Saturday 28 December 2013

Something far less cautious than justice

Unapologetic: Why , despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense, by Francis Spufford (Faber & Faber, 2012)

Just because God was invented by man, it doesn’t mean He doesn’t exist. Over the years man has invented - perhaps even created - a number of intangible phenomena which arguably exist: love, democracy, hypocrisy, the public interest, etc. Why not God too? And not just God the image, or God the myth, or God who resides in the poorly attended church, but God the seemingly autonomous being who works in mysterious ways, who is there wherever we are and who makes us feel that, no matter how poor a hand life has dealt us, we are somehow beloved. And it is often the case that our political and cultural creations end up like Frankenstein’s monster, with a life of their own, no longer addressing our immediate needs but seemingly working against us. Isn’t this God to a tee?

It is in this spirit that Francis Spufford’s highly readable Unapologetic should be read. Spufford is no Bible-bashing Christian out to convert the agnostic, or to somehow prove Richard Dawkins wrong. Indeed, he largely agrees with Dawkins and the first half of the message on the infamous ‘atheist bus’ - that ‘There’s probably no God’. When it comes to probabilities, the weighing up the facts for and against God, you tend to find that the ‘facts’ for His existence are very thin when compared to the facts against. But, ‘despite everything’, Spufford manages quite persuasively in about 220 pages to suggest that there is more to life than ‘the facts’, more to life than ‘the felt completeness of a world of supermarket trolleys, hangovers, suburban Sundays, toothache, drum ‘n’ bass, romantic love, diminishing marginal utility and the smell of fresh paint’ (page 70), and that without a spiritual side to what we do in our day-to-day comings and goings, we are not in truth living.

There is certainly a lot of anger against the superficiality of life in the book, but it is an anger tempered by Spufford’s enthusiastic embrace of those other worthy emotions love and mercy, giving us now a book that does indeed ‘make surprising emotional sense’. The world is far from perfect, both in humanity’s relationship with nature and in our relations with each other, and anger is an entirely rational response. But Spufford, whom we feel has suffered with the rest of us, has returned from his personal trip to Hell (in the form of a very difficult break-up) with an altered and wider view, which acknowledges anger within a loving and forgiving context. Some might argue that this is modern Christianity defined. At the very least it is common decency.

Spufford usefully reserves his anger for the logically-sound but emotionally-flawed arguments of new atheists, which at best reduce the spiritual side of man to a psychological response to external stimuli, and at worst reduce even this to an evolutionary-neurological phenomenon. He therefore focuses on the second half of the message on that atheist bus, the bit that advises the dithering agnostic to ‘Stop worrying and enjoy your life’. The destructiveness of this argument comes from its suggestion that enjoyment is the sole aim of human existence, with all other emotions, especially those that suggest all is not well with the world, politely ignored as if they were embarrassing guests at a wedding feast.

Enjoyment is rather a superficial response to external stimuli, even if it does suggest that, for once, the world is working well. But it is the other emotions – ‘hope, boredom, curiosity, anxiety, irritation, fear, joy, bewilderment, hate, tenderness, despair, relief, exhaustion and the rest’ as Spufford lists them (page 8) – that lead us to dig deeper into life, that lead us to question surface appearances and strive for something we call the truth. A life merely enjoyed is a life unexamined. Spufford’s aspiration for us all to dig deeper than enjoyment is to be admired, and this alone makes his book worth reading.

It certainly does not take much to appreciate life at least a little more profoundly. For instance, in 1997 while in the depths of emotional despair, Spufford heard the middle movement (adagio) from Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto (K622) as if for the first time. It’s a popular enough piece, instantly recognisable and therefore easy to ignore. But at the right moment in our lives it might just reveal a fundamental truth to us as it did to Spufford. He was struck not just by its beauty (a rather empty aesthetic concept), but by what it said about the world.

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 [adagio] 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 be able to make for yourself, because here it is, freely offered. You are still deceiving yourself, said the music, if you don’t allow for the possibility of this. There is more going on here than what you deserve, or don’t deserve. There is this, as well. (page 16)

The aesthetic act of listening to the middle movement from the Clarinet Concerto is not a passive act; it is not just to unwind (as Classic FM might have it). Neither does it consist in an active listening simply to the notes. Rather it is to engage in a three way conversation with both the piece of music and the world it is aiming to describe. Mozart’s piece, with its unstrained tendernesses, ‘sounds the way mercy would sound’ (page 16), and in its offering the listener more than he deserves, the piece is mercy exemplified.

