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What it feels like to believe

by
07 September 2012

In this extract from his new book, the historian and science writer Francis Spufford argues that his Christianity draws more deeply on emotions than beliefs

I REMEMBER a morning about 15 years ago. It was a particularly bad morning, after a particularly bad night. We had been caught in one of those cyclical rows that reignite every time you think they have come to an exhausted close, because the thing that is wrong won't be left alone, won't stay out of sight if you try to turn away from it.

Over and over, between midnight and six, when we finally gave up and got up, we had helplessly looped from tears, and the aftermath of tears, back into scratch-your-eyes-out scratch-each-other's-skin-off quarrelling, each time with the intensity undiminished, because the bitterness of the betrayal in question (mine) was not diminishing.

Intimacy had turned toxic: we knew, as we went around and around and around it, almost exactly what the other one was going to say, and even what they were going to think, and it only made things worse.

When daylight came, the whole world seemed worn out. We got up, and she went to work. I went to a café - writers, you see: skivers the lot of us - and nursed my misery along with a cappuccino. I could not see any way out of sorrow that did not involve some obvious self-deception, some wishful lie about where we had got to.

She was not opposite me any more, but I was still grinding round our nightlong circuit in my head. And then the person serving in the café put on a cassette: Mozart's Clarinet Concerto - the middle movement, the Adagio.

If you do not know it, it is a very patient piece of music. It, too, goes round and round, in its way, essentially playing the same tune again and again, on the clarinet alone and then with the orchestra, clarinet and then orchestra, lifting up the same unhurried lilt of solitary sound, and then backing it with a kind of messageless tenderness in deep waves when the strings join in.

IT IS not strained in any way. It does not sound as if Mozart is doing something he can only just manage, and it does not sound as if the music is struggling to lift a weight it can only just manage. Yet, at the same time, it is not music that denies anything. It offers a strong, absolutely calm rejoicing, but it does not pretend that there is no sorrow.

On the contrary, it sounds as if it comes from a world where sorrow is perfectly ordinary, but still there is more to be said. I had heard it a great many times, but this time it felt to me like news. It said: everything you fear is true. And yet. And yet. Everything you have done wrong, you have really done wrong. And yet. And yet.

The world is wider than you fear it is, wider than the repeating rigmaroles in your mind, and it has this in it, as truly as it contains your unhappiness. Shut up and listen, and let yourself count, just a little bit, on a calm that you do not have to make for yourself, because here it is, freely offered.

You are still deceiving yourself, the music said, if you don't allow for the possibility of this. There is more going on here than what you deserve, or do not deserve. There is this, as well. And it played the tune again, with all the cares in the world.

The novelist Richard Powers has written that the Clarinet Concerto sounds the way mercy would sound, and that is exactly how I experienced it in 1997. Mercy, though, is one of those words that now requires definition. It does not only mean some tyrant's capacity to suspend a punishment he has himself inflicted. It can mean - and does mean in this case - getting something kind instead of the sensible consequences of an action, or as well as the sensible consequences of an action. Getting something kind where you thought there would only be consequences.

It is not a question of some beetle-browed judge deciding not to punish you. It is just as much a question of something better than you could have expected being slipped, stealthily, into a process that was running anyway.

WAIT a minute, you may say. You were experiencing "an emotion", an emotion induced by a form of artistic expression which, to say the least, is famous for inducing emotions.

You were not receiving a signal from God; you were getting, if anything, a signal from Mozart, that well-known dead Austrian in a wig. I hope that that is not your basis for religious faith, you say, because you have described nothing there that is not compatible with a completely naturalistic account of the universe.

Well, yes. By the same token, of course, what I have described is also completely compatible with a non-naturalistic account of the universe - but that is not really the point, is it?

The point is that, from outside, belief looks like a series of ideas about the nature of the universe, for which a truth-claim is being made, a set of propositions that you sign up to; and, when actual believers do not talk about their belief in this way, it looks like slipperiness: like a maddening evasion of the issue.

If I say that, from inside, it makes much more sense to talk about belief as a characteristic set of feelings, or even as a habit, you may conclude that I am trying to wriggle out of it, or just possibly that I am not even interested in whether the crap I talk is true. I do, as a matter of fact, think that it is.

FOR the record, I am not pulling the ultra-liberal, Anglican-going-on-atheist trick of saying that it is all a beautiful and interesting metaphor - snore, bore, yawn - and that religious terms mean whatever I want them to mean.

