This essay from Francis Spufford has been getting flagged quite a bit in my little corner of the Internet. Spufford is an English author who writes mostly non-fiction (his recent book Red Plenty was the subject of a book event at Crooked Timber this summer). Spufford’s essay seems to be a summary of his new book Unapologetic, a defense of Christian faith that carries ths subtitle “Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense.”
Since I’ve been deep in Schleiermacher recently, this set off some bells for me, and indeed Spufford’s argument, at least based on the article, does seem like a sort of updating of Schleiermacher’s argument for thinking of religion as an essential aspect of human nature which is rooted in a particular kind of feeling.
The point is that from outside, belief looks like a series of ideas about the nature of the universe for which a truth-claim is being made, a set of propositions that you sign up to; and when actual believers don’t talk about their belief in this way, it looks like slipperiness, like a maddening evasion of the issue. If I say that, from inside, it makes much more sense to talk about belief as a characteristic set of feelings, or even as a habit, you will conclude that I am trying to wriggle out, or just possibly that I am not even interested in whether the crap I talk is true. I do, as a matter of fact, think that it is. I am a fairly orthodox Christian. Every Sunday I say and do my best to mean the whole of the Creed, which is a series of propositions. But it is still a mistake to suppose that it is assent to the propositions that makes you a believer. It is the feelings that are primary. I assent to the ideas because I have the feelings; I don’t have the feelings because I’ve assented to the ideas.
As Scheleirmacher said in his Speeches, religion is a “taste for the infinite,” and in The Christian Faith he defined it as “a feeling of absolute dependence.” Doctrine, for Schleiermacher, is an elaboration of this feeling, but the feeling–piety–comes first and is more basic. Theology takes this as its starting point–it doesn’t try to “prove” God’s existence. (Schleiermacher does allow that philosophy may construct arguments for God’s existence on its own terms, but this has little to do with the life of living faith.) Like Spufford, Schleiermacher didn’t deny that religion makes truth-claims, but its living heart is feeling.