Religion in Public Life: Levelling the Ground
In this report, sociologist Grace Davie explores religion’s renewed visibility in public life, asking why we have got here and what the future holds.
Mark Vernon reviews a new novel, “As A God Might Be”, by Neil Griffiths.
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What transpires when the London life of an educated couple, who feed their young twins berries and mascarpone for tea, is disrupted by God? This is the fate of the charismatic, Proctor McCullough, and his lawyer partner, Holly, in Neil Griffiths’ brilliantly imagined new novel, As A God Might Be.
The novel opens with Mac, as Proctor is known, in the early stages of building a church and house on a picturesque cliff top in the West Country. He is responding to the promptings of an elusive but persistent urge. Holly, who has been abandoned at home, grows increasingly distressed and uncomprehending. Their circle of friends, who are signed up members of Christianity’s cultured despisers, presume he is having either a florid midlife crisis or an unusual nervous breakdown. He can’t talk to them about his visions mostly because he doesn’t know how to talk about the revelations to himself.
As he sets to work, he is joined by four characters from the local town. Each of them, in their own way, are causalities of the modern world and detect something in Mac’s purpose that they feel may help them. The novel carefully examines the uneasy friendships and erotic tensions that form in the group. Griffiths is a master of light–touch, psychological observation.
They also have a series of theological discussions, which gives Griffiths the chance to air a range of religious issues, from whether you need God to be good to whether it’s better to be a Christian or a Buddhist.
But the element I appreciated most in the story that unfolds is the way Griffiths sustains the sense of God’s silent presence. Mac is in touch with an ineffable deity, whose ways are not his ways, and yet who also, somehow, draws something from him; who speaks to a lack. In this way, the novel breaks exciting new ground in the culture wars. It isn’t just keeping the rumour of God alive, as you feel is the case in, say, a Susan Howatch or Catherine Fox story. Neither is it an Ian McEwan–type novel, firmly rooted in the assumption that God is dead. For Griffiths, the issue is what it’s like to live in a secular world whose material abundance scarcely conceals its spiritual fragility.
Amidst the chaos produced by God’s pull on Mac’s life, there are also moments of clarity and stillness. ‘Think about it,’ one of his new friends insists. ‘If Yahweh is all “do as I say”, you’d expect Jesus, as the man version, to be all: “do as I do”; but it’s not. He’s like… Look into your own hearts. That’s all he wants from us. Look into your own hearts! God hasn’t made it easier; He’s just made it a whole lot harder. Genius.’
Mac himself settles on the sense that God is a gratuitous, indiscriminate giver. “What I learned,” he explains as things become a little clearer, “is that there are no answers. Not really. There is just… access to Him. That’s what I was being given… access to where everything resides. You don’t interrogate God. He gives.”
The book is, at first, driven by this sense of mystery, and the power of the characters’ interactions. But then it tells of a dramatic incident and a revolting act. Both are truly shocking. And this points to another aspect of the novel’s excellence. Griffiths doesn’t just discuss religious issues, he conveys why the spiritual side of life can be so very determining in people’s lives. You feel it.
I understand, from interviews, that Griffiths himself is an atheist or agnostic. Given that, he has presented a case for religion, and Christianity in particular, with immense understanding. The novel allows him to communicate the subtle humanity that faith can sustain, which is often missed by empirical, rational and ethical discussions.
That said, towards the end, I concluded that Mac is a divided character, perhaps reflecting Griffiths’ own ambivalences. On the one hand, he is someone who has direct experiences of God. On the other hand, he remains a creature of a secular age, and so reduces his glimpses of a reality beyond the flat world of today to a neat, if highly demanding, ethical code.
And then I thought again: perhaps Griffiths has accurately captured how many Christians reduce sight of what Jesus called the kingdom of God to this–worldly preoccupations about correct beliefs, social justice and/or inclusive love.
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.