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Rupert Shortt is Religion Editor of The Times Literary Supplement, and author of God Is No Thing. Nick Spencer and Joseph Ewing sat down with him to explore the thinking behind the book, and the coherence of the Christian faith.
To begin, I was curious to hear your reflection on what the thinking public and in particular the academic world – the “intelligentsia” perhaps – think of Christianity. It seems that their perception of Christianity is what drove you to put pen to paper.
India Knight, the Sunday Times columnist, wrote something in her column on Easter Day which I think really speaks to that question. She said “One of the more unattractive aspects of 21st–century life is the way it is considered acceptable to sneer slightly at practising Christians. It’s never a great big snarling sneer, unless you’re Richard Dawkins or one of his disciples (because that whole scene is, of course, a religion in itself, and quite a creepy one). But it’s an eye–roll, a stifled smirk, a sort of bafflement at the idea that someone who is apparently like us — rather than glaringly besmocked and besandalled — should choose to spend Sunday morning celebrating the intangible.” She puts it really pithily to my mind. I wanted to try to explain in 100 pages how you can be philosophically and scientifically literate, politically progressive, and still believe the Creed with confidence.
Have you experienced the ‘eye roll’ yourself?
Yes I have. This book is divided into 5 chapters and I have a curtain–raising opening section where I talk about the general climate, which I think is pretty hostile. Then I thought “I need to get a spoon into some quite big philosophical questions, but I don’t want to put the general reader off”, so before that let’s just have a chapter – which I’ve called Resetting the Compass – where I try to trace the outline of a Christian worldview. The structuring motif I use for that [chapter] is a dinner party, at which I am meeting people who consider me to be normal in most respects except for the fact that I go to church. So I use that as a sort of peg to hang various general questions on. In the “curtain–raiser”, I give a few examples which strike me as quite symptomatic. For example, take Iain McGilchrist and his great work The Master and His Emissary – which is an extraordinary conspectus on Western intellectual history with a scientific element, in which he’s diagnosing left–brained and right–brained views of the world. McGilchrist is a psychiatrist, literary critic, and a historian, and he said after this book was published that it was heavily theological in inspiration, but that if he had admitted that, a lot of other academics wouldn’t have bothered to read it.
Where do you think this is born from? For many people who are going to sneer, or eye roll, it won’t be because they’ve had a particularly formative Christian upbringing that they’ve turned away from (as may be the case in the States).
Yes I think it’s true that the idea of church as something to kick against feels rather old–hat; that’s what leads to a certain open–mindedness in some quarters.
I wonder whether there’s an element of what one might call the phenomenon of ‘Xenophilia‘, an urge to reach out to the ‘other’, and to feel a certain contempt for one’s own culture. It’s not just people on the far–right who have a problem with this. I can think of quite a few mainstream thinkers who feel that self–criticism has shaded into self–hatred.
And also, side–by–side with that, there is a widespread philosophical assumption – rather lazy in my view – that the only meaningful statements are statements that you can demonstrate in a test tube; an assumption that talk of agencies beyond the tangible is silly at best. I want to query that for all sorts of reasons, both philosophical and practical.
I was struck by the subtitle of the book, “Coherent Christianity”. I think there are fragments, and echoes, and impressions of Christianity – what it was, and what it promises – that still resonate with the wider culture, but because of some of the intellectual presuppositions you talk about people find it very difficult to forge them into anything that is coherent – anything beyond wish–fulfilment. I wonder whether you agree that it’s coherence, rather than necessarily credibility, that lies at the heart of the problem.
Yes I’m sure you’re onto something. One of the assumptions that I’m trying to skewer is the idea that Christians are concerned with some enchanted world beyond science’s powers of disenchantment. Now, Christians of course can do a lot to validate the fears that people have, which is why I’m rather pleased to say that most of the people endorsing my book have observed that my fire is concentrated as much on Christians who are their own worst enemies as on the bien–pensant, cultured despisers of religion. I have a great admiration for Thomas Aquinas and I feel that his interest in the material world – and how the material world forms a far more potent pointer to God than does speculation about enchanted worlds beyond our senses – can perhaps provide resources for nourishing contemporary discussion.
In trying to engage in my book with this idea that Christianity is all about purveying Pie in the Sky, I’m driven back more than once to the question of why there is something rather than nothing. At the core of my argument stands the premise that it is not possible, in the terms scientific naturalism allows, to say how anything could exist at all. And that’s very, very revealing to me.
Staying on that point, in Anthony Kenny’s collection of essays What I Believe there’s a chapter entitled ‘Why I’m not an atheist’, and the point he makes is that the prime reason he’s not an atheist is not simply that something exists, but that something came into existence. One of the points you make in your book several times quite helpfully is that this problem (if I can put it that way) is often circumnavigated by naturalist thinkers by them smuggling “something” into the “nothing” that pre–existed creation; some kind of quantum flux or something similar…
That’s right. There’s a physical chemist at Oxford who is an ally of Dawkins, Peter Atkins, who has written a book called On Being, and he’s no more successful really than Dawkins, or the man who provides Dawkins’ intellectual undergirding, that’s Lawrence Krauss the physicist in America; because every time they use the word “nothing”, they use it in such a way that “nothing” is productive in some sense.
