Meaningful Unreason

Philip C. Almond, God: A New Biography

IB Tauris, 226pp, £20.00, ISBN 9781784537654

reviewed by Neil Griffiths

If I were to say, ‘God, I love this book’ a few things are clear: (1) a reviewer (2) is advocating (3) in an emotional register (4) the book under review. What cannot be known is what is what I mean by ‘God’, beyond upping the declarative nature of the sentence and taking the Lord’s name in vain. However, if you’re reading this in the Anglophone West, there will be an assumption. Something around an outmoded intercessionary being that church / synagogue / mosque goers have decided for their own irrational reasons to believe still exists despite all the evil in the world and / or science. But as is made clear in this perfect length primer, while Richard Dawkins is wrong about many things when it comes to God, he’s very wrong when he says ‘theology […] has not moved on in eighteen centuries’ – never has a subject had quite the attention of so many brilliant and subtle minds.

Philip C. Almond’s God: A New Biography comes after his well-received The Devil: A New Biography, but for the most recent work at least, I submit the title is misleading. God doesn’t have a story that isn’t written by man, and when man writes about God it is to define him. This book should be called: God: The Definitions. Now, for many this might seem like a pointless exercise: why try and define of a non-existent being. How, indeed, is it even possible? And yet whether you believe or not, it is in fact the impossibility of this endeavour which makes this book is so illuminating. Theology, apologetics, dogmatics are not about God at all, but man’s tireless capacity, perverse willingness and boundless joy at trying to think through the impossible and impose reason and order on it. Even those believers – the mystics and ‘apophatics’ – who make the case for the impossibility of such an endeavour still – paradoxically – need to make a case. A blank page, or silence, persuades no one.

I should declare an interest. I spent 9 years writing a 600-page novel where God is mostly present in his absence and when present is silent, and one of the main themes is that the moment we decide to express any notion of God we necessarily reduce him to our dimensions. What God: A New Biography demonstrates is quite how wonderfully abstract and soaringly poetic we can be even with our limitations. That we can conceive of such God-like attributes as ‘timelessness’ is one thing; that we can meaningfully differentiate between ‘timelessness’ and ‘eternity’ is of quite a different order. Perhaps we might argue that is only through possession of such attributes ourselves that we can have an inkling of something glimpsed maddingly beyond us. By which I mean we have been ‘gifted’ both the limited capacity and the glimpse. Of course, one might also argue such conceptions are evolutional spandrels, decoration around other more central aspects of our fitness. It’s certainly an easier case to make, and I suspect won’t move on over the next 18 centuries.

While this book reminds us that human beings are most comfortable with disagreements, and nowhere more so than with definitions of God, it shows us that no matter how maddeningly ornate our thinking and word-flow we also yearn for completeness, a sense of wholeness. Arnold deals with the Trinity with care, and not a little wit, but for me this is really the moment when we have to accept man has over-reached what is theologically possible: to turn one God into three and then insist they remain one. And yet, even here, there is something profound going on. To truly contemplate the Trinity is to give yourself over to making ‘sense of’ its lack of sense, a willingness to reach into meaningful unreason. It doesn’t matter what you believe or whether you believe, we are richer human beings for the attempt. If we set aside the Trinity, most disquisitions on God tend to position God on one or other side of a binary choice, because not to do so would contravene the laws of logic. In the same way you can’t be a little bit pregnant, God can’t be a little bit transcendent: he either is or is not, but if he is. . . then what do you say?

For me, the great moment of definition reckoning is when the God of the Philosophers meets the God of Scripture. This isn’t just about interpretation or tradition. It’s full-on contradiction. The One versus Yahweh; impassible (non-suffering) emanation of Neo-Platonism versus Old Testament justice and vengefulness (and later New Testament fatherly Love). Of course we know who won. While some of us love a little abstraction; most of us want more from God than some indescribable idealised form of the Good; we want love and guidance; and most of all we want justice. We want justice so much, some late middle ages thinkers – OK, Calvin mainly – require damnation and salvation sorted out at the beginning time, just in case any of us has a chance of getting away with it, slipping past when God isn’t looking. What’s so wonderful about reading many of the great ‘scriptural’ theologians is how much of what they write exposes their psychopathology. St Paul, Augustine, Calvin come to mind. I’m not sure that can be said about the Neoplatonists. Man might be the lowest of form of the emanation, but they’re not consigning individuals to damnation because of behaviour they don’t approve of. But I’m digressing.

God: A New Biography is the perfect introduction to the emotional, intellectual and poetic ingenuity we apply to the task of defining God. I once included proofs of God (flippantly) as one of my three proofs of God’s existence (Aquinas had five), along with the symphony orchestra and test cricket. Again, you can think spandrels if you want, but ultimately to set aside such things you will eventually be left with life having no meaning beyond food, fucking and avoiding lions. On a final note: it took Karl Barth, a 20th-century Swiss theologian, 14 volumes to set out his views on God and the church. Philip C. Arnold has summarised, with no lack of detail, 7,000 years of God in 218 pages. Take your pick.