Francis Spufford on How Atheists Put Religion Through All the Wrong Tests
Christianity is changing, in ways that turn the case for faith into something much closer to the case for imagination. This sounds unlikely if you think of religion primarily in terms of dogma or of rules of behavior. It’s true that when Christianity is socially powerful, faith can look from the outside as if it is mainly a matter of membership, of participation in the vast synchronised swim of institutions. But even then, even when faith is most embedded and most hard to tell apart from a society’s approving sense of itself, there is an inner component, altogether wilder and freer and more flutteringly anarchic.
Without this, the outer crust of rules and habits is an empty exoskeleton. There has always had to be an unforced, unforceable motion of the heart to go with the visible, social stuff. And now that the social authority of the Christian churches is faltering--certainly in Europe, arguably in the United States, too--this inner dimension of faith becomes much more decisive. It, not the domain of public virtue, is increasingly the place where the action is.
But why “imagination”? Because once you are looking at the tender shoot inside the church box, the ghost in the institutional machine, Christianity becomes, more than anything, a relationship with the unprovable. It really does. Despite the best efforts of apologists like William Lane Craig, the “evidence” for Christianity’s truth is, in truth, not the kind that science will or should ever admit. We believers mean something different by the word: something that puts faith permanently in the category of irreproducible results.
The most argument over the facts can do for us--and it’s very important, of course--is to show that faith is not in conflict with the facts about how the universe works. Beyond that lies a guess we must make, an intuition we must act on. Believers and atheists here guess on equal terms, despite the recent attempts by some atheists to tip the scale of probability their way. (Look close, and they’re smuggling in “evidence” just as cultural, just as perceptual, just as subjective as any of our inadmissible offerings.) So the case for the dignity and seriousness of faith becomes the case for the dignity and seriousness of the fundamental human activity of framing to ourselves what we cannot know: in short for imagining.
And the test of faith’s plausibility is the test we apply to the serious products of imagination. We ask, each of us, how generous it is; how open to self-correction and doubt; above all, how well it corresponds to the demonstrable richness and complexity of experience. Is Christianity too small to be true, too crude to be true, too rigid to be true? No; not in my experience as a believer, at any rate. I’m with Coleridge, when he said that the best argument for Christianity is ‘that it fits the human heart.’
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying God doesn’t exist. I’m not saying it doesn’t matter whether God exists. I’m saying we can’t know, and must therefore hold, as St. Paul suggested, to “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” I published a book in England last year that aimed to drag our public conversation about religion back from the arid, abstract slugfest over God’s existence which it had become, there; back to the springs of living experience by which faith is (or isn’t) fed.
Inevitably, it needed to be a personal, even intimate piece of writing. You can’t talk about the human heart in general, only in particular; only in the natural language of your own heart. This was not easy to do, because I am kind of an unlikely advocate for emotion, being as I am a classically uptight Englishman, congenitally ironic and well-defended, unable to dance except when very drunk. The result was therefore foul-mouthed and bad-tempered in proportion to the force it took to get through my wall of shyness. (Sorry ‘bout that.)
But the response was unexpectedly, revealingly intense, even in godless England. For sure, there was a certain amount of predictably intense annoyance from the atheist camp, but then I’d set out deliberately to annoy them, to mock and to needle as a necessary preliminary of clearing a space to talk about other things. The surprise has been the eager, sympathetic attention, on both sides of the Atlantic, from unbelievers and half-believers and the rest of the demographic which shows up in surveys as “spiritual but not religious.”
They might not agree with me that the Christian pattern was the right one to make sense of the messy reality of our spiritual autobiographies, but they were sure there was something there to be talked about, something sized for the mixed tragedy and farce, guilt and generosity, and undignified absurdity of ordinary experience. Something in a million shades of individual perception, as an account of which the Christian story of our self-division and of our redemption by love was (whether it was true or not) not reductive, not ridiculous.
For the impression has somehow got out there that attending to “the truth of the heart” must be an invitation to squishy wish-fulfillment. Well, not if we’re taking ourselves seriously, it isn’t. Self-awareness is not the same thing as self-approval, any more than imagination is the same thing as day-dreaming. For a believer, Christian faith is true to the human heart, not in the sense that any old thing we fancy believing in will become conveniently true--but because the complicated truth about our hearts, as we struggle to perceive it, tells us what we are and where we are, and consequently what we need.
There is never going to be a proof that God is there to answer that need. But at least some of the renewed call faith now seems to make, while the churches as institutions crumble, is to seriousness; to tough-mindedness; to a form of life at war with flattering illusion.