I say in the book that the theologian Denys Turner has a more rigorous definition of “nothing”. He says ““Nothing” has no process, no antecedent conditions, no random fluctuations in a vacuum, no explanatory law of emergence, and there being nothing for “something” to be “out of” there can be no physics, not yet, for there is nothing yet for physics to get an explanatory grip on”.
The theist’s view may be judged more reasonable: the universe does have an ultimate ground, namely the Creator, but while God’s existence is inexplicable to us, it is explicable to God. Reason infers the existence of causes from the existence of effects, without always being able to infer the nature of the causes from the nature of the effects, and what applies in mundane spheres is all the more applicable in a unique area of discourse such as creation.
If I could just add one rider to that, because I am conscious that there are Christians, not to say unbelievers, who might be scratching their heads. It’s very important to be clear about what these arguments do and don’t imply.
Protestants in particular have laid an enormous emphasis on the importance of faith: we get our name for God from God’s own revelation of God’s Trinitarian being to us. We do not get it from speculation in the neutral atmosphere of the seminar room. That is fine, and that’s why the second half of my book says all the (completely indispensable from a Christian point of view) things that it does say about faith, about the importance of the heart as well as the mind, about the relative unimportance to a great many Christians of technical arguments about the existence of God.
It’s just that if you are trying to engage with people who think that religion is a load of baloney, it’s a big mistake in my view to concede so much ground to them that you effectively say “Reason belongs to you guys and I’m retreating into the silo of faith”.
So you’d be an anti–Barthian then?
I think so yes …well I’d be anti–Barthian but in a way that really pulls the rug from under [Karl] Barth’s feet, rather than simply disagreeing with him; because I would say that there probably isn’t the radical distinction between faith and reason that he assumes in the first place. I would see our exercise of our reason as a mark, albeit perhaps a less direct mark, of God’s grace. Grace infuses everything; so there’s more of a Catholic understanding in that sense.
I want to be clear though, I don’t think for a moment that you can use science to argue your way to God. I would be positive about the value of philosophical theology, while at the same time stressing that your imagination, your terms of reference, and everything else, can be greatly expanded by the dimensions of Trinitarian faith.
The tradition I’m coming out of, the style of argument I’m using, and the relationship between faith and reason that I presuppose, would build an argument as follows, with three stages: first, an awareness of ourselves as embodied beings with a capacity to grasp meaning and truth; second, the process of seeing our status as a gift, prompting awe, gratitude, and a heightened sense of ethical awareness; and third, an acknowledgment of that gift as grounded in a reality that freely bestows itself to us.
If Christianity has that kind of coherence to it, what implications does that have for the conduct of our common life? What is the response to the ‘so what?’ question?
‘So what,’ you say. So rather a lot. I say in my book that I think Nietzsche completely grasped the size of the stakes – either everything means something or nothing means anything – despite being fundamentally wrong in other respects. I think existential despair might be a reasonable inference to draw from the belief that the world has no meaning to it. The religious view – and of course I don’t just mean the Christian view, monotheists would all agree – is that our lives are worth living responsibly, because they have eternal value to them. Just think of the long view that you can take [from coherent Christianity], in terms of belief about the importance of stewardship, future generations, looking after the environment, the dignity of the individual, the inestimable value of every person.
Now in my book I say various things about religion in the public square. One is that secularisation has gone into reverse. The belief that outbreaks of politicised religion are temporary detours on the road to secularisation was plausible – I write – in the 70s, 80s, or 90s, but today the argument really is untenable. As a framework for explaining and predicting the course of politics, secularism is increasingly unsound.
When you look the tragedy of a country like Algeria, where I think religious voices have been smothered by secular ones, you have fundamentalism, which is a shallow modern response to shallow secular assumptions. You’ve got shallow religion, and shallow secularism, and they’re both pretty menacing. So what should the template be?
I draw on a model used by Rowan Williams, who wants to distinguish between good and bad kinds of secularism, which seems to me pretty crucial; what he calls the ‘procedural’ and the ‘programmatic’. ‘Procedural’ secularism grants no special privileges to any particular religious grouping, but denies that faith is merely a matter of private conviction; larger visions should be allowed to nourish the public conversation.
Now Rowan Williams sees so called ‘programmatic’ secularism in a far less positive light, because it insists on a “neutral” public arena, and hives religion off into a purely private domain. Rather than resolving clashes of outlook, ‘programmatic’ secularism risks inflaming social conflict by stoking resentment among faith groups.
Williams’ recipe for harmony is what he calls ‘interactive pluralism’, which encourages robust dialogue among faith communities and between them and the state; no one has received the whole truth as God sees it, so all have something to learn. In my book I say that religious voices will not and should not always get their way in a free society. They need to be held to account on the basis of cogency, viability, and other criteria. At the same time, Christians cannot be expected to accept an interpretation of their beliefs that reduces them to the status of a buttress for secular morality.
There’s a challenge for everyone really, which is why I hope there will be various audiences for my book. If the sceptic thinks again, if the waverer finds encouragement, if the committed believer finds resources for honing their defence of their beliefs, then my hopes will have been met.
Rupert Shortt is Religion Editor of the Times Literary Supplement and author of God is No Thing.
Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos. Joseph Ewing is a Research Assistant at Theos.
Image by Theos
Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, most recently The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014). Outside of Theos, Nick is Visiting Research Fellow at the Faiths and Civil Society Unit, Goldsmiths, University of London and a Fellow of the International Society for Science and Religion
Posted 20 April 2016
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