Unapologetic contains a fascinating précis of the story of that Hamlet-like figure Christ, and perhaps a less interesting apologia concerning the conservative politics of the Christian church, but it is Spufford’s examination of mercy that is key, since it opens up the philosophical area relating to truth, human values, and our sense of the infinite. Like God, mercy is another of those human creations that has become untethered from its moorings and floats above us, seemingly independent of how we may choose to interpret and use it. It exists deeper in the human consciousness than its distant cousin concepts, those everyday workhorses equality and justice. Not a day goes by without the law being invoked in the name of justice, or being changed in the name of equality. Mercy, on the other hand, does not operate the same way. Like the Clarinet Concerto, and like many of the acts of Jesus as described by the Evangelists, it offers freely without asking of anything in return. It does not consider whether we deserve what we get (justice) or whether everyone else ought to be given the same (equality). It is a less calculating emotion, which nowadays exists mainly within families and circles of close friends.

But it does occasionally reach out across the divide that exists between complete strangers, and it is then that we know that we belong to society, and that we are not merely a gathering of individuals. It is because of this need that the story of the merciful treatment of the prodigal son makes sense to us. If justice were a higher virtue then the story of a father killing a fatted calf and throwing a banquet for the son who had thrown away his inheritance, rather than for the son who had worked diligently in the meantime, would fail as a story. But it does not; the story has meaning, even for non-Christians. As Spufford puts it, ‘We could only join the [prodigal son’s] older brother in asking for fairness, nothing but fairness, if we didn’t see ourselves at all in the lost boy. Since we find ourselves in him as well, we too will need, at times, something far less cautious than justice’ (page 132).

The days when even human labour and its creations will be freely given are still a way off, but – unlike acts of equality and justice – acts of mercy transcend the present moment and point to a possible future that many might describe as heaven on Earth. And in a world of sin (or what Spufford calls the Human Propensity to Fuck things Up, or ‘HPtFtU’ for short) the need for mercy is undeniable. ‘Use every man after his desert, and who shall ‘scape whipping?’ asks Hamlet. Indeed. In a just world we are all going to Hell in a handcart. From time to time we need to be given something we do not deserve: we need to confess our fuck ups and we need to seek forgiveness and hope for mercy, if not from our neighbour or from society, then from God Himself.

This is all well and good if by ‘God’ we mean that untethered human creation, that sense of duty that is ours yet not ours, that voice of our conscience that we cannot easily silence. But if we go further than this and try to define God without reference to man we can come unstuck. Spufford’s description of the Big Man is not, of course, your Terry Gilliam-inspired, white robed, flowing beard type, although I personally still find that image authoritative (anyone that old and still wearing immaculate, stain-free clothing is to be respected, if not feared). Spufford’s description is more like Terry Eagleton’s in his 2009 book Reason, Faith and Revolution where he eschewed empirically verifiable evidence and described God as ‘a condition of possibility’. After all, in describing the world you have to stop somewhere, and reason, according to Eagleton, ‘does not go all the way down’.

In a similar vein Spufford stops somewhere, describing God as an ‘elusive foundation’ (page 73). However, this elusiveness does not stop him, in chapter 3, from actively (if that is the word) looking for the foundation. Sitting in an otherwise empty church he closes his eyes and begins to pick at the layers of sound that cocoon his existence: firstly at the random thoughts, voices and tunes that abhor a mental vacuum, then at the sound of the wind knocking a branch against the window, then at the distant sound of traffic, then at the background hiss we know as silence, until he is left with…what? He struggles to describe it, since it exists beyond the world of description. Logically it is without a description. But Spufford feels it all the same, as an elusive, shimmering light behind everyday objects.

