If you don’t know what you think about the existence of God – write a novel
I don’t find belief in God easy. It came late and I had little preparation. In my childhood home God was little more than a person on a scale of threats when my mother couldn’t handle me: a policeman, God, my father. My mother must have possessed a residue of Scottish Calvinism because she occasionally informed me (pointing to her temple but signalling something about me) that some of us are just born bad, a rather crude version of pre-destination. My father claimed to be an atheist due to a tragic event in his life – a God who could permit such things couldn’t exist. It was the 1970s and the Lord’s Prayer was still part of a school assembly, but no one had ever explained to me the meaning of the words and the message was lost. In my 20s, if churches were ever visited it was for cultural reasons. I read Dostoyevsky as a proto-existentialist, and I considered the French existentialists as exemplars for living an authentic life.
If there wasn’t much God around, there also wasn’t much explicit atheism, either. We were decades away from New Atheism.
Had I been asked what I thought about God, I would have said He probably didn’t exist, and moved the conversation on to my more abiding interest: the transforming potential of art. My belief in art as fundamental to human flourishing was creedal. A faith. Whilst I may not have expressed it this way back then: I was convinced great art possessed an emergent property that transcended the material and gave of itself something that enriched us in ways that could not be measured on neurological scales of reward and satisfaction. Art was a moral act.
Those following philosophical trends would have known this was to become an unfashionable position. It was around this time that the early soundings of materialist theories of mind were emerging from neuroscience. Daniel Dennett, leader and chief charismatic of neuro-philosophers, had decided human beings are wholly determined by our physical responses to external physical stimulus – in short, sophisticated thermometers. If that is so, a work of art becomes reducible to its physical and chemical properties, a set of calculable stimuli that, dependent on our physical capacity of comprehension, produces corresponding levels of activity in our brain. Just for the record it cannot be known whether this is the case or not. The scientific community is split on whether it can ever be known. Personally, I cannot accept that a wholly impersonal entity like the neuron, on its own, or massed together in great volume, can produce self-consciousness or mind. Some step change in kind has to occur.
Looking back, had I thought more rigorously about my views on art and God, I would have found them incompatible. It’s not that you can’t believe in a transcendental property and still be an atheist, but it’s difficult to make sense of the existence of this property (how it exists and what is its purpose) and remain a committed atheist. This is why most atheists, even against their better judgement, become materialists; it makes more rational sense from their starting position.
Apparently, I was still an atheist in my early 30s. My partner says I seduced her under false pretences. I don’t think that’s true. I’d suffered a decade of depression; I’m not sure I believed in anything. On reflection, given that my mind had been cured by bio-chemistry, I might have become more of a materialist than ever before.
My partner is an atheist despite confessing that she prayed to God when we were trying to conceive via IVF and thanking Him when it was successful. Her belief and actions are perfectly compatible. When we yearn for something so much, we go against our nature. It is in our nature to do so. My 14-year old twins claim to be atheists. My son is autistic and his certainty is deep. (Sometimes it’s as though he knows something I don’t.) My daughter thinks all religion is nonsense. Ironically, being exposed to wide range of religious belief at their inner London state school has provided both children with a religious literacy I didn’t possess at their age, and yet made individual religious claims seem a little ridiculous. While Richard Dawkins is logically wrong to discount God’s existence because different parts of the world have produced conflicting religious narratives, on the surface it feels like a strong argument. When church leaders call for more religious literacy they need to be careful what they wish for.
Based on my assertion that I am no longer an atheist, my family of atheists think I’m a Christian. It seems that when faced with a theist most people try to make sense of what this might mean with a further categorisation. It can never stop at theism, a belief in God necessarily means normative religious belief. If one hasn’t explicitly converted to a religion outside one’s cultural inheritance, any belief in God must point to a conversion to the religion most proximate to one’s childhood. I call it the law of religious propinquity. Of course, it might be just that atheists default to religious doctrine because God on his own is ungraspable (and they may be right).
