Sacred and Profane: What We Talk About When We Talk About God

by Neil Griffiths

At the beginning of ‘Contra Dawkins’, the second piece in the ‘Sacred’ section of True Stories & Other Essays, Francis Spufford is about to give a talk at the Faclan Book Festival. Spufford is a liberal, philosophically-inclined Anglican writer who lives outside Cambridge; his audience, for the most part, comes from the more Puritan tradition of the Hebrides, and will be, at least in terms of Christian dogma, made of sterner stuff. In the front row, and speaking next, is Richard Dawkins, not known for backing down from an argument. The scene is set for a theological ruckus.

Despite referring to himself in a later essay as ‘not especially nice’ and describing an exchange with Jerry Coyne, the US biologist, as ‘impressively bad-tempered’, it is my view that Francis Spufford is an amiable sort of chap. I have heard him speak on a panel, and despite being the sharpest mind in the room, his manner was gracious and enabling. When asked by me whether there was any moment during the writing of his novel Golden Hill (2016) he became aware his prose was close to achieving perfection, he laughed. He didn’t deny my assessment, but merely said that he can only judge the level of his immersion and at times he was very immersed.

It was therefore surprising to read his bold and unequivocal assessment of Richard Dawkins’ contribution to the God debate: ‘Richard Dawkins knows fuck-all about religion.’ Not so amiable, then. We know God brings out the worst in Dawkins, but maybe it is also true that Dawkins brings out the worst in us. Or had Spufford just decided to mirror Dawkins’ lack of subtly in religious knowledge with a lack of subtly of his own? An eye for eye sort of thing. We don’t how Dawkins responded when he took the podium but we can surmise: he can’t be accused of finessing his ideas over time. In New Atheist terms Dawkins is the Rock of Ages.

It might be assumed that these two men have nothing in common. But there is a point of intersection: the inextricability of God and religion. Dawkins always accuses theists of trying to smuggle God into physics, and yet will take every opportunity to smuggle religion into questions of God’s existence. Spufford is more honest and straightforward: he believes that God’s breath works through all things, and I don’t think I’m misrepresenting him when I say he believes God reveals himself in Christian scripture, sacraments and ritual. Of course, Dawkins only cares about hitching man’s religious follies to God as an efficient way of making both God and believers seem equally stupid. Spufford knows man is foolish in spite of God.

I disagree with both: religion is wholly the work of man. Religious narratives might be inspired by a sense of God in the first instance, the hearing of a silent address, a light ignited within; but from that moment on, the articulation of meaning is man-made. Every narrative, ritual, dogma is an act of human imagination. Of course, it might be that its most finely tuned religion can provide us with a glimpse of something transcendent, but it is more often a set of prohibitions used to prop up a corporate structure’s insistence on the rightness of its divine authority.

It is my belief that if God speaks at all, he speaks silently; if he asks for our attention, it is for wordless attunement; and if we’re ever to experience a direct encounter with Him, I suggest our wonder and awe will leave us speechless. Silence on both sides, then – hardly conducive for the receiving and dissemination of instruction, cosmological plans, guidance on who’s in and who’s out, and any afterlife details. In short, we cannot know the mind of God.

In my new novel As a God Might Be, Proctor McCullough says he wants to separate God from religion, and allow for an encounter with God in all its silence and mystery. What he actually does is build a church on a cliff top. These two things are not incompatible. There is a tradition in spirituality of self-emptying (kenosis): to dispossess oneself of one’s own will to make more room for God’s presence. At the beginning of the novel McCullough is full up of he knows not what, but rather than suffer some kind of metaphysical rupture he decides to deposit what he is feeling into the world; a dumping out of feeling into the shape of a traditional religious space. Over the novel he achieves a kind of double emptying: first of himself, and then, as he realises his folly in building a church, the house of God. What he learns is that any articulation of God creates a religious narrative, and any religious narrative eventually leaves no room for God.

I have tended to describe my novel as theological, but I’m not sure that’s right. Works of theology presuppose God’s existence. As a God Might Be is more concerned with how we can speak about God without resorting to the language of religion. Indeed, it asks whether we can speak about God at all or does all language fail at the outset? Of course, if that’s true and language is useless, what then of religion for the religiously inclined? How might religion adapt itself to this – dare I say it – Wittgensteinian God?

