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Feelings and the faith

by
23 November 2012

Richard Harries finds an admirable honesty in a brilliant book

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Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can  still make surprising emotional sense
Francis Spufford
Faber and Faber £12.99
(978-0-571-22521-7)
Church Times Bookshop £11.70 (Use code CT517 )

THIS book has a brilliance that fully justified the placing of an extract from it as the main article in The Guardian's Saturday Review. This

is, first, because of its relentless honesty. Any quarrel that you think you have with the Christian faith, and more, is stated here with bitter force. No less, this honesty leads Francis Spufford to be revealing about his own, sometimes painful, experience, and the ways in which his faith does not give us what we think we most want.

The second aspect of the brilliance is the vigour and sparkle of the writing. Almost every sentence has a fresh image or analogy. The tone that he adopts is very much that of someone arguing with a belligerent mate in the pub, but, even if one does not naturally respond to this vernacular style, he gets away with it because of the skill of his writing.

A personal crisis brought Spufford to the point where he was forced to acknowledge that he had thoroughly mucked up his life, and was trapped in the mess. This human propensity to **** things up, which he calls HPtFtU, is for him a fundamental insight, which he sees as deeply embedded in all human behaviour, whether people are Christian or not.

It is this that makes him so scornful of the atheist slogan "There is probably no God so stop worrying and enjoy your life". The idea that life offers easy enjoyment, reinforced by the stream of advertisements that hit us daily, is, he argues, totally untrue to the harsh facts of life.

The second fundamental insight that came at the low point in his life was when he stumbled into the quiet of a church. A difficult experience to describe, but this is a beautifully written chapter, as is the next one on Jesus. Clearly well informed about the basic outline of the life of Jesus, as set out by New Testament scholars, he recreates a highly compelling portrait.

What is interesting is that, instead of relying on any of the New Testament titles, whether used by or about Jesus, he offers a Jesus whose self-knowledge is that of later Christian doctrine; but he does so in a way that feels both possible and plausible. Much of the rest of the book is taken up with vigorous refutations, first of the idea that Paul imposed a Christian framework on the good man Jesus, then of the various charges that can be levelled against the Church.

As the title of the book makes clear, this is a book based on what the author calls the emotional truth of the faith. He would probably agree with Cardinal Newman, who said that "the whole man moves; paper logic is but the record of it." But this is slightly misleading; for our reasoning is part of the whole man that moves. Spufford draws too sharp a line between our reasoning and our emotions.

He also fails to give proper weight to the fact that emotions are not raw, but already interpreted as we experience them, and this means that what we experience will reflect our own culture and life history. He experienced forgiveness, but I suspect that a Buddhist would have experienced something different. So the question of evaluation is there from the beginning.

Allied to this, Spufford is too quick to abandon the word "know" when it comes to faith. He repeats that he does not know if there is a God, and neither does anyone else; nor does he know if it is God who meets us in Jesus, even though that faith is now central to his own life. The reality of God can indeed be neither be proved nor disproved, but there are a number of truths that we can "know" that likewise are not open to verification or falsification.

A scientist, for example, in the face of recent allegations about a few scientists' simply making up the evidence that they need, might want to reaffirm the quest for truth in science as crucial for its own sake. This is something that he "knows", and he knows it so strongly that he gives his whole life over to it. In some similar way, a believer will seek to live his or her life on the conviction that reason does not just unlock secrets within the universe, but is a reflection of a rational purpose behind it. 

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is the author of God Outside the Box: Why spiritual people object to Christianity (SPCK, 2002).

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