Fans of Red Plenty, of whom there clearly are many in view of the online seminar we had here recently, will be interested to know that Francis Spufford has a new book out: entitled Unapologetic, this time it’s about Christianity.(1) The style as well as the content is different from his previous writings. There is some subtle and often quite beautiful writing in parts, but the tone is mostly conversational, unbuttoned, colloquial. It is also witty, funny even, and the book is in my view a highly engaging read.
There’s a lot of new interest in what religion can bring to public discourse, whether in the context of the human costs of rising inequality, the fundamental questions about economic organization raised by the current crisis, or our catastrophic despoliation of the natural world itself. For example, INET (the Institute for New Economic Thinking) is initiating a series of conversations between economists and theologians ‘designed to provoke creative thinking about money and markets in light of the world’s pressing economic challenges’. Keynes himself thought that we’d sooner or later have to face the question of what growth was actually for and what the purpose of a good life should be, and although not religious himself, he thought religious values would be important as a guide.
But Spufford’s book starts a few steps prior to these kinds of debates: he wants us to see what it means to take religion seriously on its own terms. It is in part a counter-blast at what he sees as over-simplification by atheists such as Dawkins and Hitchens. This doesn’t take the form of a point-by-point argument, nor is it a combative riposte such as, for example, Terry Eagleton’s. But mostly it’s an extended personal account of what it feels like to commit to a view of the world that is religious. If you’d like a flavour of how he goes about this, you can read the first chapter here.
There is a quite widely held view, I think, that religious ideas must be either a category error which science can put right, or an unfortunate leftover from childhood that has decayed into mere superstition in adults. Spufford argues that this gets things the wrong way round. Rather, ‘science is a special exercise in perceiving the world without metaphor, and powerful as it is, it doesn’t function as a guide to those very large aspects of experience that can’t be perceived except through metaphor… The world cannot be disenchanted, and the choice before us is really a choice of enchantments’ p.222). As the historian Eamon Duffy has noted somewhere in a similar vein, if we strip our common discourse of all but utilitarian words and discourse, it’s ‘as if we put out our eyes, and then insist that the sun is a fiction of the poets’.
Spufford tells us a good deal about what he sees as the inescapable ‘human potential to fuck things up’, or HPtFtU, as he abbreviates it throughout the book. He notes that the traditional attributes of ‘the God of everything’ seem a bit remote from these messy human realities. The sub-title of his book – ‘Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense’ – gives an indication of what his own approach is.
Spufford isn’t trying to establish theological foundations, and he is briskly dismissive of the usual theodicies, or attempts to justify the ways of God to human beings. Rather, he describes what religious belief is like by developing two broad themes. The first is experiential: he evokes what it feels like to have glimpses of the ‘all-at-once perspective of the God of everything’ behind ordinary life, the brightness that sustains everything, a presence in silence. The second is the importance of narrative and imagery in expressing these intimations and what they mean. And because Spufford’s exploration is located within the Christian tradition, he says that ‘when I pray, I don’t look up but across, at a man in a crowd…’, that is, at Jesus, made newly unfamiliar here as Yeshua, whose life unfolds in an everyday provincial corner of a great empire. The narrative here gives rein to a talent for story-telling that is also vividly seen in Red Plenty. Spufford goes on to provide a lively and often quite funny account of what it’s like to live out the implications of his religious commitments as a member of the Anglican church.
In order for religious discourse to contribute to public deliberation, there must be people who take religion seriously, not only as an intellectual construct, but also as a lived experience. But the plurality of opinion and debate will continue. Some will be broadly sympathetic to Spufford’s world-view (as I am myself). Some may dislike the book because their own religious experiences and perhaps the political implications they derive from them are different. People who approach religion from materialist or rationalist premises won’t find much need to change their views, having read this book. Then again, Spufford is not trying to argue or persuade. What he does offer is an insight into and an enlarged understanding of what it means to have religious belief, and a coherent account of why this should be taken seriously. Whether or not this might stimulate further interest or indeed empathy is entirely up to the reader.
(1) This doesn’t seem to be published yet in the US, though a Kindle edition might come sooner than the print version.