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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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