What's Tony Thinking

Feeling Our Way Into Faith


Over a hundred folks are signed up for our webinar on Francis Spufford’s book, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense. We begin this evening, if you are EST or CST. For those in MST or PST, which includes me, it’s more of a late afternoon affair, 4:00 p.m. PST.

I’m doing this in partnership with the people at Crackers and Grape Juice Podcast, where the lead dude is the Methodist pastor, Jason Micheli. Jason will moderate the first week’s session. I will moderate week two. Then we will rotate the moderator’s role among the team of panelists.

Most, if not all of the other folks, are way younger than me. Jason is 42. Others on their team are 30-somethings. I am grateful to be in this conversation with a young demographic, not that I don’t like my own generational co-hort. It’s just nice to mix it up. Generational ghettos are one of our many problems. By the way, the C & GJ team, like Spufford himself, are happy to swear, cuss and use 4-letter words in making their point. Be forewarned, ye of gentle sensibilities.

Sessions will be recorded and available on You Tube, probably the next day, should you miss one.

In some ways, Spufford’s book is one of a genre I would call “Christian Basics,” but with a big difference. There are a lot of books, videos, courses, etc. that focus on questions like, “What do Christians believe?” or “What are the basic ideas of this faith?” Christianity is then boiled down to a set of propositional statements. If you buy them, you’re a Christian; if you don’t you’re not.

Which is not an approach I recall Jesus taking . . .

Moreover, I’m not sure that’s the way life and faith really work. Spufford argues that religious faith and Christian faith, in particular, is not primarily a set of ideas or concepts; it is first “a characteristic set of feelings,” or emotions. That can sound squishy. But it my own experience it is true. Or at the very least, at avenue worth exploring.

Here’s Spufford,

“. . . it is still a mistake to suppose that it is assent to 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.”

He’s onto something important here. The effort to reduce Christianity to a set of ideas, beliefs, propositions is jolly stuff for seminarians and heresy hunters. Actually, it is, in its place, important. But this rationalization of the faith into a set of concepts isn’t where most people live. Spufford again,

“This is something more basic at work, an unmysterious consanguinity with the rest of experience. It’s just that the emotions aren’t usually described in ordinary language, with no special vocabulary; aren’t usually talked about apart from their rationalization into ideas.

“That’s what I shall do here. Ladies and gentlemen! A spectacle never before attempted on any stage! Before you very eyes, I shall build up from first principles the simple and unsurprising structure of faith. Nothing up my left sleeve, nothing up my right sleeve, except the entire material of everyday experience.

“No tricks no traps, ladies and gentlemen; no mis-direction and no cheap rhetoric. You can easily look up what Christians believe in. You can read any number of defenses of Christian ideas. This, however, is a defense of Christian emotions — of their intelligibility, of their grown-up dignity.”

I am fond of quoting the 4th century desert abba, Gregory of Nyssa, who said, “Concepts create idols; only wonder comprehends anything.”

Wonder is an emotion. So, we explore the emotions that fund, are formed by and are at the heart of this faith. This won’t satisfy those who want to boil Christianity down to a set of propositions or a creedal statement or those who wish to argue they are right and you are wrong.

But haven’t we had enough of that?


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