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When people ask me what my new novel is about, I tend to say: ‘It is about a man who fears an authentic encounter with God.’ Powerful stuff, you’d think. But reaction is always a little muted. Why is this? (We need to set aside a perfectly acceptable lack of interest in such a novel.)
First, is my novel even about this? This depends what we mean by ‘about’. It might be that we need to parse the question before we examine the answer. I think we are safe to assume, in this context at least, ‘about’ means ‘story’. What I’m being asked is this: ‘What is the story your novel sets out to tell?’
So, let’s return to my answer. Does it adequately adumbrate what the novel is about if ‘aboutness’ in this context means ‘story’? Yes and no. That the main character fears something promises something emotionally charged. The object of his fear tells us a little about tone – it’s likely to be a serious story. What it doesn’t do is tell us anything about what happens. And of course, nothing might happen. Just because someone fears something doesn’t mean that this fear is warranted, or that the object of that fear is real and might manifest itself. More on this later.
So, at this stage, it seems to me, if I’m aiming to give a proper sense of the story, my answer is probably inadequate. But, of course, I haven’t just said ‘It is about a man who fears … his wife is having an affair’ or ‘…a who man fears his son is a psychopath’, I’ve said this is about a man who fears an authentic encounter with God. While there are four aspects to this description, people really only hear one word. Such is the occluding size of God (in this context), everything else is missed. And yet, this doesn’t mean people splutter their coffee, tea, artisan IPA and exclaim: ‘You’re what? You’re writing a novel about God?’ As I say at the top of this piece, reaction is more muted. And I don’t think it’s shock and I’m misreading their expression. It’s not stunned silence. I think there are two reasons for people’s reactions. One is cultural (and actually a little paradoxical). Let’s call it the ‘God occlusion’ to playfully appropriate and pun on the title of the most influential, if frustratingly bone-headed book, about God in a generation. The more irrelevant God becomes in secular society, the more surprising his appearance in conversation. Which leads onto the second reason: if language is barely sufficient as a tool for talking about God, mentioning God in casual conversation will always likely fail. In theology, Grace is divided into sufficient and efficient. With efficient Grace, God does all the work for you – all meaning is given and made clear; sufficient Grace requires work from us – we’ve been orientated towards Him but that’s it: we have to make sense of what is being said to us. (Not that God speaks.) It seems to me that conversation is like sufficient grace: we need to work (sometimes quite hard) to discover meaning. We have to listen and pause and think and parse, and ask for definitions and clarifications. Without doing this, in the case we are examining, I think what is exchanged is something like this:
If the conversation stays with ‘God’ – and it seldom does – where it goes can only be based on what people understand by the word ‘God’.
I have pointed out elsewhere that theological literacy is in a parlous state at the moment, hijacked, on the one hand, by New Atheism’s reductive belief about the nature, meaning and validity of, well, belief. And on the other hand, by politically conservative religious groups seemingly behaving in direct contradiction to the dogma they want everyone else to believe in. The result is that the dinner tables of the metropolitan West now tend to conflate God and religious fundamentalism, God and irrationality, God and stupidity, which means any useful debate on the nature of faith, theism, belief – and more than 50% of world’s population have some sympathies in that direction – cannot be had with any chance of progress.
(Sidebar: We should note that, over the past 20 years, challenging the notion that science is an intrinsic good and incapable of harm has become a kind of liberal heresy. Deciding belief is stupid because some people have mad ideas about God is no different to deciding science is bad because bad science exists. And bad science does exist. It is a process that can be well or poorly executed intentionally. We actually need greater scientific literacy as well.)
One of the more specific responses to my answer to my novel’s ‘aboutness’ was advice to forget publishing in the UK, and look for an opportunity below the Mason-Dixon line, as if any novel that includes the notion of God could only be of interest to Conservative Christians in the US. It seems God hasn’t just been reduced to an irrational fixation for fundamentalists, but a specific kind of fundamentalist (Protestant), in a highly specific region. If you’re interested in God – they are your people. Not including other expressions of a single religion when inextricably entangling God with religion is the clearest example of theological illiteracy. Not only does it fail to account for the diversity of faith, it takes for granted that religion is the condition of possibility for God. One of the central arguments in my novel is this: God and religion are different conceptual categories. While there is that rumour about Anglican Vicars being mostly atheist, I think it is acceptable to assume a belief in God when people claim religious affiliation; but it doesn’t follow that when people speak about a belief in God they are religious. Yet in conversation this is what tends to happen. I’m sure there is a Lacanian equation that describes this linguistic slippage, or a Wittgenstein language game that tells us what, other than God, is being described. Or not. It might be that the slippage is nothing more than theological illiteracy and / or God transcends any language game. I recently asked an incomparably wide reader and all-round thoughtful fellow about his atheism. ‘I am atheist because of the palpable absurdity of the truth claims made by the Anglican Church when I was young.’ OK, God isn’t mentioned, but it does seem to me ridiculous to base such a judgment on a single religion’s teachings. Can it really be the Anglican Church’s language game is all there is to what we might say about God, and if it fails to convince, that’s it?