We have a clue to Spufford’s position on this in his review of Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2014 memoir Living with a Wild God: A non-believer’s search for the truth about everything, re-published in this volume. Spufford is moved, humbled and frustrated with Ehrenreich’s mystical encounters with nature, her openness to God, her reluctance to submit to any kind of formal religious expression, and yet accepts this is religion’s problem not hers. After suggesting someone should ‘airfreight this woman a Jesuit’, he writes this:

‘But this is to let ourselves off the hook too easily, two ways around. If someone as open as this, with such a strong working sense of the tragic possibilities of existence, recognises nothing in the descriptions of faith she has encountered, then we are not describing it rightly. If the ‘rages of joy’ she has felt seems to have nothing to do with goodness, then we have been misrepresenting virtue. If what we have managed to extend in her direction seems to be only an offer of authoritarian parenthood, or a resistible politics, then we have made a mistake of our own about the place we allow for the wildness of God. Those of us who have a positive theology, populated with the items of the catechism, often treat negative theology – the term for what we don’t and can’t know about God – as an optional afterthought. But on the strength of this book, negative theology should be getting a much louder say in the public presentation of faith.’

My understanding of negative theology is that we can only describe God by what he is not. But while that is probably what I believe, negative theology’s logical end point is silence, and silence isn’t, at least in human terms, the warmest welcome. Of course it doesn’t follow that openness to God should necessarily lead to joining a religion. But if silence is not an option for religion; solitude in front of God cannot be the only option either.

Spufford is at his most persuasive, and moving, when he describes how someone comes to believe in God, and no more so than in the ‘impressively bad-tempered exchange’ with Jerry Coyne. Coyne (and others) seems to think that belief in God derives from an irrational decision, based on an unwillingness to submit God to scientific protocols, an activity that, if undertaken, will disabuse them of the probability of His existence, and inevitably lead to rational atheism - rational because anyone who decides to believe in something when science says the probability of existence is so low must be irrational. I agree: anyone doing that would be irrational. But as Spufford makes clear: no one does that. Actually, that’s not true. Atheist scientists do that. Which is irrational in a different way. Spufford avers: ‘Experience of religious emotions causes assent to religious propositions’. Now, I would swap out ‘religion’ with ‘God’; I would then need to change ‘emotions’ to ‘a sense of’, which would then be placed before the first ‘God’; and instead of ‘propositions’, I would say ‘possibility of’, and place that before the second ‘God’, to get:

‘Experience of a sense of God causes assent to the possibility of God’

But Spufford and I are in general agreement. He then goes onto say: ‘. . . that the ultimate test of the value of religion cannot be how it makes you feel, but whether it does, in fact, correspond to some actual state in the universe’. I like this. I like the language – no swapping in and out of words here. Spufford is taking on hard science. ‘Actual state of the universe’ – no metaphorical get-out; ‘actual’ means the truth, the facts, which must surely, if not now, at some point be provable by experiment? All we have to do is formulate the hypothesis, design the experiment (including an orthogonal study – different sample set / different tools), be rigorous in our scrutiny of the data, and open to scrupulous peer review. Sorted.

But no, as Spufford writes to Coyne: ‘Where we differ is in our estimate of the obtainability of truth.’ Science will never supply a definitive explanation of certain aspects of what it means to be human and all that entails. Science might claim that it will one day be able to explain everything (Dawkins again), but explanation isn’t meaning. Explanations formulated as laws will merely predict something under a set of circumstance. Explanations, laws, predictions don’t make anything happen. There is always going to be something outside of the grasp of science and that’s the cause. Even eminent physicists get this wrong: Stephen Hawking says, ‘because there is the law of gravity, the universe can and will create itself out of nothing.’ But as John C. Lennox, Professor of Mathematics at Oxford and theist, argues: if the law of gravity exists, Hawking must believe gravity exists. How can there be nothing if there is gravity? This is casuistry to impress the most slippery of Jesuit. Hawking wants to abolish any notion of a first cause by offering us up a ‘nothing’ but then ‘smuggles’ in a cause – gravity – to allow for the nothing to become something. Forgive me, but as Dawkins is always super-excited to ask theists when they invoke God as the creator: ‘Who created the creator?’, I’m going to ask here: what caused the cause?

This is what Spufford is saying. There might always be something unknowable about the final ground of reality, but that is not to say the unknowable is not somehow present before us as an emotional condition or metaphysical signal. As Spufford says in a slightly different context, some of us assent to God because ‘our swift cascades of interpretation’ of the unknowable take us there. God is an arrival.

Finally, and perhaps most relevant to my own enterprise, there is an essay on faith and fiction, ‘Three Ways of Writing Faith’. Spufford reserves his highest praise for Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy. In a beautiful phrase, Spufford describes the trilogy as ‘the best, most grace-touched defeats there have been in fiction for a very long line.’ In writing about God there is only defeat.

But this is not the case when writing about religion. The ‘Sacred’ section of True Stories and Other Essays is insightful, honest, witty, humane and it proves, with ample evidence, that unlike Richard Dawkins, Francis Spufford knows a fuck-load about religion.

Neil Griffiths’ As A God Might Be is published by Dodo Ink this week. True Stories & Other Essays by Francis Spufford is published by Yale University Press.