On being sophisticated

Ch.2: ‘The God Hypothesis’

Why any circles worthy of the name of sophisticated remain within the Church is a mystery at least as deep as those that theologians enjoy. (84)

Dawkins is, I think, genuinely puzzled as to why people who show all the normal signs of being intelligent, thoughtful, reasonable members of society persist in associating themselves with the Church. Partly, I take it, this is simply another way of expressing his fundamental incredulity: How could anyone believe anything so patently vacuous, so ill-grounded and confused, so improbable and easily refuted, as the existence of God?

Richard HarriesThe sentence I have quoted comes after Dawkins’ discussion of the silliness beyond parody of Catholic beatification processes – a process that he assumes must be an embarrassment to ‘more sophisticated circles within the Church’. Then comes the line I started with: in context, a throwaway jibe. But although it is a throwaway line, a taunt rather than an argument, it echoes a more serious question that I have heard Dawkins ask, in his curiously engaging interview with Richard Harries, then Bishop of Oxford (pictured). Dawkins describes Harries as liberal, then asks whether it might not be the conservatives who are truer to the real nature of religion; Harries comes back (not quite answering) with an explanation of why he thinks the liberal direction he has taken makes sense, prompting Dawkins to say, ‘This of course is all music to my ears, but I’m kind of left wondering why you stick with Christianity at all.’ There’s a comment on the page I’ve linked to which puts it more pithily: ‘Imagine how awful it must be for [Harries] to look out over a world full of people who, in a sense, share his faith, but who inevitably come across as thundering morons’ (Comment by ImagineAZ).

I have two contrasting answers to this question. In this post, I’ll concentrate on the one that assumes that I count as one of the ‘sophisticated’ – because I do things like writing this blog. In a later post, I’ll call that idea into question, and suggest a different answer, but for now I’ll assume that I have the credentials to get into the sophisticated club. I can, after all, give Brains-Trust, ‘it depends what you mean by…’ answers at the drop of a hat.

To the question why I, as a soi-disant sophisticate, cast my lot in with the lumpenchristians, I might simply say, ‘Because I believe the Christian faith to be true.’ But remember, I’m the kind of person who says ‘It depends what you mean by…’ a lot, and Dawkins’ question is really about whether the resemblance between my beliefs and those of the broad mass of Christianity is strong enough to justify my staying with them. My real answer begins the moment I say, ‘No, no – Christianity is not a community of the like-minded, held together simply by the resemblance of our opinions. It’s something different: it’s a people. And one of the things that I believe is that I am called to be a member of that people – that I am made a member of that people.’

Let me spell that out a little more.

  • When I look at the church, I don’t say, ‘These people think as I do’; I say, ‘They are my people.’ I belong to this people. They’re not my choice (no, really, they’re not): they’re given to me (and I to them, poor souls).
  • But, in part, what I am given I am given qua sophisticate: I am given something that speaks to me and captivates me as an intellectual.
  • When I look at the church, I don’t primarily see a body of beliefs – I see (amongst other things) the preservation of a set of practices and stories, habits and relationships, that make something possible. All living and thinking is shaped by the spaces in which it takes place – and these practices and stories, habits and relationships create a certain kind of space for thinking and living well.
  • When I look at the church, I find that the practices and stories, habits and relationships it provides create a home in which a possibility of thinking well is preserved. They create a vocabulary, a grammar which enable me to pose and pursue questions – to go on asking, and thinking, and questioning, and revising, and discovering, and changing, and developing. I find here the possibility of being confronted with, and helped to do some justice to, aspects of the ways things are to which I suspect I would otherwise be numb.
  • When I look at the church, I find that the practices and stories, habits and relationships it provides create a home in which a possibility of living well is preserved. That is, they create a vocabulary, a grammar – a set of building blocks which allow for certain kinds of pattern of life. And I am captivated by the possibilities for such patterned life that I find here.
  • When I look at the church, I find that the practices and stories, habits and relationships it provides create a home in which a possibility of ‘living well’ and ‘thinking well’ is preserved, even though in that same church there is much bad thinking and bad living (including much of my own). But those possibilities still captivate me and call to me, and the people amongst whom they are preserved and betrayed, preserved and betrayed, preserved and betrayed, are my people: I stay because despite everything they keep the possibilities alive, and I stay to help keep those possibilities alive.

I’m not making comparative statements. That is, I’m not here saying that parallels or equivalents to the things I find here can’t be found elsewhere. But I am saying that I do find them here – and that the water is deep enough for a ‘sophisticated believer’ to swim in. Or, to change the metaphor: the church is not prose to the sophisticate’s poetry: it is rhyme-scheme and metre.

The only problem is, I’m not sure that calling myself a ‘sophisticated believer’ will do. But that’s another story…

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