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.
6 thoughts on “Francis Spufford’s speech to religion’s cultured despisers”
I think this idea that the feeling come first and then theology comes after is true too for experience (maybe religious experience is a kind of feeling?). The experience comes first and then theology is used to make sense of it, but no amount of theology can create a religious experience.
The Guardian essay isn’t a summary of Spufford’s book; rather, it’s the opening chapter.
Thanks for clarifying that.
This also works if we back away from the pious feeling of contingency. He’s right, the outward prima facie understanding of how religion works is mistaken. The propositions are never a primary aspect of belief, until orthodoxy runs out of belief and has only the propositions left. The propositions are descriptive of belief, but that belief relies on the reality of its object.
Whether we talk about Gefühl or experience or even scripture as evidentiary basis (which is experience in its own way, as testimony to an experienced real), it is quite actually scientific in its own way. We recite in propositions, not the substance of our belief, but the model of it, the tools of understanding by which we navigate the world. But of course you cannot prove or disprove the reality from the understanding. You can only prove or disprove the understanding from the reality!
Yes, thanks–I agree that it’s a useful way of thinking about things, whether or not Schleiermacher correctly identified the “datum” of religion (which I have doubts about).
The point made in this post is rarely central to the discussion of religion — but ought to be. My personal approach to this is that intuition comes first, supported by experience, and then, a long ways on, comes the intellectual sorting…