeling forgiven should lead on to being courageous and to take risks, particularly in one's relationships with other people.
However he is quite open to the possibility 'there might not be a God'. We can't know for certain, but then neither can Richard Dawkins nor anybody else for that matter. However, the feeling that we have been forgiven by God does make emotional sense, so why not persevere with our lives under the assumption that there is a God?