Emotion or Belief? Starting on Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic

Just a short post this morning to wrap up what’s been a pretty quiet return to blogging. Once I’m past a week that’s included not only the start of a semester but a fairly big series of meetings at work, I’ll have more to say next week: about our World War I trip, but also about one of the books that I read during our time in Europe.

Spufford, UnapologeticFrancis Spufford’s Unapologetic has received wide attention on both sides of the Atlantic since it first came out in the UK in 2012, with even critics acknowledging its brilliance. Comparisons to C.S. Lewis are inevitable, given that it’s a kind of apologetic coming from a prolific English writer who returned to the Church of England after a long period of atheism. (Though as far as I can tell, Spufford’s only engagement with the author of Mere Christianity is to call Lewis’ famous trilemma “one of the great Bad Arguments of all time….”)

Reading Unapologetic in conjunction with a travel course on the First World War produced some fascinating connections that I hope to explore in the next couple weeks. As did starting it in Spufford’s England — this is a deeply English work, so much so that the American edition starts with a special preface explaining some of the particularities of the religious culture that shaped his approach. But no doubt its most distinctive aspect is that it is an attempt to produce a Christian apology that, at its core, doesn’t make an argument for Christian beliefs.

Not that belief is irrelevant. “For the record,” Spufford makes clear, “I am not pulling the ultra-liberal, Anglican-going-on-atheist trick of saying that it’s all a beautiful and interesting metaphor, snore bore yawn, and that religious terms mean whatever I want them to mean.” But even as “a fairly orthodox Christian,” Spufford concludes that

it is still a mistake to suppose that it is assent to the propositions that makes you a believer. It is the feelings that are primary. I assent to the ideas because I have the feelings; I don’t have the feelings because I’ve assented to the ideas. (p. 17)

This isn’t entirely new territory at a self-proclaimed “Pietist” blog whose author has off and on insisted that orthodoxy isn’t as important as orthopraxy or orthopathy. But I’ve never attempted to write about this for non-Christians, so it’s fascinating to see Spufford address the following to an audience that, if not militantly atheist, is at least predisposed to find Christianity quaint, weird, or rendered obsolete by the advances of science:

I think that the universe is its own thing, integral, reliable, coherent, not Swiss-cheesed with irrationality and whimsical exceptions, and at the same time is never abandoned, not a single quark, proton, atom, molecule, cell, creature, continent, planet, star, cluster, galaxy, diverging metaversal timeline of it….

That’s what I think. But it’s all secondary. It all comes limping along behind my emotional assurance that there was mercy, and I felt it. And so the argument about whether the ideas are true or not, which is the argument that most people expect to have about religion, is also secondary for me. No, I can’t prove it. I don’t know that any of it is true. I don’t know if there’s a God. (And neither do you, and neither does Professor Dawkins, and neither does anybody. It isn’t the kind of thing you can know. It isn’t a knowable term.) But then, like every human being, I am not in the habit of entertaining only the emotions I can prove. I’d be an unrecognizable oddity if I did. Emotions can certainly be misleading: they can fool you into believing stuff that is definitely, demonstrably untrue. But emotions are also our indispensable tool for navigating, for feeling our way through, the much larger domain of stuff that isn’t susceptible to proof or disproof, that isn’t checkable against the physical universe. (pp. 19-20)

I suspect Spufford has already lost at least some of you, that some think he’s already given up far too much in order to sustain the attention of a thoroughly post-Christian audience.

But if you’re still tracking with him, and he’s right that “The emotions that sustain religious belief” aren’t “weird” — at least, no more so than those felt by the non-religious, that they “are all, in fact, deeply ordinary and deeply recognizable to anybody who has ever made their way across the common ground of human experience as an adult,” then I invite you to come back next week as we start to work through at least a few chapters of Unapologetic.


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