God is no Thing Rupert Shortt
Coherent Christianity Hurst 2016 £9.99 ISBN 978-1-84904-637-4 122pp
With all that contends against Christianity intellectually it’s greatly refreshing to read a book that’s politely ‘yes, and’ in its engagement with opponents of faith whilst affirmative of the intellectual coherence and authenticity of Christianity. We owe this to Rupert Shortt, religion editor of the Times Literary Supplement whose experience of scrutinising writings about religion comes well into play in his tackling of over hasty verdicts.
Many believing artists and writers in the UK are advised to conceal their faith if they want a following. Such is our local scenario in which secular humanism predominates the world of ideas with a pretended neutrality. Meanwhile secularism is losing ground worldwide with three quarters of humanity professing a religious faith, said to be heading for 80% by 2050. The world over people evidently see in Christianity a vitality and coherence that is being lost or obscured in our own culture. Reading Shortt provides Christians a highly to be recommended tonic in his successful reminder of the main lines of Christianity, acceptance of humbling critique and his trenchant overturning of facile objections.
‘Christianity - at its centre, the story of love’s mending of wounded hearts - forms a potent resource for making sense of our existence. It provides the strongest available underpinning for values including the sanctity of life, the dignity of the individual, and human responsibility for the environment. It is the only world faith apart from Judaism to have weathered the storms of modernity’. This summary on Christianity is the first brilliant précis of three or four in the book. I liked this one on the secularist thesis: ‘When Western Christendom was at its zenith during the Middle Ages, people were overwhelmingly ignorant and superstitious. Science and other forms of learning wilted. Witches and heretics were burned at the stake. The achievements of Greece and Rome lay discarded... The Reformation ... accelerated Christianity’s eclipse. The rebirth of science was followed by political enlightenment. Western societies reached adulthood; the theocratic schemes of clerics were kept at bay by the separation of Church and State. In time, all sensible people will share the outlook of modern men and women who have ‘come of age’’.
Much of the book is an engagement with how over simple the latter thesis is, which takes us repeatedly forward and backward in time, admitting the Church’s failings and amply illustrating the shortcomings of secularism. I liked the section linked to the book’s title on how God isn’t actually seen as a thing or any part of reality in Christian tradition. ‘Herbert McCabe (Catholic Theologian) had a tart rejoinder to those who imagine that you can add God and the universe together and make two. ‘Two what?’’ Richard Dawkins is a poor theologian in this sense since his God or idol is a blown up creature. The answer though to bad theology isn’t no theology but better theology. We find a good amount of this in ‘God is no Thing’, as in this succinct answer on God by Rowan Williams to Melvyn Bragg:
‘God is first and foremost that depth around all things and beyond all things into which, when I pray, I try to sink. But God is also the activity that comes to me out of that depth, tells me I’m loved, that opens up a future for me, that offers transformation I can’t imagine. Very much a mystery but also very much a presence. Very much a person’.
In another passage, more geared to encourage mind than heart, Shortt reflects on the biblically based Magna Carta (1216). That basis has been little noted in the recent commemoration yet it can be argued that commitment to human rights ‘may not automatically survive once commitment to the infinite value of every human life has faded away’. Faith systems, however much they earn criticism, help preserve such insight. Archbishop John Habgood once warned of society’s being liable to lose its bearings without ‘a public frame, a shared faith, which can sharpen vague feelings into prayer and commitment and action’. This book catalogues impressively commitment from Christians with these watchwords: ‘the common good, trust, non- discrimination, the priority of the poor and disadvantaged, and stewardship’.
Rupert Shortt says ‘yes’ to Darwin in his quasi-religious reverence for creation, whilst admitting the status of human beings in Christian faith is challenged by Darwinian theory. The misuse of power by Christians made Darwin a victim, and has caused harm through the centuries offsetting much good. Christian shame over the holocaust shows a coming of age that may one day be replicated in an Islam ashamed over the behaviour of its extremists. The problem for religion and for secularism is the tendency to bully rather than reason with one another. God is to be seen as loving intelligence so that ‘love of the truth drives us from the world to God, and the truth of love sends us back from God to the world’ (William of Saint Thierry).
Believing in Christian truth isn’t something cerebral, contrary to those thinking you build belief or disbelief by argument. For the author it’s not a matter of thinking your way into a new way of living but living your way into a new way of thinking. This reminded me of Austin Farrer’s saying that ‘Faith is the act of the whole man, doubt of a part’. To believe in the resurrection, for example, is living out the death of the old self so that the Holy Spirit can bring new life through the agency of faith. To believe in the cross of Christ - and the book returns to this again and again - is about making sense of suffering by the assurance ‘not all that happens is determined by God's plan but that all that happens is encompassed by his love’ (Vanstone).
As quoted above from the author of this powerful defence of the Church’s faith: ‘Christianity - at its centre, the story of love’s mending of wounded hearts - forms a potent resource for making sense of our existence’. As former atheist A.N.Wilson writes on the book cover: ‘This is a case for Faith which will trouble the doubting with reason’s light’.
Canon John Twisleton Rector of St Giles, Horsted Keynes 23rd August 2016