Francis Spufford interview: Clear Christianity
The writer Francis Spufford discusses with Stephen Tomkins how to talk about Christianity as if it still made sense
Francis Spufford’s book, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything Christianity can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, is the best book written about Christianity – for or against – in years. It’s unlike anything you would expect from a book putting the case for faith. In tone, it’s a cross between a firework display and an argument in a pub, the sweariest work of theology since Luther and Thomas More. In content, it’s not an explanation of what Christianity teaches and why it’s right – that “isn’t the kind of thing you can know” – so much as a description of how it feels to be a Christian, and how well it works. The author Nick Hornby said it gave him much greater respect for Christianity, and I know Christian readers who would agree. Reform found him in the same coffee shop in Cambridge where he wrote the book.
In your book, The Child that Books Built, you give the impression that your childhood was quite traumatic.
Yes, except that it sounds like a claim for attention. It was ordinarily traumatic. What I got with my sister’s illness and death at 22 was a very slightly early delivery of the ordinary human experience. I want to claim absolutely no special acquaintance with sorrow, just the ordinary human helping. But it’s because Christianity is rather good at addressing the ordinary human helping of sorrow – as well as the ordinary human helping of a lot of other things – that it’s worth talking about.
Can you tell me about the faith that you were brought up in?
Churchgoing household. I got confirmed when I was 13 – and promptly lost my faith. And didn’t get it back for 20 years or so.
I’ve tried to ask myself how big a part the childhood influence played in me returning to where I started off from. For an adult returning to faith, you don’t go back to childhood belief, because what you’re asking it for is quite different. So my return was a discovery as well as a rediscovery.
It’s always struck me that when you hear confident and dismissive atheists announcing that religion is childish, what they usually mean is: “I was a child the last time I thought about it,” therefore its associations are all to do with bored people droning their way through All Things Bright and Beautiful – which is not what you find when you go back in your mid-30s.
You write honestly about profoundly personal stuff, from marriage crisis to how much reading horror stories upsets you. Was that a brave decision or does it come naturally to be so naked?
It was decision I had to take because if, as I was in Unapologetic, you’re making an argument from experience, then you do have to produce actual experience to make it from. But I was quite careful about what I was going to be reticent about and what I was going to be brave about.
The genuinely scary part of it was the risk that what I put out there wouldn’t be recognised by other people. When its job is to say: “Here’s the common stuff of human experience, here’s the lumps and bumps of life where faith actually lives”, if people looked at it and said: “Well those certainly aren’t the lumps and bumps of my life, mate!” that would have been awful. There was a year of held breath after I finished it where I was waiting to see if I had just declared myself very weird. But people have recognised what I’m talking about.
And is it Christians who recognise your experiences?
Not just, which is encouraging. My claim is that you would recognise where God fits in a life if you had life described to you properly. It’s not supposed to convert people, it’s supposed to help them find Christianity less weird.
So “the human propensity to fuck things up” [abbreviated in the book to “HPtFtU”] is something we can all recognise without having been taught the Doctrine of Sin.
Absolutely. “Sin” is a label that people now find hard to hear, but in fact an accurate and straightforward label for very obvious human self-destructive stuff which is part of everyone’s life.
Unapologetic seeks to clarify for a confused world what Christianity is. Was there a particular moment that made you think: “That’s it, someone has to set the record straight”?
There were lots and lots. Those who are arguing against religion, like Richard Dawkins, have succeeded in moving the whole public conversation about religion to this really misleading wrong address. They have persuaded people that, as somebody else said on the internet: “The question is a scientific one: is the number of gods in the universe greater than zero?” And that’s not the question that religion sets out to answer.
Yes, religion is built on a foundation of God’s existence, which is unprovable, but religious people don’t rise in the morning and go: “Heavens, I care very much about whether God exists or not”. Existence is left way, way back in the rearview mirror of the actual reasons for faith. People’s reasons for faith have to do with their emotional life, their perception of other people, their commitments to love and justice in the world, their sense that there’s something wrong that’s beyond the powers of human good will, precious though it is, to heal.
And all that stuff was sliding out of view in favour of endless Punch-and-Judy arguments about whether God was there or not. I like to think of it as a kind of really boring slide show in which Richard Dawkins is endlessly opening a wardrobe door to reveal nothing inside: “Still nothing inside, ladies and gentlemen. Professor Dawkins’ amazing empty wardrobe. Look! No God… No God… Still no God”.
That stuff is over there (writer lifts left hand towards ceiling), whereas faith is actually happening down (writer lowers right hand towards bottom right-hand corner of the universe) here. And the stuff that’s going on down here, which is the actual material of faith, it’s not puzzling. So all we have to do is to describe our ordinary experiences in ordinary terms so that other people go “Oh, OK”. Which will not turn them into Christians, but it’s a modest attempt to get us to rejoin the human race in the perception of atheists.
And it’s also supposed to make Christians who are sick of being treated as if they don’t belong to the ordinary human race feel better, by being funny and unapologetic. There’s this terrible Church of England situation that happens in public over and over again, when someone goes: “It has been said religion is this deeply destructive force which hurts people and cripples young lives. What do you have to say?” And some poor bishop has to reply: “Well, you know, in a very real sense, there is a lot of truth in that, but I like to think that, on occasions, maybe, in the corner of your eye, sometimes, now and again…”
At that point, we have to speak up and show that we feel strongly about it. It isn’t being intolerant, fundamentalist, violent or fanatical, it’s just talking about something that sits near the middle of your life with appropriately secure tones of voice.