My shift from atheist to theism was slow. Grace was gradual, if you will. I can name three events that were central. The first was listening to a lecture by Rowan Williams, then Archbishop of Canterbury. It wasn’t the subject that made the lasting impression but what I can only describe as the carefulness of his language, and that within that carefulness I sensed an attempt to find an attunement to … let’s call it God … that I hadn’t encountered before. This is a subtle point: I’m not talking about a poetic expression of God, but a carefulness of language which somehow allows our inner compass to twitch in the direction of God.
The second event was the death of an acquaintance – a young woman I had known not well, but a long time. She died leaving a husband and one-year-old son. She displayed humour, dignity and courage right up to the morning of her death. She was buried in a cemetery in North London, to the side of what seemed like a country path. A coach was arranged to take us back to a venue for the wake. It was sitting on that coach, in traffic on the Holloway Road, in the glare of a hot sun, when I had the profound sense that she was at peace. I don’t think I wasn’t being overly sentimental, or using it as a convenient way of setting her death aside, devaluing everything she would miss, and I didn’t feel God was present or that any sense of an afterlife was being promised. I usually say the experience changed my attitude to my own death; but I think it’s subtler than that: it recalibrated my perspective on life as being the fullest expression of our place in the universe – life had become a little diminished next to the great expanse of death.
The third experience was reading Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. Robinson is one of the finest living prose writers in English. Her sentence-making achieves a simplicity of expression without any compromise of intellectual density – a combination only usually attributed to the King James Bible. (Robinson herself, I believe, reads the Geneva Bible – a precursor and influence on to the KJB.) The novel takes the form of a letter from an aging Congregationalist minister to his young son. In John Ames, Robinson achieves something seldom thought possible: a near perfect novel with a good man as a central character, in this instance ‘good’ as a trope for thoughtful, gentle, open-hearted, warm and loving. God fearing does not come into it. It was the character of John Ames that made me wonder about our individual capacity for love, and what it might mean to become more loving, and we might achieve this as individuals. Could it be that we are all possessed of differing parcels of love and that’s it? (That’s how I imagined it somehow: parcels.) And as an old existentialist, I didn’t believe we had no freedom in how we acted. But that didn’t answer my question. Is the amount of love we can give determined and finite, like our ability to comprehend the stimuli of art, based on neural capacity? Put simply: do some of us have more or less to give? Or can we create more love within ourselves ex nihilo? Or if that isn’t possible: is there a source of love to which we might attune ourselves?
How did I proceed? For a long time, I did nothing but think. Then sitting at home, editing what I thought was going to be my next novel, I opened up a blank document and wrote what is still the first sentence of my new novel As a God Might Be: ‘He built a house and next to it a church.’ That was it. Nothing more for weeks. But the sentence stayed in my mind. What was it asking of me? At some point, I realised (it seems obvious now) that I needed to write a novel that in the writing of it would parallel Proctor McCullough’s building of a church. I would discover what he would discover. Ironically, from the outset, McCullough accepts that building a church is somewhat cliché when confronted by the potential presence of God, and states explicitly had he been able to write or paint he would have done just that –to his mind art offering greater subtleties of spiritual expression than building a church on a clifftop. I am not sure I agree. After all, his enterprise isn’t about attracting a congregation to spread the word, whatever that word might be. It is about depositing what he doesn’t understand outside himself and creating a three-dimensional space that he can walk in and around, and experience in a way that doesn’t require language. A deeper irony, at least for me, is that I required language to describe that activity. But I know now the re-writing and edited process was necessary to arrive at what I believed, and I needed time – 10 years, it seems. I was refining its theological positions only days before the novel went to the printers.
Has it answered anything? There is a joke among writers: the only acceptable review of a novel is printing the whole of the novel. If asked by someone what I believe, I might have to read the whole of the novel out to them. But there is something of which I’m certain: it most definitely doesn’t answer the question of God’s existence.