If it’s not obvious yet, I believe that language is wholly inadequate to describe any sort of meaningful encounter with God. Heidegger might have been right when he said, ‘Language is the house of Being’, but it is my contention that God sits outside this house. And to extend the metaphor, yes, we might be able to look through a window (darkly), but our senses remain inside, and what we perceive, at least in descriptive terms, is limited to the inside of the house of language, and that doesn’t include God.
This difficulty brings us, at least to what is for me, the most important element of my answer to the question of my novel’s ‘aboutness’, and that is the very specific qualification of the nature of the encounter with God. Interestingly, no one has asked me to elaborate on this. I suspect the world is divided into people who think an authentic encounter with God is possible, although in scriptural terms only Abraham and Moses can actually claim such a thing. (So, it’s a pretty rare occurrence.) And those who reject the notion because it’s impossible to authentically encounter something that doesn’t exist, so why bother probing that particular detail. I suppose I don’t regard the qualification in such binary terms. It’s more a thought experiment. Let’s set aside what we believe for now and imagine what might happen if someone was to claim an authentic encounter with God, and to all intents and purposes it was true.
So, here we go: I come up to you and say: ‘I’ve had an authentic encounter with God.’ What are your possible responses?
- ‘Great – good for you. Mine’s an artisan pale ale.’ Unlikely. Or maybe not, given what I’ve said above.
- Details might be asked for, as if an accumulation of right-sounding or believable details could act as a kind of inductive verification. ‘Yep – if that was to happen it would happen that way.’ To my mind this indicates someone too open to the possibility; I suspect this kind of response can only happen in a fairly narrow language game, and to double down on Wittgenstein, a narrow Form of Life, when belief in the possibility precedes the claim; and what constitutes the right version of authenticity precedes the claim. It all fits together without much real interrogation.
- In the middle of our credulity spectrum, there are those who will agree an authentic encounter is possible, but not this one, because it doesn’t match their expectations. In many ways, this is the most problematic, although I’m not sure why. I suppose it’s a kind of arrogance: ‘I will make a judgment on how God might manifest Himself.’
- At the other end of the scale is the perfectly understandable belief that any such claim must be a sign of delusional ideation. This might be an organic and physical disturbance in my brain; or an inorganic (but perhaps still physical) emotional disturbance of my mind. It can only be true as a description of something else. But what it can’t be is true.
In thought experiment terms, this is where it gets tricky. To move into a really interesting place, what is required is an imaginative leap (to accommodate the possibility of an encounter with God) and an act of generosity (accept my description of its occurrence as being possible), and then make the judgement that taken together they add up to the encounter being authentic, i.e. true. After all, it doesn’t take much of a critical thinker to notice the mistake in the logic: God might exist; my description is true according to my own perceptions, but neither, separately or together, proves my encounter was authentic.
For the non-believer, or sceptic, this is must be the end of our thought experiment; what’s the point of going any further – the truth value of the claim cannot be verified. At best, the sceptic might say we’ve entered the realm of unexplainable mystery, at worst, the world of the fairies. The believers have already left the experiment because they either agree with the original proposition or have embarked on theological warfare.
And I suppose that’s my point. We have these extraordinary tools to hand, language, logic, imagination, and yet when talking about belief and faith, they invariably lead us into disagreement, and when the world operates outside its usual parameters, they fail us completely. And this is why my main character fears an authentic encounter with God. Any such encounter will take place outside of what is expressible: the house of language collapses, logic is irrelevant, and even the freest of these tools – our imagination – cannot encompass it. Perhaps that is why, after all, the reaction to my one sentence description of my novel is muted. Without knowing it, people understand; any attempt to make good on the promise will fail.