These days my students and I are considering whether the Creation narratives in the Book of Genesis are truthful, factual, or both. Or neither. Can some reality be true that does not rest on a bed of neat, verifiable facts? The question seems a little philosophical (irrelevant?) until honed to a point – is God real, or a soothing fiction? And how can we know for sure?
These rhetorical questions can lead down many the foxhole. British historian and writer Francis Spufford’s new book, Unapologetic, attempts to avoid those by speaking from his place at the center of his own universe – he explains his belief in God through the prism of his own religious experience. He isn’t cagey; he isn’t cantankerous. He doesn’t worship the gods of polemics, science, or philosophy. Rather, Spufford explores the fascinating idea that so many people claim first-hand, experiential evidence of God – and wonders if all the intellectual arguing isn’t missing the point. A quick view of this video shows a man humbly – but confidently – searching for God.
“What I wanted it to do was to build a bridge of experience back to readers…who are not themselves religious. [But] I don’t want to MAKE them become religious.” Rather than dismissing nonbelievers’ arguments and proofs, his book starts with the realities of being human today:
[L]ike every human being, I am not in the habit of entertaining only those emotions I can prove. I’d be an unrecognisable oddity if I did. Emotions can certainly be misleading: they can fool you into believing stuff that is definitely, demonstrably untrue. Yet 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. We dream, hope, wonder, sorrow, rage, grieve, delight, surmise, joke, detest; …we imagine. And religion is just a part of that, in one sense. It’s just one form of imagining, absolutely functional, absolutely human-normal. It would seem perverse, on the face of it, to propose that this one particular manifestation of imagining should be treated as outrageous.
Spufford is not a strident, smart, or smug apologist for the God of Christianity. He knows he treads on thin ice in tackling the question of religious belief. He admits that trying to describe one’s religious experience requires ‘daft temerity’ of an author–but he does so with disarming humility: “[W]hat I have produced is a pathetically inadequate pencil sketch of the object in view. It has been a lesson in not mistaking your descriptions for the thing you’re trying to describe.”
Unapologetic intends to “do what books do when they work right, which is to expand people’s range of sympathies, which makes it possible to understand and recognize that what’s going on in this curio box marked ‘religion’ is actually rather human and ordinary.”
Every religion teacher has to acknowledge the earnest questions of his or her students. And most every believer has to wrestle with the doubts and questions about God that inevitably come up. Spufford makes a compelling case that religious experience is recognizable within the arena of human experiences–and so it’s worthy of our wondering about it when we wonder about God.