The Language of Faith
Some concepts are beyond words – or are they? Francis Spufford, author of the acclaimed book Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense, uses an unorthodox approach to convey his understanding of faith to post-modern society and finds a new language to express old ideas.
What is faith?
Faith is looking at our mixed-up world with hope, treating it as a good place even when life is hard, where human actions mean more than coincidence and circumstance. Faith helps us discover that our lives are most meaningful when they point to God.
Having been an atheist in your teens, how did you come to faith?
I grew up in a church-going family, but religion stopped making sense to me in my teens. I made the classic mistake of thinking the stories in the Bible were childish. Twenty years later things changed: I was in need of forgiveness after making a mess of my marriage, and that brought me back to God. Rediscovering faith felt like finding the end of a thread – I followed it to see where it would lead. I felt I was forgiven and was grateful. That encouraged me to stick around and see what else faith might lead me to.
Why is an emotional understanding of faith important?
Faith is a matter of the heart. It’s not like joining a political party or saying yes to a long list of ideas. Faith is more like falling in love than being a nuclear physicist.
You said you didn’t want to write your book to defend faith, why?
Most people aren’t just against faith – they’re totally indifferent and don’t see what it’s for. To help people understand how faith can affect them, we have to describe situations where faith makes sense: the ups and downs, the moments of tragedy and elation.
Is there a language to articulate what belief looks like today?
Yes and no. As long as we speak to other people in everyday language, they can understand us. However, our language is inadequate to describe God fully: it’s like trying to throw a net over the Himalayas.
Why did you refer to sin as the ‘human propensity to f*** things up’ in your book?
When we hear the word ‘sin’, we tend to think chocolate truffles, red lingerie and eating too much – indulgent things that are just a bit of fun. Sin is actually the things that we recognise are bad and disapprove of. Nobody thinks that rape, child abuse, and cruelty are great. We have a grasp of what’s good and bad, we are just unable to describe them properly. So the use of new words can cut through the fog of familiarity.
Also, I just wanted to swear – I wanted to disrupt the perception that religion always speaks in a prim and hushed tone of voice. In my book I talk about a range of real and awkward experiences; faith doesn’t require us to stick out our little finger politely as we raise our cup of tea.
What do we need faith for?
Finding forgiveness, meaning and purpose in life and unconditional acceptance. It makes us less selfish. We find it easy to care for ourselves and the people we love, whereas faith helps us follow God’s command to love our enemies. It challenges us to step out beyond our duties to do wild generous acts, to try things that may not work and to invest our time in strangers. Faith makes us sit up, dream and hope for more than we think we can have.
Does a religion with a fixed set of beliefs limit our experiences?
All experiences point to God – Christianity doesn’t have a code of conduct. Principles like loving our neighbour and our enemies provide us with direction. Jesus just said, ‘I forgive you despite your screw-ups.’
How can an ancient belief system help us navigate life when social advances are reshaping our view of gender, sexuality and power?
In light of technological advances and shifting social attitudes it’s a mistake to assume that anything old is now irrelevant. The church has an imperfect record of adjusting to those advances. But every now and then it has produced heroes of social change, like Martin Luther King Jr., and at other times it has lagged behind. It champions love and freedom, and those principles, no matter how ancient they may be, will always be the good news that we need. Each generation has to make its own attempt at getting those right.
INTERVIEW BY Lauren Ashi