I keep saying: “It’s just this, it’s just that”, but it is actually strangely difficult to nerve yourself up to do it. And one of the reasons why the book has come out really quite profane for anything to do with the sacred is that I wanted to get us out of that over-quiet zone where religion is always done too nicely. So swearing a lot, as well as making me feel better, was like a crude solution to the problem of being forthright.
So it’s quite deliberate then? I was struck by the fact that you’d written before about things that were clearly very important to you, in much more measured tones.
Yeah… There are a mixture of things going on there. I come from a fairly foul-mouthed generation and when I’m not editing myself my natural speaking voice is fairly profane (although I am these days a vicar’s husband so the situations in which I edit myself are now quite numerous). So it comes naturally, but also it was a kind of shorthand declaration that I wasn’t going to be nice. And to be honest I didn’t mind that it would be an attention-grabbing device.
And the other things that I’d written where I felt deeply didn’t have the layer of social embarrassment which talking about religion has, and swearing makes me feel more able to hurl myself through the hedge of social embarrassment.
You argue that Christianity is primarily an emotional thing rather than a body of teaching.
No. I don’t. What I argue is that the way in is emotional. Of course it’s a body of teaching. It’s just that the emphasis, for now, could do with pulling back from it as a body of teaching. We could do with being reminded that it’s also a journey, something that people experience in lives, something that makes emotional sense. But by saying it makes emotional sense, I’m really not saying it doesn’t make the other kind of sense. I stand by the creed and I value the theology that other people do, helping me understand a bit more deeply. It is artificial to separate emotion and thoughts.
But you do say, I think, that we build our beliefs on our emotional experiences rather than…
Absolutely. It’s the order they happen in. I say: we sign up to the ideas because we have the feelings, we don’t generate the feelings because we signed up to the ideas.
Emotions are not unreasonable things. It is my firm conviction that emotions are our best and most reliable guide sometimes to the whole real area of things we can’t definitely prove. And that’s an area far wider than religion: that’s what you do when you love people, when you hope for political change, when you put your little bit into supporting some bit of community-building where you’re not going to see whether your bit really helps. That too requires guidance from your heart.
Emotions can be drastically misleading, but so long as we use what the heart is telling us with sufficient humility and awareness of the HPtFtU, then we use that rich source of understanding the world. And it’s normal to do that. I’m not making an argument for some kind of freaky Christianity where anything can be true so long as you feel it.
Are you troubled by the possibility that you pretend Christianity is true because it meets an emotional need?
Heavens, yes. And in two ways. There’s exactly what you’ve just said: that you can be fooling yourself, receiving a big hug from your imagined God, who’s actually just your own arms going round you. You can’t rule that out – except for this hateful, uncomfortable, frequently surprising way in which faith keeps requiring you to pay attention, not just to what you need but to what other people need.
That’s one thing. The other is there’s a particular danger with writing apologetics – one of the scary aspects of writing the book has been that it’s made me feel less sure of things I’ve said. It was with incredible relief that I found a lecture CS Lewis had given in the 1940s in which he said: “Nothing is more fatal to the faith of the apologist than trying to write apologetics, because the more you feel you’ve done a decent job, the more the whole thing appears to be standing on nothing but your own descriptive and persuasive skills.” And who the hell could be convinced of a religion which really only depended on you?
I am in some ways very much looking forward to not talking about this book anymore. It will be good for my faith to get this lump of words out from in between me and God.
A lot of atheist apologists get cross when Christians won’t stick to the beliefs they’re supposed to have. AC Grayling thinks he has a knock-down argument with: God is all good and all powerful, but the universe isn’t good enough.
The capacity of contemporary atheists to imagine that we’ve never thought of that shit is amazing. And I take that as a measure of just how far away – again – from the experience of belief the conversation’s got. Any acquaintance with actual Christians would serve to put you right on that one, I think. Most people I know have their Christianity formed by sometimes painful dialogue with their awareness of what goes wrong in the world. We know there’s a problem. It’s ours!
But if you think how important it has been to so many Christians that God orders the events of the world, which you emphatically deny, does that give you some sense that you’re defending a skeleton?
Yes. The trouble is that I don’t think that strongly providential account of how the world works is defensible after the 20th Century. If God’s chosen people can be massacred and not a single angel with a flaming sword turns up to interrupt the process, then we need to understand the way that God loves and protects the world differently.
The danger there for me is that you end up with a hands-off deist God who sits in the distance saying: “Well, I’ve given you a set of physical laws, but how they work out is up to you,” and gives a benign wave every now and again – which is obviously no good. It isn’t true to the nature of actual human beings’ relationships with God.
For me, Christ acting as God in the world is absolutely central. If we say – as we have to somehow, I think – that God sustains everything, God is in every action of history, in every germ, every leaf, but that the universe is running by itself, it then becomes imm-ensely important that he’s in here with us, that he has experienced the worst of the bad things happening. He dwells within that, so that we’re never alone.
Those are words. I don’t have a tidy way of tying this issue up at all.
Is there anything that could make you lose your faith?
Oh God. I hope not. But I can’t guarantee it. It would be ridiculous of me to say my faith has already been tested in the fires, because there are hotter fires out there. I’ve had a very comfortable, first-world life. There are all sorts of dreadful things which could happen to people I love which would I’m sure do dreadful things to my faith.
But it is now a deep shape of my understanding of the world. I can’t easily imagine not struggling, whatever happens, to go on understanding the world as faith shows it. But let the record show the witness expressed a preference for his life to continue to be comfortable, please.
This article was published in the June 2013 edition of Reform.