I am a fairly orthodox Christian. Every Sunday, I say and do my best to mean the whole of the Creed, which is a series of propositions. No dancing about, no moving target, I promise. But it is still a mistake to suppose that it is assent to the propositions that makes you a believer. It is the feelings themselves that are primary. I assent to the ideas because I have the feelings; I do not have the feelings because I have assented to the ideas.

So, to me, what I felt listening to Mozart in 1997 is not some wishy-washy metaphor for an idea I believe in; and it is not a front behind which the real business of belief is going on. It is the thing itself.

My belief is made of, built up from, sustained by, emotions like that. That is what makes it real. I do, of course, also have an interpretation of what happened to me in the café which is just as much a scaffolding of ideas as any theologian or Richard Dawkins could desire.

I think - note the verb "think" - that I was not being targeted with a timely rendition of the Clarinet Concerto by a deity who micromanages the cosmos, and causes all the events in it to happen (which would make the said deity an immoral scumbag, considering the nature of many of those events).

I think that Mozart, two centuries earlier, had succeeded in creating a beautiful and accurate report of an aspect of reality. I think that the reason that reality is that way, is, in some ultimate sense, merciful, as well as being a set of physical processes all running along on their own without hope of appeal, all the way up from quantum mechanics to the relative velocity of galaxies, by way of "blundering, low, and horridly cruel" biology (Darwin), is that the universe is sustained by a continual and infinitely patient act of love. I think that love keeps it in being.

I THINK that Dante's cosmology was crap, but that he was right to say that it is "love that moves the sun and all the other stars". I think that the universe is its own thing - integral, reliable, coherent, not Swiss-cheesed with irrationality or whimsical exceptions; and, at the same time, is never abandoned - not a single quark, proton, atom, molecule, cell, creature, continent, planet, star, cluster, galaxy, diverging metaversal timeline of it.

I don't think I have to posit some corny interventionist prod from a meddling sky fairy to account for my merciful ability to notice things a little better, when God is continually present everywhere anyway, undemonstratively underlying all cafés, all cassettes, all composers; when God is "the ground of our being", as St Paul puts it, or, as the Qur'an says, with a slightly alarming anatomical specificity, when God "is as close to you as the veins in your own neck".

That is what I think. But it is all secondary. It all comes limping along behind my emotional assurance that there was mercy, and I felt it. And so the argument about whether the ideas are true or not, which is the argument that people mostly expect to have about religion, is also secondary for me.

No, I cannot prove it. I don't know that any of it is true. I don't know if there is a God. But then, like every human being, I am not in the habit of entertaining only the emotions I can prove. I would be an unrecognisable oddity if I did.

Emotions can certainly be misleading: they can fool you into believing stuff that is definitely, demonstrably untrue. But emotions are also our indispensable tool for navigating, for feeling our way through the much larger domain of stuff that is not susceptible to proof or disproof, that is not checkable against the physical universe.

We dream, hope, wonder, sorrow, rage, grieve, delight, surmise, joke, detest; we form such unprovable conjectures as novels or clarinet concertos; we imagine. And religion is just a part of that, in one sense.

It is just one form of imagining, absolutely functional, absolutely human-normal. It would seem perverse, on the face of it, to propose that this one particular manifestation of imagining should be treated as outrageous, should be excised if (which is doubtful) we can manage it.

But, then, this is where the perception that religion is weird comes in. It has got itself established in our culture, relatively recently, that the emotions involved in religious belief must be different from the ones involved in all the other kinds of continuous imagining, hoping, dreaming, etc. that humans do.

These emotions must be alien, freakish, sad, embarrassing, humiliating, immature, pathetic. These emotions must be quite separate from commonsensical us. But they are not. The emotions that sustain religious belief are all, in fact, deeply ordinary and deeply recognisable to anybody who has ever made their way across the common ground of human experience as an adult.

They are utterly familiar and utterly intelligible, and not only because the culture is still saturated with the spillage of Christianity, slopped out of the broken container of faith and soaked through everything. This is something more basic at work, an unmysterious consanguinity with the rest of experience.

It is just that the emotions in question are not usually described in ordinary language, with no special vocabulary; are not usually talked about apart from their rationalisation into ideas.

I am making a defence of Christian emotions - of their intelligibility, of their grown-up dignity. My book is called Unapologetic because it is not giving an "apologia", the technical term for a defence of the ideas. And also because I am not sorry.

Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense, by Francis Spufford, is published by Faber and Faber at £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.70); 978-0-571-22521-7.

Francis Spufford will be talking about his book at St Paul's Cathedral on 17 September at 6.30 p.m. as part of the St Paul's Forum "The Case for God" series. www.stpauls.co.uk

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