So far so good. But if it is possible to experience something or someone who is beyond all experience, or who is the condition of all experience, then we are going to contradict ourselves. We are going to end up claiming that God provides the conditions for his own existence. This is the kind of logical impossibility would be intolerable to Richard Dawkins, but Spufford seems quite relaxed about the whole problem of contradiction. Elsewhere, when confronted by the contradictions arising from the problem of evil (if God is so good, why does He allow people to suffer?) he acknowledges that there is no immediate or logical answer. However, ‘most Christian believers don’t spend their time and their emotional energy stuck at this point of contradiction…The question of suffering proves to be one of those questions which is replaced by other questions, rather than being answered. We move on from it, without abolishing the mystery, or seeing clear conceptual ground under our feet’ (page 104).

There is a truth here. After all, we cannot logically explain the meaning of the Clarinet Concerto without introducing some non-rational, emotional concept. In the world of humane values, logical consistency is not the ultimate criterion. When you undertake many of your most cherished activities – be this business, sport, art, or religion – ‘you do not, on the whole, ask it to account for itself philosophically from first principles every morning, any more than you subject your relations with your human significant other to daily cost-benefit analysis’ (page 208). In fact the strength of the Christian religion is that it has not collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions and even upheld them as a mystery, allowing Christians to cope all the better with the more humdrum contradictions of everyday life.

But this accommodation to contradiction is also its weakness, because as a result it makes no effort to transcend current contradictions. This is not to say that there is an as yet undiscovered logical solution to such problems that good Christians everywhere really ought to seek out. Rather that the solution put forward by Spufford – to replace the problem by a better problem – is restricted to the spiritual realm. The drawback is that, far from throwing himself into a closer study of the object, Spufford experiences the infinite only from a subjective standpoint, in a quiet church, abstracted from the detail of everyday life. I would not deny that such moments are useful, or even meaningful, especially for people who make it their business to study the world with a view to changing it, and who therefore need time to think or even to retreat into a feeling of pure subjectivity, but this sense of the infinite is only really an echo of the truer infinity of possibilities that we experience through interrogating nature. Our aim should be to somehow ‘move on’ from the more tangible contradictions of the empirical world, not just from the academic contradictions of theology.

In what might this ‘moving on’ consist? By doing precisely what Spufford himself might do but with a practical bent, by refusing to accept uncritically how our day-to-day contradictions are framed.  For instance, all the world’s environmental problems seem to stem from the concept of limited resources. This is superficially true; at any given moment there are, for instance, only so many barrels of oil in the world. Yet human desires and aspirations that require the use of oil do not appear to drop off in proportion to its use. Quite the contrary. And the overcoming of the social and technological contradictions this leads to is not without its problems.

But this represents only the start of a process of understanding, whereby we come to grasp the many factors at play: the processes by which oil and other fuels are extracted from nature and put to use; how new sources of energy are discovered; the role of technology in improving mechanical efficiency; how the changing scientific notions of atomic structure have changed our very definition of energy; the cultural impact of travel; the importance of physical as opposed to virtual presence. These are not simply interesting questions; they are the moral imperatives (since they are wholly wrapped up with human action) thrown up by the investigative process. It is almost as if the oil in the barrel is shouting them out. Each discovery along this road throws up new imperatives and points the way to further discoveries. And so the finitude of oil becomes a starting point for an infinite journey exploring nature and man’s relationship to nature.

It is in our conscious interactions with the resistant, objective world, not in the silence of a church, that we find true transcendence. To transcend the present, grasp the infinite, and experience our own spiritual side we need only examine the object before us (whether that ‘object’ is a barrel of oil, an entire petro-chemical industry or the whole of modern society) in interactive detail and make ourselves receptive to what it is saying and where it is pointing. Perhaps Spufford senses this. He is certainly sensible enough to suggest by the end of the book that Heaven is not ‘up there’ somewhere but really on Earth. Or rather, that it has a dual existence as both an ideal goal and a material theatre of operations. The traditional Christian Utopia (the Pearly Gates, the keys of St Peter, etc) may or may not exist, he says, but in pursuing the ideal ‘we change the shape of the possible world…till we discover fullnesses and kindnesses we wouldn’t have believed we could manage’ (page 219). Amen to that.

As an atheist I was surprised to find on reading Unapologetic that Christianity does indeed make some ‘emotional sense’. But as a spiritual person I know that emotional sense is not the whole truth. The whole truth will never be found by abstracting from the world and retreating to an elusive foundation, but by incorporating into what we think we already know the strange truths yielded up by nature each time we revisit it in earnest.


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