Considering God in a world where you don’t

I would like to revisit my post from last week, where I began to interact with Neil Griffiths’ novel, As a God Might Be. Through the wonders of the modern internet, my post found its way to the screen of the author himself, and I’m grateful to Griffiths for taking the time to read my thoughts and offer some comments. I want to reconsider my earlier take on the novel, because after my brief conversation with him and hearing him discuss the novel on Theos Think Tank’s The Sacred podcast, I have changed my perspective on some of the issues I raised last time.

Most significantly, it has become clear to me that I largely missed what Griffiths was trying to do with the book, and in that respect, the podcast was very illuminating (and if you have read or intend to read As a God Might Be, please do listen; it is an excellent interview). My frustration with the character of Mac stemmed in part from my role as a priest – I regularly encounter people who have lots of ideas about and even experiences of God, and an interest in some sort of spirituality, but otherwise are unwilling to explore God as he has made himself known. But I was too quick to throw Mac into that mould. One of the things I had not taken into account was the difference between Mac’s context and my own. I live and work in a Northern, working class town, where the Church still plays a central role in the community, and people largely retain a vaguely Christian consciousness. Mac’s metropolitan London context is very different – a ‘buffered’ space, to use Charles Taylor’s language, where openness to the transcendent is all but gone, and thus the ability to speak of such experiences is nearly impossible. For Mac to be willing to wrestle with such a thing in that context is, far from my initial impressions, a bold and courageous step into the unknown.

Other people in Mac’s situation might have hidden and internalised their experience of God, but Mac does the opposite. Griffiths notes in the podcast that Mac is willing to be open and vulnerable about it, to seek to draw others into his experience, and to invite them to try and help him make sense of what has gone on, even where the language and grammar necessary to do so is lacking. Mac refuses easy answers to difficult questions, and puts his struggles with his belief in God on display. In doing so, he is attempting to create a space where it is permissible to talk about God, to begin to articulate something deeper and complex and that pushes the boundaries of the reality the people in his social circle comfortably inhabit. It both unsettles and intrigues the surrounding characters as they watch Mac try on a sort of new self – one that experiments with deeper categories of love and forgiveness, and one that begins to acknowledge new possibilities that don’t fit with anything they know.

I would like to attribute my initial misunderstanding to the fact that I am no great reader of fiction, but the truth is that I simply did not allow myself to take a step back and try and make sense of what Griffiths was trying to do with the novel, and got too absorbed in what I perceived to be the failings of the main character. Hearing Griffiths himself articulate something of what lay behind his work and then stopping to take a long second look allowed me to see something much richer in the novel than I did at first.

So what of my previous take? I no longer believe that Mac was proud, or that he was attempting to construct or be his own god, nor do I think that his actions were merely attempts at self-justification and rationalisation in the face of the doubt and consternation of those around him. That said, I still maintain that Mac should have done more to explore this encounter with God; in particular, to seek out and embed himself in a community where the possibility of God already exists, where people already live according to the new boundaries of reality Mac is seeking to explore, and to be willing to allow something outside of himself to help articulate and make sense of his experience. I’m reminded of something I read last year from Walter Moberly on faith and plausibility structures. Moberly more or less argues that the authority of Scripture and of Jesus’ words is often something best explored by simply trying it on for size alongside those who already live as these are true, to ‘be led on to dare to believe that which…others believe, that in and through the biblical portrayal of the person, teaching, and works of Jesus (in his life, death and resurrection), the reality of the living God is encountered’ (The Bible in a Disenchanted Age, 139). As I said above, Mac’s attempt to wrestle with an experience that pushes hard on the boundaries of his tacit reality is bold and courageous. But as a priest, I long for him to step into another reality altogether.

Responding to my first piece, Griffiths suggested my frustration with Mac’s character was un-Christian, and demonstrated a lack of love. After taking some time to think about it, I believe he is partly right. I made a knee-jerk reaction that did not take enough time to consider the broader questions and perspectives that shaped that character, and my failure to attempt to understand Mac and to see things as he did led me to make an unfair judgement. However, I’m less inclined to concede that my reaction displayed a lack of love – certainly I could have been much more charitable, but my initial frustration, I think, was no different to the frustration I feel when my own children make poor choices. Love is fundamentally about seeking the flourishing of the other, and as my desire was for Mac to come to know the fullness of life God offers, I think it was to some degree a response of love. Where I could have been more charitable was in recognising that Mac sought to understand and make sense of his experience as best as he knew how at that moment.

That leaves me then considering how I would respond should someone like Mac find his way to my own parish. And my earnest hope, after this week of thinking over the novel again, is that I would be willing to come alongside such a person, to journey with them in order to help them to make sense of their experience, and to invite them to discover the fullness of the God they have begun to encounter. I did, after all, at my ordination, vow ‘to search for [God’s] children…and to guide them through [this world’s] confusions, that they may be saved through Christ for ever.’

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