Daily Archives: January 24, 2014

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Surprising Emotional Sense

Frances Spufford’s book Unapologetic (subtitled Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, and published by Faber and Faber in 2012) is wonderful.

My paperback copy has a puff from John Gray on the front, saying that it is ‘a rare book, a book that carries conviction by being honest all the way through’, and that seems about right to me – though I recognise that I might be being swayed by the deep, almost eery familiarity of the voice in which it is written. One of Spufford’s earlier books, the equally (though differently) wonderful The Child that Books Built: A Life in Reading (Faber and Faber, 2002) perhaps explains why: it shows that he and I grew up reading many of the same things (at least until our teens), captivated by the same stories and the same worlds. One recurrent emotion I had when reading Unapologetic was therefore jealousy: I would finish a passage and think, ‘Damn, I wish I’d written that – and I would have done, too, if it hadn’t been for your peskily slipping in first.’

There is one central respect, though, in which the book charts territory unfamiliar to me. And it is not exactly a minor facet of the book. It is the very fact that Spufford explores the sense that Christianity makes, the sense that Christian belief and practice make, by focusing on the patterns of Christian feeling, of sensibility, of emotional experience.

Now, I grew up in a charismatic church; I was (and in some strangely metabolised ways still am) a charismatic. The idea that faith was meant to be emotionally involving, sometimes emotionally overwhelming, was axiomatic for me and for those around me. But I have since been trained in forms of theological thinking and writing that don’t habitually look in this direction.

On the one hand, I work in the shadow of Karl Barth. Barth was resolute in his insistence that the truth of the Gospel is not determined by whether or not it makes emotional sense to us. Faced with the generation of his theological teachers lining up in support of the Kaiser’s aims in the First World War, and justifying that support, at least in part, on the grounds of the deep emotional sense that it made – the strange stirring of their spirit, the deepening of their prayer – Barth barked ‘No!’ We cannot (as I was saying in my previous post) use the ability to satisfy us emotionally as a criterion for the success of our interpretations of God’s Word. That Word can and does come to overthrow, to cast down, to devastate. For all we know, the expectations and habits of our emotional life may need to be derailed and led to disaster before we are in a position to hear God’s ‘Yes!’ And although Barth insisted that the whole of our existence, intellectual and emotional, is caught up in this process, in both the No and the Yes, his tendency was to focus not on what happens in us but on the Word that brings it about. And so those of us theologians who bob about in his wake have tended to be nervous of a renewed focus on the emotional sense that Christianity makes, for fear of making that emotional sense once again the criterion for the Word, rather than allowing the Word to be the criterion for the emotional sense.

On the other hand, I work in the (shorter) shadow of George Lindbeck. Lindbeck (for complex reasons that I have had fun exploring elsewhere) spoke out against what he called ‘experiential expressivism’: the idea that what is basic about Christianity, what provides its continuity, is a flow of deep religious experience – such that the doctrines, the appropriate interpretations of the scriptures, the institutional forms of Christianity should all be understood as attempts to express that experience and allow it to shape our whole existence. Lindbeck spoke in particular against the idea that the religious experience in question is one flavour, one culturally particularised form, of a universal human possibility – such that our thinking about Christianity must reckon with a fundamental hierarchy running from universal human religious experience at its pinnacle, down through that experience’s particularised cultural forms in the various religions, and so on down to the doctrines, practices and institutions in which that experience is inadequately represented. Lindbeck argued, instead, that on the whole the practices and doctrines of Christianity shape a distinctive landscape of religious experience, and that it is a mistake to structure our accounts of Christianity around the idea of a common pattern of human religious experience. The only way to understand Christianity is by way of thick description of its particularity, not by establishing an account of universal human possibilities first and turning to their particular actualisation in Christianity second. And, once again, although this account is one in which ‘experience’ still features, the tendency for those of us floating along behind Lindbeck has been to place our focus elsewhere.

(And, yes, of course there are exceptions and countervailing tendencies – in Barth and amongst Barth followers, and in Lindbeck and amongst his followers – to this tendency to face away from ‘experience’, from affect. Lindbeck’s colleague and postliberal co-agitator Hans Frei, for instance, turned in the last years of his life to thinking about religious ‘sensibility’, and the forms of description appropriate to it. But I digress.)

Spufford’s book, it seems to me, does not need to be cut by any Barthian or Lindbeckian censor. It is, precisely, a thick description of a learnt pattern of experience, a discovered landscape of emotional sense. Spufford does not say, ‘You, dear reader, already feel in such and such way; do you not see how you could, with an extra push, come to feel in this Christian way too? In fact, do you not see how, deep down, you already do feel this way?’ His book is (look at the cover!) not an apologia. Rather, it is an invitation to the reader to explore and to understand the landscape of his, Spufford’s, Christian experience, and to see what sense it makes, how it hangs together.

Yes, Spufford is concerned to explain how this way of making emotional sense is more interesting and complex than his readers’ caricatures may have allowed them to recognise; yes, he is concerned to say ‘Come on in, the water’s – well – bracing!’. But that is no different from the work another writer might do to display the internal intellectual sense that Christianity makes: the ways in which its ideas hang together. The latter author might, of course, make use of all sorts of ad hoc connections to the patterns of understanding that he assumes his readers already have, for the sake of clarity and invitation, without claiming that the truth of Christianity can be demonstrated, or that anything less than the discovery of a whole new world of sense will be required of those who do become Christian. So, too, Spufford makes all sorts of ad hoc connections to the patterns of emotion that he guesses might make sense to his readers, for the sake of clarity and invitation, without claiming that the truth of Christianity can be demonstrated by these means either, or that anything less than the discovery of a whole new emotional landscape will be required of those who do become Christian.

You can learn a new pattern of thinking, and be surprised by the sense it makes. In much the same way, you can as a Christian learn to make new emotional sense of the world, and be surprised by the sense it makes. That you can feel this Christian way, that I can feel this Christian way, is not evidence, any more than the fact that I have learnt to say the creeds with confidence is evidence. To think of it as evidence is to make a category error. I don’t think Spufford is saying (or I don’t think he should be saying) that the patterns of feeling he describes might be a more-or-less direct sensation of the divine, but might not, and that there’s no way of saying for sure. Rather, he is (or should) be saying that this way of feeling, of making emotional sense, is a way of taking the world to be God’s creation, and ourselves to be God’s creatures, and that we Christians believe that this way of making emotional sense speaks truly – just as we believe that saying ‘We believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth’ is a way of taking the world to be God’s creation, and ourselves to be God’s creatures, and that it too speaks truly. We’re not dealing with evidence, but with a lived response, a learnt response to the gospel.

So, when Spufford describes his experience in prayer in church, as he introduces his discussion of God, I take that as a route towards understanding something of what the word ‘God’ means – just as learning to say ‘thank you’ in prayer, learning to sing praises, and learning to declaim the creeds are such routes. We learn what the word ‘God’ means by being involved in these Christian habits and discourses and patterns of feeling, and in the processes of learning to explore them more deeply. And we learn more deeply the more the whole of us is caught up in these processes.

And, yes, as Barth would insist: our learning takes place under discipline, and it takes place under judgment – but that’s a whole other discussion, and not one that need make me any less grateful for Spufford’s book.


Edited to clarify a couple of phrases and remove some typos.